Grand Rounds: residents voice environment, traffic concerns

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George Puzak’s family has made its home in the Northeast or Southeast Como neighborhoods for the past 100 years.

With that history behind him, he looks ahead with optimism to the area’s future – and that means the completion of the three-mile “missing link” of the Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway, a 50-mile parkway that weaves around Minneapolis.

When complete, the missing link will connect East River Parkway, part of the Downtown Riverfront Round, with St. Anthony Parkway in the Northeast Round.

Puzak, vice chairman of a 21-member Citizen’s Advisory Committee convened to determine specific objectives for the project, said it’s achievable.

“It’s doable and it’ll help rebuild the urban grid over there – it’s been missing a link through the southeast-northeast area, and that has been missing for generations,” he said.

At a public hearing at Van Cleve Park on June 23, more than a dozen residents gathered, most from areas affected by the missing link and the proposed plans to fill it – which have ranged from bulldozing houses in Southeast Como to winding the path through the area.

They discussed the current recommended route, which would begin at Stinson Boulevard and St. Anthony Parkway and go east through St. Anthony along Gross National Golf Course. It would then follow Industrial Boulevard to East Hennepin, Weeks and 29th avenues southeast. From there it would run underneath the Burlington Northern railroad tracks to Kasota Avenue Southeast, and over the railyard to connect with Granary Road, a new thoroughfare proposed by the City of Minneapolis. It would then follow 27th Avenue Southeast near the University of Minnesota campus, ending at East River Parkway.

Green space proposed to accompany the potential roadways and bike and walking paths along the route was a focal point for residents, as was the impact the missing link might have for the neighborhoods surrounding the would-be parkway.

Southeast Como Improvement Association President Wendy Menken attended the meeting, and spoke out. While she said she personally and as a community member approves the plan to fill the Grand Rounds’ hole, officials should take the opportunity to bring amenities to the city’s north and east sides.

Compared with other parts of the city that have a Grand Rounds line, “It’s just night and day,” she said. “You see the Grand Round on the south side of the city, and not only do lakes help define it, you can see green around it because it’s more than just a parkway; there’s parks and gardens.”

Those types of amenities would draw people to the area as well as increase the well-being of citizens already established there, she said.

Additionally, Menken said, there simply isn’t a good place for residents – old and young – to safely enjoy the area.

“We’ve got [an] aging population that might like to go walk somewhere that maybe isn’t very long but is a nice place to walk,” she said, adding that this project is capable of providing such a place.

But several residents worried that widening roads to accommodate the proposed parkway’s traffic would eliminate greenery from certain areas.

Puzak said the process is a careful one that would offer long-term benefits to the community at large.

“If a parkway was completed and then we add open space as time goes on as parcels become available,” he said, “to create the open-space amenities near the residential Como neighborhood – those types of strategic moves take years to complete.”

Puzak also noted that land swaps between institutions and business relocation are other potential sources for green space.

Menken said the ecological aspect of the project should be seen as an opportunity.

“We talk about being a green city, we should look at this as an opportunity to put incentives into place and do sort of an evolution,” she said, “with a sustainability/new industry concept.”

Aside from the look of the parkway, residents also showed concern for a more fundamental aspect of a new roadway: traffic.

The issue is amplified with construction on the new University of Minnesota football stadium underway, with games expected to draw tens of thousands to the area near Southeast Como by fall 2009.

“I’d like to stress the importance of limiting access to the Grand Rounds from campus event traffic,” longtime Southeast Como resident Emilie Quast said, insisting that university traffic must be separated from the parkway.

Puzak acknowledged increased pedestrian and especially vehicle flow to be issues. He said he’d like to eliminate trucking traffic from the southeast area, and leave the missing link open to vehicle, pedestrian and bicycle traffic only.

A resident raised a question of how the project’s projected $105 million price tag will be paid. Park Board officials at the meeting were quick to clarify that the project is still in its early stages and that funding will be secured later, pending official project approval. State, federal and local sources will be tapped to complete the project.

The third and last public hearing for this phase of project planning is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on July 1 at Windom Park, 2251 Hayes St. NE.