New park planning head brings open “studio” approach

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Northeast, Nicollet Island and Marcy Holmes neighborhood activists and park lovers thought of it as an annoying parting gift from a former parks superintendent—a grandiose plan for Boom Island and the former B.F. Nelson factory site. It would have included a water park and all sorts of revenue-generating, active amenities. Residents were pushing to leave the area passive and natural, or at least, to slow down and consider it in the context of other regional parks and the recently acquired Scherer Brothers land.

That was early summer 2010; the Boom Island/B.F. Nelson plan then disappeared from Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board agendas, the superintendent post changed hands and six of the park planning staff were dismissed as systemwide, “21 positions were eliminated, most at the management level,” according to the Superintendent’s Annual Report 2010.

Now the Boom Island and B.F. Nelson areas are almost finished as areas that “at least will grow something, with new trails,” said the new Assistant Superintendent for Park Planning, Bruce Chamberlain. It’s more about creating space, a passive park for gatherings, family-friendly, the environment inviting, “a series of spaces, a strong picnic destination that will work much better for events.”

Chamberlain’s approach, for the parks planning department to create what he calls a collaborative “studio” environment into which the public is a welcome partner, comes at a time when Northeast and North Minneapolis projects are in the spotlight. “For a long time, there was heavy investment around the Chain of Lakes.” Those are done or wrapping up, and “now the focus is on North and Northeast,” he said.

Here are the Northeast Minneapolis locations included in upcoming Capital Improvement Program 2012 plans and a schedule going out 4-5 years: Northeast Park, Dickman Park, Hiview, Logan, Waite, Windom.

River area: Above the Falls Regional Park, Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park, North Mississippi Regional Park.

North Minneapolis: Theodore Wirth Regional Park, Webber Park, Bassett’s Creek Park, Bethune Park, Cleveland Park, Farview, Folwell, Harrison.

With the changeover in staff, much of the Capital Improvement spending planned for 2011 didn’t get done, leaving about $22 million total for 2012.

Chamberlain is a landscape architect with 22 years experience at private firms working on public projects. MPRB planners previously identified and shepherded projects that were then drawn and spec’d by outside consultants. In the new model, his staff of mostly landscape architects will do “lots of

in-house preparation of construction documents.” In addition, there are two, going on three, planners who work with the public.

“I’m excited about transforming the way the organization does business, involving the community and making it a fun place to work,” Chamberlain said. The open and collaborative approach is evident in other departments, too, he said, “More communication is happening between management and staff. Jayne [Miller, the new superintendent] has quarterly meetings with staff and is out in the field every other week. People have mentioned that before ‘no one ever talked to us.’”

On the North Side—with regional impact—both Webber Park and Wirth Park have undergone charrettes to gather public input on major changes. (“Charrette” comes from the French word for “cart”.) Designers, including outside consultants, swarm the physical area, meeting back periodically at different times of the day with those who use and care about the park. They then generate drawings that the public can react to, conversing one-on-one or in small groups. The processes also included some more traditional meeting or large group reporting sessions.

About Wirth, where a preliminary plan under the old administration pitted the cross-country skiing community against the Par 3 golf course community, Chamberlain said, “I stepped in and gave some critique to how Wirth was going. It was a train wreck on the way. I suggested: Look at all the competing programs in the context of each others. The charrette accomplished that, not so much in the drawings yet, but in theory. There can be a bike event trail in the context of golf, but it would require a change to the 18-hole golf course.”

He said functions like winter skiing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, sledding, hiking and winter mountain biking are still a challenge to golf. For example, the tubing hill (which used to be the sledding hill, the 10th Fairway on the golf course) requires snow-making, and the extra snow doesn’t melt until May, delaying the golf opening. The charrette has suggested how to fix that, but the solution hasn’t met acceptance yet. A followup meeting of the Wirth Park Citizen Advisory Committee is set for Nov. 15.

At Webber Park, where the swimming pool facility, already tired, was disabled by the tornado, Chamberlain found a pleasant surprise in the idea that “we could accomplish a swimming beach as an open activity, not encased in a fence. The pool can be controlled.” The beach can somewhat take the place of a free wading pool, making that an option for families who can’t afford the pool. The pool, with paid admission, can more likely accommodate lap swimmers.

How else will the new administration’s approach affect local parks? Chamberlain said there’s been criticism that the parks are “cookie cutter,” all having the same features. Individual park planning will now be done in context of geographic regions—providing different complementary features at parks within easy reach of each other, and in terms of “a bunch of models.” Those models include “program”—once physical changes are made, what kinds of activities will be accommodated, “an enterprise model, of investment and return, a financial model, a community service model, an operational/maintenance model…we’ll be deciding about capital investments based on sustainability factors.”

Chamberlain’s group will be working on a plan for all the courts in town, and for all the fields, as well as the geographic regions. The staff work plan “is still being revised” but will also include assigning champions for different parts of the city. They will be expected to participate with other agencies that affect the work they’ll be doing. For example, Andrew Caddock will have the riverfront and the “Missing Link” in Northeast.

Asked how the winding down of the Neighborhood Revitalization Program will affect the parks, Chamberlain said, “NRP was a huge funding source, it will impact funds available for neighborhood parks.” Some of the earliest playgrounds put in with NRP funds are due to be replaced again. About $4.9 million in general funds has been added to budgets for neighborhood parks.

Chamberlain’s personal connection to parks runs “not on pavement.” Living in Linden Hills he enjoys trail running, biking, cross-country skiing and other outdoor activities.

“I rebuilt my house, it’s a design laboratory—no community process there, except for my wife,” he joked. He has a 4-year-old son, Benjamin, and dog Checkers. He’s a history and genealogy buff, and is active in the professional association, American Society of Landscape Architects.

New park planning head brings open “studio” approach