Will 2019 be the year the “Missing Link” is finally connected? Maybe not, but the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board (MPRB) hopes to get the green light on a project that’s been around almost as long as the Park Board itself. They’ve been trying to hook up Northeast and Southeast Minneapolis to the Grand Rounds parkway system for more than 100 years.
“This gap in the parkway system is a 130-year-old issue,” Carrie Christensen, project manager for the East of the River Parks Plan, said at the December 13 meeting of the Northeast Park Neighborhood Association. She said MPRB has identified three possible routes that would start at 27th Avenue S. and E. Franklin Avenue, jump across the Mississippi River, run through the Towerside and Mid-City Industrial neighborhoods and connect with St. Anthony Boulevard in Northeast. The three routes were proposed in the East of the River Parks Plan and will go to the full Board of Commissioners for consideration in February.
A little history
The idea of a circular route around Minneapolis dates back to 1883, when H.W.S. Cleveland went to the newly-minted Minneapolis Board of Park Commissioners to propose a series of connected parks and parkways all around the city. The idea was championed by William Watts Folwell (for whom Folwell Hall at the University of Minnesota was named), who called the parkway system the “Grand Rounds.” Subsequent park superintendents, including William M. Berry and Theodore Wirth, also pushed the idea. East River Parkway, West River Parkway, Minnehaha Parkway, the Chain of Lakes, Wirth Parkway, Victory Memorial Parkway and St. Anthony Parkway are all the products of their work.
Today, the Grand Rounds are the country’s longest continuous system of public urban parkways and are part of the National Scenic Byways program. The roadway has been nominated for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places.
One last connection remains to be made. Plans for the completion of the Missing Link were put forward in 1910, 1918, 1930, 1939 and 2009. The 2009 Master Plan aimed at getting consensus for the project from the University of Minnesota, Hennepin County and the City of Minneapolis.
In the early years, geography kept the project from moving from drawing board to reality. Much of the area in Southeast where the link was supposed to go was wetlands, and Bridal Veil Creek flowed through them, over a falls and into the river. (Today, the highly polluted creek flows through underground pipes.) In the 1930s and ’40s, a large gravel quarry (the same one the Quarry shopping center is named after) stood in the way; now it’s I-35W. The period between 1950 and 1980 saw a lot of industrial development between the freeway and Broadway.
Just north of the University of Minnesota, park planners had to contend with active rail lines, a large rail yard and grain elevators.
Work on some of the Missing Link has already occurred. In 2018, the City of Minneapolis, MPRB and the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) entered into an agreement to build a shared-use trail segment on MnDOT right-of-way along Industrial Blvd. The trail was installed on the west side of Industrial Boulevard, connecting across 35W to Ridgway Parkway. The City owns the segment and is responsible for maintaining trail surfaces. The Park Board will cover routine maintenance including plowing, mowing and sweeping. Plans call for continuation of the trail up to Broadway Street in 2019.
MPRB has been working with developers in the Towerside district, an area mostly north of University Avenue across from the Witch’s Hat Water Tower park, to take the Missing Link into consideration when they plan their projects.
Based on public input, MPRB staff put together three different proposals for the Missing Link, which are included in the 2018 East of the River Parks Plan.
The preferred route
The MPRB’s preferred plan takes the most direct route possible from East River Parkway to St. Anthony Parkway. The alternate plans follow the same basic route with some deviations to the east or west to make accommodations for things that may be in the way, such as railyards. One such obstacle is in Southeast. Getting it approved by multiple stakeholders could be a daunting task. In its proposal, MPRB concedes, “This railyard crossing [from Malcolm Avenue to Kasota Avenue] is the most complex infrastructural component of the GRML [Grand Rounds Missing Link], and will require multi-agency consensus, fundraising, and effort to accomplish.”
Getting consensus from interested entities may be the biggest challenge of realizing the Missing Link. The City of Minneapolis, the County and BNSF Railroad own almost all the right-of-way along the route. Negotiations with them could take a considerable amount of time. The University, for example, would like to see the link intersect with the U of M Transitway on 27h Avenue SE; MPRB wants to use 29th Avenue SE, where fewer changes to traffic signals would be required. Rail crossings at other points along the route are of concern, too. At the December meeting, Christensen said, “The railroad crossing in the Mid-City neighborhood could take decades to develop.”
If the MPRB Board accepts the preferred plan, there will still be much work to do. Right-of-way easements will need to be worked out; land may need to be acquired. Road construction projects will be needed to make the connections smooth. For example, some turn lanes at the intersection of St. Anthony Parkway and New Brighton Blvd. could be eliminated to create safer bike and pedestrian crossings and add more green space along the route. Amenities such as trees and benches will be placed along the trail. All of this is estimated to cost about $27 million.
When it’s all done, the loop will close at last. And then MPRB will have to come up with a name for the new parkway: It won’t be the Missing Link any more.
Below: Missing Link Preferred Route – From bottom to top, the red line on the map: East River Parkway north on 27th Avenue SE to 4th Avenue SE (also known as “Green 4th”). Then, 4th Avenue SE (Green 4th) to Malcolm Ave. From Malcolm, an elevated crossing would take bicyclists, walkers and automobiles over the BNSF railyard to Kasota Avenue SE and continue along the Minneapolis/St. Paul boundary to East Hennepin and Industrial Blvd. Read the entire proposal at https://www.minneapolisparks.org/_asset/895jfr/Chapter-4-Parks-Regional-Trail.pdf