Jake Kapsner

Editor’s note: This is the second of two stories examining the city of Minneapolis’ strong desire to extend a recreational river parkway on the east bank of the Mississippi — the same stretch of land on which the University continues to expand its steam plant operation.

For 25 years, the city of Minneapolis and a handful of municipal groups stumped for recreational access to the east bank bluffs of the Mississippi River. And the University shared that vision, according to its own Master Plan.
Over the years, the city plan has encountered many obstacles, from geographic barriers to the fact that buildings and railroad tracks lie in the way of a proposed road, bike and footpath.
But in November, another obstacle popped up in the path of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s plans to link East River Road with Main Street Southeast: construction of a $3 million coal storage shed for the University’s Southeast Steam Plant.
Yet for a structure that at first was perceived by the city as a major roadblock, the emerging coal shed has kick-started renewed cooperation with the University to realize the original vision of a riverbank parkway.
The Master Plan
Discovering how the building went against the grain of numerous master plans — including the University’s — infuriated government officials who felt the University’s bureaucracy was at work once again.
A local branch of the National Park Service wrote to University President Mark Yudof in December, noting that the University’s actions, while legally valid, violated its Master Plan and environmental impact study.
And the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association wrote Yudof a letter that same month with identical complaints, requesting that construction of the coal shed halt until a new plan could be worked out.
But the University, obligated to fulfill a contract with the group constructing the coal storage facility, Foster Wheeler Twin Cities, continues to build the coal shed.
Additionally, University officials said they chose to build the coal shed behind the Main Steam Plant for a reason: to make better use of an existing, expensive infrastructure built in the early 1980s.
Besides, the best master plans are, by necessity, flexible and open to change, said Clint Hewitt, head of master planning.
“The Show Must Go On”
While construction continues, so do the planning efforts of University and city officials who hope to broker a future parkway along this track of the Mississippi River.
Administrators set on compromise insist that nothing is set in stone, even as crews finish pouring the concrete walls for the five-story coal building.
With plans for a roadway in the works, the coal structure could remain — but it could also be removed and relocated, said Fred Neet, principal city planner.
Harvey Turner, director of planning in Facilities Management, said he wouldn’t characterize relocating the coal building as a “possibility,” but added that “all plans are on the table.”
The ongoing construction of the coal structure has posed a problem for the roadway plans because relocating the structure or building around it will cost more money, Neet said.
“If the appropriate city officials had known of the location and design of the coal bunker earlier, we might have been able to find a better location and avoided current costs,” Neet said.
Relocating the coal building could cost $5 million to $10 million, said Mike Nagel, energy management administrator for the University.
“And that’s assuming we had the piece of property to put it on,” Nagel said.
“Good Vibrations”
The notion of connecting the parkway through the University riverbluff area was impractical to University officials a month ago. Constructing bike and pedestrian paths along the same stretch of land was a plan with merit, but creating a road seemed unlikely.
Now, with the involvement of Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles Belton and a handful of vocal municipal groups, the University stance seems considerably more conciliatory.
City and University officials are studying five routes for a parkway, Neet said, which could cost anywhere from $10 million to $47 million.
But numerous development constraints — from bluff lines and steep grade changes to railroad tracks — mean that any route the city and University chooses poses hefty design challenges.
Steep river bluffs aren’t the only obstacle to paving a public road through the middle of an industrial zone. Train tracks owned by Burlington Northern-Santa Fe Railroad, currently used by area businesses and by the University for hauling coal, could need rerouting to make way for a path, Neet said.
Burlington Northern representatives said the railroad is talking with the city, but wouldn’t disclose details.
The history of opposition to University land use from the southeast to main steam plants has sparked new reasons for University administrators and the city to devise alternative, cooperative solutions amid the rerouting of grand old plans.
While the move to renovate the steam plant came under former University President Nils Hasselmo, Yudof’s administration must deal with some related, lingering effects of the decision.
Under the old administration, collecting community input and conveying information from one administrative group to another was incongruous, said Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture.
Fisher chairs a master planning committee that meets monthly to discuss University land-use goals with the community and local government. He believes the new administration is taking steps to avoid future conflicts over University land-use policy.