A pitched debate over St. Paul's Victoria Park could be characterized as nature vs. nurture.
A nearly 40-acre swath of land adjacent to the Mississippi riverfront turns ripe for renovation this summer with completion of the cleanup of an oil tank farm.
Some want the area to be a passive park with natural trails wending around and down through existing passages past Shepard Road to the river. Others say the site should be the home of much-needed soccer fields to nurture youth leagues that scramble mightily for places to play.
There's also an ancillary issue: Should the fields should be sown with real grass or covered with artificial turf?
The bluff acreage in the city's West End Neighborhood near Highland Park lay fallow until a legal battle ended in 2009 between the city and Exxon Mobil Corp. The oil company agreed to pay $5 million to clean up and redevelop the 36 acres.
For many who would use the park, the decision isn't difficult.
Hal Clapp is the community outreach director for the Blackhawks Soccer Club and has two children who play in a league that serves kids from all communities. His 14-year-old son's "home field" last year was in Blaine.
"That's how difficult field space is to get in the fall," he said.
West End resident John Yust said it "might" be a good place for soccer fields, but, "It's probably a good place for a whole lot of other things." He wants a contemplative and open decision-making process.
"Whatever we do, we're looking at decades of ramifications," Yust said.
The neighborhood has been fiercely wary of soccer fields. Sketches of the fields in a 300-page draft of the Great River Passage project caused an uproar recently. Even though Victoria Park isn't part of the river project, some viewed the sketches as proof of the city's Parks and Recreation Department's intent.
Parks spokesman Brad Meyer said the soccer fields were a mistake and have been removed from the draft. He said the city is committed to the community process in determining the future of the plot.
The city is taking applications until March 23 for a task force expected to recommend uses for the land.
Tonya Nicholie, of the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, said she understands the need for kids to have a place to play, but she is concerned about the field surfaces. "We're going to be cautious about pulverizing tires and putting them into the ground when we just spent millions to clean it up," she said, referring to the underpinnings of synthetic turf. She sees the park as "a phenomenal opportunity to link people to the river."
Council Member Dave Thune, who represents the area, awaits the panel's recommendation but said, "We should create something that would keep the river bluff. ... We've got piles of urban areas right downtown."
After raising two kids in St. Paul, Mayor Chris Coleman "is intimately familiar with the strengths and weaknesses of a variety of different playing surfaces," Coleman's spokesman Joe Campbell said, adding that natural grass is nearly impossible to sustain.
West End neighbor Lori Harris said the area's future deserves a contemplative process. She talked of creating informal space to enjoy nature.
"The consultants thought this is something they could push right through," Harris said of the soccer fields. "People on West Seventh don't roll over for anything really."
Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson