Plan to expand “forested green space” in Uptown at risk over parking concerns

You may not have realized Uptown’s “the Mall” is a park because it functions like a parking lot. There’s even a long-range plan, adopted by the Minneapolis Park and Rec Board in 2020, that would install “forested and open green space” to replace some of the parking at the west end of the Mall. But two commissioners elected in 2021, Elizabeth Shaffer and Cathy Abene, have initiated a process that could scrap that part of the plan. Among their concerns are loss of 25 parking spots, public safety, and preserving the “historic symmetric design” of the parkway/parking lot.

Note: MPRB is voting on this language tonight (Tuesday, May 7 at 5 pm) if you want to show up and testify.

MPRB’s adopted long range plan for the Mall in Uptown.
Existing conditions of the Mall in Uptown.

Listening to the community

In her April 24 comments about pausing decision-making on the plan, Shaffer began by saying this was about listening to the community and staying true to the MPRB’s organizational structure: “on the flow chart, it starts with community.”

But the truth is, when the plan for the Mall was adopted in 2020, there had been a formal community engagement process. There were 18 in-person meetings over 16 months. I went to several. They even had food. There was a page on the MPRB website letting you know how and when to get involved. In other words, there were ways to know it was happening. MPRB wanted to hear from you.

When Shaffer now talks about listening to the community, the “community” she’s referring to is last minute petitioning from a particular segment (one of whom is a former state DFL chair) who oppose the adopted plan.

How was any regular member of the public supposed to know they needed to get involved to voice their support? This issue had been officially settled. The previous board adopted the plan. If you — a person who really listens to the community — are going to reopen a decision because you didn’t like the result or the outcome of community engagement, you probably should’ve let the community know they needed to reengage for another round.

Emergency vehicle access

Because this would be a radical departure from an adopted plan, it’s important for the Shaffer-Abene amendment to claim the changes are motivated by preserving public safety. It’s hard to argue with public safety. Their language calls on MPRB staff to go to the city engineer and fire marshal “to get expert confirmation that this plan creates no public safety impacts for emergency vehicles or neighborhood traffic patterns.”

At an April 24 Planning Committee meeting, Commissioner Rucker jumped ahead of that process. He had visited the site days earlier, on Saturday, and met with a group of residents pushing against the master plan. Rucker, who is also a Minneapolis firefighter, read from his phone screen the private correspondence he’s had with his work colleague, Minneapolis Fire Chief Bryan Tyner (aka the fire marshal).

Tyner concedes that “To date I have not received any formal plans or proposals for this space.” But “It has my come to my attention however that there are discussions taking place to fill in the access point.”

Despite saying he hasn’t reviewed the plan (and it’s hard to say what he’s been told by Rucker or other opponents), Chief Tyner concludes that “It is my recommendation that the area in question remain open for vehicle access for purposes of emergency response and that the Mall area not be filled in.”

For the sake of appearances, I want Chief Tyner to see the plan before he recommends against it.

The Mall area would not be filled in and emergency vehicles would still have access

MPRB Assistant Superintendent Michael Schroeder (who has reviewed the plan) told commissioners that their long range plans do take emergency vehicle access into consideration, that this plan only affects two blocks worth of the mall, and that the streets in front of all the buildings would remain open and unchanged.

It’s also worth noting that access to the Mall from Hennepin Avenue was permanently closed in 1981. That seems like it’d be a bigger deal for emergency vehicle access, but we’ve managed somehow.

Where will they park?

The Shaffer-Abene amendment emphasizes the need to preserve the Mall as parking for residents of nearby buildings. But as Commissioner Forney noted during committee, using the Mall as 24 hour parking for residential buildings is technically illegal. The MPRB code of ordinances prohibit parking overnight on parkways. It’s not the Park Board’s mission to provide parking, especially not at the expense of land that could be used as a park.

By the end of the meeting, Commissioner Olsen had gotten worked up. He was the lone voice, on a Park Board Planning Committee, in defense of more green space. “This plan as it stands is everything the park board stands for” — larger recreation space, green space, tree canopy, carbon intake, a community garden, water retention.

Shaffer responded to Olsen: “This is in no way to disregard the work of the CAC. We are all about green space. We are about water reclamation. We are ab out reducing our carbon footprint. You’re absolutely right, Commissioner Olsen.”

Shaffer continued: “The cost benefit we have to look at here is the traffic and safety vs. the amount of green space that we’re getting.”

I think Shaffer may be underestimating the public space occupied by nearly a thousand feet of street parking and the adjacent drive lane. All to accommodate a few dozen parking spaces.

The land area that could be reclaimed as green space on the Mall approaches the size of the Soo Line Garden. It’s an issue worth raising because Shaffer and a majority of her colleagues decided in March that the Soo Line was too precious to accommodate, on a small piece of its land (5%!), an ADA trail to access the Midtown Greenway.

If you have feelings about park space vs parking, here are the ways to have an impact in order of how effective they are: 1) express your opinions in person during the public comment period at tonight’s MPRB meeting, 2) make a phone call to your district commissioner and the 3 at-large commissioners, or 3) send an email to your commissioners.