City park update

As Duluth’s preeminent city reporter, I fear that my focus on exciting, edge-of-your-seat stories may be giving readers a false impression of the city. It’s not always like that. There’s plenty of wackiness and drama, yes, but there’s plenty of mundane business that goes on as well. Today, I will pass along a series of smaller items related to parks and recreation that have been piling up on my desk.

Softening the shore at  Chambers Grove

If you stand at the upper edge of Chambers Grove Park, on Duluth’s far western border, near the banquet pavilion and the oak that has five trunks growing from one base, you will see a broad grassy hillside populated with shade trees and picnic tables sloping away from you. Farther down the hill the trees give way to open field, some of which is mowed, while other parts are wild and marshy. Beyond that, forming the lower border of the park, the St. Louis River flows by. There is no boat launch or ramp into the river; the shoreline is a retaining wall that drops into the water at a 90-degree angle. Dense shrubbery and fencing help to keep the unwary from falling in.
As one part of a $1.2 million project that is moving forward at Chambers Grove Park, the retaining wall will be removed and the shoreline will be—this is the word used by the state Department of Natural Resources—“softened.”
“This is [the DNR’s] current best practices,” City Architect Tari Rayala told members of the Parks Commission on September 10, 2014. “[A softened shoreline] improves fish habitat, it reduces damage during a major flood event, and it’s easier maintenance.”
The shoreline softening will be paid for with a grant from the DNR, which is conducting many environmental improvement projects along the St. Louis River. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Minnesota Land Trust are also involved. In addition to reconfiguring the shoreline, the DNR will build two rock weirs (basically, breakwater structures made of very large boulders) that extend halfway across the river. Park users will be able to walk out onto the weirs to swim or fish.
“It’ll look quite a bit different,” Rayala acknowledged. “People will be able to actually walk into the river….[A] major improvement will be providing canoe and kayak access—something that’s really needed.”
When I visited Chambers Grove Park on a recent sunny afternoon, I observed a kayaker carrying his craft all the way to the end of the retaining wall in order to find a launching site. This project comes at an excellent time for Chambers Grove Park. Like the rest of the city, Chambers Grove was damaged in the Great Flood of 2012, and many of the damages have never been repaired. A boardwalk built along the river starts off level near the parking area, but by the time you get to the far end of the park, the boardwalk is tilting in crazy roller-coaster fashion and streetlights are leaning over you, as if to get a better look. With the new project, all of that will be cleared away, and Chambers Grove will become a showcase of best-practices accessibility.
That is not all. Utilizing grants for stormwater improvements and flood repair projects, the city will be making other changes to the park as well. Some of the steeper hillsides will be stabilized to prevent further erosion. A “wet meadow” that can absorb sudden fluctuations in the water table will be improved along a section of the river. And a “rain garden bio-swale area” will be created, which sounds like a good place to watch elves.
The playground at Chambers Grove currently has only four swings and a sandbox. The city will be installing, not just a new playground, but, according to Rayala, a “uniquely themed playground system,” which is much better.  A World War Two veterans’ memorial that is currently just outside the legal boundary of the park will be moved into the park and made accessible. The toilet buildings will be improved. The parking lot will be enlarged. A wedding gazebo will be relocated. And other things will happen as well.
But none of it will happen overnight. Rayala estimated that work on the shore-softening project would begin in July of 2015 and finish by the end of 2015, at which time the city would begin work on the other projects. In all, Chambers Grove Park is expected to be closed for construction from July 5, 2015 all the way through the end of 2016.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s going to take so long, but it’s going to be great when it’s done,” Rayala told commissioners.
The take-home message is that if you want to enjoy Chambers Grove Park, you should do so before July 5, 2015, or you’ll have to wait a year and a half.

New trails in Chester Park?

If any city park is multi-use, it’s Chester Park. Smack in the middle of the city, surrounded by residential neighborhoods and college campuses, Chester Park has downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, well-pounded hiking trails, soccer fields, picnic areas, a playground, several waterfalls, two pedestrian bridges, herds of deer, and plenty of stone staircases in the woods. Everybody loves Chester Park, and it shows.
On October 8, 2014, Parks Director Kathy Bergen told members of the Parks Commission that city staff was considering the possibility of designating a new dual-use skiing/hiking trail in the park, in an attempt to reduce conflicts between cross-country skiers and pedestrians. Skiers would go in one direction on the newly designated trail, and pedestrians would go in the other.
“If pedestrians and skiers are unable to coexist [with] this option,” said Bergen, “then the city would select among [other] options. That would include either building a separate, parallel pedestrian trail … or eliminating skiing in all, or major parts, of Chester.”
At this point, no final decisions have been made. The issue will return to the Parks Commission on November 5, 2014, with a recommendation from staff attached.

The Chester Park monopole

On October 14, 2014, the Planning Commission approved a cell phone tower in Chester Park, with a number of conditions related to landscaping and aesthetics. The tower will be a 75-foot stealth monopole, which means a pole with the antennas hidden inside. The pole will also be disguised as a tree—what city planners call a monopine. If pictures shown to commissioners are any indication, the monopine will be hard to distinguish from a real pine. Although the measure passed, several planning commissioners are concerned about cell phone towers in city parks. The city has no formal policy on the topic. Head Planner Keith Hamre encouraged commissioners to develop such a policy, and suggested that they consider city parks on a case-by-case basis when thinking about cell towers. Some parks, said Hamre, like Wheeler Field, were “very urban” in character, and cell phone towers might fit in well. In any case, Chester Park’s infrastructure will now include one large fake tree.

Lester Park Golf Course update

Earlier this year, the city floated the idea of selling Lester Park Golf Course to housing developers. This upset many people. Letters and columns appeared in support of keeping the city-owned golf course open and operational. In comments to the Parks Commission on October 8, 2014, the city’s Director of Public Administration, Jim Filby Williams said that the city was currently negotiating with developers who had submitted residential development plans for Lester Park Golf Course, but that the city had backed off from its plan to sell the golf course in its entirety.
“The mayor has made clear that the possibility of selling and developing all 27 holes is no longer on the table,” Filby-Williams told commissioners. “What is still on the table is the possibility of selling a portion of the course, and retaining 9 or 18 holes, as the case may be.”

Not another Spirit Mountain item

There’s not much to say about Spirit Mountain today, other than to note that the city council granted Spirit Mountain another $250,000 in tourism tax on October 13, 2014, which will help them limp along into winter. A number of city councilors spoke gravely on the subject—the phrase “hard decision” may have been mentioned once or twice, and the word “mismanagement” even came out for a quick visit—but in the end councilors voted in near-unanimous fashion to approve Spirit Mountain’s latest subsidy.
 The lone dissenting vote on the resolution was, surprisingly, Councilor Jay Fosle. Councilor Fosle wasn’t upset by all the money that had been wasted on Spirit Mountain over the years, probably because a lot of it was his doing. Rather, he was concerned, he loudly informed the council, about “nepotism.”
Fosle was referring to Spirit Mountain’s new executive director, Brandy Ream, whose husband, Jody Ream, has been hired by the Spirit Mountain board to be Spirit Mountain’s general manager. Everything about the hire was supposedly done by the book (the job was announced, interviews were held, the board approved it, and so on), and it is true that Jody Ream has a lot of experience working on ski hills, but I’m inclined to agree with Councilor Fosle. The perception of nepotism will be hard for Spirit Mountain to avoid.
As for Spirit Mountain’s $250,000, the city council can rest easy knowing that they acted according to the wishes of their constituents. Of the half-dozen emails received by city councilors prior to their vote, all were in support of giving Spirit Mountain the money.