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Park Board's Cedar-Isles vision errs on the side of taking a 'lighter touch'

22 June 2022

A proposal to guide the Minneapolis Park Board’s management of Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles for the next 30 years opts for minimal changes, emphasizing ecological restoration over man-made amenities.

“The initial park concepts … had some really big ideas,” Project Manager Emma Pachutasaid. “We sussed out some of these ideas with both the public as well as our advisory committee members … and genuinely what we heard from folks is they wanted a little bit of a lighter touch.”

The master planning process for Cedar Lake and Lake of the Isles, part of the Chain of Lakes Regional Park, began in fall 2019. A dilemma emerged at the start around how to make the park more welcoming to its millions of yearly visitors — likely to increase with the eventual addition of a light-rail stop on the east side of Cedar Beach — while preserving the sense of escape and seclusion that draws them there.

That conversation led to a set of initial concepts full of ambitious offerings. The Park Board’s design consultants, led by Ten x Ten landscape architects, proposed new boardwalks and lake decks, permanent bathrooms, picnic pavilions, a year-round warming house and an outdoor classroom.

Five months of feedback ensued. A Community Advisory Committee (CAC), composed mostly of nearby residents, met for many hours during the past two years.

The result was that the single preferred concept released Wednesday tamps initial appetite for new infrastructure and proposes formalizing existing amenities instead, such as soft-surface trails, boat launches and a concert area at Cedar’s East Beach, also known as Hidden Beach.

“So, keeping it really natural,” said Pachuta. “People really liked the feel of it being sort of hidden in a forest, so we’re not looking to over-formalize this space.”

Water quality was an early focus of the CAC process and a point of consensus. The preferred concept includes marsh restoration, rain gardens, tree trenches and shoreline buffers around both lakes by expanding their littoral edges — the shallow area between land and water where plants help to naturally filter runoff.

There was less agreement on the CAC about the addition of new infrastructure, CAC Chair Win Rockwellsaid. “When the Park Board is clearly struggling with maintenance of what it has, the idea of adding yet more … seems unwise.”

The preferred concept includes new signage to make entry points more welcoming and ADA-compliant picnic areas but offers no new permanent structures, nor bike and watercraft rentals. Additional bathrooms and a winter warming house would be only temporary. And while initial ideas included options to close or reduce lanes of vehicular traffic, the preferred concept asks only that car lanes in the northwest portion of Cedar be narrowed by 2.5 feet to accommodate more space for pedestrians and bicyclists.

The concept also calls for creating a new soft-surface pedestrian trail along the Kenilworth Channel and a paved, two-way bike connection near the southwest portion of Lake of the Isles.

CAC member Aaron Shaffer said that despite Cedar and Lake of the Isles’ regional park status, the concerns of immediate neighbors dominated the CAC process. He was surprised at the intensity of pushback against a two-way bikeway at Lake of the Isles and permanent bathrooms — something he partly attributes to pandemic-necessitated virtual meetings that allowed attendees to pepper the chat with dismissive reactions to many changes.

“The group itself, the makeup was pretty heavily white, middle- or upper-class,” Shaffer said. “The solution would be to pay people to be on the CAC probably, so someone wouldn’t have to sacrifice, pay for a babysitter or something, in order to share their opinion.”

To broaden community feedback, the Park Board paid for interviews with disability advocates and park users of color, who suggested adding wheelchair-accessible paths, permanent bathrooms and family gathering areas such as picnic shelters with grills.

The preferred concept also proposes acquiring new land from a private property owner along the Kenilworth Channel, as well as a large parcel to the northeast of Cedar that currently belongs to the Hennepin County Housing and Redevelopment Authority.

The concept was presented to the CAC on Wednesday night. It can be viewed on the Cedar-Isles Master Plan project page. Members of the public are invited to take part in a survey. An open house is scheduled for Saturday.

After the CAC makes its final recommendations, park staff will make updates to the preferred concept and create a draft plan, which will go out for a 45-day comment period. Park Board commissioners may vote on a final Cedar-Isles plan this winter.

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