Crippled Creek

After a century of empty promises, Minneapolis officials are finally poised to spruce up the polluted waterway that meanders through the city's north side. What changed? The buying power of the people who will live there.

To make matters worse, even though Bassett Creek was covered in the early 1900s, floods continued along the waterway. Densely packed residential and industrial development within the watershed allowed little open space for storm water to seep back into the earth. Water traveling across parking lots and other impermeable surfaces swept pollutants into the creek. The underground tunnel could no longer handle all the water. Worse, much of the creek had again become a dumping ground, so water contaminated by seepage from septic tanks and industrial waste was flowing into people's homes.

In 1976 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said the decaying tunnel's inability to handle its job was putting 250 acres of land, more than 400 homes, and close to 100 businesses at risk. Rebuilding the tunnel would be costly, about $7 million. But uncovering the creek presented its own set of problems since the land on top of it had been developed in many places. The corps proposed a $10 million project that would require the demolishing of only three homes. A new tunnel would be built not far from the old one, and ponds would be created to store floodwaters.

City officials liked a plan proposed the following year by the engineering firm Orr-Schelen-Mayerson much more. That plan would reroute the creek to the north of the old tunnel. Forty-seven homes--some of them in the public housing projects--and 23 businesses would have to be torn down to do this. But the river could then be opened up and its banks surrounded by parks, solving the flooding problem. This idea, the engineers said, would encourage redevelopment by making the area more attractive. But it would cost nearly $27 million.

At the time, the city was pouring money into the $20 million Central Riverfront Park along the Mississippi. The new green space would run along the banks of the Mississippi from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, past Nicollet Island to the Lower St. Anthony Lock and Dam. There simply wasn't any more room in the budget for Bassett Creek.

Money was not the only thing holding the city back. Low-income residents who stood to lose their homes to make way for what most viewed as a middle-class amenity objected loudly, and the idea was shelved. Instead, in 1992 a new 80-foot-deep tunnel running under downtown Minneapolis to just below St. Anthony Falls was built not far from the old one, which was on the verge of collapse. The $40 million tunnel at last solved the century-old problem of flooding, but it did nothing to revive hopes for restoring the creek or connecting it to the chain of lakes to the south.


"Here's a note for long-range planners. Real long range. Say about 50 years. Assuming continued expansion of the Minneapolis central business district, what sort of commercial park could be laid out by taking the cover off the creek, and tearing out enough buildings on either side to make the watercourse into a greenbelt? It could be a businessman's equivalent of Minnehaha parkway."

--from an article in the Minneapolis Tribune, May 25, 1958, on the difficult time developers were having with the soggy soil near Bassett Creek, on which they were struggling to build the Glenwood projects


Only a few months shy of their 60th birthday, the sprawling Sumner Field housing projects were torn down. In 1992 public-housing residents, represented by the Minneapolis Legal Aid Society, sued federal, state, and local housing authorities over the same concentration-of-poverty issue that had come up nearly 30 years earlier. The plaintiffs, including the NAACP, charged that federal, state, and local housing authorities had for years been segregating the poor, many of whom were black, in the rundown public housing on the city's north side. Rather than fight the matter in court, in 1995 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) agreed to a settlement, known as the Hollman decree. According to its terms, the federal agency was to pay $117 million to disperse the residents into low-income housing throughout the city. The city was to study ways to reuse the site.

The city initially considered keeping some of the project's existing buildings as part of a future development. But the idea was quickly discarded after studies showed that extensive work would have to be done to rehabilitate crumbling foundations. Quickly the talk turned to redeveloping the area, and once again the idea of "daylighting" Bassett Creek was revived.

The city hired the Design Center for the American Urban Landscape at the University of Minnesota to study the land the city intended to build on. From the Design Center's perspective, restoring Bassett Creek and the surrounding wetland to health was an integral part of making any new community workable. Things have changed since European settlers viewed wetlands as nuisances to be drained and farmed, the authors of the study noted. Today waterways are viewed as amenities and people want to live near them.

But developers should remember the lessons of the past, the designers cautioned. Instead of trying to house people in the floodplain, turning places where the soil was most unstable into park space and ponds would make the neighborhood look better and alleviate some of the longstanding problems.

« Previous Page
Next Page »