Midtown Greenway trail, with a view of community garden

Of Gardens and Greenways: Digging into the Soo Line Garden Fight

Over the last few decades, local governments have increasingly encouraged the establishment of community gardens on vacant lots and other underutilized land in U.S. cities. This has generally been thought of as a preferred interim or temporary land use until a future development opportunity arises, such as an apartment complex or other housing. But when a community garden remains in place for decades on a lot, very deep roots are established. To many gardeners, what began as stewardship of the space has grown to feel more like ownership.

So when the government comes calling and wants to use some of this public land for a different kind of community use, should the garden be compelled to share the space? And more broadly, how should we value community garden land use versus alternate uses? This is the central conflict at Soo Line Community Garden in the Whittier neighborhood of Minneapolis, where Hennepin County has proposed the construction of a paved path through the existing garden in order to provide an ADA-accessible connection to the Midtown Greenway rail-trail. 

Twin Cities residents may be familiar with the Soo Line Community Garden because of its prominent hillside location along the Midtown Greenway, but the garden actually predates the Greenway’s walking and biking paths by a decade.

The garden was established in 1991 on 0.93 acres of Hennepin County tax-forfeited land. According to the garden’s website, neighbors mobilized support for the garden in a series of public process events, thereby thwarting an effort to develop the site. In 2010, the land was transferred from Hennepin County to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB). Because the garden was already established when MPRB purchased the lot, it is not required to operate according to MPRB’s Community Garden Policy and continues to operate independently to this day. The garden now has 97 garden plots and upwards of 150 gardeners.

The Midtown Greenway’s trails, meanwhile, see more than 1 million trips annually, connecting people biking, walking and rolling to nearby schools, businesses, housing, parks and other trail connections. In order to comply with the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a path cannot have any sections with a slope greater than 5%. Separate projects will soon add ADA-compliant access to the Greenway as a part of the Nicollet Avenue redevelopment at the old Kmart site, and at The Mall Park west of Hennepin Avenue. Besides those, Hennepin County has identified a 1.27-mile section of the Greenway that is served by several steep ramps and staircases, but no ADA-compliant access. This section passes through the dense, populous and diverse Whittier neighborhood. According to 2020 census data, Whittier has 14,483 residents and a population density of about 18,000 people per square mile; 47% of residents said their ethnicity is not white.

The county searched for land roughly in the middle of this gap, with enough space to fit a longer, gradual path. It identified the MPRB-owned Soo Line Community Garden space as the best option. The park board signed a letter of support for Hennepin County’s project funding request in 2018, saying, “MPRB is committed to the community garden, but supports exploration of additional benefits on the site.” In 2018, the project was awarded $1.12 million in federal funding (via Metropolitan Council regional solicitation), and MPRB allocated $370,000 in Park Dedication funds for the project, contingent on the MPRB board’s acceptance of the County’s final plans.

The garden’s board has vehemently opposed the county’s plan ever since it was announced. The section about the project on the garden’s website is titled “Stop the Destruction.” Claudia Callaghan, board president for the garden, says that “a bikeway through the garden will harm the environment and animals, destroy plots and take away communal spaces that people rely on for mental health and recreation.”

Elizabeth Shaffer is the Park Board Commissioner for District 4, where the garden is located. She says that she supports “Hennepin County’s desire to build an ADA access ramp to the Greenway but not their chosen location through the Soo Line Garden.” The Midtown Greenway Coalition has also joined in opposing the plan, as have several other local groups. The Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota signed onto a letter of opposition, though their new executive director, former Rochester City Council member Michael Wojcik, is now taking the time to speak with various parties before deciding whether BikeMN will affirm its opposition to the project. Whittier Alliance, the neighborhood organization, supports the county’s plan.

The project received a one-time, one-year extension from the Metropolitan Council, to allow for more community engagement and outreach to Somali and Spanish-speaking communities, low-income residents and new residents. The county has returned with an updated proposal for the garden path and is doing another round of community engagement that ends on December 15, 2023. Since MPRB owns the land, the park board will need to vote in early 2024 on whether to approve the county’s plan. The project team must submit the final construction designs and materials by April 1, 2024, or will risk losing both the $1.12 million in federal funding and the near-term opportunity to provide an accessible connection to this section of the Greenway.

Able-bodied pedestrians can currently access the Midtown Greenway via unpaved paths through the garden, but those paths would require significant improvement to be ADA-compliant. Access from Garfield Avenue requires walking down an alley, and access from either Harriet Avenue or the Greenway requires navigating steep and eroded sections. The county’s plan, shown above, includes connections to both Garfield and Harriet avenues. 

In current designs, the county says it has tried to minimize garden impacts by:

  • Narrowing the width of the paths from 10 feet to 8 feet.
  • Shifting the alley 10 feet farther north along the Garfield side of the garden.
  • Minimizing the horizontal curves to follow the existing mulch path.
  • Raising this section of the Midtown Greenway by 3 feet.
  • Focusing soil regrading outside of the garden space.
Current Harriet Avenue access point to Midtown Greenway

These plan updates have done little to quell opposition from the gardeners. “They don’t want to lose any garden plots,” Soren Jensen, executive director of the Midtown Greenway Coalition, says, “and they don’t want a hardscape trail through the garden, whatever the design.”

To review the opposition’s main arguments:

  1. Fewer Garden Plots: It is indisputable that some existing garden plots would be removed, and that the total available space for gardening plots would be reduced. This reduction is caused mostly by the new path connection to Harriet Avenue on the northeast side of the garden. The county claims that, if the garden adds plots and pollinators in a few new spots, only 5% of “valuable green space” in the garden would be lost. The garden claims that this number is “intentionally misleading,” that the land suggested by the county is extremely steep and shaded and not viable for new plantings, and that at least 27% of plots will be lost.
  2. Environmental Impact: The lot was formerly used for industrial purposes, and gardeners are concerned that the potential unearthing of toxic soil will impact the health of the garden and the people near it. Hennepin County Project Manager Amber Klein says that they have done extensive research on the site’s history, and that public safety is their highest priority: “The planned improvements don’t require any deep excavation; the proposed paths would be built at a depth similar to current garden cultivation.” The county will continue to work closely with MPCA and MnDOT and follow all environmental guidance.
  3. Pollinator impact: The garden claims that any reconstruction of this land will kill thousands of pollinators, like bumblebees, though county officials dispute that. “The intent is to complete soil work outside the growing season—in late fall and early spring—to minimize the impact on pollinators,’ Klein said. “The proposed plans would leave around 95% of the pollinator-friendly Soo Line Gardens intact and would add around 2,000 square feet of new pollinator-friendly plantings.” Pollinator-friendly plantings could also be added at many other locations along the Greenway, perhaps drawing inspiration from Vera’s Garden (just west of Soo Line Garden).
  4. Bicycles and Scooters: Gardeners cite concerns about trail users speeding through the garden, where gardeners currently cross with hoses, tools, plants and mulch. With a paved path, they say the space will no longer be calm and peaceful. The garden’s website also claims that the project would be unsafe for children who visit and play in the gardens. Certain path design features should help calm the speed of path users, including several 90-degree angle turns, the long and gradual slope, and the narrowing of the path to 8 feet from a standard 10 feet.

Opponents of the county’s plan argue that the county could instead build an ADA-compliant ramp on the south side of the greenway, along a steep slope owned by the Hennepin County Regional Rail Authority (HCRRA), a separate political entity that was established to plan, design and implement light rail transit in Hennepin County. They contend that a ramp on the south side could be wider and allow for a direct connection to Grand Avenue, which is designated as a near-term Low Stress Bikeway on the city’s All Ages and Abilities Network.

HCRRA, whose board consists of the seven members of the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners, has rejected this south-side ramp proposal, saying they want to hold the space for future transit. In 2021, Whittier Alliance Executive Director Kaley Brown agreed, telling the Star Tribune that they wanted the transit line prioritized because “it will serve more people than any other line and have a significant impact on the greenhouse-gas reductions we need to collectively achieve.”

Jensen, of the Greenway Coalition, has a different take: “Hennepin County is slow to understand this, but there is no train coming to the Greenway. The sooner they understand this the better it will be for the Greenway, the Soo Line Garden and our community.”

Jensen points to the recent south-side construction of the Green Crescent Trail at Interstate 35-W as evidence that the county could build a ramp south of the Soo Line Community Garden site. The Green Crescent Trail, however, would not hinder future rail construction and would provide an easy connection to the Metro Orange Line from a future transit station on the Greenway.

Entry to Green Crescent Trail from the Midtown Greenway

Whose public land is it anyway?

Though some of the gardening space at Soo Line would be lost in the county’s plan, there are more than 200 community garden sites and urban farms within city limits and more on the way. An urban farm is planned for the Roof Depot site along the Greenway in the East Phillips neighborhood, following its recent purchase by the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute after a years-long fight to stop potential pollution from planned redevelopment.

The City of Minneapolis also leases vacant lots for community gardening at a very low price. The city’s short promotional video clearly states that these lots may eventually be sold for development. Two new MPRB community gardens were added in 2023 in underutilized sections of neighborhood parks, and at least eight other parks have space dedicated for future community gardens. These include The Mall Park along the Greenway, just 0.7 miles west of Soo Line.

A view from Midtown Greenway of the steep terrain

MPRB community garden policy emphasizes “inclusive design for the gardens and addressing features such as raised beds, wheelchair access along main paths to common spaces, and other similar amenities to welcome gardeners of all abilities”. The Soo Line garden is currently encouraged, but not required, to follow this policy. It has no such design features, and current pathways do not provide equal access. The county’s plan would improve accessibility not just through the garden, but also to the garden. Soo Line could leverage this improvement by installing raised garden beds near the flat paths at the top of the slope, which could be used by people with limited mobility.

For some disability advocates, the refusal is a red flag. “When a space is not accessible, and people strongly oppose accessibility improvements, it sends the message that disabled people are not welcome there,” said David Fenley, ADA director at the Minnesota Council on Disability. “Folks sometimes think that access improvements will only benefit a small percentage of the population, but when we look at past accessibility improvements we see that everyone benefits. That means improved safety for a kid learning to ride a bike, for parents pushing a stroller, or for grandma who can’t walk as well anymore. Most everyone will develop a disability at some point in their life, and when that time comes for a Soo Line gardener, the garden should be designed so that they do not have to stop gardening there.”

The MPRB policy also prioritizes equity when considering who gets to use Park Board gardens year to year. “Because equity considerations are a key driver of the plot application process, automatic plot renewals will not be permitted,” the policy reads. “All community gardeners will be required to reapply for plots, though they may use previous applications for the following year. Plot holders must leave their assigned garden space clear of all structures and plant materials at the end of each growing year.”

Accessible raised garden beds at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Cepro Site (a naming process is underway) along the Midtown Greenway.

Soo Line Community Garden allows plot renewals and the planting of perennials. Their waiting list has hundreds of people on it, but only about 20 of the 97 plots turn over each year, according to current gardeners.  “Although the gardens are for the community, it seems like the same people get to garden there year after year.” said Christy Marsden, horticulturist and former Soo Line gardener (and board co-chair of Streets.mn). “I think the way folks can get a spot should be completely restructured so that it is accessible to more people, and actually serves the community by allowing more folks to experience gardening.”

Current gardeners said that people who volunteer at the garden receive waitlist priority when any open plots are assigned the following year, though this is not mentioned on the garden’s website or in its policy. Soo Line has attempted to improve equity through an outreach program at Whittier International Elementary School, which has brought in 15 new families from underserved and immigrant communities in the past two years.

Given these incongruences, it is reasonable to ask why MPRB continues to allow Soo Line to follow its own set of rules. Regardless of whether the county’s access ramp plan moves forward on this site, Soo Line could follow the lead of MPRB by adding sections regarding plot renewal and equity to their garden policy. When asked about these accessibility and equity issues, the garden’s board president, Claudia Callaghan, expressed no interest in updating their approach.

In Conclusion

Let’s wrap up with a few closing thoughts on the path, the garden, and what we can do to push for a more accessible Greenway:

  • In some recent cases, environmental impact claims have been real and measurable (Smith Foundry). In other cases, environmental impact claims have been used frivolously to derail plans that would have a positive impact on the climate and the community (Minneapolis 2040 Plan). The evidence presented thus far does not appear to support claims that the county’s project will destroy or significantly harm the Soo Line garden, the environment or the community that gardeners have built together. Soo Line can choose to evolve and embrace an updated identity that welcomes more Whittier community members of all ages and abilities onto the public land to which they have staked a claim. This parkland can easily function as both a beautiful garden area and a peaceful, accessible gateway to the Greenway.
  • There has been an shift away from progressive representation on the Park Board since the 2018 board passed the letter of support for Hennepin County’s request for Regional Solicitation funds for this project, and today’s body of commissioners may be tempted to take the path of least resistance on this issue. The county may need to make an especially compelling case in order to win MPRB approval. Separately, section 4(f) of the U.S. Department of Transportation Act of 1966 dictates that the Federal Highway Administration must determine that there was no feasible and prudent alternative for this transportation use, and that all possible planning has been done to minimize harm to the park property.
  • A 3-minute survey about path alignment options will be available until December 16, on Hennepin County’s project page. Park Board commissioner contact information can be found on the MPRB website.

All photos by Jordan Leick

About Jordan Leick

Jordan Leick enjoys exploring the Twin Cities on his e-bike, adding active transportation infrastructure details to OpenStreetMap wherever he goes. He serves on the Minneapolis Capital Long-Range Improvement Committee and the Marcy Holmes Neighborhood Association board. He can be found on Bluesky @beacon.bsky.social