Park Preservation

[as written by Barry Clegg and Phyllis Kahn]

The following was written as a response to the totally inaccurate column by Nick Coleman on the DeLaSalle attempt to secure an inappropriate use of public park land on Nicollet Island. We were unsuccessful in getting a correction as columnists are given great leeway to deviate from the plain truth, or getting this op-ed published:

Nick Coleman’s March 20 column scolded neighbors who object to DeLaSalle High School’s plan to close a city street and take over Minneapolis parkland. Unfortunately, Coleman only talked to DeLaSalle and its backers. When you only ask one side, you get the story wrong.

DeLaSalle, a private high school on Nicollet Island near downtown Minneapolis, wants to build a new Astroturf field for football and soccer, along with bleachers to seat 600, lights, concessions and other athletic facilities. The school’s current fields can’t hold all that, so DeLaSalle is asking for the city to close a public street and for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board to convey public parkland (about three acres) to the school. In return, DeLaSalle says the Park Board could use the field when the school isn’t using it. Adding an Astroturf field and proposed new tennis courts by the river would add extensive impervious surfaces very near the river – never good for the environment and the river particularly.

Coleman chided residents for not being willing to “share” Nicollet Island. But as part of the Central Riverfront Regional Park, Nicollet Island is already one of the most shared spaces in Minneapolis. The island hosts fireworks, festivals, footraces, 30 trains per day (more when the Northstar Commuter Rail line gets going), horse drawn carriages, walking tours, a high school, a hotel, and an event center. More than 720,000 people visit every year, according to the Metropolitan Council. Nicollet Island couldn’t be further from the “gated community” Coleman conjured up in his column. And we also should include the 22 units of affordable Coop housing.

The question isn’t whether DeLaSalle, like many other schools, could use more athletic facilities. But after some gratuitous neighbor-bashing, that’s where Coleman stopped. What he didn’t ask, but the public must, is how best to preserve the value Minneapolis citizens place on Nicollet Island Park, a place Coleman rightly calls a jewel of our park system.

Is this proposal the right way to use our regional park space? Is it right for public agencies to convey land worth more than $1 million to a private institution? Is this arrangement a just one for the citizens and park users of the City of Minneapolis?

The Park Board bought most of the land on Nicollet Island in the mid-1980s, using state “regional open space” money from the Metropolitan Council. A restrictive covenant (a provision recorded like a deed that runs with the land) prohibits any use of the land other than as “regional open space,” meaning open space for the public to use for recreational purposes. These are places for walking, biking, hiking, picnicking, playing, strolling, exploring – activities everybody does. The regional open space program specifically prohibits athletic fields. As the legislator who carried the original bill to use state funds for metro parks and who then fought to include city land in the regional park concept, Phyllis Kahn knows this size and usage issue well.

The parcel that DeLaSalle wants cost Minnesota taxpayers $1,065,000 in 1986. Presumably it’s worth much more now. Should our Park Board turn over a parcel the public bought less than 20 years ago, intending to keep it for perpetuity, to a private institution – all so the public can have use of a football field in the summer? In addition the coveted property has public tennis courts, a brick surfaced street and some 30 newly planted trees. Will DeLaSalle repay Minneapolis taxpayers for these amenities (all installed in the last few years)?

What’s in this proposal for the park system and the park users? Most people visit the Central Riverfront Regional Park to enjoy the river and the area’s historical attractions, not to look through a fence at fake grass. A private school may say it could use new facilities, but that’s not the Park Board’s job. Their responsibility is to preserve and build parks that serve all our citizens.

Coleman would have readers believe a few stingy neighbors are all that stands between DeLaSalle and their field. The reality is that every neighborhood organization that has considered the issue – representing thousands of people up and down the river -is opposed to the project as proposed. Yet despite Coleman’s charge, no one has “blocked” this proposal. After a year of talk behind the scenes and more recently in public, DeLaSalle has yet to even make a proposal to the park board.

We islanders value DeLaSalle as a good neighbor and an important part of our neighborhood. We want to help them solve their problem in a way that works for everybody, while preserving the park for what it was meant to be. Attacks and smear tactics won’t help get that done.

Barry F. Clegg
Phyllis Kahn, State Rep. 59B
Both Nicollet Island residents