The Minneapolis Park Board has killed a pilot project to assess how to make parkway closures for special events look more attractive and cost less.
The pilot also would have studied the feasibility of hosting "Open Parkways" events in which park users could walk, roller-blade, bike and play in segments temporarily closed to cars. The notion elicited enough pushback from the state's DFL Senior Caucus and others to make park commissioners suspend the project despite having sunk eight months of work and $66,000 on it.
"This is certainly a very hot topic issue, especially for people affiliated with the Senior Caucus, and I think it's really a mobility issue for them," said Commissioner Cathy Abene, co-chair of the Planning Committee, which voted to suspend the pilot last month.
The Park Board operates 55 miles of parkways, which can be closed up to twice a month to accommodate short-term events like 5Ks, festivals and firework shows. Members of the public typically apply for permits to host the events and carry the cost of renting the necessary barricades and traffic signs.
With the outbreak of COVID-19 in spring 2020, the Park Board closed parkways to cars over four months with the idea that it would add space for active park users to socially distance. Sections of eight parkways, totaling 21 miles, were closed at a cost of $250,000.
The long-term closures were well-received by many park users who embraced the opportunity to safely walk and run the parkways, but they were also prohibitively expensive to continue. And without signs explaining how traffic had been intentionally suspended to promote recreation, people weren't sure if they were stumbling upon construction zones.
One of the previous Park Board's final actions from December 2021 was to order a study of better-looking barricades — including flower planters and branded signage — that they could buy and rent to event organizers to generate revenue. Additionally, the monthlong "Open Parkways" experiment was scheduled for this summer within a segment of West River Parkway between 4th Avenue N. and 13th Avenue S. During the pilot, staff were to survey park users and explore whether to expand or discontinue Park Board-hosted "Open Parkways" events.
It would not have considered permanently closing parkways to cars or changing parkway policy to increase the frequency of temporary closures.
"What we've be able to do is, instead of the [rental] companies coming and taking the barricades and the signage right after an event is done, we could then leave them in place for the rest of the day to be used as recreation space," said Park Design Project Manager Carol HejlStone.
Still, the DFL Senior Caucus feared that the pilot would be "a step toward the desire to transition parkways solely to active human use, meaning non-vehicular usage," according to their statement. "This is elitist and serves some at the expense of others."
In addition to concerns about disability access, members of the public also raised questions of whether closing West River Parkway, part of the national Great River Road route, for car-free events would run afoul of the 10-state Mississippi River Parkway Commission.
The commission's Minnesota director, Chris Miller, said it would not.
"There are closures from time to time," she said. "The Minnesota Great River Road is 565 miles in length going through 20 counties and all kinds of different roadway jurisdictions. Things do happen. For temporary closures for events and such, as long as the signage is there to help people know where to go, that sounded sufficient."
So far this year, the Park Board has issued 11 notices for event-related closures of West River Parkway.
Park Board President Meg Forney and Planning Committee members Abene, Elizabeth Shaffer and Alicia D. Smith voted to suspend the "Open Parkways" pilot. Becky Alper voted to continue it, and Tom Olsen was absent.
Olsen said he was frustrated to see the pilot "shot down" before staff could gather thorough feedback from park users and mitigate concerns that some have raised.
"If it's truly authentically creating a nightmare where things aren't accessible, then OK, maybe we find it's not right for the parks, but right now I think we're kind of going off of conjecture and opinions," he said. "For me, it's a climate issue, and I'll keep pushing for it."
The full board is scheduled to vote Wednesday to finalize the pilot program's end.