Downtown greens up, and many groups are responsible
By Jeremy Stratton
In late June, 1,500 Stella D'Oro daylilies suddenly popped up to greet Downtown drivers exiting I-35W onto the 5th Avenue South. Flowers and plants also appeared in Hennepin Avenue and Nicollet Mall planters and along 3rd Avenue South medians.
Though the spring and early summer saw plenty of rain to feed the thirsty flora, Mother Nature didn't just plunk down the plants. Instead, many public, private and nonprofit organizations have worked hard to green up Downtown.
Visitors can be forgiven for not noticing Triangle Park, the wedge of land between 4th and 5th avenues & South 10th and 11th streets, where Downtown spills onto and off of I-35W.
The park - designed in 1975 - has received little maintenance in recent years. Although some flowers had been planted in the past, tall grass and weeds have taken over two long rectangular planters that formed an arrowhead pointing south out of the city.
A public-private partnership took the first step on an overcast morning June 24 toward transforming the neglected space.
Thrivent Financial donated the flowers. Company volunteers were joined by Damon Farber Landscaping; Groundwork Minneapolis; the East Downtown Council; Elliot Park Neighborhood, Inc.; residents of the nearby Grant Park condominiums and its developer, Apex; and Councilmember Lisa Goodman's office.
There were a lot of dirty hands in the crowd. Two belonged to Grant Park resident Margaret Karbon, who walks her dogs in the park every day.
"As the last few petunias were taken over by weeds last fall, I prayed something would be done," Karbon said. "Now my prayers have been answered."
The city of Minneapolis' Public Works Department will mow the grass in a diagonal "wave" pattern this summer. Later, city crews will also trim the park's locust trees to raise the canopy, and there will be another planting in the spring.
A week before the Triangle Park planting, a crew of summertime student workers weeded and turned the two planters' soil. They were part of a "Growing Leaders" effort to beautify Downtown while learning a bit about life and the environment - and making some money.
Asha McGlory and Joy Larmouth and college student Sarah Nevins work alongside and supervise Interdistrict Downtown School (IDDS) students Princess Kisob, Classie Frankliln and Aliesha Green. The seven workers have also planted flowers along Hennepin Avenue in a dozen planters once used on Nicollet Mall.
The Growing Leaders project is a new program administered by Kids, Education, the Environment and You (KEEY), a nonprofit that teaches kids how to contribute environmentally by getting them out into that environment.
The Hennepin Theatre Trust, American Express and the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association fund the project.
The women will plant throughout the summer, but the flowers are only part of the program. Tuesdays are "education days," on which professionals discuss horticulture, environmentalism and civic planning process.
Larmouth, a college junior studying public health and administration, said the weeding was tough but also worthwhile. She worked with KEEY during high school, as well.
"I expect to learn a lot over the summer," she said.
The first two weeks on the job were spent learning to build a rain garden, which reduces stormwater runoff by diverting rainwater into the patch. The garden is planted with deep-rooted perennials that filter rainwater.
The program also offers job training on interviews, rsums, work attitudes and financial planning. Job tasks might meet school curriculum standards in math, reading, science, social studies and language arts.
"This is not only community service, but a valuable part of hands-on learning," said Sam Nygren, KEEY's executive director.
They paycheck is decent, too. IDDS 9th-grader Princess Kisob admitted that while her 25 hours a week helps the environment, she probably wouldn't volunteer the time. Kisob and fellow IDDS students make $10 an hour; college supervisors make $12 hourly.
Kelly Mahoney, Nygren's program assistant, rounds out the Growing Leaders crew as lead supervisor.
Nygren called Mahoney a great find; she has a degree in urban planning and community development, and is pursuing her master's in environmental education and natural science.
Mahoney has taught adults to design rain gardens at their homes and has helped teach kids how to do the same in a natural environment.
"The way science is taught in school is often relegated to the idea of lab coats and people being cooped up in technical places," Mahoney said.
The new avenue
Public Works Street Maintenance Engineer Steve Collins called KEEY a major resource for his division, which has seen a reduction in funding for the last decade and currently has a budget of "maybe a couple grand."
Collins called public/private partnerships the "new avenue" for greening in the city, pointing to examples such as the 3rd Avenue Partnership. There, businesses team up to plant street medians between South 2nd and 11th streets.
The flora differs according to the whim of the businesses. Some do the planting themselves; others contract with local gardeners. Many plant perennials that return each year or even last the winter. Some have added lights.
Kevin Dunn, director of marketing for Mpls/St. Paul magazine, credits Goodman's office for spearheading the 3rd Avenue project and other greening around Downtown.
Dunn's block, between 4th and 5th streets, was the last to be planted this year. It's not because they're slackers - the seemingly constant June rain delayed the annual planting by Tangletown Gardens.
Tangletown co-owner Dean Engelmann looks forward to the annual job as a showcase of what he and his partner Scott Endres can do. The planter includes trees such as the weeping juniper, royal frost birch and tiny blue-green spruce. Cut leaf sumac will add a brilliant red in the fall, and 50 percent of the plantings will flower, Engelmann said. There are enough vegetables and herbs there to make a salad, including artichokes, kale, cabbage, fennel and basil. (Please do not make a salad on the median. It's dangerous.)
"We try to mimic how they exist in nature," Englemann said, adding that the plants need to be hardy, too - the avenue is windy and gets a lot of summer sun.
"We look at it as a gift back to the city," Engelmann said of the planting, "easily a $20,000 investment" that far exceeds his company's compensation. He credited Target Corp. as an early pioneer in private greening - Tangletown maintains Target's public plaza outside South 11th Street & Nicollet Mall.
Englemann hopes that the public offerings will inspire others, as well.
Tom Hoch, Hennepin Theatre Trust's president who spearheaded Hennepin Avenue's beautification, agreed. "If everybody was doing something small, it would be something big," Hoch said.