Minnesota Cities Magazine
More from Jan-Feb 2017 issue

Ideas in Action: Oak Park Heights Turns Fly-Ash Pit into Fun Park

City of Excellence Award logoBy Andrew Tellijohn

When Xcel Energy capped and closed its fly-ash site in Oak Park Heights, the site wasn’t without activity for long. City officials and the utility company had been in discussions for nearly 30 years about how the land might be reused when the landfill closed.

“It’s always been the vision of Xcel Energy—it was NSP back then—to make this a green space, to turn it over to the city for a park to let the neighborhood enjoy [it],” says Charles Donkers, Xcel’s project manager for the site.

But the city and Xcel leaders couldn’t have envisioned the enthusiastic involvement from residents and the business community that followed. They worked together to convert the capped off ash pit into a recreational space with features residents of all ages can now enjoy.

“I really felt like the community came together,” says City Clerk Jenni Pinski. “People were excited. We didn’t have to shake anybody and tell them to be a part of it. People were excited to be a part of it.” Oak Park Heights officials at ribbon cutting for new park

The project received a 2016 City of Excellence Award from the League of Minnesota Cities.

Getting started
Oak Park Heights prides itself on its dedication to parks and trails. Decades ahead of the closure of the ash landfill, officials from Xcel Energy and the city began discussing potential uses for the site.

There were many discussions about specifics, but from the start, both sides thought an outdoor gathering area of some sort made sense. Even before the landfill site closed, certain portions of the space had been available for trails and some park uses, Donkers says.

Due to environmental sensitivities, there were certain ideas that wouldn’t work. It’s never going to have trees, and there are strict limits about how far into the ground equipment can be built.

But both sides hoped and believed a green space was the best and most desirable result. And when the landfill site officially closed in 2011, it took little time before there was a signed agreement allowing the city to convert the ash site into the park both envisioned.

By 2013, the city and resident volunteers had built a progressive playground targeting kids between the ages of 2 and 5. There is a climbing wall, several slides for children of different ages, and other features. Kids got to name the park that year, too.

“There is stuff for every age group,” Pinski says.

In 2014, the trail system started going in. It now connects with two trails from two other nearby parks. Last year, the city added a park shelter with benches. And there are more features coming.

Residents last fall were working on building two more pavilions, one overlooking the St. Croix River Crossing and the other on the crest of a hill. A mountain biking club also built some paths for their activities on the backside of the hill. Somewhere down the line, says Mayor Mary McComber, the plan is to add athletic fields and a splash pad.

“It’s a long-range plan,” McComber says. “It’s getting started and reusing a space that otherwise wouldn’t be used.”

Plans could also change as residents approach the city with new and creative ideas. “It’s a draft master plan of what could go there over time as funds allow,” McComber says. “You couldn’t build everything in a day.”

Building collaboration
City Administrator Eric Johnson handled much of the Pavilion at new park in Oak Park Heightslogistics and specifics for the park, including writing grant documentation and coordinating the work of related contractors, city staff, and volunteers.

Pinski handled much of the public relations efforts, seeking out feedback and participation from residents to get the project finished. Events were advertised through websites and local newspapers and also mentioned at Park Commission and City Council meetings.

McComber also spent significant time on the phone, asking her own friends and colleagues to chip in. As it turned out, residents and business owners didn’t need a ton of prodding.

“A lot of people were excited about it,” Pinski says. “I think that’s what made it turn out so well.”

The city also got its younger residents involved by holding a park naming contest—anyone under 18 could submit an entry. The submissions were considered by the Parks Commission, and the City Council announced the winning name—Oak Park Crossing—at the city’s annual Party in the Park.

The business community played a role too. In addition to Xcel Energy, the city worked with the state and local restaurant Phil’s Tara Hideaway to construct a parking lot that created parking for both the park and the eatery.

Working relationship overcomes challenges
While all parties have been enthusiastic about the project, it hasn’t been without its challenges—particularly considering it is built on a closed landfill. Coordinating licensure issues among Xcel Energy, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and the city while also coordinating volunteers can be tricky.

But both sides agree that the relationship between Xcel Energy and the city was strong after decades of working together. Donkers says when the city received complaints about the landfill operations when it was open, Xcel Energy tried to address them quickly. Likewise, he says, if the company needed something, city officials did the best they could to assist.

“You have to get along with your neighbors,” he says. “It’s been a very symbiotic relationship.”

That relationship helped make the project come together.

“They’ve been great,” says Johnson of Xcel. “[The park will] be there a long time.”

Donkers says there was upper management support for helping make the park happen and adds that the company is glad something positive could come from the 43-acre site, especially at a time when many jurisdictions don’t have as much appreciation for green space as have past generations.

“It has had very good participation,” Donkers says. “It’s been a pleasure. It’s been fun to work with these people. The challenges have been very minor.”

Finding funds
Xcel Energy also contributed financially to the project. But another big help came in the form of a grant from KaBOOM!, a nonprofit organization that offers grants to help communities build playgrounds and other places for kids to play.

McComber learned about the organization during a National League of Cities event. To be selected, the city had to receive its Playful City USA designation. That required meeting certain qualifications, including a specified amount of play space within the city. The application and qualifications change every year, and Oak Park Heights has been selected six times.

“We want to be a city that kids want to come and play in,” Pinski says. “We’ve always matched the criteria.”

Xcel Energy donated $612,000 for the development of the park and for technical expertise and hours of field time documenting construction activities. The $20,000 grant from KaBOOM! helped cover about one-third of the remaining cost. The city’s overall budget was $60,000.

Much of the rest of the project was covered by donations of food, beverages, money, and time from residents. On one occasion, volunteers showed up for the playground build day. On another, they built benches for the park and its trails.

Getting that involvement helped tremendously in Volunteers work on building new park in Oak Park Heightsmaximizing funds and meeting the budget, city officials say.

Popular and productive space
Although there will always be restrictions, both sides are thrilled with how the project has and continues to evolve. Xcel Energy studies detailed construction drawings for every proposed addition to the park project to ensure it can be constructed in an environmentally safe manner.

“We’re responsible for the long-term. There can be no damage to our cap,” Donkers says. “We have an agreement with the city. You can use it—we gave them money to help with that—but there are some covenants. We need to maintain the functionality of our cap. Park development cannot be at the expense of environmental protection.”

But Donkers and city officials say the park has been popular and the project is a success.

“People love the trails,” McComber says. “It’s by nature. They like to see the deer.”

Andrew Tellijohn is a freelance writer based in Richfield, Minnesota.

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