Same old debates in Southwest Parks Plan

A design concept for The Mall in Uptown would convert two blocks of paved area closest to Lake of the Isles into green space and convert the eastern road way into a shared use "woonerf" road. submitted image

As the nearly two-year process to map the future of Southwest Minneapolis’ neighborhood parks comes to a close, the most contentious topics of debate remain unresolved for many residents.

At a public hearing for the Southwest Service Area Master Plan, which will guide the design of the area’s 42 neighborhood parks for decades to come, arguments over nature versus recreation, space for diamond sports versus field sports and roadways versus naturalized areas persisted.

Among the hundreds of the proposed design features laid out in the plan, four were discussed at length at the hearing: the number of diamonds for baseball and softball; the addition of a bike path on King’s Highway; the naturalization of The Mall in Uptown; and the addition of a second basketball court at Painter Park at the expense of the current tennis courts.

“Not everyone got everything that they wanted,” acknowledged Brian Nalezny, who chaired the Community Action Committee (CAC) that helped construct the plan. He asked commissioners to “please leave our recommendation full and intact.”

But the CAC’s recommendations are not binding; park commissioners may make alternations. The planning committee of the board did so with two small items after the hearing, and votes were held on several other designs. More changes could come when the plan is up for approval, which is likely to occur at the Oct. 21 meeting.

Perhaps the most-discussed element of the process has been the balance between athletic fields for sports like soccer, football and lacrosse and diamonds for baseball and softball. The baseball and softball advocates say there aren’t enough diamonds in the Southwest area today and that youth teams often go across town or to suburbs for practice. Several urged commissioners to approve a pinwheel design that would place four large diamonds at Armatage Park, as opposed to the three smaller diamonds and one premier diamond (usable for high school games) proposed in the design.  Today there are 36 diamonds in Southwest parks, but the master plan calls for just 22 in the future.

“We’re just trying to advocate for our sports,” Pat Smith, a CAC member, said at the hearing.

No amendment was made by the committee to the Armatage Park design.

Competing sport space is also in the spotlight at Painter Park, where the CAC design calls for the removal of the tennis court to make room for a second basketball court. According to project planning leader Colleen O’Dell, and the CAC sought to address the lack of full-court basketball infrastructure in Southwest compared to the rest of the city. But a number of residents asked commissioners to keep the tennis court in place. Commissioner Meg Forney (At Large) proposed an amendment to retain tennis at Painter, which was approved by the committee.

Many residents voiced opposition to a design recommendation that would add an off-street bike path on the west side of King’s Highway from Lake Harriet to 36th Street due to concern that the project would require the loss of up to 60 mature trees. O’Dell said the path would go where the current sidewalk is and that protecting trees would be a point of emphasis.

“It is not the intention of this design to clear-cut a grove of trees,” O’Dell said.

Forney proposed an amendment to remove the bike path, which ultimately failed. She also proposed an amendment to maintain the current street layout and parking of The Mall in Uptown. The plan calls for replacing the pavement of the two western blocks with trees and lawn space and converting the roadway north of Humboldt Avenue into a woonerf road, in which devices are installed to slow cars and street space is shared among bikers, walkers and drivers.  That amendment also failed.

“I think that’s an important thing to do if we’re going to take climate change seriously,” said Commissioner Chris Meyer (District 1).

Park Board President Jono Cowgill, who represents the northern portion of Southwest, said the plan is “very visionary and thinks to the future.” He spoke against making major changes to the plan, but did propose an amendment to add a dog park to Washburn Fair Oaks Park in Whittier, which had been discussed during the CAC process. That amendment was approved by the committee.

The committee also approved an amendment from Meyer to remove the parking lot at Whittier Park. The CAC recommendation was to “eventually” remove the lot.

The changes proposed in the master plan would amount to an estimated $137 million and would be implemented over 20-30 years. Funding would come from the Park Board’s typical capital improvement plan; the 20-year Neighborhood Parks Plan, approved by voters in 2016 to provide additional investment to city parks through 2037;  and outside grants and partnerships. Park improvements are generally scheduled based on the Park Board’s equity matrix, which factors in income levels, demographics and the number of years since the property last received funding. Some projects, like the King’s Highway bike path, are years away, while parks like Whittier are due to receive capital improvements in the next year or two.