Tilting at Highways

Dina Kantor

Al Kratz makes sandwiches for the raccoons. He'll wrap slices of stale toast around whatever is handy--leftovers, stale vegetables, discount groceries his wife Carol brings home. "They don't like cabbage or tomatoes," he explains, "but they're crazy about hot dogs." The raccoons come in the evening, out of the woods past the railroad tracks that border the Kratzes' backyard. Squirrels come too, gray and black ones, and the occasional fox. "Once I counted 27 raccoons," Al boasts, "all sitting around the picnic table munching their sandwiches."

These days there's more wildlife than usual in the Kratzes' neighborhood. Maybe that's because there are fewer people, now that the Minnesota Department of Transportation has torn down most of the 40 houses that once lined Riverview Road. MNDoT wants to put a four-lane road through here, replacing the worn-out stretch of Hiawatha Avenue a few blocks to the east. If all goes well, you'll be driving through the Kratzes' backyard on your way to the airport three years from now.

But Al doesn't talk much about that. When Carol starts in on the highway, he heads for the kitchen, dragging the plastic tube that connects him to the oxygen machine he needs for his emphysema. "We put on an extra-long one this year so he can get out to the backyard," Carol says. "That's his life right now."

It may not be much longer. Two months ago the Kratzes got a letter on Minnesota state letterhead: "From Hubert H. Humphrey, Attorney General," it read. "All persons occupying the property described in this document MUST VACATE THE PREMISES ON OR BEFORE JUNE 17, 1998." That's the order the Kratzes are fighting right now; they're scheduled to appear in U.S. District Court in Minneapolis May 12 to explain why the state shouldn't tear down their house.

A scant two weeks earlier, on May 1, an environmental group will be in the same courthouse making a related but broader argument: It will claim that MNDoT, the federal Department of Transportation, the city of Minneapolis, and the Minneapolis Park Board have no right to put a four-lane highway through the city's last "urban wilderness."

To understand the story of Hiawatha Avenue, it helps to get into your car, preferably during the evening rush hour, and head south from Lake Street. Traffic is smooth along the four-lane boulevard as commuters head for the airport and the booming suburbs beyond. At about 46th Street the road narrows to two lanes as it crosses Minnehaha Creek. Take a left at 54th Street and park where it dead-ends. Get out and walk back about 100 feet.

You're standing in one of the most ancient landscapes in Minneapolis. Behind you a tangle of oak, buckthorn, and ironwood tumbles toward Minnehaha Park and the Mississippi River a few hundred yards away; to the left a grassy savannah stretches into the distance, dotted with massive bur oaks. You can walk for hours from here, along trails that seem to transport you hundreds of miles, and hundreds of years, away.

This is the right-of-way for the new Hiawatha Avenue, the same road that's slated to cut through the Kratzes' backyard a block away. Four to six lanes of concrete are planned here, swinging in an elegant curve toward the river bluff, with sound berms and spindly trees on either side. MNDoT says it's a long-overdue solution to a highway bottleneck--a service, as Hiawatha corridor supervisor Mike Spielmann puts it, "to our customers. We are trying to provide the best possible product for the city of Minneapolis and the people of Minnesota."

At one point MNDoT had a much grander product in mind. Forty years ago the agency envisioned Hiawatha as one of a series of freeways radiating out from downtown Minneapolis. Lyndale and Cedar Avenues would have been part of the network, as would the proposed
I-335 corridor to the northeast. Most of that plan was doomed by neighborhood opposition and dwindling highway funds. But the Hiawatha project remained, a stubborn remnant of 1950s vision. MNDoT battled the Minneapolis Park Board all the way to the Supreme Court and won; hundreds of families lost their homes as the agency cleared land for the freeway. Finally, in 1974, MNDoT ran out of steam and federal highway money.

By then Carol and Al Kratz had been in their house for almost two decades. In 1956, when they moved in, he was working at a print shop and she was about to have their second child. The tiny house was all they could afford, but the location--on one of a few blocks wedged between Hiawatha and the park--was fit for a mansion. "Nobody knew this was here," Carol remembers. "So we were all by ourselves. One train a day would come through on the railroad tracks out back, and the kids would all go out and wave."  

As the years went by, Riverview Road grew even quieter. "As our neighbors got older, when they wanted to get out they always sold to MNDoT," Carol explains. "Even after the court said they couldn't make the big freeway, MNDoT kept buying, because they had a plan to make a smaller road." No one, she says, really thought much about what that smaller road might look like, or where it would go.

In 1985--after 10 years of meetings, drawings, and revisions--a citizens' task force endorsed a scaled-down plan for the new Hiawatha Avenue. The road would run along the same route MNDoT had originally proposed, but it would have four lanes instead of ten, and a speed limit of 35 miles per hour.

"I told people, 'No one is going to be totally happy with this,' including me," says Dennis Schulstad, who represented the area around Hiawatha on the City Council for 22 years until his retirement last year. "I personally would have been happier if they'd left the road where it is today. But those people held countless meetings, and they said, 'This is the plan that we want to build.' What I want to know is: The people who are complaining now, where were they in 1985?"

Schulstad hasn't been the only official who's hearing complaints he thought had subsided long ago. In the past two years a Stop the Reroute coalition has formed, including just about every major Twin Cities environmental group, along with substantial numbers of neighborhood residents and businesses. Some 7,000 people have signed a petition asking MNDoT to kill the project, and last fall 700 showed up at Roosevelt High School for a public meeting. "Put it this way," says MNDoT's Spielmann. "I have 32 projects including Hiawatha. But this one takes the majority of my time."

Among the people responsible for tying up Spielmann's time is Jill Walker, one of the co-organizers of Stop the Reroute. Walker was barely out of high school when the 1985 task force gave its nod to the highway; by the time she moved into the neighborhood in 1993, she'd become an ardent fan of the hiking trails near Minnehaha. Walker says she was stunned two years ago when she found out about the highway plan. Even as a professional environmentalist, she'd had no idea what MNDoT had in mind. "It was, 'What? They're going to put the road down there?'"

Within a few months Walker had switched from fighting motorboats in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area to challenging Hiawatha Avenue. "We spend a lot of time in northern Minnesota telling people how to manage their lands," she reasons. "So we owe it to ourselves to manage our own land very well. And this area [around Minnehaha Park] is a gem worth protecting."

Actually, the fight over Hiawatha is beginning to sound eerily similar to the northwoods battles of Walker's past. Opponents of the road often talk about their love for the area's "unspoiled" nature, about preserving its "sacred glens" for hiking, mountain-biking, and romps with their dogs. (Letting a dog run off-leash is illegal in Minneapolis, but authorities have long looked the other way at Minnehaha.) Some of the locals, in turn, complain about meddling tourists: "An elite, uninformed cadre of extreme sport enthusiasts is selfishly trying to keep a very small parcel of land to themselves, so they can ride their off-road bicycles in the brush," area resident Ken Stone wrote in a letter to the Star Tribune last November.

Beneath the strident tones, however, is an earnest debate about whether the Hiawatha plan is simply outdated. Back in 1985, for example, very little was known about Camp Coldwater, according to Mary Jo Iverson, an amateur historian who has studied the area. The site, sacred to the Dakota and home to the first known white settlement in the state, has been called "Minnesota's Plymouth Rock." Its name comes from a remarkable artesian spring that keeps its 42-degree temperature year-round. Iverson says Coldwater researchers are worried that a highway a mere 400 feet away will "rob this place of its dignity." They also fear that construction blasting could ruin the spring: A 1997 MNDoT memo warned that "any type of disturbance [could reduce] the amount of [water] flow, either slightly or dramatically."

Dennis Gimmestad, the Minnesota Historical Society's compliance officer, says the society signed off on the Hiawatha project more than 10 years ago. "But that's a long time," he acknowledges, "and additional issues have come forward. We're trying to work with MNDoT to make sure they preserve the feel and the atmosphere of that site." Should the spring indeed dry up, Gimmestad says, the society would ask MNDoT to pipe in water from elsewhere.  

Just as the historians have yet to fully explore Coldwater, says Dan Keiser, botanists are only now beginning to value the area's "biological treasures." A tree inspector and oak grower who has been advocating preservation of the Minnehaha oak savannah as one of the few remnants of a landscape that once dominated the Twin Cities area, Keiser has identified dozens of century-old bur oaks in the Hiawatha right-of-way, and several that are more than 200 years old. "These trees have survived the coldest winters, the driest summers, the oak wilt epidemics, and the stresses of encroaching civilization for the past 250 years," Keiser notes in an affidavit filed in connection with the current anti-highway litigation. "This means that [their] genetic information is of a superior stock. Each acorn of this locally adaptive native species is a precious gene bank for future oak [forests]."

All fine and good, counters MNDoT's Spielmann, but the questions Keiser, Iverson, and other reroute opponents raise were looked into and dealt with long ago, when MNDoT compiled the federally required Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for its Hiawatha project. "The environmental process on this project was as good as any I've ever seen," he maintains. "It followed not only the letter of the law but the spirit of the law. I feel sure that if it was revisited, the results would be pretty much the same."

It's that 1985 environmental study, as it happens, on which the future of the oaks, the spring, and the Kratzes' house now hinge. A group called the Park and River Alliance has filed suit in U.S. District Court charging that the document did not, in fact, follow the law, but instead blatantly violated a federal statute requiring it to explore "prudent and feasible alternatives" before damaging or taking public park, historic, or recreational lands.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Alsop is scheduled to hear arguments in the case this Friday. If it doesn't rain, says alliance attorney Grant Merritt, the proceedings will begin with a little detour: Alsop has agreed to walk the proposed highway route. "It will be like Aristotle walking in the woods," Merritt chuckles. "We hope the judge will make a philosophical decision."

Merritt is no stranger to this kind of battle. He served as head of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency under Gov. Wendell Anderson, who called MNDoT "the Pentagon of Minnesota." Rails Merritt: "They're huge, they've been around forever, and they think they can outlive the competition. But they've been trying to build this highway for 40 years, and they haven't won yet. And they're not going to win this time."

On Friday, Merritt says, he'll argue that the EIS failed to study what he calls the most environmentally sound option for rebuilding Hiawatha: expanding it along the current route. "They had a little discussion of that, but they just threw it in," he charges. "They never dealt with it in any kind of detail." What's more, he adds, the study failed to evaluate another alternative route proposed by the park board in the 1970s--looping Hiawatha through a residential neighborhood far to the west of Minnehaha.

But those aren't prudent and feasible alternatives, retorts Bill Sierks, the assistant state attorney general who's handling the case. The option of expanding the existing road, Sierks says, was dismissed back in the 1960s because it would have involved razing more than 80 homes and several historic sites. The route around the park was similarly rejected because it would have destroyed up to 200 houses. Even leaving the road the way it is would create environmental damage, Sierks contends, with increasing traffic causing additional noise and pollution. "We analyzed everything right down to the last detail," he concludes. "And we did it right. I wouldn't have recommended going ahead with [fighting the lawsuit] if I thought there was a hole in it."

How long the dispute will take to resolve is anyone's guess. Both sides say they're prepared to take the matter all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court. Sierks says he hopes it will all be over by the time MNDoT is scheduled to bid out $39 million worth of construction contracts early next year (bringing the price tag for the entire Hiawatha project to close to $83 million, not counting some $400 million that could be spent on a light-rail line in the corridor).

Carol Kratz has read all of the lawyers' arguments, which amount to a file 2 inches thick. It's in one of the stacks of paperwork she has squirreled away under the TV set, in drawers, on the coffee table. The stacks also contain articles about oak savannahs, treatises on urban sprawl, and old newspaper clippings from the freeway fight. "If you'd told me 20 years ago that I was going to get this involved in anything," she muses, "I would have laughed at you. But now this is my life.  

"It's hard for Al, with me gone all the time. He used to be able to go out, run errands and things, but not anymore. I keep telling him I'm trying to save our home, save the park. But with the lack of oxygen to his brain, some days he gets it and some days he doesn't. And sometimes I think, 'Why am I doing this; why don't I just move out?'"

Chances are the Kratzes will have to move. At press time Merritt was negotiating with MNDoT for an extension that would allow them to stay in their house past the current June 17 deadline. But eventually, MNDoT has told them, it will take the house regardless of the lawsuit's outcome. "They said we wouldn't like it here with everyone else gone," Carol Kratz says. "And you know, if they wanted the house for the park, I'd give it up in a minute."

She glances around the corner to the breakfast nook, where her husband is cutting slices of toast, crusts carefully removed, into tiny squares for the squirrels. "There's a new one," he says to no one in particular. "Never seen that one before."

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