By Henry Nieberg
Located in the heart of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood of St. Paul, the Groveland Recreation Center offers educational programs, family events, athletic facilities and rental space for parties, meetings and events. The west end of the park sits at the intersection of two of the neighborhood’s main streets — Cleveland and St. Clair avenues — both of which provide reliable bus service to the area (local route 87 and express route 134 on Cleveland, and route 70 on St. Clair, which Metro Transit targeted last December for diminished service).
Extending east to Prior Avenue, the park is close to several small, brick-and-mortar stores (including the 60-year-old Widmer’s Super Market, which recently changed hands, and Snuffy’s Malt Shop). The majority of buildings are single-home residential, with some duplexes and student-rental housing (St. Clair Avenue is the southern boundary of the city’s Student Housing Overlay District, which surrounds the University of St. Thomas to the north).
Although Groveland officially is titled a “recreation center,” this public space offers a number of additional outdoor amenities, which include:
- 2 baseball fields
- Basketball court
- Hockey rink
- Oval rink
- Pond hockey (during the winter)
- Skating rink
- Soccer field
- 2 tennis courts
Groveland Recreation Center is attached to Groveland Park Elementary School. Although both the elementary school and the recreation center are considered “public,” use of the indoor amenities (in the recreation center itself) are contingent on school hours; the recreation center is open to the public only when school is not in session.
In addition, both the recreation center and the elementary school use each other’s facilities interchangeably. A line within the building literally demarcates where the recreation center “ends” and the elementary school “begins,” but it appears to be merely symbolic. The basketball court is part of the recreation center, but the elementary school uses it during school times. Likewise, even though the “S’more Fun” room, a year-round recreational program for school-age children, is on the recreation center side, the elementary school mostly appropriates it. Because of the strong relationship between the school and the park, a visitor could easily mistake the playground — a public space — for an elementary school playground.
Children and adults use the outdoor parts of Groveland Recreation Center primarily for casual games and dog-walking. No recreational teams use the baseball or softball fields. The giant green field at the southeast corner of the Groveland property becomes a de facto dog park during the spring, summer and fall and, come winter, is converted into multiple ice skating rinks. On warm days, it is common to see parents bring their kids to the playground. It is most common, however, to see children playing from the local elementary school during their recess time. The park is rarely used during nighttime hours. Not only is the recreation center closed, except for meetings of Macalester-Groveland Community Council committees and similar purposes, but only the playground has lights, leaving the tennis courts, basketball court and baseball fields practically inaccessible.
During the day, almost everyone who uses the public facilities arrives on foot: to walk dogs, get some exercise, let children play. Most activities are optional and social, not organized. During the school day, students at the adjacent elementary school have the option to either socialize in the recreation center (the indoor basketball courts) or the playground outside. When weather permits, students often choose the playgrounds.
Due to Minnesota’s weather, however, the playground is often empty for half the year. Groveland Recreation Center relies on its ice skating rinks and other indoor amenities to attract the public — but it offers relatively few activities compared with other recreation centers in Saint Paul. Besides open gym (for basketball), the recreation center offers activities such as freestyle street soccer, mandala stone painting and ballet lessons. According to the site supervisor, peak times for activities in the recreation center are weeknights from 6 to 8 p.m.
With its flexible spaces, the recreation center is capable of hosting a range of public activities. It is a polling place during elections, for example.
The other “indoor” amenity offered at Groveland Recreation Center is the “warming house.” In the summer and fall, the warming house ideally turns into the “icebreaker house,” a space for teens to hang out, watch movies, and play video games, ping pong, air hockey, foosball and board games. Due to a staffing shortage, however, the warming house was closed last fall. During the winter, the warming house functions as a sheltered area where people can lace up their skates and go to the bathroom. Outside of the warming house, the entire baseball field is converted into two 72-by-160-feet hockey rinks (East and West Hockey Rink), a pond hockey rink (Pond Hockey Rink), a large general skating rink (General Rink) and the “Groveland Oval,” a one-sixth-mile natural ice oval. Hockey is forbidden on the general or oval rinks.
During the fall and summer, the two indoor bathrooms are often inaccessible. Bathrooms are accessible only when the indoor facilities are open, which is often only from 4 to 8:30 p.m.
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Are we making inclusive choices in the design and management of public spaces in St. Paul that help promote a democratic society?
Groveland Recreation Center is located in one of the most privileged neighborhoods in the city of St. Paul, with a population that is nearly 90 percent white, highly educated and high income (more than a third of household incomes exceed $100,000 per year).
The area has a lot of foot traffic, along with the recently developed Cleveland Bike Lanes, and many parents clearly feel comfortable taking their kids outdoors, both during the day and early evening. Still, although the built infrastructure (playground, skating rink) is heavily used, the social activities are underutilized. Out of the 25 recreation centers located in the city of St. Paul, Groveland Recreation Center has the second lowest number of activities available during the fall season, with 11 activities offered in fall 2018 compared with an average of 21.5 among recreation centers citywide. The only recreation center that offered fewer activities was Merriam Park, which is 1.5 miles north of Groveland Recreation Center and, similarly, sits in a relatively well-off area.
Given the high median income in Mac-Groveland, many parents and other residents likely spend money on private services. Children may participate in organized sports that practice elsewhere; families likely belong to one of several private health clubs in the area or utilize the athletic facilities open to faculty and staff of nearby St. Thomas and Macalester.
Whatever the reason, indoor activities (sports, arts and crafts) that are offered to the public are being underused. The community is not viewing the recreation center as a place for social gatherings, but rather as an outdoor outlet for neighborhood kids and dogs to “escape.” No organized skating, baseball or soccer teams utilize this space, and while the ice rinks are heavily used during the winter, the outdoor fields are underutilized during warm-weather months.
Recreation center staff and Macalester-Groveland Community Council (MGCC) — an active district council that hosts the popular Mac-Grove Fest each September in the park outdoors — have multiple methods to encourage the community to utilize the space: by attending neighborhood meetings, distributing surveys, reading comments on social apps such as NextDoor.com or local Facebook groups, and listening to recommendations.
Here’s hoping that neighbors and MGCC recognize the potential to make the Groveland park and recreation center more attractive for community residents. Perhaps mini golf, a disc golf course or soccer nets would draw more active users.