Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The last several miles of Minnehaha Creek are a crosstown ribbon though the south of Minneapolis. At points, it's possible to turn a bend and feel alone in nature. But you're surrounded by city — land altered above ground and below by human design. In their idealistic hearts, people may bemoan this state of affairs, but it's reality.
Near its eastern end, the creek flows through what once was marsh. A century ago it was engineered into a lake and municipal golf course, both bearing the name of Hiawatha and part of Theodore Wirth's grand plan for the city's park system. This is a history that some believe was an act of hubris against nature and that others, for practical reasons at least, see a need to revisit.
The ground beneath the course is peat soil saturated by rainwater and runoff. Mechanical pumping keeps the surface dry enough for play. The course also is subject to outright flooding after significant rain. These circumstances brought about a Park and Recreation Board master plan that would shrink the championship-level 18 holes of golf to nine, create a new wetland to collect floodwater, and add non-golf amenities.
In the course of this effort, supporters encountered a history that built upon the first — the collective experience of Black golfers who played at Hiawatha when it was the only place they were allowed to, ultimately working to desegregate other courses, and of those who continue to enjoy the course today. That history doesn't wish to be diminished.
The master plan for Hiawatha has come before the Park Board three times in recent years, failing each time. If that sounds decisive, it is and isn't. The most recent vote last month to advance the plan to a public hearing was denied only because of the coincidence of one commissioner's absence. Nevertheless, the board has seen a demonstration of the principle that it's easier to give than take away. The clearest description now of Hiawatha's status is "limbo."
It's possible to think the issue boils down to whether golf is a worthy use of common space or an environmental and social evil. Some expressed opinions seem to frame it that way. But there are as many facets to Hiawatha as there are dimples on a golf ball.
For starters, golf is popular among a broader range of people than is assumed by those who associate the game with wealth. Many courses are expensive to play, but municipal ones like Hiawatha are accessible.
Land used that way is, of course, perceived as land locked away from other desired park uses for a significant part of the year. Supporters of 18 holes think the broader Hiawatha landscape can accommodate improvements to both. Supporters of the master plan believe they've already done so, which is true to the extent that the shortened layout would be a promising — but historically different, and likely crowded — nine-hole course.
There's a prospective review of the course's historical significance that could produce legal barriers to change.
There are the tens of millions of dollars, yet to be identified, that it would cost to remake the area. It's much cheaper to pump. It might even be cheaper to repair flood damage as needed — though there's a fear that greater precipitation and storm intensity will make matters worse.
There's the knowledge that pumping, if not done at the golf course, would be needed in surrounding neighborhoods to protect homes.
And then there are the prospective catalysts for new action — perhaps another flood that drives home the course's vulnerability, or an unfriendly turn by environmental regulators.
The most desirable catalyst at this point would be an 18-hole plan to hold up against the stymied master plan, so people could weigh the ecological and social impacts of each. Preserving 18 holes was considered by park staff and consulting engineers during the master plan process, but its public airing doesn't seem now to have been enough.
The Bronze Foundation, a Black golfers group that organizes tournaments at Hiawatha, has offered the Park Board one such conceptual alternative. It would reconfigure water flows, though by significantly altering the lake and the creek as well as channeling runoff out of the area. The foundation must now flesh out its initiative and demonstrate its viability.
Hiawatha wouldn't be done as it was if developed today. Neither would other parts of Minneapolis, which, as a recent Star Tribune article reported, are subject to similar water risks and are also mitigation projects in waiting.
Choose your regret. Choose your hope for the future. Choose your intervention.