A Bluff on the River

Is the Minneapolis Park Board considering selling a prime parcel on the Mississippi?

As Rosemary Knutson surveys the neglected parcel of land that lies just east of her West Bank condominium, she imagines the possibilities. There could be a butterfly garden here, new trees and grasses, even a secluded picnic grounds. "This is probably the choicest piece of undeveloped real estate in the metro area," Knutson muses, a little loudly, as she strains to be heard above the steady hum from the traffic on the nearby 35W bridge.

It's not much to look at right now. Goldenrod and weeds sprout up through the gaps in a field of crumbling concrete. Beer cans, ruined bicycles, and other such detritus are scattered about. But with some effort and about $45,000 in private contributions, Knutson contends, the eight-acre plot could become a welcome addition to the Minneapolis park system. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has owned it for more than 20 years--but rumor has it the board is looking to unload it.

The Bluff Street Park--as Knutson refers to it; others calls it "the Gasworks Bluff"--sits on a high spot on a bend in the Mississippi downriver from Lower St. Anthony Falls. Down below are the Bohemian Flats, which were once home to hundreds of brewery workers and immigrants from Eastern Europe, and is now a mooring spot for a fancy cruise boat. Across the river, there is the University of Minnesota. And then there is a view of the river itself--a view much coveted by developers, prospective condominium buyers, and longtime neighborhood residents.

A park with a view: Rosemary Knutson thinks the West Bank lot would work best as a public space
Mike Mosedale
A park with a view: Rosemary Knutson thinks the West Bank lot would work best as a public space

For the past four years, Knutson and other West Bank residents have been pushing for the conversion of the forgotten parcel into a proper park. Armed with a plan drafted by the University of Minnesota's Metropolitan Design Center and endorsed by the neighborhood group, the West Bank Community Coalition, Knutson--the WBCC's former president--will present that vision to the Park Board tonight (Wednesday, September 7). With board rules permitting each speaker just three minutes, Knutson has lined up five people to assist in the presentation.

In Knutson's view, it might be the only chance to make the pitch before the Park Board takes up the matter of whether to sell the property. "I've been told by one of the good guys [on the park board] that they're just waiting until after the election to go ahead and sell it," Knutson says. "I believe they've been pushing for that all along."

That's not true, counters Third District Parks Commissioner Marie Hauser, who represents the area. "I've been accused repeatedly by Rosemary Knutson and some other people in the West Bank area that I am selling parkland to developers," Hauser complains. "But I haven't been presented with a plan that is workable, either for a development or a park."

Indeed, there is no formal proposal before the Park Board, which, in a year of budgetary setbacks and raucous infighting, is operating under an informal moratorium on new projects. However, Hauser acknowledges that developer John Wall--of the Minneapolis-based Wall Companies--did express an interest in the land. She says she only spoke with him once about the project, and says she urged him to bring the proposal before the neighborhood group. "I was doing the upfront thing," she adds. "I guess no good deed goes unpunished."

Contacted by e-mail, Wall declined to provide details on his plans for the property. "[W]e are just not ready to discuss our proposal yet. We are still interested," Wall writes. "Out of respect for the Park Board commissioners who face election this fall, we will refrain from having them face a potentially controversial issue at this time."

Two Park Board members, Annie Young and Walt Dziedzic, say they know very little about the condo plans--or, for that matter, the neighborhood group's proposal. Young says she would be reluctant to go along with the sale of any parkland, let alone land along the increasingly crowded riverfront.

But Marie Hauser says she has some "concerns" about the possibility of converting the isolated parcel into parkland. "It's on a slope, so it's not in an ideal location for a park," Hauser says. Hauser also questions its suitability because of concerns about pollution at the site, which was formerly home to a coal gasification facility.

Indeed, much of the surrounding riverfront is significantly contaminated with coal tar residues from the old Minneapolis Gas Works. According to Lynne Grigor, a hydrologist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Park Board site has not been studied extensively, so it's difficult to say what impediment environmental problems pose. "If someone wants to develop that property, we would expect them to do some soil testing and some groundwater testing," Grigor says. Even if the property is severely contaminated, Grigor adds, it could still be developed, albeit at a higher cost.

Greg Brick, a geology instructor at Normandale Community College, is less certain. Brick included the "gasworks bluff" on a tour of polluted sites in the Twin Cities, which he gave to fellow members of the Minnesota Geological Society. "This was our first stop. We used it as an example of some of the worst contamination around," Brick recalls. "It's hard to believe they would turn it into condos."

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