Minneapolis park officials have given the go-ahead to buying the most significant piece of upper Mississippi riverfront parkland up for sale since a plan for developing the area won approval in 1999.

They'll spend an eye-opening $7.7 million to buy just over 11 acres from Scherer Bros. Lumber, which has closed its yard just upriver from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge.

The purchase bridges a key gap and eventually will allow trails to be developed farther upriver in northeast Minneapolis, even beyond NE. Broadway and perhaps crossing the river at or close to a nearby railroad bridge.

Still, even some commissioners gulped at the price before voting unanimously Wednesday to sign off on the finances of a deal they authorized conceptually in December. But they said they're going ahead because people living along the upper river deserve waterfront parks just like those in south Minneapolis.

"This is one of the giant pieces that we need," said Park Board Commissioner Liz Wielinski, who joined the board after it acted last year but has been active on river issues. The "Above the Falls" master plan calls for parkland lining most of the upper river, with higher-density housing and light industry in some nearby areas.

The recession may have worked to the advantage of parks. Scherer has retrenched its operations as home-building plummeted. Commissioner Scott Vreeland said the company once sought $14 million for the site, which has other lots that aren't part of the deal.

Park officials couldn't be reached for comment on when development of bike and walking trails between Plymouth Avenue and Broadway might start. Such trails extend to the 26th Avenue rail bridge on the west bank, but only to Plymouth on the east. However, Graco Inc., a neighbor of the Scherer property to the north, has left riverside space for trails, meaning that the Scherer purchase opens the way for an extension to Broadway, when funding permits.

Much of the riverfront between Broadway and the railroad bridge is in public hands. Park officials have spoken of a trail crossing adjacent to the rail bridge, but haven't been able to negotiate that to date. The next available crossing would be at Lowry Avenue.

The land deal puts $2.4 million down, with the remaining $5.3 million to be paid over four years. An initial $1.7 million will come from state bonds for metro parks, matched by $700,000 the park system garnered when construction of the new Interstate 35W bridge consumed parkland. The remaining $5.3 million will come from state Legacy Act sales tax funding.

Commissioners praised their lobbyist, Brian Rice, and state Reps. Larry Pogemiller and Phyllis Kahn, both Minneapolis DFLers, for legislation clarifying that the purchase is eligible for the funding.

The Park Board had until Monday to opt out of a purchase agreement; the closing is due by June 10.

"Someday people are going to look back and say it's a good thing the Park Board acquired this land," said Commissioner Bob Fine, who played a key role in negotiations. Area Council Member Diane Hofstede also praised the acquisition.

The purchase comes as the Park Board and public are discussing what type of park development should occur in two parks just downstream from the Scherer property. They are Boom Island Park and B.F. Nelson Park.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438