Downtown Journal: A dose of reality in the DeLaSalle stadium debate

Judith Martin, geography professor and chair of the University of Minnesota’s Urban Studies Program, writes in the Downtown Journal:

Noted author Pearl Buck once wrote, One faces the future with ones past.

The past recently came back in a surprising twist for a long-disputed local development proposal, DeLaSalle’s proposed football stadium on Nicollet Island.

Over the past year, gallons of press ink have been spilled on this topic, and radio airwaves have sometimes filled as well. Most of this coverage presented a stark contrast between self-described supporters of educating poor children and DeLaSalle’s island neighbors. Islanders have been accused of not paying property taxes, living for free on public land and being a small minority opposed to the schools progess — none of which is true. What is true, it turns out, is that DeLaSalle has turned to the city for help again and again in its pursuit of athletic facilities. This latest request is the third time.

The school’s case for the proposed stadium has repeatedly been grounded in the claim that it has been on Nicollet Island for a century and never had home field advantage, which apparently limits its ability to recruit students. But publicly available air photos from the 1940s and 1950s, along with newspaper archives, show this to be a false claim. They instead portray a DeLaSalle that has been land-hungry for more than 60 years. These air photos show the existence of very large playing fields surrounding the high school. DeLaSalle built these fields after getting the city to condemn half of the historic Eastman Flats in 1942, in the process evicting 300 low-income households during a wartime housing shortage. That provided the high school a football field, a baseball diamond and other facilities. DeLaSalle’s own yearbooks proudly display photos of their athletes winning games on their home field in the 1940s.

The 1950s and 1960s urban renewal activity, which reshaped the Gateway on Downtown’s northern edge, spilled over onto Nicollet Island. During this time, the other half of Eastman Flats came down to allow DeLaSalle to build a tennis court and parking lot.

In all of this, a city street and several public alleys were vacated and turned over to the high school. More recently, that is since 1990, another city street has been vacated, and an easement over part of Grove Street has been granted to create another regulation-size football field for the schools use. Clearly, DeLaSalle’s own choices over the past 50 years created the condition they now bemoan, as the school has consistently expanded into its own athletic fields to add new buildings and ever more parking.

Proponents of this project routinely point to a 1983 agreement between the Park Board and the former Minneapolis Community Development Agency, which committed the city to providing a football field and tennis courts. Everything promised in this agreement has since been accomplished. Nothing in that agreement, or in subsequent neighborhood plans, ever mentioned closing a public street, creating stadium seating for 700, lights brighter than the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, loudspeakers and a press box.

Had these things been part of DeLaSalle’s long-term planning, they would likely have been mentioned before late 2004. There was ample opportunity: DeLaSalle and island neighbors all participated fully in a three-year-long process which created the Nicollet Island Master Plan, completed and adopted by the Park Board in 1996. But thoughts about a stadium are notably absent from this plan. In fact, none of the approved plans contemplated more playing fields anywhere on the island — all focus on preserving the historic housing and stewarding a park setting visited by multiple thousands of people annually.

By now, reasonable people — including Island residents — are no doubt weary of this subject. One might well ask why all of the fuss about what seems a very local land use issue? The answer became apparent at the Heritage Preservation Commission hearing last month. This is not a simple local issue. Residents all over the city have taken an interest in this issue because it represents for many something which they fear: the sale or lease of highly valued park land. In fact, the Park Board last year approved an agreement in support of this very proposal, which brought out many environmental activists.

No one disputes that DeLaSalle provides quality education or that its athletes do deserve reasonable spaces to practice and play. Alternative locations for this facility, perhaps even co-locating with deserving public schools in the city that also lack playing fields, clearly exist, and they should be found.

As this project moves forward through the City Planning Commission and City Council processes, the actions of the HPC and the school’s actual history of athletic fields foregone deserve attention. My own particular concern stems from my recently completed 15 years as a City Planning Commission member. Granting this request flies squarely in the face of every existing city policy to reconnect the grid and create access to the river wherever possible. Access already exists here. Vacating one half of the remaining two public cross-streets on Nicollet Island serves no public purpose of any kind, and it should be rejected.

Read original article at the Downtown Journal website.