There isn’t a lot going on at 1607 Monroe Street NE. Occasionally, garbage accumulates in the tall grass, and pedestrians sometimes use it as a shortcut, but it otherwise seems to be a completely unremarkable little patch of land next to the train tracks. But unremarkable patches of land don’t make the news. Nor do they spark community petitions like this one has.
Enter Indeed Brewing Company CEO Tom Whisenand, who began leasing the land in February this year. Indeed has been growing rapidly, so he was eyeing the plot, adjacent to the north of the brewery at 711 15th Avenue NE, for a potential facility expansion to allow for the uptick in production.
The initial plan was to convert the 20,000 sq.-ft. plot of land by the tracks to a parking lot, and expand the brewery into their current parking space. Earlier this year, Artspace, the Northrup King building owner, made a similar maneuver, arranging to lease railroad land to expand their parking; they’ve already installed a fence the railroad required. However, after obtaining the nearby Johnson Paper building to use as a storage facility, Indeed no longer needs the space for expansion, and the land continues to sit unused.
“I thought, gosh, this land has just been sitting here, unused and abandoned for so long,” said Whisenand. “Well, what if we did something else with it? This would make a really nice park or garden.”
Whisenand leases the parcel of land from Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad (BNSF), which owns most of the land along either side of their track as it runs through the city. In order to build anything on the plot, Whisenand needs to get approval from the railroad. He thought it would be an easy request, considering other spaces adjacent to railroad land in Northeast, but BNSF denied it, citing safety concerns.
“It felt kind of like a canned answer. Of course, they want to avoid any risks and maintain control of the land, I understand that,” said Whisenand, disappointed to be turned away at the proverbial gates before being able to present his plans for the site.
He explained that he didn’t necessarily want a full-stop approval right away, but want to at least be given a chance for his ideas to be reviewed. He was more than willing to make any necessary safety precautions asked of him, but he felt he was given a stock denial before he could explain any of that.
The most prominent and local example of a community space that sits on a parcel of railroad-owned land is the Waite Park Community Garden. The Waite Park garden’s land is owned by Canadian Pacific Railway.
Lydia Bjorge, executive director of public affairs for BNSF, explained the issue from the railroad’s point of view.
“When BNSF considers leasing property, we first consider safety of the public and railroad employees. BNSF reviews land use requests on a case-by-case basis and does not approve uses that are not consistent with our safety principles, which is the case here,” she said. “The railroad track next to the proposed garden is an active rail line with regular train traffic. Putting a garden next to active tracks invites pedestrians near the tracks, which could put those pedestrians at potential risk.”
Bjorge went on to explain that, in the past five years, 42 people have been killed or injured in Minnesota while walking on or near railroad tracks.
According to Whisenand, people have been living on the land back along the tree line, and without a fence, pedestrians can come and go as they please. Part of the garden project would have included a fence, but now that there will be no garden, the fence will also remain unbuilt. He said he’s considering giving up the land altogether, since he has no use for it. Before he does that though, he will make one final push to bring the community garden project to fruition.
Whisenand posted a petition on change.org to try to garner community support for the Indeed community garden. He admitted that the endgame is mostly to draw attention to the garden plan; at the time of this writing the petition had 351 signatures. BNSF knows of the petition, and Whisenand said that they have been paying more attention to his proposal since learning of it. Most of the people interested in the petition are people who live nearby.
“What I’m most concerned about is the community that we’re a part of. The kind of development we’ve brought to the area has made it something that it wasn’t 10 years ago. We want to give back to the community with this garden … All they [BNSF] need to do is actually look at this opportunity, and I think they’ll see the benefit,” said Whisenand.
Whisenand said he felt a company that owns as much land within a community as BNSF does owes a debt of stewardship to that community.
While BNSF did refuse the construction of this garden, according to Bjorge, the railroad supports the communities they serve via BNSF Foundation, which provides grants and scholarships to community-based organizations in the states their rails run through.
If you’re interested in signing the petition, you’ll find it at https://www.monroecommunitygarden.org/.
Below: Tom Whisenand, CEO of Indeed Brewing, would like to turn this land owned by BNSF into a community garden. (Photo provided by Tom Whisenand)