Lake Harriet to reopen to cars, more closures coming to Bde Maka Ska

The nortbound lane West Bde Maka Ska Parkway will close to vehicles on April 20 to free up more room for pedestrians during the statewide stay-at-home order. file photo

The Park Board will reopen Lake Harriet Parkway to vehicles while expanding parkway closures around Bde Maka Ska as the board looks to improve social distancing around the Chain of Lakes. It’s a move that has drawn criticism from the area’s City Council member. 

The changes come at the request of local Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner Brad Bourn (District 6) who said he wanted to keep some part of the Chain of Lakes open to people who have limited mobility or who are autoimmune compromised. 

“There are folks for a variety of reasons the safest way for them to experience the Grand Rounds is in a car,” Bourn said. “They still deserve to be in the parks, too.” 

Cars will be allowed to return to Lake Harriet Parkway on April 20.

Around Bde Maka Ska, the Park Board will block northbound cars from from Lake Street to Richfield Road on the west side of the lake. The parkway on the lake’s east side is already closed to southbound traffic from Lake Street to West 36th Street. The Park Board does not control Richfield Road (on the southeast side of the lake) or Lake Street (to the north), both of which remain open to cars. 

Lake Harriet Parkway has been closed to vehicles since March 27, giving park visitors more space to spread by letting people  walk and run on the street. The move has been popular in the area, according to City Council Member Linea Palmisano (Ward 13), who expressed frustration about the decision to reopen the parkway to vehicles in her weekly letter to constituents. 

“I worked really hard to get the Lake Harriet closures working smoothly and I’m really upset that it’s moving in the opposite direction,” Palmisano told the Southwest Journal. 

When the Lake Harriet closure was announced, her office reached out to houses with driveways that had access to the parkway to see if they’d be comfortable with reduced vehicle access to their home, which enabled larger stretches of the parkway to open to pedestrians. Palmisano, who has diabetes and is an avid runner, said she has felt safer with the added space around the lake. With warming weather, she thinks the lake will be visited more and space should be preserved.

In an email to Palmisano on April 16, Minneapolis Public Works Director Robin Hutcheson said the parkways were the “spine” of city efforts to open up more space to pedestrians. The department has added seven miles of temporarily expanded pedestrian spaces leading to parks and parkways, including on Lagoon Avenue from Hennepin Avenue to Bde Maka Ska. 

“The approach to opening the parkways for walking, biking and rolling has been wildly popular, drawing a significant amount of national attention and praise,” Hutcheson wrote. “I am deeply disappointed that some do not share the widespread opinion of the benefit of such measures, and any reversals at this point will diminish our overall strategy for supporting people when they need us most.”

Bourn said he wanted to open up more space around Bde Maka Ska, which is the most visited of the Chain of Lakes. He said he knows many people are pleased about the parkway closures to give more space for social distancing and believes those measures should continue but that he wants to allow part of the Chain of Lakes to be accessible by vehicles. A Park Board measure that gave Superintendent Al Bangoura emergency powers, including authority to close parkways to cars during the crisis, requires local commissioner consent. 

Palmisano said the parkway closures have been effective in allowing people to spread out and get outside during the pandemic. She’s worried that the Bde Maka Ska closures, which still allow for one-way vehicle traffic around most of the lake, and two-way traffic on Lake Street and Richfield Road, are a half-measure. She called for closing off a lane of Lake Street using concrete protectors to provide more space. 

“I just don’t think it’s set up for success,” she said. 

Hutcheson told City Council members in a letter that the best approach to giving residents more access to outdoor activities is to avoid mixing cars with people.  

Bourn said he thinks elected officials are doing their best to provide access to outdoor spaces and protect vulnerable populations during the pandemic.

“I’d expect there to be reasonable differences of opinion,” he said. “I think everyone is open to sensible revisions as we adjust to a new normal.”

Partial or full closures of parkway roads are also in effect on Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake in Southwest. The MPRB has also opened parkways to pedestrians around Lake Nokomis and along the Mississippi River, including Main Street Southeast in Marcy Holmes and West River Road from Downtown to Minnehaha Park. 

The parkway closures are tied to Gov. Tim Walz’s executive stay-at-home order, which is currently in effect through May 4.