Lumberyard eyed as possible new park along Mississippi

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January 4, 2010 // UPDATED 8:22 am - January 4, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
What currently is mostly concrete, a parking lot and a lumberyard could someday be a park.

That’s the hope, anyway, at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, where in their last meeting of 2009, commissioners voted to begin the process of purchasing the almost 14-acre 9th Avenue Northeast site of Scherer Bros. Lumber Co.

The draw for the Park Board: The property borders the Mississippi River.

Possible negatives: Chemical contamination and economic pressures.

The purchase would fit in with several adopted Park Board plans, Planning Director Judd Rietkerk said. There’s the city-, Metropolitan Council- and Park Board-approved Above the Falls Master Plan — which calls for redevelopment along the river — and there’s the parks’ own comprehensive plan, which lays out an increased focus on the north and northeast parts of the city. It also matches goals of the recently formed Minneapolis Riverfront Corp., a nonprofit that tracks and promotes targets for and along the Mississippi.

There are no exact plans for what the Park Board would do with the land, but staff suggestions include developing trails and open space.

Up front, the Park Board is making a $400,000 earnest money down payment on the property, an amount that will be covered by money the parks received from the Minnesota Department of Transportation after the Interstate 35W bridge collapse.

Rietkerk said the purchase agreement comes with few strings attached — the board has until the end of March to gather further information and develop a final arrangement for the site, and if commissioners were to decide buying the property isn’t a good idea, they could back out and have the $400,000 returned.


One abstention

That contingency arrangement pleased Commissioner-Elect John Erwin, the likely next Park Board president. He said he’s intrigued by the prospect of more riverfront land, but he said much more information would be needed for him to feel comfortable signing on. For example, the cost of the property was not yet known. (Appraisals were ongoing, Rietkerk said.) And there’s also the factor that the Park Board shouldn’t hurt its ability to maintain what it has now by picking up an additional responsibility, Erwin said.

“A potential park on the river that size I think is exciting,” he said. “However, we need to look at all of the existing parks we have … and look at our needs.”

On the sitting board, most commissioners were ready to move ahead on Dec. 15, as evidenced by a unanimous 7–0 vote. They said they were eager to turn urban property back into a piece of nature.

But Commissioner Annie Young, often a champion of green efforts, was the sole board member not to vote “yes.” She said she was troubled by a report she’d received — reportedly from watchdog group Park Watch — that traces of chemicals, possibly including the cancer-linked vermiculite, had been found at the site.

Rietkerk disputed those results, but Young decided to abstain from the vote.

After the meeting, Erwin said the conflicting vermiculite reports are an issue that will need to be tackled going forward.

“My first thought was, ‘Let’s get in there and do some independent testing,’” Erwin said.


A quick arrival


The purchase agreement motion arrived fairly quickly before the board, going directly to a full meeting rather than through the usual committee process. Rietkerk said it was a matter of timing, which led members of watchdog group Park Watch to balk.

“It is egregious that staff has advanced this project to the point of a purchase agreement without following Park Board protocol,” Park Watch co-founder Arlene Fried said.

Rietkerk’s response: If there are concerns about a lack of a public hearing, people should remember the amount of testimony taken while developing the comprehensive and Above the Falls plans.

But Park Watch warned that the board should be very careful, especially considering several recent real estate situations — in particular, property near the Mill City Museum currently in legal limbo and the ownership and sale of what is now a building owned by the Boy Scouts of America — that didn’t prove fruitful for the parks system.

Outgoing President Tom Nordyke appeared hesitant before ultimately voting with the majority. He made it a point to ask that the agreement be reviewed by Planning Committee Chairman Bob Fine, and he requested that the new Park Board see the final purchase arrangement no later than March 3, allowing commissioners several weeks before the March 31 deadline to make an educated decision.

“It’s an incredibly important acquisition,” Nordyke said.

Commissioner Jon Olson concurred, but in a more positive sense. Riverfront land, he said, “just doesn’t come along very often.”

Reach Cristof Traudes at 436-5088 or ctraudes@mnpubs.com.