Bryn Mawr woods may fall for housing

Privately owned land may finally be developed; neighbors organize to protect green space and watershed

A proposal to develop four wooded areas near Theodore Wirth Park in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood has spurred some residents to organize a fledging non-profit to try to buy and protect the land.

"Everyone thought it was park land," said Mary Jo Schifsky, who lives at the intersection of Chestnut Avenue South and Xerxes Avenue South, near one of the proposed development sites. Schifsky and others have formed the Friends of Birch Pond Watershed to try to preserve the land. Birch Pond is in Wirth Park, west of the proposed development site.

The group, some 60 households strong, "has decided it is time to take this land off the market," she said.

John Wall, president of the Wall Companies, said he has a purchase agreement from owner Robert Stucki for 17 parcels. Those parcels would most likely translate into 13 or 14 single-family homes — including one area abutting Wirth Park where Wall wants to build his own home.

Wall has offered to sell the land to the preservationists — minus his own tract — for $1.2 million, said Larry Skov, president of Friends of Birch Pond.

Wall declined to name the asking price, but said, "I would love to work with the neighborhood group, but they need to put forth a responsible plan that indicates how they could come up with a reasonable price for the property. Having a neighborhood bake sale isn’t going to do it."

The parcels, in four non-contiguous pieces, are in an area north of Anwatin School, east of Wirth Park, south of Chestnut and west of Upton Avenue South.

Wall has had informal discussions with city staff, but has not submitted an official development plan for review. He floated an idea including single-family homes and townhomes, but has dropped that specific concept.

"I am looking to prepare lots for sale; I am not a home builder," he said. "I am looking for a place for my own house. But in order to do that it has to make economic sense. I have to develop the rest of the lots."

In deference to the neighbors and Councilmember Lisa Goodman (7th Ward), who represents the area, Wall said he agreed to slow the process to see if the Friends group could buy most of the land.

"I don’t want to move into a neighborhood where everybody dislikes me," he said.

However, Wall added, if the neighbors don’t develop that plan soon, they will probably see "For Sale" signs. "I have had a lot of calls from people who want to build a house in there. We are becoming impatient, too."

Skov said the organization submitted a $120,000 Metro Greenways grant application to the state Department of Natural Resources. Affected neighbors are discussing other fundraising efforts, including their own contributions.

The Cedar Lake Park Association is acting as the fiscal agent for the Friends group, Skov said.

A green gateway or prime home sites

The Friends group’s overarching goal is "to restore the woods to parkland, creating a Bryn Mawr Gateway to Wirth Park," its newsletter said.

Neighbors are not concerned about two parcels on Washburn Avenue South, said several group members; the parcels have street access and could easily be developed.

The parcels on Xerxes and Vincent, however, require road and sewer extensions.

Wall would like to build his home on the Xerxes extension, he said. The land rises on a hill where Xerxes dead ends and has a beautiful Wirth Park overlook.

The Xerxes land could accommodate three or four homes, he said.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board staff has backed the Friends’ plans.

"We believe that the project would result in significant improvements in water quality, storm-water management, wildlife habitat and greenway development," wrote parks engineer Tim Brown on behalf of the Park Board.

However, Judd Rietkerk, Park Board assistant superintendent of planning, said it was not a Board priority to acquire the land.

Flooding problems cited

The proposed development area drains into Bassett Creek, and Friends members say new-home excavation could affect groundwater flow and increase basement flooding.

The land south of the Vincent Avenue dead end also is an old dumpsite and could be contaminated, they said.

"The one thing that should be done … is the boring of the soil to check for contaminants," said Pat Waddick, who lives where Washburn dead-ends, near the proposed development sites. "Next is checking the water and the water level and where it is going."

The Friends group said the proposed development along Vincent is a filled wetland — and an area that is spring-fed. They have enlisted the support of the Glenwood Inglewood Co. to question the development’s impact.

The 118-year-old spring water company is located several blocks away from the proposed development. It pumps at a rate of 150 gallons of water a minute, said Bill Hansen, vice president and general manager.

"It could affect my business if in any way these two spring sources are connected," he said.

Wall would have to respond to questions about flooding and contamination before the city would allow development to proceed, said city planner Kim Tollefson.

City Enginer Paul Chellsen, who works on storm-water management, said residents had swamped him with questions.

"It seems like we are being bombarded," he said. "They (neighbors) are front-ending the project before we know what we have to deal with. I am at a loss what to tell these people.

"The burden is going to be on the developer. We have told him flat out there are concerns a) about the existing water table and b) Glenwood Inglewood. They will have to satisfy those concerns to the best of their ability or they don’t get it developed."

Chellsen said poor soil conditions cause the basement flooding. Many city areas have that problem.

Wall said he has tried to work towards a flooding solution "just to make the neighbors happy," but the problem already exists.

"I don’t think I am going to be able to solve that problem without some help from the other neighbors or the city," he said.

On solid ground?

For decades until the 1970s, people used the woods south of Vincent as a dump, said a Friends report. The area was "a convenient place to get rid of large amounts of construction debris, old tires, etc."

In the report, long-time residents say the debris includes remnants of old city street projects.

The city Planning Department, the Environmental Department, Public Works and the Minneapolis Community Development Agency had no information on the site, the nature of the fill or possible contamination.

Len Kremer, the engineer for the Bassett’s Creek Water Management Commission, said he had visited the site seven or eight years ago because someone else had proposed developing it.

"It was a previous wetland that had been filled," he said. "There were chunks of concrete visible at the surface of the site."

The developer was concerned about whether he could get adequate foundation for any buildings, said Kremer, who did not recall the developer’s name.

"As I understood what he found, it was that the cost to provide foundation for his building was excessive, and he dropped the idea of developing the site."