Green Acre?

The green, green grass of whose home? Rick Stackley, Ed Hodder, Rosemary Knutson, and Tom Youngblood at the old Minneapolis Gas Works site
Craig Lassig

Who was it that said the only constant is change? In the politics of Minneapolis neighborhoods, perhaps the more apt phrasing would be that the only constant is that any change is controversial. No matter what it is or who proposes it.

Such is the story in the case of a small, sad parcel of land on the West Bank, tucked into an odd bend of the Mississippi River. At the end of a winding road between the Riverview Tower condominiums and an overgrown slope leading toward West River Parkway and the river, the dust-and-gravel lot is at the middle of a tug of war between a developer who wants to build housing and local residents who want a park. Adding to the complexity is that the area is the former home of the Minneapolis Gas Works, so its soil and groundwater could be contaminated.

This summer, the University of Minnesota sent out a plea for the development of 500 units of affordable, off-campus student housing to add to its scarce supply. In response, developer Steve Minn and his partners came up with a plan for the old Gas Works lot. Minn says the land, which belongs to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, is ideal because of its close proximity to the university, its marketable views of both downtown and the river, and its history as an industrial site. "We want to put the land back into a useful purpose," Minn explains. "Right now, it isn't getting usage. The park board hasn't done anything with this land for the 15 years it's owned it."

Minn, a former member of the Minneapolis City Council and ousted state secretary of commerce, calls himself a "committed urbanist" and says he understands that neighbors would prefer to have a park in the vicinity. "I'm the last person to say that park space--green space--isn't an adequate use," he says. But, he adds, since there are ten acres of landscaped grounds in the area, down by the river, "how important is another acre of green space? I'm not saying it's not important, but in the spectrum of things, is it critical when housing is critical? Housing may not be critical to the park board, but it is critical to the fabric of the city."

To that end, Minn and his partners have offered to buy a piece of suitable parkland elsewhere in the city and swap it for the Gas Works site.

That idea hasn't won much favor in the Seven Corners community, whose residents aren't interested in creating more skyscraping apartment buildings in an already densely populated area. At an August 9 meeting of one of the park board's committees, Minn presented his proposal for the property. The lower floors of the 15-story building would be dedicated to university students for five to ten years when the U of M would lease the space; the upper floors would be high-end condos aimed at older students or empty-nesters who want to live near the university. Minn simply asked for the opportunity to continue developing the proposal; the park board and other city officials would still have to sell or swap the property and green-light the project before it could go forward.

After Minn spoke, residents had a chance to respond. Their complaints were many: There hadn't been adequate discussion with the community about the proposal; digging up land where a large tank had held gases created from coal could release hazardous contaminants into the air, potentially harming the health of residents; and adding so many new housing units to an already dense neighborhood would diminish quality of life and create a traffic and parking misery.

"It seems like they want to build a big vomitorium on our precious little open space," one man contended. Another woman defended her park. "We're talking about my park," she said. "We need your help in keeping it as a parkland. It's a beautiful little jewel. It sits on the bluff--it ties the East Bank and the West Bank and the River Road together."

One evening following the meeting, Ed and Julie Hodder stroll through the blocks just beyond their home at Seven Corners Apartments on South Second Street near the Tenth Avenue bridge. Along South First Street, the couple points out the fenced-in ball fields owned by the U of M, the looming, drab cinderblock of the Riverview Tower, and the faded red town homes of the Riverbluff Apartments, home to many low-income families. They turn onto South 20th Avenue and head toward the end of the road, where overgrown weeds and bushes outline the perimeter of the controversial spot.

As they walk across the site littered with discarded tires, empty Coke bottles, and chain-link fencing, the Hodders admit it doesn't look like much. But imagine a lush carpet of grass covering layers of fertile soil, a community garden, some picnic tables or a basketball court.

"We can develop that park with Neighborhood Revitalization Program funds," Ed Hodder explains. "It will be a place for the people in the community." Even though there might be green space down by the river, they argue, people living in the apartment complexes at the top of the bluff have not even a scrap of public parkland. And although the city hasn't made it a priority to turn the Gas Works lot into an oasis--Minn points to city planning documents that call for the spot to be turned into housing--the neighbors themselves have been launching such a move.

Part of the residents' concern stems from a lack of information about environmental hazards at the site. Minn isn't convinced there was much contamination there. But community members--many of whom lived through the cleanup of toxic contamination at other nearby properties in the early 1990s and experienced resulting health problems--fear that digging up this land will uncover pollutants better left undisturbed. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says there is little data on the site in question, and whether the parcel is developed as housing or parkland it would still need testing and possibly cleanup to meet the state's environmental safety requirements.

For now, Minn says, he will continue to work with the park board's staff and meet with community groups to iron out some of the concerns about the development, but it's unclear when the park board will make a decision.

The Hodders and other community members are monitoring the situation, as is Dean Zimmermann, the park-board member whose district encompasses the site. Zimmermann would prefer to see the land become an open meadow than be developed for housing. "The best thing to do with it is cover it up with a few feet of dirt and let it come to some equilibrium over a number of decades or centuries," he says. "I'm not crazy about giving up parkland other than for recreational and environmental purposes. There has never been a case where we took open land owned by the park board and sold it or gave a 99-year lease to develop it. It's totally unprecedented and doesn't fit with the mission of the park board."

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