Commissioner floats idea to add affordable housing to Bde Maka Ska pavilion

A Minneapolis Park Board commissioner is floating an idea about what could be added to the new pavilion on Bde Maka Ska: affordable housing for low-income residents.  

Park Board Commissioner Chris Meyer briefly outlined his ideas during a Park Board meeting on June 12. He suggested “adding floors,” to what was previously a single story building along the lakeshore. The original pavilion had to be demolished after a fire from hookah embers destroyed it. 

“It would be a small amount of affordable housing is the thought that occurred to me,” said Meyer. He said the affordable or low-income housing could occupy a few floors above a restaurant and suggested tailoring it to Native Americans.  

“Native Americans didn’t have much involvement with the lakes... maybe we could change that,” said Meyer, who declined an interview request because he said he wasn’t prepared to answer questions.  

The Park Board recently said construction of a replacement building would not begin until 2021, and would include extensive community engagement and a broad range of ideas.  

But, fellow Park Board Commissioner Jono Cowgill, whose ward includes Bde Maka Ska, said he supported the idea of doing something with affordable housing.  

Others are baffled by the idea.  

“This was seriously discussed,” said attorney Joe Tamburino, incredulously.

“The Park Board is not about affordable housing, but it seems this Park Board wants to correct every societal ill there is,” said Tamburino, who has become a frequent critic of the Minneapolis Park Board.  

Along Bde Maka Ska, formerly Lake Calhoun, people had mixed reactions to a mixed-use project that would include affordable housing.  

“I think this is great, it’s an iconic spot for Native Americans,” said one man.

A group of senior bicyclists had concerns that the height of the building would block lake views. Others said the area should be reserved for recreation, and not housing.  

In an email to Tamburnio, Commissioner Meyer elaborated on his idea, and said he would imagine the building would occupy the same footprint. “But if you had three floors of housing above the reconstructed restaurant (Lola’s), you could maybe have I don’t know, 15-20 units?” he wrote.

“I do not believe that living close to a park should be the exclusive privilege of the rich. But, that is currently the case for many parks, including Bde Maka Ska,” wrote Meyer.    

Meyer also elaborated in the email on his reasons for suggesting affordable housing.

“We are in the midst of a moral crisis when it comes to housing," wrote Meyer. "It is absolutely unconscionable that we have allowed so many of our neighbors to go homeless.” 

Meyer wrote that the concept has been at the forefront of his mind during the debate over renaming Lake Calhoun as Bde Maka Ska, and the homeless encampment along Hiawatha Avenue.  

“Native Americans were cleansed pretty thoroughly from the area around Bde Maka Ska,” wrote Meyer. “A proposal to donate the air rights for some housing is minuscule [sic] compared to the level of reparations that are justified.” 

Park Board President Brad Bourn also weighed in with an email of his own to Tamburino. He said while he has yet to take a position, “No idea is a bad one.”  

Bourn wrote that there is precedent for Park Board involvement with housing. He cites an arrangement with some residents on Nicollet Island who have a 99-year lease with the Park Board for $1.  

Bourn also listed the home in Lyndale Farmstead Park that was built to entice Theodore Wirth to become Superintendent of Parks. It has become the official home for several Minneapolis park superintendents.  

In fact, it was Theodore Wirth who advocated for a separate financing and governance structure for Minneapolis Parks, to insulate it from shifting political winds.  

Tamburino, for one, believes the Park Board should regain focus on its primary mission: steward and protector of Minneapolis Parks.  

“Now it seems filled with social warriors who say if we can do something outside of the Park Board we’re going to this,” said Tamburino. “The Park Board is totally out of its lane going after affordable housing.”