The hookah fire that burned down the aging pavilion at Bde Maka Ska/Lake Calhoun this spring opened an unexpected opportunity to rethink one of the most visited lakefront spots in Minneapolis.
Some Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board commissioners say they don’t want to wait two years, the estimated time it will take to build a new structure, to do something with the northeast corner of the lake.
In an interview Monday, Park Board President Brad Bourn said the projected wait to reopen the site was “unacceptably long.”
“I can see us being two years away from a finished product, but the space there is incredible right now,” he said.
Investigators believe coals from a discarded hookah started the early-morning fire May 16 that destroyed the pavilion, which was occupied by the Lola on the Lake concession. The gutted building was demolished later that month, and a 23-year-old Minneapolis man who allegedly dumped the coals was charged with a felony, accused of negligently starting the fire.
All that remains of the old pavilion is its broken red-tile floor, fenced off from the public.
Lola on the Lake, which has a contract with the Park Board through 2022, now serves food from a trailer next to its former location. Bourn said he hoped to turn the site into a gathering space where Lola and other food trucks could operate, and the Park Board could host bands or screen movies.
The speed at which that happens will depend on the availability of contractors, which are “few and far between” as they work on other projects around the city, said Michael Schroeder, the Park Board’s assistant superintendent for planning services.
“While we have tried to advance things for the temporary situation, we have not had much success, not because we haven’t tried, but because of the business of contracting,” he said.
Electricity hookups will soon be installed so food trucks can run without using generators, Schroeder said. The surface won’t be repaved until September, he said, at which time the fencing can be removed.
For Park Board Commissioner Jono Cowgill, who represents the area, the current setup is “hardly a short-term solution” and “definitely not a long-term solution.” His most pressing issue is adding restrooms to replace the portable bathrooms farther down from the site, something he said he would like done by next summer.
Park Board officials were looking to redesign the northeast corner of the lake even before the fire engulfed the pavilion. A planning document approved by the board in 2017 stated the corner was heavily congested and recommended moving the nearby sailing school to the northwest side of the lake to clear room.
Now that the pavilion has been demolished, the area is “essentially a blank slate,” Schroeder said. The new structure will take a year of planning, followed by a design phase, with opportunities for feedback from residents, according to a statement from the Park Board.
The insurance settlement from the fire, estimated to be at least $650,000, would not cover the cost of a new structure, Cowgill said. Bourn said he would seek help from the Minneapolis Foundation and Minneapolis Parks Foundation.
That building should meet the “spirit and use” of the old pavilion, Bourn said, with a similar footprint and a larger kitchen for concessions. Cowgill said he would like to know if the board can replace it with something that could be open for more than half the year.
At a June meeting, Commissioner Chris Meyer suggested the Park Board make it a multilevel structure with affordable housing. Bourn and Cowgill said that while the Park Board could try adding housing to other properties, Bde Maka Ska was not the best site.
“I think that would fundamentally impact people’s enjoyment of the park right there at that site,” Bourn said.
But first, he would like to find a temporary solution that restores more activity to the former pavilion site.
“It can’t look like that this upcoming summer,” he said.