By David Black
Phalen Regional Park is located in the northeastern portion of St. Paul, with a small portion extending north into its suburb of Maplewood. The park’s overall area is 494 acres; its centerpiece is Lake Phalen, with a surface area of 198 acres. Phalen is part of a chain of lakes starting several miles north and draining to the south into Phalen Creek, which flows to the Mississippi River. The topography is a mix of rolling hills and fairly level areas.
The park contains a number of activity areas. The largest portion of land is devoted to a public 18-hole golf course, which for the past three years has been managed privately. The most heavily used feature is a network of paths encircling the lake, used most frequently for walking and jogging. The shore length of Lake Phalen is approximately three miles. The lake is popular for fishing and boating, and people can rent canoes and navigate many miles to the north through the chain of lakes.
Phalen hosts the only public beach in St. Paul, and there are modern buildings for picnicking and other activities. A recreation center includes a gymnasium. Fields for baseball, softball, and soccer are nearby. During the winter, rinks for ice-skating and hockey are installed, and trails for cross-country skiing are groomed on the golf course.
Special events are held at Phalen throughout the year, including organized 5k races, walks, triathlons, a “dragon boat” festival, and a lantern festival. Park buildings are available for rental for family and company events. The St. Paul Winter Carnival holds events at Phalen and elsewhere during its annual run in late January and early February. An ice palace constructed for the Carnival in 1986 drew 1.5 million visitors to Phalen!
There are several entrances to the park from arterial city streets. The state-managed Gateway Trail runs east-to-west near the northern boundary, and the Bruce Vento Trail runs north-to-south near the east side of the lake. Wheelock Pkwy. along the southern edge and Johnson Pkwy. just to the south are on the city’s “Grand Round” route of public streets and parkways that encircle the city. Regular Metro Transit bus service runs to the edges of the park along Maryland Ave. and Arcade St.
The East Side of St. Paul, generally east of I-35E, has long been a distinctive portion of the city. Given its size, location, and lack of nearby alternatives, Phalen has long been proudly considered “the East Side’s park.” City staff indicates that users (approximately 500,000 per year) frequently come from not only the surrounding neighborhoods in the city but from suburban areas to the north and east, as far as the state border with Wisconsin.
Neighborhoods with middle-class, single-family housing surround most of the park. There is a three-story apartment building on the north end of the lake, and a senior-citizen building nearby. The nearest commercial areas are small pockets several blocks east of the park along Maryland and south along Arcade.
Phalen Regional Park is owned by the City of St. Paul and managed by its Parks & Recreation (P&R) Division, including the portion located in the City of Maplewood. A pathway to the north leads to adjoining Keller Regional Park, which is owned and operated by Ramsey County. The Metropolitan Council of the Twin Cities, a regional planning agency for the seven-county metropolitan area, has funded a substantial portion of major improvements at Phalen and Keller as designated regional parks.
Planning and Recent Changes –
City Parks & Recreation periodically develops and updates master plans for its major parks. The most recent plan for Phalen and Keller parks (grouped together for planning purposes) was completed in 2011. The plan took nine months to complete. Numerous public meetings, an open house, and a “community outreach event” were held to encourage participation in the planning process. Staff reports that special efforts were made to encourage input from Hmong and Latino residents, many of whom live on the East Side near the park.
There were no major changes to the park layout proposed by the plan. Park users reportedly enjoy Phalen’s relatively natural state, and don’t want its character to become more like Como Park, which is similar in scale but more highly managed. P&R assembles an ongoing five-year list of projects to propose for funding in a competitive process. In recent years, the beach house has been refurbished and a splash pad was added. Coming proposals include refurbishing the picnic pavilion and amphitheater, as well as some transportation improvements. With limited funding each year, it seems as though it will take many years to complete the list.
Summary of Observations and Analysis –
Phalen is an outstanding model of an inclusive public facility that well serves a broad cross-section of the public with very few apparent restrictions. The vast size of the place is used well, allowing a broad range of organized and unorganized activities for individuals and groups. Staff has made efforts to solicit comments from various populations, and physical enhancements have been made periodically. The St. Paul parks system is rated very highly nationally, and Phalen is one of its key components.
The primary deficiency is the fair-to-poor condition of nearly all of the park roads and parking lots. Another weakness is the relatively poor access by public transit: no routes run into the heart of the park, making it a long walk from the nearest bus stops. I would expect that alternatives other than driving would be attractive to transit-dependent populations nearby.
I visited the park several times during fall 2018 and separately met with two Parks & Recreation staff members involved in the planning and operations of the park. Several of the park visits were devoted to counting users of the trail around the lake. Each session of counting was limited to 30 minutes for ease of comparison. The vantage point was a parking lot along the northwest side, chosen because of easy visibility to and from the trail. I did not attempt to approach the trail users.
October is a month of weather fluctuations in Minnesota; October 2018 was, on average, cooler and wetter than average, though certainly not extraordinary. I note this in order to put the data below into some context.
- Wednesday, October 10, 9:30-10:00 a.m. – 42 degrees, cloudy and breezy
- Saturday, October 13, 6:00-6:30 p.m. – 52 degrees, mostly cloudy, winds moderate, decreasing sunlight (sunset 6:31 p.m.)
- Friday, October 19, 9:25-9:55 a.m. – 54 degrees, partly sunny, pleasant
- Sunday, October 28, 11:00-11:30 a.m. – 48 degrees, mostly sunny, breezy
All of the above users were either alone or in a group of two. Additionally, on October 13 I encountered a group of eight to ten individuals in the parking lot, loading bicycles onto their vehicles, apparently just having left the trail.
None of the users was observed “doubling back” on the trail, suggesting that the majority of users travel the entire 3.1 miles around the lake. Several times I observed the same people at other points around the lake trail, heading the same direction, which supports this conclusion.
We have no good way of assessing these numbers, large or small, without comparable figures for other times of the year or earlier years. Nevertheless, there was a steady stream of users throughout my observation periods.
Is Phalen Park a model for an inclusive society? Yes. Phalen is an old-fashioned park, entirely public in ownership and management (except for the golf course), open to all, with few barriers to entry or excessive controls.
On the components within the “star” system, I rated the park highly based on the activities I saw, previous experience in the park, and information from the city staff and website that wasn’t available to witness during the time of observation.
Civility (Accommodations) –
Phalen is generally well maintained, but many portions of paved surfaces (roads and parking lots) are in need of repair or replacement, and bathroom needs are served in substantial part by portable toilets in several locations around the lake. The grounds were well maintained in all the areas I visited. The trails are in good condition. Signage is gradually being updated, but only scattered signs provide a language other than English.
I observed the park at fairly slow times, so it is difficult to assess on this dimension. Staff noted that there are multiple large events at other times of the year, suggesting that Phalen is an attractive place for public assembly.