Surprise! Heritage Park Is Not Hell on Earth

A tour of Minneapolis's newest and most rigorously engineered neighborhood

Connecting the development to the rest of the city is one of the master plan's biggest and best ideas. Back in the 1930s and '50s, when the various public housing projects were being built on the site (the city kept piling poor people on top of each other), the Heritage Park area was parsed by a normal street grid. But in the 1960s, a "superblock" was created along the project's western border. After that came I-94 with its 12-foot-high concrete wall to the east, a widened Olson Memorial to the south, and cul-de-sacs and light industry to the north. The projects were systematically hemmed in, and the message to poor people was clear: Don't go anywhere, especially not downtown.

Hollman changed all of that, mandating that the hundreds of families living in the projects be dispersed to other parts of the city and even the suburbs. Replacement units were slow to come. Even so, starting in 1997, the entire area was bulldozed, making way for Heritage Park.

The complex sits directly on the Bassett's Creek flood plain, which means that the soil is unsteady and full of clay that sponges up water. Historically, this has caused homes to sink and basements to flood. In order to build anew, the property had to be smoothed over and squeezed of water through a process called "surcharge," which entails the use of buried wicks that allow water to escape as weight is applied from above. The idea is that once the moisture is removed, the new buildings will keep the soil pressed down so it won't reabsorb water.

Michael Knapp

But water wasn't the only problem. The site was pocked with a variety of contaminants including lead and asbestos--not as many as feared, according to the between 800 and 900 soil borings taken over recent decades, but enough to pose obstacles. "We were dealing with unbelievable material that was brought in way back when," says Lois Eberhart, the city's project manager for Heritage Park's infrastructure and open space. "A lot of fill was residential fill from people's backyards: brick, stone, wood, old building foundations. We'd have to stop and remove it." She says only two sites of significant pollution were discovered: the housing projects' former heating plant, which held seven buried 20,000-gallon oil tanks, one of which had leaked extensively, and an old tannery. Both, says Eberhart, were cleaned up.

Once soil preparation was completed, planners set to work on imposing a new street grid. They created a network of more or less typical city blocks, some with alleyways and private drives. Roadways were cut directly through the superblock. A new residential street, called Lyndale Place, was built between the development and busy Lyndale Avenue, which runs along I-94. The enormous barrier wall was demolished (unfortunately, the beloved and short-lived John Biggers mural, Celebration of Life: The First Fruit, went with it) and replaced with a landscaped berm, which opened the neighborhood's east side while still providing a modest buffer from highway noise. The city would like to modify Olson Memorial too, giving it a wider median and adding a traffic-slowing curve as it passes Heritage Park, somewhat mimicking Summit Avenue in St. Paul. Additional state and federal moneys would be required to make that happen.

According to the master plan, the project's new streets are designed to provide a neighborhood feel while affording shopping-mall-level security. "[S]treet patterns will slow neighborhood traffic and discourage cut-through traffic," reads the plan. "Streets will be fronted by residential front doors and outdoor space will be defined as either public or private to discourage loitering. Neighborhood parks...will be wrapped by perimeter streets to allow unobstructed views into and through the space. Pedestrian traffic will thus be channeled along public streets, which, in concert with front porches and a connected street network, will encourage residents to know their neighbors." This theory of design is often referred to as "eyes on the street," which is another way of saying that there are very few places for a person to hide.

We drove in our golf cart along the development's north park, which features a round grassy area surrounded by a sidewalk and scattered with an occasional bench. It looked barren and I asked whether there would someday be more plants, or even trees. "It is what it's going to be," answered Malafa. And then, taking a closer look, he added, "There was a problem with the grass seeding."

The north park is home to a couple of tiny ponds, traversed by bridges festooned with clunky metal turtles designed by a local artist. "Turtles mean something in every culture," explained Lara. She also gestured toward a stone waterfall that she said is pretty after a heavy rain. A larger, more substantial pond is being built south of Olson Memorial and will offer ice skating in winter. There was supposed to be fishing, too, but the city elected not to dig the hole deep enough to keep fish from freezing during the cold months.

The ponds will act, essentially, as a natural water-treatment facility. Utilizing a series of "grit chambers," "trench forebays," and "filtration basins," the waterholes filter and clean street runoff before it reaches the Mississippi. It's a fairly new strategy that's being implemented all over the city and includes the planting of low-maintenance flowers and grasses such as prairie dropseed, stiff goldenrod, and purple prairie clover--all of which are, when mature, quite lovely--to capture sediment and other pollutants. Lara and Malafa are clearly excited by the functionality of the green spaces. Lara even helped plant some of the flowers. "Look," she pointed toward a sloping bank, "it's kind of coming up."

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