Selling Parklands to Save Them

Yesterday on Twitter I suggested selling part of Iris Park in Saint Paul to developers for housing.

The reaction was mixed. Lots of people love Iris Park; I am one of them. One of my favorite runs takes me to the Iris Park neighborhood where I do at least a couple of laps and then, for contrast, run home via the industrial areas just north of University. The southern 2/3 of the park around the pond plus another lawn area is a gem of a park surrounded by an interesting neighborhood.

Redevelopment possibilities

Now, it’s easy to say that a park in Minnesota looks desolate during a December thaw. But even at the best of times, the front third of Iris Park fronting University Ave is not well designed. It’s open space with a couple of trees, so people could use it for playing except it fronts a two lane road with no parking, so who would take their children to play there? Who would kick or throw a ball that’s likely to end up in traffic? Who would want to picnic in the sun 10 yards from University Avenue? Put some townhomes or a fourplex on this part of the park, and you’d buffer the park from the busy road. With a little fiscal creativity the proceeds from the land sale and some of the property taxes could be dedicated to improvements in the rest of the park.

Taking a wider view selling off Iris Park is not necessary, of course. The area around the Fairview Avenue station is packed with surface parking lots potential for redevelopment.

The vicinity of Iris Park is saturated with Car Parks.

The vicinity of Iris Park is saturated with Car Parks.

Some redevelopment is so imminent that there are faded banners announcing new construction coming soon:

Prior Crossing is coming soon.

Prior Crossing is coming soon.

Respondents to my post pointed out:

Making unbuilt spaces into parks (or better built space)

Indeed! But let’s make that green space into inviting plazas, parks and gardens, not just “green space” (to use a term introduced by Andrew Price). At the moment about a third of Iris Park is “green space” that doesn’t encourage anyone to enjoy it. There are no benches, no fountains, no public art, nothing buffering it from the road. Open spaces like Iris Park should become high quality places especially as University Avenue develops.

Iris Park is not unique. All over Minneapolis and Saint Paul there are spaces we call “parks” that are really just unbuilt spaces. For example, here’s Bluff Street Park near the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota and the Cedar Avenue bridge. Again, a pleasant open space. But the ground is bumpy, the grass is mowed irregularly and it’s hard to imagine what kind of ball game would ever be played on this park. Nor are there any amenities that would attract people to the park for other reasons. I pass by Bluff Street Park several times a week all year round and I’ve never seen anyone on it (In the winter I regularly see foxes in the evening). Why keep land as a park if it’s not going to be a good park?

Bluff St Park near Cedar Ave Bridge

Bluff Street Park near Cedar Avenue Bridge

Asking the question “Should we sell parks to developers” doesn’t imply the answer is “Yes.” But asking the question should prompt us to wonder if we’re making the best use of all the land we designate as parkland.

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8 Responses to Selling Parklands to Save Them

  1. Monica Millsap Rasmussen
    Monica Rasmussen December 18, 2014 at 9:33 am #

    ” But asking the question should prompt us to wonder if we’re making the best use of all the land we designate as parkland”

    This is very true. People keep requesting green space on practically every corner without any consideration of how it might be used or any thought into maintenance and future usability.

    I used to work near that Iris Park. Further in, where there are benches, I found it quite pleasant to sit for lunch. I was in the minority, however, as most people were afraid they might run into a homeless person or some type of crime element and never bothered to try the park.

    The same seems to be true of the MNDOT owned green space at Snelling and St Anthony Ave. It seems to be a hangout for the people who stand on the corners, begging for money. While these people seem mostly harmless to me, most people that I know say they feel threatened to walk by when this population of people is congregated there.

    Thus, the reality is, if the green space does not work for the people who live or work there, it really isn’t perceived as a valuable addition by the people who live and work there. No one wants to make all of our parks disappear. However, if the green space is more perceived as a menacing vacant lot than a value, it might as well be developed as Evan points out. If not developed, then heavy planning with large neighborhood participation to actually design a green space people want to use.

  2. Reuben Collins
    Reuben Collins December 18, 2014 at 11:08 am #

    FYI
    “The City of Saint Paul has secured funds to make improvements to Iris Park.” LINK TO CITY WEBSITE

  3. Evan Roberts
    Evan Roberts December 18, 2014 at 11:19 am #

    That’s excellent to hear, much better than selling it. Funnily enough when I was googling around about the park I found the park’s regular website, but not the improvements page. Weird.

    http://www.stpaul.gov/facilities.aspx?__VIEWSTATEGENERATOR=DA59EECE&ysnNotifyMe=&strPage=&intArchMainCatID=&intArchMainItemID=&txtDefaultSearchText=Search&SearchString=Search&search=1&txtSearchText=iris&EVERYTHING=Y&pagenum=1&sort=0&asc=&RID=54&Page=detail

  4. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke December 18, 2014 at 11:58 am #

    great point about green space being an often symbolic gesture. i for a while was compiling a series of photos i called “crappy plazas of downtown minneapolis”, which is full of “green space” that looks nice in architectural renderings but has zero actual use by anything other than a squirrel.

    • Evan Roberts
      Evan Roberts December 18, 2014 at 12:33 pm #

      Great minds think alike. Here is my flickr album: Useless grass and open spaces
      https://www.flickr.com/photos/evanrobertsnz/sets/72157645126610494/

      Some of it is actual parkland that is really just a crappy lawn. Others are vacant lots or overly large setbacks. In many cases you could put a useful building there.

      Many of them exist in a funny kind of legal and economic limbo where building is difficult but not impossible. My question about all of these places is “why not more trees?” Or if it’s going to be a field, why not an actual sportsfield for kids and adults alike.

  5. Thomas Mercier December 18, 2014 at 1:00 pm #

    Another caution would be to examine your presumption that parkland has to be actively used all the time to be a good park. A lot of benefit is conveyed to the surrounding area (and its inhabitants) by having space that serves an environmental purpose. Just viewing natural areas from windows can increase a person’s well being and of course natural areas do a lot to help with pollutants etc. And plenty of people believe in the concept of open space enough that they’ll support funding for it even if they never step foot in it.
    And while some modification to the “transitional” area of the park through providing a perceived safety/visual barrier from the road there could be consequences as. Visibility from the busier road can contribute to the safety of the park, more eyes mean less crime (generally). Parks rely a lot on visibility for “advertisement” and with reduced visibility come reduced awareness.
    And while I appreciate the thought of opening a minority to development for preservation of the majority as a new approach the implied thought is that the old paradigm, people pay taxes to government to receive services such as parkland, doesn’t accomplish what you want. Rather than throwing out the old paradigm in favor of a new paradigm maybe its worth questioning why the old paradigm isn’t meeting your expectations and how to modify it so that it does. It’s nice to see that St Paul with its redevelopment plans has recognized the challenges with this site and is fulfilling the old paradigm to make this parkland better serve the community without the need to abandon it to profiteers.

  6. Monte Castleman
    Monte Castleman December 18, 2014 at 1:13 pm #

    If a building was built there, people would be remarking about how it was a shame that such a nice park is cut off from University, or even that it’s unsafe because it’s secluded. One of many reasons I support Richfield’s taking of the 18 homes (including one belonging to a good friend of mine) is that it makes Monroe Park more visible from 66th.

    • Matt Brillhart December 18, 2014 at 3:21 pm #

      I immediately thought of that same situation, where the teardown of a few houses along that part of 66th is really going to “daylight” that park and make it more accessible to the greater neighborhood (particularly the “castle” – equally loved and loathed depending on who you’re asking).

      The difference though is that Iris Park would remain surrounded on 2 sides by public streets that have direct access to/from University, even if a small lot along University were developed.

      Monroe Park in Richfield is almost entirely surrounded on all 4 sides by single-family homes, it barely has any street frontage at all to make it public. It may be public property, but currently functions more as a private park for the two dozen homes that surround it. Opening it up to 66th will definitely change that, especially if a new entrance & small parking lot is provided from 66th St.

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