It seemed as if Edina Mayor Jim Hovland knew the public hearing for the proposed renovation of Arden Park could take a turn for the worse.

“We are all neighbors,” Hovland said as the hearing began Wednesday night. “I even hate to say this because one of the hallmarks of Edina has been the civility with which we conduct our conversations.”

Yet the discussion remained just that — civil — as neighbors went back and forth for almost two hours on whether or not the City Council should approve the $4 million plan later this month.

The project, a collaboration between the city and the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District, promises a major overhaul of Arden Park, located on the creek southwest of 50th Street and France Avenue. It includes new trails and facilities, and re-meandering the section of the creek that runs through the park.

At the center of the debate is a four-foot dam that creates a rush of rapids culminating in a popular fishing hole. Removing the dam would smooth the gradient of the creek, restore the natural flow of water and improve the overall health of the habitat, according to project leaders.

The City Council was expected to approve the plan in June. But delays, largely spurred by a group of neighbors organizing under the “Save the Waterfall” banner, convinced Hovland to hold Wednesday’s public hearing.

Now the council is scheduled to make a decision on Sept. 19. If the project is approved, construction could begin at the end of 2018.

Hovland split the council chamber for Wednesday’s hearing, putting opponents of the plan on one side and supporters on the other. More than 35 people, most of whom live near the park and use it, made their case; arguments were evenly divided.

“I see a lot of opportunity to create a more sustainable environment, one that more people can enjoy,” said Joanne Gorski-Alkire, who backs the project. The dam had created a “pool of stagnant water” north of 54th Street, she said. “It’s really just a swamp north of the bridge.”

Kevin Williams, a former science teacher, supported efforts to restore the natural balance of the creek. “Removing the dam … is going to improve the water quality and improve the habitat for the fish, and especially the aquatic invertebrates,” he said.

Others wanted to see the dam remain as the source of the rapids and fishing hole that people have enjoyed for generations.

“There are very, very few places in the Twin Cities you can go to achieve this level of tranquillity,” Edina resident Lee Owens said. “I’d like to see Arden Park pretty much left the way it is.”

Cost in dollars, trees

Edina would be responsible for more than $2.1 million of the $4 million project, a cost that many residents said was too high. The balance of the cost would be covered by the watershed district.

Many neighbors also expressed concern that dozens of trees would have to be removed for construction. Watershed district officials said they didn’t know just how many trees might be affected, but that some would be turned into debris to rebuild creek banks.

“We all want what’s best for the park,” Edina resident David Groth said. “I just think that there are so many questions about the plan … that I think it’s time to give pause.”

Janey Westin said she grew up kayaking down Minnehaha Creek. Like Williams, she said removal of the dam would have a positive impact on wildlife.

“This creek is more than just Arden Park,” Westin said. “What gets done with Arden Park affects everybody.”