Vacant land full of local contention

Bryce Haugen

A piece of bluff high above the Mississippi River on the West Bank is littered with empty beer cases, graffiti-laced highway barricades and random chunks of masonry.

But where some see a polluted mess, community activist Rosemary Knutson sees hope.

“I see eagles. I see falcons and I see all kinds of butterflies,” said Knutson, a former West Bank Community Coalition president who’s leading the charge to develop the 8-acre parcel into Bluff Street Park.

For some of the past five years, the derelict land, which the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board acquired from Minnegasco in the 1970s, has played host to a lingering battle between the coalition and Park Board staff.

Former Minneapolis City Council member and developer Steve Minn approached the Park Board in 2000 with a proposal to build high-rise student housing on the flat bluff.

Dean Zimmerman, a Green Party Minneapolis City Council member, who represented the area on the Park Board at the time, said, “I was able to get enough votes to keep us from selling the land.”

Selling, which requires the support of six commissioners, might provide short-term financial relief, but “the loss of the land is long-term,” Zimmerman said.

In a letter to the Park Board, John Slack, president of the Minnesota chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects, said the bluff is home to some of the remaining 320 acres of bedrock bluff prairie in the state.

“(The park) is an extremely important project,” Slack wrote.

The land is also part of the only natural gorge along the 2,350-mile Mississippi River.

In September 2004, the community coalition created a task force to plan a park. With the help of the University’s Metropolitan Design Center and Slack, the group produced a preliminary design and cost estimate.

Knutson said she alerted Park Board Planning Director Judd Rietkerk of their progress, and he assured her a project manager would be assigned to the site.

But he never called, she said.

Rietkerk said he responds to all inquiries, though “maybe it’s not as fast as they would like.”

Bluff Street Park task force co-chairwoman Doreen Bower, tiptoeing around trash beneath the reds and yellows of fall, said the task force can’t start fundraising for the park without Park Board cooperation. It also can’t activate its army of volunteers, she said.

Early this year, developers Fred and John Wall visited Riverview Tower, which is adjacent to the disputed parkland, to discuss developing the property.

The community voiced its clear opposition, said Bower, who works in the University’s pediatrics department. However, the “(park) staff’s proposal is going to be to sell that property,” she said.

At their monthly meeting Thursday, task force members said they believe the developers and staff members are waiting until after the November Park Board elections before proceeding – if they have the six votes needed to sell. Members said they met with Rietkert two weeks ago and that he told them the land would never become a park, but rather would be opened to developers, some of whom have expressed interest.

Parks Commissioner at large Annie Young said Rietkerk acknowledged making these statements.

Rietkerk however, disputes the task force’s account.

“I told them the board can make its own decision,” he said.

Parks Board Superintendent Jon Gurban said there are no active proposals to develop the property.

“Rosemary Knutson is not telling you the truth,” he said. “We don’t know what should go there yet.”

Lucy Brown Minn, wife of Steve Minn and president of Lupe Development, said the company has no plans to develop on the site.

Fred and John Wall didn’t return repeated phone calls to their office and homes.

Gurban said the Park Board is strapped for resources and is reevaluating its priorities.

“Once we can devote our time, energy and resources to the project, we can revisit the file to see the different ideas that have come before us,” he said.

Gurban and the Park Board have drawn the ire of community watchdog groups since Gurban’s hiring as interim superintendent – without interviewing for the job – in December 2003. These groups, such as Minneapolis Citizens for Park Board Reform, have derided the five commissioners who voted for Gurban as “good ol’ boys.”

These groups are pushing for a slate of reform candidates, hoping to destroy the alleged voting bloc.

“I think we have a park board that does not appear to care about the community or preserving open space,” Knutson said.

Jim Bernstein, a reform candidate in the 6th District said that by ignoring the task force’s elaborate plans, the Park Board is squandering a perfect opportunity.

“It’s just mind-boggling that the Park Board hasn’t gotten behind this,” he said.

But retiring 6th District commissioner Marie Hauser, Zimmerman’s replacement, said the site’s severe pollution, which dates from when the parcel was used to store gas, must be addressed before development of any kind.

Longtime community activist Scott Vreeland, a reform candidate vying for Hauser’s spot, said the Park Board’s actions are unexplainable.

“The process is just wrong when you have talent and energy and you just slam the door in (the task force’s) face,” he said.

While the Park Board ignores Bluff Street Park, it has squandered $13,000 for a restaurant in Loring Park, Vreeland said.

“It’s a lack of priorities, a lack of understanding,” he said. “And maybe, someone wants to sell this parkland.”

For now, Riverview Tower and other nearby residents remain parkless.

Second-year law student Alice Yi said she runs along the river every day and would appreciate a nearby park.

So would the approximately 40 children who live in the townhomes a few yards from the park, said Fartun Shire, a mother of two.

Her kids complain about the townhomes’ dilapidated playground equipment, she said.

“It’s not enough,” she said. “A lot of people live here.”

What one of the most densely populated neighborhoods in the city doesn’t need, she said, is another high-rise.