After many years of drumming up excitement around a grand reconstruction of a flagship neighborhood park in north Minneapolis, Park Board commissioners on Wednesday approved a $35 million concept that would renovate and expand North Commons' 1970s-era community center and water park.

The project has been billed as a once-in-a-generation effort to build the youth of north Minneapolis a "visionary and prominent activity hub that can compete with major recreation facilities in the suburbs," according to park guiding documents.

But not everyone will be satisfied with the direction of the North Commons project. Many residents who attended last month's board meeting had urged commissioners to embrace a more opulent reconstruction requiring demolition of the existing recreation center and rebuilding entirely anew for an even bigger price tag of $49 million.

Nevertheless, the approved North Commons makeover will be the largest neighborhood park project in the city's history. It is scheduled for completion in 2027.

"This is a significant moment in the history of our park system," Park Superintendent Al Bangoura said Wednesday. "We're just excited to get moving on this project, put that shovel in the ground, cut that ribbon and really do an amazing thing for this community."

With a preferred concept in hand, the Park Board and its partners can now launch a critical private fundraising campaign required to supplement $12 million in public money already committed to the project.

The community around the park, which sits just south of the struggling West Broadway business corridor between the YMCA and North Community High School, has been simmering with tension over the size of the project since before 2019, when the Park Board's guiding plan for North Commons called for "big moves" including a massive, tournament-sized athletic center, a new water park with a lap pool and a field with a seasonal dome for winter use.

While some residents pushed the Park Board to dream as big as possible, other neighbors balked at turning their neighborhood park into a regional attraction. A petition urged officials to protect the park's old trees and secluded corners.

North Minneapolis Commissioner Becka Thompson was sympathetic to those concerns, saying in board meetings that those who had quietly advocated for a smaller, less expensive project had been unfairly accused of undermining equity.

The $35 million project that park commissioners ultimately chose had been a compromise between a more modest $22 million renovation that could be finished as soon as 2026, and the $49 million, all-new construction vision with no end date in sight.

After eliminating the smallest option out of concern that it would disappoint the community, the majority of commissioners also opted against the most expensive — and therefore uncertain — path. A minefield of funding challenges have already complicated North Commons' future.

Despite Minnesota's historic surplus and spending this year, the Minneapolis Park Board received nothing for its No. 1 legislative request of another $12 million for North Commons.

State Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, who represents the area and helped the Park Board obtain $5.4 million in state bonding in 2020, declined to sponsor additional funds for the project this year. Instead, Champion carried a bill for V3, a private athletic complex under construction at North Plymouth and Lyndale Avenues, not far from North Commons.

At a town hall Tuesday night, Champion told the Star Tribune that legislators expected park officials to settle on a preferred concept before pouring more money into North Commons, and that the ballooning budget of the project — a result of inflation and supply chain issues — posed a question of fiscal responsibility.

Champion advised park officials to do "the very best you can with what you have available to you," with a focus on youth programming rather than the size of buildings. "You can't just say you will build it and they will come," he said.

"It's always helpful in legislation to have a clear idea, and I know that they are building out the best idea that meets the needs of the community," agreed State Rep. Esther Agbaje, noting that other projects that received support this year hadn't gotten state bonding before, as North Commons had.

Late in the legislative session when it became apparent there would not be additional funding for North Commons, park staff informed the community they would likely have to rein in expectations.

The limitations on public funding has ramifications for private fundraising.

Tom Evers of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that helps the board collect private donations for its most ambitious projects, has called public funding a "barometer" for community support — the reason why philanthropy often offers to match it. He said he was confident the foundation could bring roughly the same amount that the public contributes to the project.

At a community meeting at North Commons earlier this year, 25-year-old La'Taijah Powell chastised the older people in the room as they argued over how many millions to spend on multiplying the size of the recreation center.

"Where's this money now to keep kids engaged in different activities so we don't have to wake up and hear that somebody crashed a car or it's a kid that got shot down the street?" Powell asked. "Before we think about renovating the whole park, where's the money to invest in what's already here so that we don't have these problems?"