Defending Minneapolis Parks

For decades, public and private parties have claimed that they need just a little bit of Minneapolis parkland to achieve their goals. And now even Governor Dayton has joined the shrill chorus of those who think taking parkland is the most expedient solution to political challenges. The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) is justified in examining very skeptically all desires to take parkland for other purposes and in rejecting nearly all of them categorically.

Commentators writing in December in the StarTribune asserted that the Park Board is wrong to object to just 28 feet of bridge expansion over Kenilworth Lagoon for the construction of the Southwest Light Rail Transit (SWLRT) corridor. They write as if that bridge and expansion of rail traffic across park property were the only alternative. Gov. Dayton seems to repeat the error. Other political jurisdictions involved in the proposed light rail corridor have objected to this or that provision of the project and their objections have been given a hearing, often favorable.

I didn’t hear Governor Dayton threaten to slash local government aid to St. Louis Park when officials there objected to the Met Council’s original proposals for SWLRT. But the Park Board is supposed to cave into whatever demands remain after everyone else has whined and won. Minneapolis parks are too valuable an asset – for the entire state – to have them viewed as simply the least painful political sacrifice.

Should the SWLRT bridge be built? I don’t know – but I do want the Park Board to ensure that all options have been investigated fully. That desire to consider all feasible options to taking parkland for transportation projects that use federal funds was first expressed in 1960s legislation. The legislation was meant to ensure that parkland would be taken for the nation’s burgeoning freeway system only as a last resort. In the present case, the Park Board was not convinced that the Met Council had investigated all options thoroughly once it had acquiesced to the demands of other interested parties.

A Park Board study in 1960 identified more than 300 acres of Minneapolis parkland that were desired by other entities both private and public. Hennepin County wanted to turn Victory Memorial Drive into the new County Highway 169. A few years later, the Minnesota Department of Highways planned to convert Hiawatha Avenue, Highway 55, into an elevated expressway within yards of Minnehaha Falls – in addition to taking scores of acres of parkland for I-94 and I-35W. In the freeway-building years, parkland was lost in every part of the city: at Loring Park, The Parade, Riverside Park, Murphy Square, Luxton Park, Martin Luther King Park (then Nicollet Park), Perkins Hill, North Mississippi, Theodore Wirth Park and others, not to mention the extinction of Elwell Park and Wilson Park. Chute Square was penciled in to become a parking lot.

In 1966, faced with another assault – a parking garage under Elliot Park – Park Superintendent Robert Ruhe, backed by Park Board President Richard Erdall and Attorney Edward Gearty, urged a new policy for dealing with demands for parkland for other uses. It was blunt, reading in part,

“Those who seek parklands for their own particular ends must look elsewhere to satiate their land hunger. Minneapolis parklands should not be looked upon as land banks upon which others may draw.”

With that policy in place, the Park Board resisted efforts by the Minnesota Department of Highways to take parkland for freeways or, as a last resort, pay next to nothing for it. Still, the Park Board battled the state all the way to the United States Supreme Court over plans to build an elevated freeway within view of Minnehaha Falls – a plan supported by nearly every other elected body or officeholder in the city and state, including the Minneapolis City Council.

Robert Ruhe, middle, Minneapolis Superintendent of Parks 1966-1978 proposed a tough land policy to defend against the taking of parkland for freeways and other uses. In this 1968 photo he is accepting a gift of  60 tennis nets from General Mills. Before that time, nets were not provided on most city courts. Players had to bring their own. (MPRB)

Robert Ruhe, middle, Minneapolis Superintendent of Parks 1966-1978 proposed a tough land policy to defend against the taking of parkland for freeways and other uses. In this 1968 photo he is accepting a gift of 60 tennis nets from General Mills. Before that time, nets were not provided on most city courts. Players had to bring their own. (MPRB)

The driving force behind the park board's defense of its land was better known as a Minnesota legislator and President of the Minnesota Senate from 1977-1981. Ed Gearty, far right, was President of the Minneapolis Park Board in 1962 when he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. He had to resign his park board seat, but was then hired by the park board as its attorney. He helped devise a pugnacious strategy that helped keep park losses to freeways as small as they were. This photo with other state lawmakers was taken in 1978.

The driving force behind the park board’s defense of its land was better known as a Minnesota legislator and President of the Minnesota Senate from 1977-1981. Ed Gearty, far right, was President of the Minneapolis Park Board in 1962 when he was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives. He had to resign his park board seat, but was then hired by the park board as its attorney. He helped devise a pugnacious strategy that helped keep park losses to freeways as small as they were. This photo with other state lawmakers was taken in 1978. Gearty deserves credit along with Ruhe, counsel Ray Haik and park board Presidents Dick Erdall and Walter Carpenter for trying to keep Minneapolis parks intact as a park “system.”

While the Supreme Court chose not to hear the Minnehaha case, its decision in a related case involving parkland in Memphis, Tenn. established a precedent that forced Minnesota to reconsider its Highway 55 plans and provides the basis for the Park Board today to investigate alternatives to taking park property for projects that use federal funds.

The Park Board is right to do so, even at the high cost it must pay – which the Met Council should be paying — and regardless of the results of that investigation. The Park Board needs to reassert very forcefully that taking parkland is a very serious matter and not the easiest way out when other arrangements don’t fall into place.

In a report to park commissioners on a proposed new land policy on April 1, 1966 Robert Ruhe concluded with these words,

“The park lands of Minneapolis are an integral part of our heritage and natural resources and, as such, should be available to all present and future generations of Minneapolitans. This is our public trust and responsibility.”

That trust and responsibility has not changed in the intervening 50 years. And it is not exercised well if the Park Board allows land to be lopped away from parks – even 28 feet at a time – without the most intense scrutiny and, when necessary, resistance. It could help us avoid horrors like elevated freeways near our most famous landmarks.

What I find most troubling about events of the past year relating to Minneapolis parks is the blatant disregard by elected officials – from Minneapolis’s Mayors to Minnesota’s Governor – of the demands and complexity of park planning and administration, as if great parks and park systems happen by accident. They don’t. They take conscientious, informed planning, funding, programming and maintaining. We can’t just write them into and out of existence as mere bargaining chips in some grander game. Parks should not be an afterthought in the crush of city or state business.

I worry when an outgoing mayor negotiates an awful agreement for a “public” park for the benefit of the Minnesota Vikings without the input of the people who would have to build and run it. I wince when an incoming mayor trumpets a youth initiative without input from the organization that has the greatest capacity for interaction with the city’s young people. And I am really perplexed when a governor makes so little effort to engage an elected body with as important a stake in a major project as the park board’s in the SWLRT.

Other elected officials seem more than happy to rub shoulders with park commissioners and staff when the Minneapolis park system receives national awards, or a President highlights the parks on a visit, or when exciting new park projects are unveiled. But they seem to forget who those people are when they are sending out invitations to the table to decide the city’s future. That is a serious and easily avoidable mistake.

David C. Smith  minneapolisparkhistory.com

© 2015 David C. Smith

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8 comments so far

  1. David C. Smith on

    Thanks to Elsa Carpenter, widow of Walter Carpenter, park board commissioner 1965-1971 and president of the board 1967-1971, for correcting my misspelling of Richard Erdall’s name.

  2. Jim Krave on

    Gerry Hughes, John Chenoweth, Emily Staples, Nick Coleman, and Ed Gearty, that was solid political talent. Emily, Nancy Brataas, and Linda Berglin comprised the entire female membership of the state senate. The Metrodome was just a glimmer in the Mpls. Downtown Council’s eyes!

  3. Peggy W. on

    I wish your words could be shouted all over the city! I’ll sure pass this along.

  4. MaryAlice Beevore on

    Great post!

  5. bob haddow on

    You tell em’ Dave! Tell ’em to go sit next to the freeway in Riverside Park and soak in the ambiance.

  6. Patrick L Coleman on

    Bravo, David!


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