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The Works

In Light Rail Fight, One Person’s Swampland Is Another’s Parkland

A Minneapolis controversy pits park preservationists against smart growth advocates.

A light-rail train pulls into a Minneapolis station. (AP Photo/Janet Hostetter)

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As suburban planners nationwide begin to embrace the dense, transit-oriented principals of smart growth, friction between urban- and conservation-oriented greens is spurring ugly legal battles, secession from regional planning boards and even an in-depth analysis on what kills more birds: solar or cats.

In Minneapolis, this particular blend of controversy (minus the cats) is brewing over a proposed light-rail line that would cut through a strip of land called the Kenilworth Corridor.

So what, exactly, is the Kenilworth Corridor? That turns out to be a central question as plans for the $1.65 billion Southwest LRT line proceed — or don’t.

In the most technical terms, it’s an area of southwest Minneapolis between two lakes that’s threaded by freight lines and an active bike and pedestrian path. Some areas, particularly around the waterways, are also public parkland.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, which opposes the light rail’s proposed route, has described the area in pastoral language. The bike path “coexists in a naturalized and peaceful setting with the freight line,” according to a resolution from August 2013. The same document describes the Kenilworth Channel, which connects the two lakes, as “a bucolic waterway,” popular for kayaking, canoeing and winter snowshoeing.

Planned route of Minneapolis’ Southwest LRT (Credit: Metropolitan Council)

But Hennepin County Commissioner Peter McLaughlin, a supporter of the line’s currently proposed footprint, uses different language.

“It’s a human-made channel that was dredged between two swamps. It’s not a pristine trout stream,” he says. “Its vegetation is volunteer vegetation that grew up around a freight yard.”

Their differing descriptions follow divergent visions for the area. McLaughlin champions the plan as is: a 16-mile line connecting downtown Minneapolis with the suburban communities of St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. Its blueprint shows the line passing through Kenilworth Corridor via a shallow tunnel and emerging to span the channel on a bridge.

Park Board commissioners, however, have worried that the tunnel-and-bridge combo as proposed will “permanently damage the recreational, cultural and aesthetic experience of [Minneapolis Regional Park Board] parklands and assets at a particularly fragile and critical location,” again, according to that 2013 resolution. A document from last November shows one alternative that they claim hasn’t been fully explored: a tunnel burrowing under the narrow waterway. (A representative for the park board pointed me to these documents after I sent an interview request and questions. One commissioner, president Liz Wielinski, did answer a question via email that wasn’t duplicated in the public record.)

They aren’t alone. Another group called the Lakes and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis filed a lawsuit last year against the project, contending that its environmental impacts need to be more fully studied. Along with questions about ridership, board member Stuart Chazin says the group is opposed to the project because it will take down several thousand trees and destroy green space. The Alliance’s website devotes an entire page to pretty photos of the path and channel under the headline “Paving Paradise.”

But McLaughlin takes issue with this conservation-oriented approach. When I first solicit his opinion on the project’s “preservationists” he asks if I mean “NIMBYs.”

“They need to step back,” he says. “They’re saying they’re environmentalists but they need to look at what it’s going to mean to kill this project.”

In a letter sent to Minneapolis’ mayor and city council last year, the Sierra Club North Star Chapter, Transit for Livable Communities and several other advocacy groups made similar smart growth arguments.

“The City of Minneapolis has set a goal, as approved in its Climate Action Plan, of achieving a 15 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emission by 2015 and 30 percent reduction by 2025,” it states, adding that transportation generates 25 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in Minnesota. “The [Southwest] LRT is critical to the City’s ability to reach its emissions and VMT goals.”

To be fair, the Park Board hasn’t said that it wants to kill the project, but wants to make sure that no viable alternative to the tunnel-and-bridge option exists. But to that end, it has hired legal counsel to explore a federal preservation law that could jeopardize the line’s funding. Section 4(f) of the Department of Transportation Act states that no historic or public parkland can be used for a federally assisted transportation project unless no “feasible and prudent” alternative exists.

Enacted in 1966, the law has a fascinating history that grew out of the mid-century freeway craze.

“The interstate building boom was in its peak,” explains Joe Trnka, an instructor for the National Preservation Institute who teaches a class on 4(f). Because cities already owned parkland, they were able to quickly — and cheaply — provide their local match to federal funds, converting public parkland into freeways.

“All of a sudden it was being done all over the country,” he says, adding that the law aimed to stop the disturbing trend.

With some historic land abutting parkland, the Park Board is looking seriously at 4(f). But to some rail advocates, their opposition looks shortsighted. After all, as the Sierra Club and others have pointed out, the project could (and based on the ridership numbers of Minneapolis’ other lines, likely will) decrease freeway and road traffic. And one strip of green space may not matter so much as Minnesota’s temperatures skyrocket in coming years.

“We’re trying to create a 21st-century transportation system in an urban environment that will be sustainable and competitive,” McLaughlin says.

For now, the project’s website states that service will begin in 2019. And as of its January 7th meeting, the Park Board still plans to explore alternative routes with 4(f) in mind. And the fate of Kenilworth Channel — be it bucolic waterway ideal for conservation or human-dredged channel ready to be bridged — is still unclear.

The Works is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Rachel Dovey is an award-winning freelance writer and former USC Annenberg fellow living at the northern tip of California’s Bay Area. She writes about infrastructure, water and climate change and has been published by Bust, Wired, Paste, SF Weekly, the East Bay Express and the North Bay Bohemian

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Tags: parkslight railminneapolis

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