To prove how badly her neighborhood needs a park of its own, Fatma Abdulkadir decided to take St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman up to the 24th floor of the Skyline Tower apartment building. There, they looked out on surrounding storefronts, restaurants, the Green Line light rail route and lots of parking lots.
What they did not see was green space.
“Many people here, they are immigrants. They have little kids. But they have no place to play,” she said of the hundreds of families who call the low-income high-rise home. “We should have something here.”
Now, more than two years after that elevator ride, a dream of neighborhood residents and area high school students to add green to this area that once was called Circus Hill is approaching reality. A new neighborhood park, right there among a sea of gray and up against Interstate 94, is in the planning stages — thanks to a partnership between the City of St. Paul and the Trust For Public Land that has raised $2.5 million.
Negotiations with property owners continue. City officials acknowledge they’ll need more money to develop the park. But visions of a park where elders can gather and children can kick around a soccer ball are coming into view. Thanks to the power of that elevator ride, it seems the mayor and others got the message.
“It was a great experience to have members of the community show me their vision for the area,” Coleman said. “I’m glad that things are moving forward.”
The residents of Skyline Tower and the surrounding community will need a bit more patience, as city officials still are negotiating to buy three parcels of land across Griggs Street. Community organizers with the Lexington-Hamline Community Council and Union Park District Council have helped keep neighborhood residents mobilized.
“Agreements are in place, but not all the land has been acquired,” said Brad Meyer, a spokesman for St. Paul Parks and Recreation.
Ellen Stewart, the city’s open space planner for transit oriented development and a landscape architect in the city’s parks and recreation department, said “it could be another five years, depending on all the money” needed to create the park. But work is underway.
“There is definitely a need,” Stewart said. “We know there is kind of a hole there.”
Students step up
Students of nearby Gordon Parks High School have been allies in seeking to fill that hole. The alternative high school is housed in a modern facility — built in 2006 — but has no grounds on which students can gather outside to study or play. The high school and Skyline Tower joined forces in 2011 to make a park a priority.
Tom Davies, a social studies teacher, said students call the future park “3-Ring Garden,” in honor of the site’s history. It’s now part of the parking lot of the Central Midway building and two vacant lots, but the 5-acre area once was a gathering spot for circuses that came to St. Paul between 1860 and 1945.
Students Song Vang and Marquis Mendoza spoke in favor of the park at the Great River Gathering — a confluence of community leaders — last spring, said Principal Traci Gauer. “That got a lot of the ball rolling with this property,” she said. Students have made presentations, produced videos and written letters.
Davies, whose classes have studied population density and land acquisition, said: “I had a student say, ‘I can imagine driving by here when I’m 30 and saying I was a part of that.’ This is a tangible life lesson that things can change.”
The grass-roots lobbying fit in with the city’s continuing alliance with the Trust for Public Land. Over the past several years, the trust has partnered with St. Paul to develop other neighborhood parks, such as the new Frogtown Park and Farm and the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary on the city’s East Side.
In its annual ranking of big city parks last spring, the trust judged St. Paul and Minneapolis tied for best city parks in the country in terms of access, acreage and facilities. More than 90 percent of residents in each city live within a 10-minute walk of a park, considered the most important metric.
‘Park is needed’
But the Midway area — including that area near Skyline Tower — falls woefully short of that goal, said Jenna Fletcher of the trust. As a result, the trust has so far contributed $1 million to the $2.5 million raised to purchase the proposed park. The rest came from the city’s 8-80 Vitality development fund for infrastructure and neighborhood improvements. It is all part of an even bigger effort to green the Green Line, Fletcher said.
While the city’s Dunning Field is within walking distance of Skyline Tower across a pedestrian bridge spanning the freeway, much of that park space is taken by Little League Baseball fields that are not open for use by the general public, she said.
“This park is needed,” Fletcher said.
No one knows that better than Tameka Williams-Cooper, a 20-year resident of Skyline Tower who has raised two sons and a daughter there.
Her children have crossed the freeway to play at Dunning and have walked more than a mile away, down busy University and Snelling avenues to go to playgrounds. An avid reader, on beautiful days, she sits on a bench in front of Skyline Tower to read — with the loud drone of freeway traffic in her ears.
She said she and the other residents crave the peacefulness a park across the street would provide.
“We have 509 apartments here. Twenty-three different languages are spoken,” Williams-Cooper said. “We have elderly people who, to get exercise, have to walk around the building.”
It’s exciting to know that a new park, while still not a done deal, is inching closer.
“I love trees and I love birds,” she said. “It’s worth the wait.”