A cracked and crumbling sidewalk on the edge of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in Kingfield. Photo by Steve Brandt

Waiting — and waiting — for parks repairs

In 2015, when I broke the story that the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board was mulling the idea of a huge referendum to rebuild its tattered neighborhood parks, one potent image of that deterioration immediately came to mind.

It’s a sidewalk along the north edge of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park, one I walked many Sundays to cross a footbridge over Interstate 35W to church.

The reason this sidewalk leapt to mind was its condition. Its slabs were heaved or slumped. Many panels bore a web of deep cracks. In some, the concrete had degraded to mere powder. In others, it was so thoroughly pulverized that bare dirt replaced any remaining surface. The date stamps that recorded when the slabs were poured were so old that they were illegible. A park spokeswoman says there’s no record of when the oldest were laid.

I wondered how a Park Board could ignore such a hazardous walk. But it’s a big city with more than 150 neighborhood parks.

Unfortunately, this dreadful sidewalk remains unrepaired today.

I didn’t expect my battered sidewalk to be the first item fixed after Mayor Betsy Hodges and park commissioners agreed in 2015 on a $300 million compromise bailout for parks and streets.

But I was heartened when it popped up in an April 2017 Park Board announcement that said perimeter sidewalks in critical need of repairs would be fixed in 21 parks, including King, as part of a larger rehab program beginning the next month. But nothing happened at King.

In July, the Park Board announced that work on those perimeter sidewalks would be finished by the end of September — but only at 15 parks, still including King. Yet my sidewalk again remained untouched.

It wasn’t until February that the Park Board acknowledged that it had managed to fix sidewalks last year at only seven parks, only one of them in southwest Minneapolis. That’s baffling, given that pouring sidewalks is among the most basic of park repairs.

A park spokeswoman attributed the nonperformance to contractor issues. Among the parks that didn’t get promised sidewalk improvements were Bryant, Loring, Fuller, and Lyndale Farmstead in Southwest, Columbia Park, Northeast Athletic Field and Windom in Northeast, Gateway Park downtown, Sumner Field and Willard on the North Side, and East Phillips, Steele, Hiawatha school, Powderhorn and Longfellow in south central Minneapolis.

All politics is local, the old saw says. I’ve been going to King Park for 42 years, although it’s far from the only park I use. I’ve watched both improvements and baffling changes.

The biggest improvement added a spacious gym in the 1990s, which made Election Day less cramped for voters and gave kids a refuge off the streets. A sprinkler system installed at the park’s south end promised better turf and a premiere field for the park’s thriving youth soccer teams. A playground that combines kid-magnet equipment with a civil rights theme opened in 2015.

On the flip side, the park’s best tennis courts long ago were commandeered for a pay-to-play indoor tennis bubble, although that at least extends the playing season and offers lessons for all ages. More baffling was the decision made outside the neighborhood to plop a fenced baseball field financed by the Twins over the sprinklered soccer field in 2007, rendering the soccer pitch useless for the area’s burgeoning Latino population raised on futbol. The park also lost its skating rink.

There’s any number of reasons a park’s sidewalks can fail. One is age, although the 1938 WPA tennis courts at a nearby park were playable into the 1990s. Another is substandard work or materials by the crews that build them. A third is the use of mechanized equipment to clear snow, or to renovate the tennis complex.

But the most likely reason for this walkway’s failure is the fact that the park was originally a wetland. According to David C. Smith’s parks history, the Park Board in 1919 hauled in 15,000 cubic yards of fill for the park’s low north end shortly after the site was purchased. It’s a tactic used to create countless acres of parkland, from dredged areas at Lake of the Isles to filled areas like Pearl Park to the glacial river bottom under The Parade. But fill and dredged soils settle, especially if they’re dumped over the peaty soils of a wetland. That’s why the original King Park building had to be constructed on piles.

All those factors, plus underfunded maintenance, have created a stroller-wrecking sidewalk that’s impossible to navigate with a wheelchair.

That crumbling sidewalk serves a purpose beyond that of most park sidewalks. It’s the walkway to the I-35W footbridge, which is soon to be replaced by a new span that’s wide enough to serve both pedestrians and cyclists, unlike the cramped, cage-like crossing there now. That footbridge also serves something of an equity role. The building of the freeway cut off nearby lower-income, predominantly black neighborhoods from the park, and the footbridge restored their park access.

The bridge and the dilapidated sidewalk also play a larger transportation role by carrying the RiverLake Greenway, a foot-bike route between Lake Harriet and the Mississippi River that I originated in the 1990s.

It’s not like the Park Board doesn’t know about this battered section of park sidewalk. I’ve made sure of that. Park Board Chairman Brad Bourn used to live a few houses away from it.

The Park Board now says that it will fix both interior and perimeter sidewalks at up to 51 parks this year.  It promises to fix the worst first. We’ll see.