With a funding deadline looming, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is set to decide whether to allow a paved path through a beloved community garden in the Whittier neighborhood.

Hennepin County six years ago identified the route as the only way to provide access for bikes and wheelchairs to the Midtown Greenway within the 1.25-mile stretch between Humboldt and Stevens avenues. But the plan has riled up the dedicated cultivators of the Soo Line Community Garden, an 0.9-acre organic green space at 2845 Garfield Av.

More than 60 gardeners, including cyclists and disabled people, have attended Park Board meetings to ask commissioners to reject the plan.

The Park Board may get its say on March 20, when the county has asked to present its plans. The county project has already been delayed one year by community opposition and difficulty engaging the neighborhood's Spanish and Somali speakers. It must obtain right-of-way approval by April 1.

Approval is not a given. Park Board commissioners and staffers have recently expressed frustration with the way the county has approached the project.

No need to move

In a 2018 letter of support for federal funding for the bike ramp, the board asked to be informed at all stages of design because of the significance of the Soo Line garden as a community asset. Park staffers said the county must comply with the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966, which requires the other possible locations to be studied when a project converting parkland involves federal funding.

That's not going to happen. Last year, the Federal Highway Administration exempted county planners from that section of environmental review.

"[Soo Line] is not a park in name or by plan … no activities beyond community garden," Phillip Forstenvironmental program manager of the Federal Highway Administration's Minnesota division, wrote in notes obtained via a data practices request.

"It's not reasonable to consider this a significant recreational resource ... because food production is the sole activity within the parcel/facility."

Michael Schroeder, the Park Boards' assistant superintendent of planning, emailed the Minnesota Department of Transportation in December asking why the agencies didn't reach out to the board before making that determination.

"[They] didn't know that there are community gatherings that happen in that space, that there are kids from nearby schools that come and learn from the garden for science class," Schroeder said. "Community gathering, frankly, is probably one of the most significant things parks do in a city."

Soo Line Community Garden is shared by hundreds of neighbors who grow food for themselves and the nearby Joyce Uptown Foodshelf. It's also used by students at Whittier International Elementary School who have incorporated it into their summer school programming and by others who stroll and talk among the greenery.

"We are growing vegetables for the family, we go with our kids to have a good time and also to grow flowers for the butterflies," gardener Ramiro Castellanos said at a recent Park Board meeting. "We think you should be able to find another place where it will not affect our family gardens."

Cycling vs. gardening

Amber Klein, the project manager for the county, said alternative locations aren't feasible. She said a large, vacant county-owned lot across the Greenway from the garden can't be used because a rail line might be developed there someday.

In addition, she said, a route through private property would require dealing with buildings and retaining walls. And while other access ramps exist nearby, Klein said, it might cost more to upgrade them to be compliant with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

"At its core, [the project] is about accessibility," county spokesman Colin Cox said. "We're trying to get people better access down to that highly used and appreciated community resource, the Greenway."

The county's project team said construction would involve the use of small landscaping equipment to reduce chemical contamination. It said green paving materials may be used, too (though that is undecided, and asphalt remains on the table).

The team estimates the project would preserve 95% of the garden's plantable square footage.

Gardeners said that figure is misleading. They said the county counts as garden space the shade of the garden's mature catalpa tree and narrow strips of land between the proposed bike path and an alley. And, they said, the 95% figure doesn't account for the loss of woodchipped gathering spaces such as the spot Whittier uses as an outdoor classroom.

"I worry about the native plants, the native bugs, the native birds that live here and call this place home, that contribute to this garden like we all do," gardener Sunmi Banjo-Arebojie said.

"And I worry because a lot of kids come here. If there's a paved trail ... that can cause hazards for kids when they're running."

Park Board Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer, whose district includes the Soo Line garden, said the county hasn't kept her board informed. She said she supports keeping their pre-existing commitment of $370,000 to help Hennepin County build an ADA ramp as long as it does not cut through the Soo Line garden.

"It's understandable why gardens and parkland are often viewed as an inexpensive way to expand needed infrastructure ... but we have a different mission first and foremost, and that's to preserve and protect green space," Shaffer said.

Bicycling advocates are split on the issue. Soren Jensen of the Midtown Greenway Coalition advised Hennepin County to build the ramp on the south side of the Greenway, where it could better support Lake Street businesses.

"We've supported the idea for a rail line in the Greenway for years, but the idea is dead," he said.

Michael Wojcik of the Bicycle Alliance agreed. The county's proposal "unnecessarily destroyed far too much of the garden," he said.

Our Streets Minneapolis, a nonprofit advocacy group, said it believes the county's claims of minimal disruption and asked its supporters to let park commissioners know.

Its message: "Despite misguided opponents, the proposal ensures that any infrastructure developed, including ramps, will complement the garden rather than intrude upon it."