Minneapolis' Grand Rounds series of parks and trails — some 150 years in the making — would take a big step toward completion with a proposed land exchange.

The Minneapolis Park Board and University of Minnesota own a patchwork of properties in southeast Minneapolis intertwined in each other's long-term agendas. The university needs access to parkland to continue renovations for Fraser, Bruininks and Appleby halls. The Park Board wants to fill the "missing link" of the Grand Rounds Scenic Byway, parks and parkways in the works since the late 1800s.

Most of the Minneapolis Grand Rounds has been built, with the exception of a 4-mile stretch in the city's eastern edge. As the city developed, land has become increasingly difficult to acquire.

The last time the Park Board addressed the Missing Link was in 2019, when it obtained an easement from the city of Minneapolis and Minnesota Department of Transportation to use land along Industrial Boulevard between Ridgeway Parkway and Broadway Street, said park Senior Planner Carrie Christensen.

"I refer to it as a crazy quilt — a little patch here, a little patch there, it's coming together," said Park Board President Meg Forney. "I get so excited. I get goosebumps that it's filling in. .…. If we do, for the rest of eternity, just little bits and pieces, it's still moving us forward to the goal that we want, and that is making parks accessible to everybody."

Acre for acre swap

There are four parcels being negotiated for trade.

Parklands to be given to the university are 0.7 acres east of East River Parkway and 0.28 acres north of East River Parkway.

University land that the Park Board would receive in exchange are 0.7 acres west of 27th Avenue SE. and 0.28 acres on either side of the transitway between 29th Avenue SE. and 30th Avenue SE.

The Park Board and university still need to survey the lands and complete environmental review for each parcel. The park commissioners and the Board of Regents would both have to approve the exchange. Additionally, the Park Board's charter requires district court approval to dispose of any land.

The exchange is expected to happen at the end of this year or early next, said Michael Schroeder, parks assistant superintendent for planning.

"When we look at the lands that the Park Board is giving up, it's lands that the university has already encumbered, either through permits or other processes, that can't be used for park purposes," Schroeder said. "And the land that we're gaining back is actually next to existing parks or where we have planned parks. So from that perspective, it's a really good trade for both parties."

Andrew Caddock, senior planner in the university's planning, space and real estate office, called the exchange a "win-win."

Minneapolis: Incremental progress

In the late 1800s, landscape architect Horace W.S. Cleveland envisioned having continuous routes connecting the natural jewels of both Minneapolis and St. Paul, respectively.

The Minneapolis Grand Rounds encircles lakes, woodlands, parks and trails, connecting 50 miles of parkways from the downtown riverfront to the Chain of Lakes, Minnehaha Creek and Theodore Wirth Park. Bicyclists and pedestrians can take the Grand Rounds almost all the way around the city — except for the Missing Link between the east bank of the Mississippi River and St. Anthony Parkway.

Acquisition of the university land would bring the Park Board an acre closer to filling the Missing Link, but even then, it will take time to complete the Grand Rounds. Park staff are working toward incremental gains.

On the north end of the link, planners have been working with the city to extend trails down Industrial Boulevard, and they've been in talks with a private developer in the Towerside District to get a bit more land on the south end, said Schroeder. A major impediment in the middle of the link will be the active Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad line, over which a parkway bridge would need to be built. When the Park Board eventually gets to that hump, it will be a major expense.

"This is [100-plus] years we've been waiting to get this completed," said Schroeder. "It's not going to happen in the next couple of years."

In 2019 and 2021, the Park Board has listed the Missing Link among its top four legislative priorities, asking for $12.3 million in state bonding.

St. Paul: Barreling toward completion

Meanwhile, St. Paul Parks and Recreation is looking forward to celebrating the completion of their 27-mile Grand Round this year, which will connect park users to lakes Como and Phalen, the Mississippi River and everything in between.

The southern half of St. Paul's Grand Round was installed first, while the northern segments of Pelham Boulevard, Raymond Avenue, Como Avenue, Wheelock Parkway and Johnson Parkway took longer to complete.

Around 2016, there was renewed interest in a final push to complete the route because it had been held up in the St. Paul Bicycle Plan as a top priority — not just for recreation but for transportation and commuting, said Reuben Collins, the city's public works transportation planning manager.

"Prior to that time, public works generally had a pretty hands-off approach to the Grand Round, viewing it primarily as a parks initiative," he said. "But what the St. Paul Bicycle Plan did is it said, 'These trails are the backbone of our bicycle transportation network.' That gave us additional initiative to seek outside funding from transportation sources to build out the bike plan."

St. Paul started filling in the northern leg of its Grand Round segment by segment, year after year. In 2020, the city constructed significant segments of the Grand Round along Como Avenue and Johnson Parkway with funds from the Federal Highway Administration. There is just one remaining gap in the northwest corner of the route, between Edgerton and Arcade streets, that is slated for completion this summer.

Unlike Minneapolis, which has to bargain for land with a quagmire of competing private and public property owners, St. Paul owns the entire right of way needed to finish its Grand Round, Collins said.

"To be able to complete that, to just say that we can essentially ride a bike around St. Paul nonstop on the Grand Round," said David Ronzani, St. Paul parks landscape architect. "It's not something that I think anyone else can claim."

Correction: Previous versions of this story incorrectly described the location of the patchwork of properties involved. They are in southeast Minneapolis.