DeLaSalle athletic complex proposal roils Nicollet Island

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January 17, 2005 // UPDATED 1:48 pm - April 26, 2007
By: Sarah McKenzie
Sarah McKenzie

New fields, bleachers on city parkland has parks leaders cheering, residents fuming

DeLaSalle High School, a private Catholic school on Nicollet Island, wants to build a new multipurpose athletic complex on city parkland.

The complex would include a regulation soccer/football field, a softball field and bleachers for 600 fans.

Under its plan, DeLaSalle would lease a small parcel of parkland between Grove Street, Nicollet Street, East Island Avenue and some railroad tracks. Grove Street's eastern half between the Nicollet Street bridge and East Island Avenue would be vacated.

The school's proposal has angered some residents, who fear that the athletic fields would disrupt traffic patterns and be inappropriate for the historic island. A neighborhood petition is circulating against the high school's proposal.

The roughly 50-acre island tucked below the Hennepin Avenue Bridge boasts picturesque views of the Mississippi River and Downtown's skyline. The Park Board has 99-year leases with many residents who live on the island's northern end - an historic residential district with many unique 19th-century homes.

Meanwhile, DeLaSalle supporters want their 105-year-old high school to have a football field of its own. Currently, the football team plays home games at suburban schools such as Benilde-St. Margaret's in St. Louis Park, and the soccer field at Ft. Snelling.

DeLaSalle board member John Derus, who is spearheading the plan, said the new sports complex would bolster school spirit.

"We've never had a homecoming," said Derus, a DeLaSalle grad and former Hennepin County Commissioner who is president of the St. Anthony Falls Group, a Minneapolis-based public affairs and consulting business.

Brother Michael Collins, president of DeLaSalle, said the new athletic fields are about providing students and families the same opportunities as other urban and suburban high schools with home fields.

"This is about equal opportunity for young people who attend this school," he said.

The athletic fields would be used by DeLaSalle during the school year and be available for Park Board youth programs in the summer.

The new soccer/football field would replace two Park Board-owned tennis courts on a small parcel of parkland wedged between the Nicollet Street bridge and East Island Avenue. The courts would be moved next to the river along East Island Avenue just east of the railroad tracks. Stadium seating would go up across the street.

DeLaSalle principal Barry Lieske said the school is still early on in the process of drafting plans for the athletic fields. The cost of construction has not been determined, he said.

Park Board Superintendent Jon Gurban said the plan would be referred to the Park Board's Planning Committee.

Gurban said the high school has been a good partner with the parks, and he's eager to see another soccer field in the city.

"We're deficient with the number of soccer fields that we have in this community. The idea that we could get access to what will be a very nice field excites us," he said. "At least on the surface, it looks real good to us."

Park Board Commissioner Walt Dziedzic, who represents Nicollet Island and other Northeast and Southeast Minneapolis parks, said he supports the high school's proposal.

"It's critical. They've been without a facility and [have] had to go everywhere," Dziedzic said, adding that the new fields will not only benefit student athletes. The school's physical education classes will also use the fields, he said.

Dziedzic, who taught at DeLaSalle for one year after college before becoming a Minneapolis beat cop for the area, disagreed with residents who worry about leasing parkland for a private use.

"It doesn't take any land away from the Park Board. In fact, it adds to the ambience of Nicollet Island," he said.

Residents view DeLaSalle's plans differently.

Nicollet Island resident Barry Clegg, a member of the Nicollet Island/East Bank Neighborhood Association (NIEBNA), drafted the petition opposing the proposal.

"I don't think it is an appropriate thing to do in a regional park and a National Historic District - in a park whose focus is twofold: it's history and the river. It's not athletic fields," Clegg said.

Clegg also has concerns about the potential impact on traffic and Nicollet Island's appearance.

Clegg's neighbor Judy Richardson, also a NIEBNA board member, said, "It totally changes the contour of the island."

Richardson says that vacating a portion of Grove Street would force traffic to the island's western edge and limit routes for emergency vehicles and residents.

NIEBNA Chair Victor Grambsch said the neighborhood group will review the proposal at its Jan. 24 board meeting.

State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, a DFLer who lives on Nicollet Island, also opposes the proposal.

"I think the biggest philosophical issue is the issue of the Park Board transferring land to a private entity - even if it's a school that has a strong public purpose - when parkland is so scarce, particularly in this part of Minneapolis," Kahn said. "I do think this is an inappropriate use of Park Board land, and I do think it is an inappropriate change to the neighborhood."

Derus, meanwhile, argues that the new athletic fields would be an "attractive" addition to Nicollet Island.

"I don't feel it impinges on their land," Derus said, adding that the high school is the island's oldest institution and part of its history.

DeLaSalle opened on Nicollet Island in 1900 with 50 students and three teachers affiliated with the Brothers of the Christian Schools. This year, enrollment is 625 students.

The high school is the only Catholic high school in Minneapolis and the most diverse private school in the state of Minnesota, according to school officials - roughly 40 percent of the students are minorities.