By: Soo Line Community Garden Board President Claudia Callaghan and members of the Soo Line Community Garden

Soo Line Community Garden is an invaluable, unique garden and green space in the Whittier neighborhood, and it is under threat of development. Hennepin County has proposed building a $2 million, multi-purpose paved trail through the garden. In their plans, the trail enters the garden at both Garfield and Harriet Avenues, crisscrossing and completely dividing the garden in order to access the Midtown Greenway. With a width of 12 feet, eight feet of paved path and two feet on either side as a buffer, the trail would create fast-moving, two-way traffic for bicycles, scooters, and e-bikes The trail would be ADA compliant.  

If approved, this project will unearth decades of old, polluted soils from this former industrial site, contaminating plots where people grow food. The project will remove pollinator habitats and garden plots where food and flowers are grown by and for residents, children, and the local food shelf. And the project will remove all community gathering spaces, nestled between the gardens and nature areas on the wood chip trails.

Children’s garden with nine smaller plots, maintained by children and their families in the community.

While there is need for more and better access in many sections of the Midtown Greenway, the Soo Line Community Garden is a cherished amenity that must be protected for future generations.

Not the first time Soo Line Community Garden has been under threat

Located along the north side of the Midtown Greenway the Soo Line Community Garden is the only natural green space in the high density, racially and economically diverse urban neighborhood, surrounded by pavement and buildings. It is a unique pocket of nature that the community values, and it is a shining example of Minneapolis’s Climate Equity Plan (unanimously approved by the City Council in July 2023), which calls for expanding urban farming, reducing pavement, and increasing green spaces.

This is the second time Soo Line Community Garden has been threatened with development since its establishment in 1991. In 2005, gardeners and community members mobilized to prevent corporate development of the site. In 2010 the land was transferred to the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, securing Soo Line Community Garden’s status as a permanent feature in the neighborhood.

Community gardens are frequent targets for development, which is why in some states and communities laws are being introduced to protect community gardens, especially in urban areas, because they are extremely valuable community assets.

In New York City, a bill was proposed to protect gardens from development on city land “deemed environmental assets by a statewide task force of gardeners.”

“These gardens were ahead of their time in recognizing the role nature plays in making cities livable and resilient,” Chief Executive and President of the New York Botanical Garden Jennifer Bernstein told the New York Times.

The Soo Line Community Garden is a valuable community asset

Being part of Minneapolis Parks and Recreation has allowed the garden to flourish, benefiting Whittier and surrounding neighborhoods. The garden has evolved from a small group of neighbors growing food, into a community hub, supported by hundreds of volunteers each year.

The garden now has 101 plots mostly for growing vegetables and herbs, including a Whittier School plot, a children’s garden of nine smaller plots, a plot dedicated to food donations for the Joyce Food Shelf, an orchard, pollinator habitat and gathering spaces. Gardeners also maintain the boulevards along Garfield and Harriet, the front garden along the alley and have protected the land sloping down to the Greenway by reestablishing native plantings.

The Soo Line Community Garden donates to the Joyce Food Shelf twice a week during the growing season.

For years, the garden has set aside a large plot to grow vegetables for the Joyce Food Shelf. Between the food shelf plot and gardener donations, Soo Line Community Garden donates hundreds of pounds of fresh, locally grown, chemical-free food and flowers to the food shelf each summer.

Soo Line Community Garden has been partnering with Whittier schools for many years. Teachers and students are in the garden as part of their summer school program and attend workshops coordinated by Hennepin County Master Gardeners, Soo Line gardeners, and Vera’s garden, where they learn about and experience growing vegetables, planting pollinators, and observing nature.

Two years ago, Soo Line Community Garden started an outreach program in participation with Whittier Elementary School which has brought in 15 new families (approximately 40 people) from underserved and immigrant communities. Last year the garden provided a plot to a local blind organization for their members to garden. The garden community is interested in making the garden itself even more accessible to those with disabilities and gardeners are committed to working with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in this effort.

The garden provides folks who live in Whittier and surrounding communities the opportunity to work in and support a garden, connect with others, and enjoy nature. Gardeners and artists produce public art and lead workshops in the garden for the benefit of the community. It is a garden where families and individuals can enjoy contributing or simply relaxing in the space, and children can enjoy playing. It is a garden where folks can meet their neighbors and build community.

Soo Line Community Garden is a pollinator friendly oasis, a garden with decades-old pollinator plantings providing habitat for insects, butterflies, and wildlife.  Soo Line gardeners have planted and cared for a fruit tree orchard and other trees, helping to reduce air pollution and the urban heat island. Soo Line contributes to climate solutions by planting more trees and protecting and increasing pollinator habitat. Preserving this community garden helps the County and City reach their pollinator protection and climate goals to increase the resilience of the built environment and protect natural resources and help pollinators threatened by climate change.

The Soo Line Community Garden is home to pollinators, insects and small animals.

Hennepin County’s proposal harms the garden

When Soo Line Community Gardeners were informed late in the summer of 2021 by Hennepin County that they would be paving over large portions of the garden to build an ADA-compliant multi-use ramp, they were surprised by the news, surprised at the scale of the project (it was designed to serve as a two-way bikeway), and surprised that they weren’t engaged in a meaningful way before the location was selected.

Hennepin County claims that only 5% of the garden will be affected by paving a trail through the garden. This is not an accurate accounting of plots, natural areas, and gathering space. Garden advocates have estimated at least 27% of plots will be lost. Garden plots provide space for families in Minneapolis to grow food. Soo Line Community Garden plots create food security for the community - nutritious food grown locally in a highly urban neighborhood. Removing plots reduces food security for households and families.

Wood chip paths are throughout the Soo Line Community Garden, here with plots on either side.

This is a working garden with gardeners pushing wheelbarrows, carrying tools and  plants, and wrangling with garden hoses. The wood chips paths are also where people gather to visit, play, and eat together. Avoiding collisions with bicycles and electric vehicles in an active garden is a concern of many gardeners that has not been acknowledged by Hennepin County. The County has suggested holding communal events in the alley north of the garden, which we feel  is not safe.

People may not be aware that the garden sits on polluted soil from a former industrial site, otherwise known as a “brownfield.” Construction through the Soo Line Community Garden would disrupt polluted soil, exposing and releasing harmful contaminants, as identified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, into the surrounding garden space. These pollutants would threaten the health and organic nature of the garden. Many children frequent the garden through school or with their family and because of their size, children are more vulnerable to harmful exposures to pollutants.

There is also concern about the pollutants in the paving materials. When asked about the details for alternative paving materials and construction methods to minimize disturbance to the soil, garden advocates have been met with responses indicating that Hennepin County  “might” use less invasive construction methods and materials, and will “try” to use alternatives but the County is unsure how these materials might hold up over time.  

Soo Line Community Garden has broad support from the community

Gardeners, local residents, businesses, organizations, and Whittier Elementary School  teachers have united to stop the building of the trail through the garden and to advocate for a different site along the Midtown Greenway.

Lenny has had his own plot in the children’s garden for several years.

Currently 12 organizations and businesses have signed on to Soo Line Community Garden’s letter of support to protect the garden and endorsing building the trail on the south side or at another location, including: Midtown Greenway Coalition, LynLake Business Association, Vote Climate, Compassionate Action for Animals, Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota (BikeMN), Midwest Food Connection, Land Stewardship Project, East Phillips Improvement Coalition & East Phillips Community Garden, Sierra Club North Star Chapter, West Maka Ska Neighborhood Council, Lyndale United Church of Christ, and the Minneapolis South High Green Tigers.

Soo Line Community Garden’s petition of support also has over 1,700 signatures of residents in the community. Signatures were collected by volunteers, one-by-one through community events, through an online petition, and by talking directly to people in the neighborhood and garden.

Despite the fact that Hennepin County received a project extension in February 2023 to conduct more community outreach on this proposal, with goals to reach the Latino and Somali communities, key stakeholders did not hear from the county until mid-October. Only then did the community find out about an open house that the county would hold in November. Over 30 Soo Line garden supporters attended the open house, making up the overwhelming majority of attendees. Many Latino gardeners attended only to be met with English-only materials and no interpretation services. Garden advocates provided our own Spanish interpreters to ensure the voices of Latino gardeners and supporters were heard by the County.

The Minneapolis Park & Rec Board will ultimately decide

As owners of the property, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has final decision making authority over the project. District 4 Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Commissioner, Elizabeth Shaffer, who represents  the district where  the garden resides, supports protecting the Soo Line Community Garden. She stated:

“As an MPRB District 4 commissioner, I support the mission of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board which includes to ‘permanently preserve, protect, maintain, improve and enhance its natural resources and parkland.' Because MPRB owns roughly 6,000 acres of open space in our city, it is understandable why gardens and parkland are often viewed as an inexpensive way to expand needed infrastructure and MPRB does work closely on many city and county projects throughout the system. However, MPRB and park commissioners have a unique role to first preserve and protect parkland when there are possible competing priorities. I support an additional ADA access ramp to the Greenway, but not through the Soo Line Gardens. MPRB has allocated $400,000 of park dedication dollars to this project and I am hopeful Hennepin County can find another feasible location like the south side of the Greenway.”

Hennepin County asserts that they can’t build pedestrian structures on the south side of the Greenway but they have already done so at 35W, Chicago Avenue, and Bloomington Avenue.

The county has other, better options

Supporters of Soo Line Community Garden oppose the multi-purpose trail through the garden, not the trail itself. Hennepin County owns most of the property along the Midtown Greenway so they have the means and authority to move the project to a different location.

We believe there are other better options on the north and south sides of the Midtown Greenway. The Soo Line Community Garden developed two alternative plans that give access to the Greenway at Grand Avenue, where there is an existing dirt trail and where more people live and shop. These alternative options connect to a separated bike path on Grand Avenue and pedestrian friendly amenities like crosswalks across Lake Street and walking promenades to reach Pleasant and Harriet Avenues.

The Grand Avenue option

The Grand Avenue design aligns even better with Hennepin County’s criteria of equity, providing access and addressing network gaps, wayfinding, safety, and the county’s goal of better connecting Lake Street to the Midtown Greenway.

An alternative to Hennepin County’s plan to put a path through the Soo Line Garden. This plan connects Grand Avenue to the Midtown Greenway. Design by Justin Horst.

The Grand Avenue plan that the Soo Line Community Garden designed:

  • Is located on county-owned land that is currently under-utilized
  • Leaves room for future light rail, a reason Hennepin COunty is resistant to building paths on the south side.
  • Connects to more streets at no extra cost, due to two existing promenades that connect to Pleasant Avenue and Harriet Avenue
  • Connects to the existing off-street bike path network along Grand Avenue
  • Serves the East African community and Lake Street business district better than the current proposal
  • Is below five percent grade just like the current proposal
  • Is more affordable to build than current proposal
  • Could build a wider paved path than the current proposal
  • Connects to the pedestrian side of Midtown Greenway, making it safer for pedestrians and those in wheelchairs
  • Improves safety on the south slope of the Midtown Greenway including  lighting
  • Opens up new green space for the community instead of removing it, unlike the current proposal
  • It does not compromise food security for neighborhood residents, unlike the current proposal
  • It does not disturb remediated brownfield containing Polyaromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), Diesel Range Organics (DROs), and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), unlike current proposal

A multi-purpose trail built at a different location, could be a win, win, win for the community, Hennepin County, and Soo Line Community Garden.

Our wonderful community knows what it has in Soo Line Community Garden and we are standing strong to keep it. We hope you will join us!

Soo Line Community Garden members at the Nov. 15 Parks & Rec Board meeting.