Stevens Square Park sits in the center of the bustling and dense Stevens Square-Loring Heights neighborhood. At any hour of the day, residents walk their dogs along the diagonal path through the park. People rush across the park to reach major bus lines on either side of the neighborhood. This year’s warm March weather brought neighbors out to grill in the park, spreading delicious smells into the open windows.

“The green space is where we can meet, it’s where people can have community, because I don’t have a yard,” long-time Stevens Square-Loring Heights resident Maureen Wells said. “Losing those green spaces is really detrimental. We have families, we have people who don’t feel like they have voices.”

Wells has been advocating directly to the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board for park amenity upgrades, most recently in fall 2023.

Stevens Square Park is one of three green spaces in the neighborhood, which includes the Overlook Gardens and the LaSalle Gardens. Stevens Square-Loring Heights is characterized by the three-story brownstone apartments built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that line the park. Due to the neighborhood’s density, very few residents have access to private green space.

Much of the equipment at Stevens Square Park is in poor condition, like this sagging bench. Photo by Anna Koenning

Access to green space and urban agriculture is an equity issue. Decades of inequality and redlining resulted in higher concentrations of people of color and poverty in neighborhoods with higher pollution. Studies by the EPA show that people who live and work near highways experience higher rates of severe health issues related to air pollution. Stevens Square-Loring Heights is bordered by two highways.

The vast majority of Stevens Square-Loring Heights residents are renters, a quarter are disabled and nearly 60% make less than $35,000 per year. There aren’t many kids in the neighborhood relative to how many people live there, but after school the playground is often crowded with children.

Given these demographics, the park ranked low enough on the Park & Recreation Board’s equity-based 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan that major improvements to the park aren’t scheduled until 2026.

The park is in rough shape. Most wooden benches are sagging from use, the legs on a metal bench are askew, the basketball court has a crack in it, the path going through the park is riddled with holes, and there’s graffiti on many surfaces including the porta-potty, which the porta-potty vendor painted over in a visible color after the Park & Recreation Board asked the company to replace the unit.

Graffiti marks many surfaces in Stevens Square Park. Photo by Anna Koenning

The 2.51-acre Stevens Square Park has a half-court basketball court, two grills, playground equipment, a port-a-potty, a few picnic tables and benches, and a walking path through the middle. There is orange construction fencing around an area for a new drinking fountain. Six years ago, the previous drinking fountain was removed due to contamination. The park is one of two full-sized, developed neighborhood parks in the Southwest region that doesn’t have a drinking fountain. Thomas Lowry Park is the other.

There used to be a drinking fountain in Stevens Square Park. In fact, the first drinking fountain in the park was built in 1910 when Theodore Wirth himself proposed ambitious improvements to the park. During his tenure, Wirth planned a field house that could double as a concert venue, a winter skating rink and a summer wading pool.  None of these plans came to fruition, but there was a tennis court, and then a softball field after the tennis court was found to be unpopular. The Park & Recreation Board scrapped most of Wirth’s plans over the decades, and the next improvements to the park 58 years later when the tot lot was built in 1968. The most recent improvement to the park was the colorful playground equipment in 2015.

Proposals for improving Stevens Square Park in 2026 include adding gardens, expanding the basketball court to a full court, adding a picnic shelter that could be used as a performance space and an expanded plaza area.

Tentative plans for the 2026 redesign of Stevens Square Park include a full-court basketball court instead of this half-court. Photo by Anna Koenning

As with all major park improvements, the Park & Recreation Board will coordinate with the neighborhood organization, the Stevens Square Community Organization, and hold public meetings to gather feedback on the planned improvements. Painter Park in South Uptown went through that process recently. Improvement costs will be determined by what improvements will be made. The drinking fountain in progress will cost around $75,000.

For now, Stevens Square Park is stuck in a cycle of small fixes, or rehab, as it waits its turn for major improvements.  The Park & Recreation Board has done patch repairs on the park’s cement path, but it’s still full of cracks and holes. Wells, who has mobility issues, said she struggles to walk her dog on the uneven path.

The path through Stevens Square Park is uneven with bumps and holes. Photo by Anna Koenning

Park rehab and improvement funding

As Stevens Square Park and other parks across the city wait for major improvements, let’s break down what the difference is between a park rehab and an improvement.

The Park & Recreation Board defines an improvement as something new to the park, like the futsal courts planned for Clinton Field Park in Whittier. Updates and maintenance to parks is categorized as park rehab. Park rehab includes an emergency fix to a leaky roof or patching a park path.

The difference between park improvements and rehab is important because the funding comes from different pots and is received from the Park & Recreation Board through different cycles.

Park improvements are mainly funded through the 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan, funded itself through the Park & Rec Board and the City, and park dedication fees. The drinking fountain is an example of a park improvement in Stevens Square Park. Grants and private funds given to the Park & Recreation Board can also be used for improvements. The 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan operates on a 20-year schedule.  The current one started in 2016 and funding is decided through equity metrics.

Park rehab comes from Park & Recreation Board park maintenance funding and can be used when needed. For example, when the picnic tables at Stevens Square Park were in rough shape in the fall of 2023, the board replaced the tabletops using funding from this rehab pot.

The Park & Recreation Board replaced the picnic tabletops in Stevens Square Park in the fall of 2023. Photo by Maureen Wells

Park & Recreation Board District 4 Commissioner Elizabeth Shaffer said that she is working on Steven Square Park’s path maintenance, which falls into the rehab category.

Shaffer said the Park & Recreation Board has a plan to restore and maintain the paths it owns around the city.  

“That’s one of the first things that [visitors] experience. Is my bike trail bumpy? Am I going to trip on my walking path?” Shaffer said. “It’s a big job, but I do think it’s one of the most public-facing amenities that we have.”

The Park & Recreation Board mapped the maintenance needed on paths and trails throughout all parks in the system in 2021 and plans to work through repairs, but Shaffer said the department is still underfunded in this area.

The 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan money will largely fund the park’s improvement in 2026. There is currently around $896,000 in 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan funding for this project.

Park dedication fees are specifically funding the Steven Square Park’s drinking fountain construction and will likely contribute towards the 2026 improvements as well, according to Park & Recreation Planning Department Director Adam Arvidson. Park dedication fees come from developers who build in the park’s neighborhood and are dedicated to new improvements, not park rehab. Building owners also accrue park dedication fees when they reconfigure old structures, like the 100-year old apartment buildings in Stevens Square-Loring Heights, to create new units. Developers contributed about $457,000 in park dedication fees to Stevens Square Park in 2022 and 2023.

Where does Stevens Square Park rank?

Stevens Square Park is ranked number 65 of 102 parks waiting for park improvements, according to the 2024 Park & Recreation Board budget. The overall score is determined by equity metrics including the area of concentrated poverty, neighborhood density, safety level, youth percentage as well as the condition of the park and the park’s longevity.

This formula prioritizes park improvements for neighborhoods with higher racial and economic inequities. For reference, the 2024 budget ranks East Phillips Park as first and the new Bridal Veil Gardens in Prospect Park as last. Once parks receive improvements, whether they use 20-Year Neighborhood Park Plan funding or private funds, they drop to the bottom of the ranking. Undeveloped and regional parks like Fremont Triangle and Theodore Wirth Park are on a separate ranking list.

Stevens Square Park sits at the 65 rank because of its low scores for area of concentrated poverty and youth density. The neighborhood earned the highest density score of 3. Conversely, the neighborhood scored 0 in youth percentage. Most of the old buildings in the neighborhood house studio and one-bedroom apartments, making the neighborhood unpopular for families. Scores for the park’s condition and longevity are near standard.

The park’s ranking changed in the past year when the Park & Recreation Board adjusted the ranking method,  temporarily pushing improvements for Stevens Square Park to 2027. Commissioner Shaffer opted to switch places with Clinton Field Park, which is already receiving funding for improvements and restored the 2026 timeline for Stevens Square Park.

The park dropped in the rankings because the neighborhood is no longer a concentrated area of poverty. The Park & Recreation Board also changed how the density score is calculated, although Stevens Square Park maxed out the score in both methods of calculation. In 2019, the neighborhood was over twice as dense as the 10,000 people per square mile metric that earned the highest score of 3.

Each year’s Park & Recreation Board budget lists the order in which parks will get improvements following the equity metrics.

But why did that other park get improvements?

Keen observers may have noticed that both Bryn Mawr Meadows and Linden Hills Park received funding for play area and site improvements in 2019 with improvements happening recently. Both parks ranked lower than Stevens Square Park in the 2019 Neighborhood Park Metrics. While the optics of improving those parks seem inequitable, they were grandfathered in from a previous funding program.

Prior to 2017, many park projects were already in the Park & Recreation Board’s six-year Capital Improvement Program. When Planning Department Director Arvidson designed the 2017 Capital Improvement Program, projects had been planned through 2021. Instead of wiping out the pre-equity Capital Improvement Program, the Park & Recreation Board continued with those projects, which included Linden Hills and Bryn Mawr Meadows Park. The Capital Investment Projects are now complete, and all projects moving forward are using the equity-oriented funding model.

How to help your parks

There are several ways to maintain and improve Minneapolis parks. One way is to show up to meetings and contact your commissioners, like Wells does for Stevens Square Park.

“We had the tabletops removed on the four tops,” Wells explained to the Park & Recreation Board. “And instead of replacing them at the time they were taken off, we have crime tape.” Days after she talked to the Park & Recreation Board about missing picnic tabletops, the park got new tabletops.

Maureen Wells talking to the Parks & Recreation Board about the issues in Stevens Square Park on Nov. 1, 2023.

“Showing up makes a big difference,” Wells said.

Shaffer praised Wells for coming to the board with her concerns about the park.

People interested in supporting their parks can also volunteer with the Park Steward program to garden, remove invasive species and pick up trash as needed during the non-snowy months. These volunteers also act as liaisons to contact MPRB with any problems that need to be addressed in the park.

“Our green space is really the heartbeat of our neighborhoods,” Shaffer said. “These public spaces are where we come together. They’re extremely important. Stevens Square Park to the community is extremely important. It’s the only park they have in the densest neighborhood in the city.”