A parcel of land purchased by the city of Stillwater in 2017 will be developed as a park in the years ahead, now that a master plan for the site has been approved by the city council. The approximately $2.4 million project will include parking lots, a canoe and kayak launch, walking trails, and an overlook platform that can be used for fishing.
The park is located on the north end of Stillwater, sandwiched between Highway 95 and the Brown’s Creek State Trail on one side, and the river on the other. The former Zephyr Railroad Depot and current Zephyr Theatre is on the south end.
The gate to the property has been open for the past couple years and it is now technically open to the public. With a finalized plan, improvement projects can begin. Initial work will include creating a connection to the adjacent Brown’s Creek Trail, and providing safe access to the St. Croix River.
One point of significant cost and contention is the 5,700-square foot home on the property, which was built in the 1960s.
The house was originally slated for demolition, and it was required by the state funding the city received to acquire the property. After acquisition, the city council asked the state for permission to keep the house, and it was granted. The final plan calls for the house to be retained, though it will require about $1 million to renovate it, and will be locked up until those renovations can be funded.
The point was sticky spot during plan development. The Parks and Recreation Commission ultimately recommended approving the plan with the house retained, even though a majority of commission members did not support keeping it. They primarily pointed to the significant cost.
Commission member Scott Christensen said the rest of the park is “wonderful” and “fantastic,” but he can’t support keeping the building.
“The reality of things is we’ve spent two or three meetings going through [Capital Improvement Projects] for the next five years and eliminating projects that cost $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, eliminating paving the parking lots, irrigation systems, cutting the Northland playground in half,” Christensen said. “So to sink, like I’ve said in the past on this, to sink a million dollars plus into this building, I can’t vote for it. I don’t think a building adds to the park.”
Because the house does not provide accessibility for all citizens as required by the American with Disabilities Act, it cannot be used for public purposes without extensive modifications. It will probably be at least 10 years before it happens, city planner Abbi Jo Wittman said.
Councilmember and commission member Mike Pohlena pushed to keep the building, pointing out that it’s located in the floodplain and closer to the river than is allowed now, so the city would never be allowed to build another structure on the site if it tears the house down.
If and when funding is found and the project is completed, the building will have an upper level with a gathering space, and a lower level available for renting out canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Restrooms will be available from both inside and outside the structure.
In the meantime, the heat will be left on low and city staff will monitor the house to prevent degradation. That prospect did not appeal to most commission members.
“So for the next 10 years, in the middle of the park, there would be a vacant unused house?” asked member Sam Nelson, skeptically.
Commission chair David Brandt and member Sandy Snellman were among those who said they were “not a fan” of keeping the house. But Wittman told the commission that the city council had previously instructed staff to keep the house.
In approving it, the commission asked Wittman to convey their concerns about the residence to the city council when it considered the plan.
“[Support] does come with a very strong notation that a majority of the members of the Parks and Recreation commission are not in support of reuse of the building,” Wittman told the council a week later.
Eager to open the site up and begin improvements, the council voted unanimously to approve the plan. It will not only only allow work to begin, but let the city start seeking grants or other funding that could help.
Wittman said one funding source had already been identified that could help with providing parking and improve the driveway through the site: the National Park Service. A grant program it administers can fund up to 80 percent of costs, because the site would let visitors enjoy the St. Croix National Scenic Riverway.
She said that with the plan approved, the priority projects will be to start connecting people to the river.
“We really do want to get people on the river and do it safely,” Wittman told the Parks and Recreation Commission. “If you’ve been on the site you know it’s not easy to get down to that sandy beach now. And finding that way to get down there is more important than building renovation or picnic shelters.”