LRT foes tout park tranquility in southwest Minneapolis

  • Article by: PAT DOYLE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 30, 2013 - 5:41 PM

Park Board objects to light-rail bridge over channel near Cedar Lake, although nearby homeowners have private access to parkland.

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A yard sign on Cedar Lake Parkway in September speaks to the proposed freight rail issue and the Southwest light-rail line.

Photo: Courtney Perry, Special to the Star Tribune

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Some Cedar Lake homeowners have long enjoyed something unique in Minneapolis: back yards on the shore of a popular lake uninterrupted by public biking or walking trails.

Now they’re getting help on another front from the same officials who allow that perk on the southeast corner of the lake.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has become an ally for Cedar Lake homeowners fighting plans for the Twin Cities’ biggest light-rail line a few blocks away. The board says running the transit over a bridge spanning a channel to Cedar Lake near existing freight trains would “permanently damage the recreational, cultural and aesthetic experience” of park users.

“Our role is to preserve and protect parks,” said Park Board President John Erwin.

But one former park supervisor sees a contradiction between that stance and a long-standing policy of letting a select group of homeowners enjoy virtual private access to public land and the shore of Cedar Lake.

“By allowing that, they block off public access,” said Ron Werner, who worked in the forestry division. “They’re providing great access to very few over there.”

The Park Board opposition throws another obstacle in the path of the most expensive light-rail venture in the Twin Cities. Gov. Mark Dayton in October delayed the project in part so that planners could reconsider its impact on the channel, Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles in the Kenilworth corridor of Minneapolis. The preferred route for the proposed $1.5 billion line cuts through the recreational corridor on its way from downtown Minneapolis to Eden Prairie.

The Park Board believes it has the power to challenge the proposed route and designs under federal policies that prevent transportation projects from going through parkland or historic sites if a possible alternative can be found. The channel and lakes are part of the Grand Rounds district deemed eligible for nomination to the National Register of Historic Places.

The project has drawn opposition from some Kenilworth area homeowners who object to 220 light-rail trains a day emerging from two tunnels to cross a bridge over the channel. Under the $160 million plan, the light rail would share a new bridge with bike and pedestrian trails. Existing freight train traffic would occupy a second bridge over the channel.

Some opponents want the light-rail line routed outside the corridor. Others want to completely hide the light rail by extending the tunnels under the channel at an estimated cost of $330 million.

The view from Park Lane

The opponents include homeowners along Park Lane on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake, a neighborhood of expensive homes, including the official residence of the Canadian consul general — owned by “Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth,” according to Hennepin County property records.

One homeowner on Park Lane has led efforts to raise money for potential legal action to fight plans for running the light rail over the channel. Four others have posted signs on their front lawns demanding a “deep tunnel” under the channel.

The Park Lane opponents share a passion for the waterway, which runs between Cedar and Lake of the Isles, believing the light rail would destroy its tranquillity.

“It’s such a little teeny spot, you think if it would go away it’s no big deal,” said Park Lane homeowner Jim Kirkham. “But I would miss it a lot. ... I see people on the weekends and they are awed. It’s almost like they are in a different place for a while.”

Kirkham said the ambience would change for many canoeists using the channel. “You’re going to have a light-rail experience,” he said.

Roger Lacey, a retired 3M executive and native of Britain who moved to Park Lane over a decade ago, was more emphatic.

“You’re going to put a bloody train across the canal,” Lacey said. “It’s appalling.”

“I think my love of the area, which I moved in because it’s a very beautiful area, is going to be diminished,” he said.

The Park Board would support running the light rail over the channel if the freight traffic were relocated, but that option is unlikely. Otherwise, the board would support the more expensive option backed by some homeowners to run the light rail in a tunnel under the channel. Erwin said he prefers tunneling under the channel because it “essentially leaves what’s above ground unchanged,” contending that a wider bridge for two light-rail tracks, bike and pedestrian trails would detract from the ambience of the channel. The board opposes that bridge plan proposed by the Metropolitan Council, the agency overseeing the project.

While the board’s position coincides with the interests of some Cedar Lake residents, “We’re not carrying the message of a small group,” Erwin said. “If this were happening in any other part of the city we’d be coming forward with the same message.”

Why no trail here?

Lacey and Kirkham are among 16 homeowners whose back yards meet a strip of parkland ranging in width from 9 feet to 65 feet on the southeast shore of Cedar Lake, the park district says. The board has allowed them to use the public land as an extension of their property. Some have built docks or piers into the lake under a licensing agreement that began in the 1930s with a one-time fee.

“I’m sure it was very low,” said Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for planning at the park district.

Kirkham acknowledges that the arrangement is special but notes that homeowners along the lake cut park grass, rake leaves and pay hefty taxes on their own property — in his case, about $26,000. “I’m willing to pay the taxes because it’s worth it,” he said.

The policy contrasts with parkland on the south and west side of Cedar and along other major Minneapolis lakes, where the board years ago built bike and pedestrian trails. “I completely understand why people would question that,” Erwin said of the arrangement along the southeast shore.

A top landscape architect the Park Board hired in the 1990s advised it to put a path along the southeast shore, but the board rejected the idea amid opposition.

Board member Bob Fine doesn’t support the special treatment. “We should have a trail around that lake just as we do on the others,” he said.

Fine suspects that the trail hasn’t been pushed in part because former board President Tom Nordyke lives on the lake and former board member Vivian Mason lives on the channel.Mason said the trail idea was thoroughly studied and rejected, in part because the strip of parkland is too narrow in places for meaningful development. “It isn’t practical,” she said. Nordyke said he never opposed the park district building a path.

Erwin said the Park Board is focusing on fixing existing trails and adding paths “where it’s not controversial.” At Cedar Lake, “It would be very controversial at the southeast corner.”

 

Pat Doyle • 612-673-4504

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