Back to the beach

New swimming docks and relaxed beach rules headline changes to city parks this summer

After a decade-long struggle, several active Minneapolis residents will be happy to see kids doing something they haven’t done for a quarter century: letting loose on city beaches.

For the first time since the 1980s, swimming docks will float around beaches on four Minneapolis lakes. Calhoun Thomas Beach, Lake Harriet North Beach and Nokomis Main will be home to swimming docks moored outside the roped-off swimming areas. Wirth Beach will get a floating boardwalk that can be accessed from land.

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners and staff are also exploring changes to relax strict beach rules that they hope will loosen up the atmosphere on Minneapolis sand.

“It’s been a long time in coming and with this new group of commissioners, they’ve seen that beaches aren’t family friendly and they’re taking steps to bring families back to our beaches,” said Fulton Neighborhood Association President Steve Young.

Young, Linden Hills resident Lynnell Mickelsen, Mayor R.T. Rybak, Park Board Commissioner Bob Fine and many other neighbors have lobbied for 10 years to bring back swimming docks and do away with rigid beach rules

The beaches, however, aren’t the only change residents can expect in their city parks this summer. Park Board President John Erwin touted a long list of park improvements that he said have been made possible this summer by cost savings the Park Board accumulated after laying off 21 employees — mostly middle managers — last fall.

“I don’t think people really appreciate how the Park Board has changed because we re-allocated almost 10 percent of our budget in a year and took all that money and rolled it capital improvements and recreation,” Erwin said.


Beach bliss

The new swimming docks should arrive in June. They’ll have ladders that swimmers can use to climb up onto a platform before splashing into the water.

Fine, 62, hasn’t seen the site of kids jumping off swimming docks since he patrolled the beaches as a lifeguard in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Back then every lake in Minneapolis had a swimming dock, except Lake Hiawatha.

“We used to go down to the beach every day,” he said. “We played baseball, then we went down to the beach. It was what we did.”

But he and other say the docks aren’t enough alone. They’ve asked Park Board staff to ease up stringent rules at Minneapolis beaches.

Some are pushing to allow people to use floaties. Others want to allow kids to chicken fight. Fine would like beach-goers to be allowed to toss around soft balls.

“Over time, the Minneapolis beaches have really turned into wading pools, and with the historic, overly restrictive beach rules, they basically outlawed fun on the beaches,” Young said.


Extended hours at rec centers

Starting May 31, all 13 Park Board “Community Service Areas” will have at one recreation center open 7 days a week and on all holidays except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.

In Southwest, recreation centers at Kenwood, Martin Luther King Jr., Linden Hills and Lynnhurst parks will be open seven days a week.

The new hours are a departure from previous scheduling, when all rec centers were closed on Sundays and holidays.

“The Park Board is a service organization, and sometimes we forget that,” Erwin said. “We want to make sure that we’re open when the public would like to have us open.”

Some rec centers will be closed on days they had not been in recent years. For a complete list of new hours, visit minneapolisparks.org.


More trees, more shrubs

The Park Board has not only ramped up tree planting this summer (5,500 trees will be planted in 2011 compared to 2,500 in 2003), it also is planting 5,000 shrubs and perennials in an effort to reduce lawn mowing on parkland.

Erwin said staff will also be planting native species near Minneapolis lakes, rivers and streams in order to attract more wildlife — namely birds.


Lake Harriet eats

Southwest foodies are getting a new flavor at Lake Harriet this summer. Restaurateur Kim Bartmann debuted her Bread & Pickle food stand next to the Lake Harriet band shell in mid-May.

Bartmann, who is also behind Bryant Lake Bowl and Barbette, is offering a menu of sandwiches, burgers and ice cream. She also has a breakfast menu and coffee.

Erwin said that approximately 18 cents of every dollar spent in Park Board eateries goes back into the park system.


More changes coming

Erwin said he is working on substantially lowering the fees parents pay to have their kids play sports. Knowing that many kids come from families below the poverty line, Erwin said fees and equipment costs have prohibited kids from playing summer sports.

On May 4, the Park Board awarded a contract to Stonebrook Engineering to design and reconstruct Parade Road near the Walker Art Museum.

Erwin said he’s planning for a zero percent tax levy increase for next year. Plus, the cost savings from last December’s layoffs should allow for even more park improvements in the coming summers.  

“It’s just the beginning,” Erwin said. “Because the money we’ve set aside for capital improvements in neighborhood parks is going to occur every year.

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com. Follow him @NHalterJournals.