After years of meetings, both formal and informal, neighbors living around Como Park have found focus for concerns about traffic, noise and other conditions that arise from having a regional park in one’s back yard.
The announcement that Como Pool will be closed next summer, pending its renovation, has brought both relief and anxiety to neighbors glad to see the improvement finally happening but wondering whether the facility that replaces it will add yet more congestion to the park after renovations to the conservatory, zoo and amusement park in the past decade. And some neighbors feel increasing frustration that smaller park features have been neglected.
The District 10 Community Council has long advocated for neighborhood involvement in Como Park. But a new organization has emerged in recent months to take a more active role in making sure residents’ voices are heard in new development and to encourage renovation of lesser-known features of the park. Como Park Alliance (not to be confused with Como Friends, the recently renamed zoo and conservatory fundraising organization) is running an online survey about the pool (http://comopark.us/como-park-alliance) and has begun regular meetings the third Saturday of every month at the pavilion in Como Park.
Susan Jane Cheney, who has lived in the neighborhood for 14 years, said her interest began with water quality concerns and has broadened to include the many historic and natural features in the park. She said the century-old lily pond, at the west end of the footbridge across Lexington Avenue, “was a fabulous feature” but is now dry and crumbling and deserves repair.
And the large stone chimney west of the swimming pool, known as “the Dutch oven,” has inspired plans for an environmental science lab that schools could use, if funding for its renovation can be found.
Activists hasten to emphasize that they don’t blame Parks and Recreation staff for the park’s condition. “They’re doing a fabulous job with the resources they have,” Cheney said, adding that staff members work more hours than they’re paid for to keep up the park as best they can. But she sees “an imbalance of resources” as the big developments around the zoo attract larger crowds and other areas of the park deteriorate.
Parks staff take issue with this image, listing improvements over the past 10 years that include $1 million for lakeshore restoration, $2.5 million for soccer fields and $40,000 in this year’s budget for the outdoor classroom.
But the list shows some $25 million for the education center at the zoo entrance, and about $5 million more for conservatory improvements, lending some credence to concerns that most of the city’s dollars are going to that part of the park.
And Como isn’t just a city park. Because it’s designated to serve a broader area, the state is supposed to be chipping in
40 percent of the budget for maintenance — as opposed to capital projects, which are handled separately. State money comes through the Metropolitan Council, which distributes it among regional parks based on a complex formula that includes the number of visitors served.
Mike Hahm, of Parks and Recreation, said the Met Council estimates there are 2.5 million visits to Como Park each year, 1.9 million of which are accounted for by the zoo and conservatory. An estimated 16 percent of park visitors come from the city of St. Paul, he said.
Parks and Recreation Director Bob Bierscheid said the state’s appropriations have been much lower than promised, running around 10 percent in recent years. That leaves the city to cover as much as it can with less than it needs. Como shares staff with other city parks in the westernmost of three city parks areas.
Bierscheid said the zoo, conservatory and Como Town, sometimes known as “Como Campus,” are, for funding purposes, a separate entity. Parts of the park, such as the athletic fields, are managed through the city’s recreation programs. The pool is in “special services” just for aquatics. And new construction or renovation is dealt with in the city’s biennial capital improvements budget.
All these distinctions and jurisdictions make it difficult to examine the budget and management of what people commonly think of as “Como Park.”
Como Alliance hopes to help neighbors find their way through the administrative labyrinth and improve communication among stakeholders, “so it’s a united effort,” Cheney said.
The plan to renovate the pool could turn out to be a test of stakeholders’ abilities to get a handle on the issues and come to an agreement.
Bierscheid has announced a community meeting to discuss the pool, to be held at 6:30 p.m. on October 30 at the Como Visitors Center (the entrance to the zoo and conservatory). The Met Council has approved money to plan its replacement, he said, and a citizen task force will be formed to help create the plan.
Other steps are already in place, including a recommendation from the Parks Commission, which has chosen its representative for the task force, Bierscheid said. As of mid-September, no other task force members had been chosen.
The pool was introduced in the city’s budget two years ago, Bierscheid said, noting that the city’s capital improvement budget, or CIB, runs in two-year cycles. The introduction, which did not lead that year to adoption, was a typical strategy to acquaint city officials with the need for a large project, Biersheid said. “We knew it wouldn’t get funded.”
Neighbors have said, though, that notice of that budget item reached the community and has given them a scare because of the project’s apparent scale.
Longtime resident and former District Council member Chai Insook, one neighbor who found that proposal alarming, now finds hope in the city’s openness about planning for the pool.
“This is a big win for the community,” Insook said, adding that as the city moves forward, “neighborhood vigilance is absolutely critical.”
“There are some in the community who are concerned that we’re going to build something huge, and we’re not,” Bierscheid said. He said there is no plan to solicit a private partner to help operate a pool — or a “water park,” as some have characterized the possibilities.
“If you bring in a private partnership,” Bierscheid said, “the bottom line is going to drive them.” He said the priority for the pool is public recreation, not revenue, and his department does not want to lose that emphasis.
If the neighborhood is nervous about the pool, it’s with some reason. According to Cheney, traffic counts around Como Park have increased dramatically since the zoo and conservatory got their makeover and Como Town was renovated a few years ago.
Insook said corporate events and private parties draw huge crowds, and the recent liquor license request by Lancer Catering, the food-and-beverage service that runs the Zooper Café and caters events at the site, has fueled neighbors’ concerns that the operation will keep getting bigger.
Insook said the events stretch the hours of noise and traffic, as do the extended summer hours at Como Town. While the improved rides are exciting and neighbors take pride in the park’s popularity, he said, “some of them would like to have their calm neighborhood back and their calm evenings back.”
But Insook said his concerns are about more than nuisances, important though those are.
“It’s easy to sell the idea that public-private partnerships are good,” he said. “I believe the reason is because when these partnerships are forged, the city and business partners are fixated on their positive benefits. The negative consequences are simply left undiscovered.”
He gave another, smaller example of the effect of private operations at the park: the Black Bear food operation at the lakeside pavilion. He said he looked into renting the pavilion for a private event when the city still ran the place, and it cost about $300. He checked again and found that it cost more like $1,100 for a similar rental after Black Bear assumed the concession.
Moreover, Insook said, he used to take a picnic lunch and eat it at the pavilion, but the building area is now locked up, and because the concession area is now a restaurant, people aren’t allowed to bring in food.
“There’ve been some confrontations,” Insook said, with police being called when picnickers refused to leave.
Insook also said Lancer Catering appears to have reserved some popular weekend hours at the picnic shelters down the hill from the zoo. “If that happens to be the day you wanted to have your event, you have to cater from Lancer,” Insook said.
“The important thing is that Como Park is more than just a park,” said District 10 Council member and Land Use Committee Chair Luke Kuhl. “The park is the core of our community. You want as many people as possible to use it, but not so it detracts from the neighborhood.”
One further initiative may go a long way towards reconciling park stakeholders: the shuttle that’s expected to begin operating next spring. Insook said the idea is 20 years old and is finally coming to fruition because everyone agrees that traffic through and around the park has become unbearable.
The city is negotiating parking locations in several places and expects that long before the polar bears take up residence in their new home, sometime in 2010, the people who come to watch them will have settled in comfortably with their new transportation.