Gasworks Bluff envisioned as future park

The bluff has been vacant since the city purchased it for building the West River Parkway.

When Rosemary Knutson looks out the window of Riverview Tower on the West Bank, she sees a neglected hillside with sparse trees and random garbage. But for eight years, she’s had a vision of the blighted lot as a park, planted with native plants and teeming with, in her words, “birds and butterflies.”

Two University students are working through the Humphrey Institute’s CHANCE program to help Knutson and other Cedar-Riverside neighbors turn this vision into reality.

The land is located between the 10th Avenue bridge and West River Parkway by the Mississippi River. It’s officially called Gasworks Bluff, after its most recent occupant – a coal-gasification plant in the ’60s – but neighbors are re-envisioning it as a natural preserve called Bluff Street Park.

The role of the students – Humphrey master of public affairs candidate Julie Warner and second-year Carlson School of Management master of business administration candidate Ben Schein – is to analyze the interests of different parties involved to create a proposal for turning the land into a park.

“The CHANCE program that we’re doing is really about community engagement,” Warner said. “Our intention is to talk to major stakeholders, the owners of the land and also the park board commissioners. We’re trying to explore the propriety and feasibility of preserving the land.”

The bluff has been vacant since the ’80s when the city purchased it during the construction of West River Parkway.

Most of it is owned by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, but slivers are also owned by Hennepin County, the Burlington-Northern railroad and, now, the Minnesota Department of Transportation, which purchased land for the construction of the new Interstate 35W bridge, Warner said.

Residents’ efforts to bring the bluff into the official Minneapolis park system have been underway since at least 2000, when the perpetually cash-strapped park board publicly considered sale of the land to developers. That and another 2005 park board attempt to sell the property both fell through, partly because of resident opposition, which left tensions between community groups and the park board in their wake, third district Minneapolis Park Commissioner Scott Vreeland said.

“It was very heated discussions,” he said, though he wasn’t commissioner at the time. “I never understood the dynamic of it.”

Because the land was acquired with state bond money for a road project, there is currently little danger of the park board selling the land, Vreeland said, because the money would revert to the state and not the city.

“What happens to lands when purchased with state bonds is even when the bonds are paid off, the state is interested in where the money goes,” he said. “If we sell the land and can’t keep the money there’s not much incentive to sell the land.”

In 2004, members of the West Bank Community Coalition, including Knutson, formed an advocacy group called the Bluff Street Park Task Force, which, along with the University’s Metropolitan Design Center, helped design a proposal for landscaping the bluff. The design was coolly received by some park board members, who might have felt the University had partially usurped their authority, Schein said.

Overcoming longstanding tensions between community and governmental bureaucracies is one of the challenges of this particular project, Warner and Schein said.

“Politically, it’s very tricky (for us to) bring in resources that can help, but that give proper respect to the park board as the authority,” Schein said.

Vreeland said that because of recent park board collaborations with the design center, it’s likely the park board will look differently on the plan this time around.

“Back then, their involvement was somewhat controversial,” Vreeland said. “They did some very good work for the Sheridan Memorial Park that the park board embraced, so I think their work is respected now in a way it wasn’t then.”

The design center’s plan could be used as the starting point of a conversation, Vreeland said, although the $40,000 initial price tag, not to mention the ongoing maintenance costs, would need to be found someplace outside the system.

“We’re kind of in crisis mode as a park system,” he said. “My fellow commissioners would probably be disinclined to take money from their projects to do that.”

Warner and Schein said they’re also helping connect the park board to other sources of funding; part of which they hope will come from MnDOT, which now owns a corner of the bluff.

“There’s money budgeted as far as I-35W reconstruction, for landscaping,” Schein said. “Could we utilize the resources that are already there to push it in that direction?”

Schein and Warner will finish their proposal in May and hope to present it for the park board sometime in early summer, they said.

Park board and task force members agreed that the students’ work on the park is a positive development.

“This bluff offers us the opportunity to collaborate with entities that don’t usually work very well together,” Knutson said. “It could be an inspirational thing.”