Lake Calhoun: Plans to plan again?

Park Board commissioners recently created a citizens’ advisory committee to investigate Lake Harriet’s future. Now, some are asking for the same at Calhoun.

When change is proposed at Lake Calhoun, people complain.

Case in point: When Theodore Wirth, today regarded as the brains behind much of Minneapolis’ park system, last century wanted to dredge the lake to create beaches, citizens put up a fight. The dredging happened anyway.

A more recent example: When a Park and Recreation Board watchdog group learned late last year that a $350,000 overhaul of the lake’s south shore parking lot was coming down the pipeline despite little to no community input, a small clamor ensued.

E-mails were sent. Phone calls were made. Letters were mailed.

Yet the project, by most indications, is still moving ahead. Bids for construction were sent out in June.

A few facts about what’s being called the Lake Calhoun South Shore Parking Lot and Plaza Project, Phase One:

• The parking lot’s current condition is one of torn-up pavement, bumps and barely-visible spot markings. The new lot’s surface will be even and repainted.

• The project will be paid for with operations and maintenance funds for regional parks. The same fund has been used for such projects as the repairs of Lake Harriet’s north beach retaining walls and the repaving of East River and West River roads.

• Park staff keeps a running list of projects it would use those regional parks funds for, which is presented annually to the board’s commissioners. The lot repair has been on that list since about 2004, said Planning Director Judd Rietkerk.

• When the project is done, there are expected to be 50 parking spaces. Depending on how people park now, there are 19 to 42 spaces.

• The new surface will be less impervious and thus less prone to force storm water to flow directly into the lake. Permeable pavers will be installed on the northern end of the lot, as will several rain gardens.

Park staff maintains that the project is little more than the fix-up of a rundown parking lot. And because it’s classified as maintenance, the project’s development has needed neither a review process nor approval from the Park Board’s elected commissioners. (The board will, however, vote on accepting a bid.)

That’s the source of the concerns: Does all of the above truly add up to merely maintenance?

To Southwest resident Michael Chummers, the answer is no. A legal definition of maintenance, he said, considers it the preservation — not the improvement — of an asset. The parking lot project, he said, is an upgrade.

But Commissioner Bob Fine, whose district contains the lot, said it’s OK. So did Commissioner Tracy Nordstrom, who represents the northern side of the lake.

“It is maintenance,” Fine said. “If it wasn’t near a lake, I can guarantee no people would care.”

His opponent in the upcoming election, however, said it’s not that black and white.

“I think it’s kind of borderline,” Brad Bourn said.

He isn’t alone. The board’s president, Tom Nordyke, said the classification isn’t so much the issue; it’s the communication. People have been asking what’s up, he said, and in the current Park Board environment, taking a little extra time couldn’t hurt.

‘I feel like I have to apologize’

Perhaps no recent project embodies constituent-Park Board communication concerns more than Parade Stadium. In 2007, citizens — and some commissioners — were surprised to discover park staff’s plans for the artificial turf field west of the Sculpture Garden. There was a relative uproar, with some asking whether staff were acting without authority.

There also were complaints in 2003, when the board hired Jon Gurban as the system’s superintendent. Gurban was a last-minute addition to the list of potential hirees, and the move was criticized as poor public process. Citizens cried foul, and the move was pivotal to the creation of watchdog group Park Watch.

At a candidate forum earlier this year, Annie Young looked seriously disappointed, glum almost. The 20-year commissioner had been asked what she thought the board could improve, what it hasn’t done well.

Young looked out at the audience, a small group of park issues regulars, and in her signature raspy voice — but quieter — said, “Communication.”

Citizens don’t hear from the board enough; the board doesn’t respond well enough to citizens.

“I swallow a lot,” Young said. “I feel like I have to apologize to you for the way you’re treated.”


Revisit, or revise?

Critics of the south shore parking lot say the biggest issue isn’t so much the project itself; it’s the process. A letter from several concerned citizens, including current board candidate Anita Tabb, said the changes at the lot are major enough that the project should be put on hold while a citizen advisory committee is formed to advise on the future of that part of the lake.

But there already is a grand plan for Lake Calhoun, commissioners Fine and Nordstrom pointed out. The Park Board, after lengthy efforts from a citizen advisory committee, in 1997 signed off on a master plan, one that included proposals for such things as a pavilion on the north beach, extending the trolley line up to Lake Street, closing part of the parkway and reconfiguring the pathway system.

None of those have happened, of course. That’s mostly because the money just hasn’t been available, Nordstrom said. Today’s Park Board is forced to operate in a more piece-meal manner. And because of that, she said she wants to hold two public informational sessions to specifically delve into what the board’s current interests are. Nordstrom said she believes what most citizens want is an understanding of the board’s priorities for Lake Calhoun, not another long and complicated process to develop ideas.

Nordstrom is hoping to develop those informational sessions this summer and schedule them for the fall.

Critics say that still isn’t enough. While Nordstrom said input would be taken from citizens at her sessions, they don’t think two meetings will be enough to determine Calhoun’s future. A citizens’ advisory committee, Southwest resident Harvey Ettinger said, would do a better job.

There’s a very current example of that, he said: Lake Harriet. There, a citizen committee’s discussions about the future of band-shell concessions have morphed into a small area-wide visioning process.

But neither Nordstrom nor Fine are interested in going that route for Calhoun. It wouldn’t make sense to go through another long process, come up with new ideas and then not be able to execute them because of a lack of money, they said.

Furthermore, major citizen concerns might actually not exist. Just ask park planner Andrea Weber, who has a lead role in the parking lot project. She said there’s really no strong opposition to speak of.

On June 16, a sign went up at the lot announcing its imminent reconstruction. The next day, three people came to the Park Board’s meeting to object.