St. Paul City Council approves three-way land swap with Water Services for Pig’s Eye Lake soil dump, Hillcrest parkland, Highland soccer fields

When St. Paul Regional Water Services repairs a water main break, it needs somewhere to put the sloppy soils taken out of the ground, at least through winter. That somewhere will be a five-acre site near Pig’s Eye Lake, which sits east of the Mississippi River between downtown St. Paul and Battle Creek Regional Park.

A contested soil recycling center will likely move forward at Pig’s Eye Regional Park, but East Siders will get something in return — a parks easement over 2.5 acres of water utility land adjacent to the shuttered Hillcrest Golf Course. The golf course, which sits south of Larpenteur Avenue, could someday be redeveloped, and city officials are calling the future Hillcrest parkland a win for the East Side.

“We cannot provide clean drinking water without a site … like this,” said Water Services Director Patrick Shea, addressing the St. Paul City Council on Wednesday. “Tonight’s actions are contingent on the board and the St. Paul City Council approving the lease at Hillcrest.”

Council Member Nelsie Yang, the vice president of the St. Paul Board of Water Commissioners, helped negotiate a deal that effectively pays back the East Side for giving up parkland near the river, while preserving the original plan to add new soccer fields on water utility land in Highland.

“We really owe it to the people of the East Side to really bring equity into this work,” Yang told the council on Wednesday. “Even though we won’t be able to make every single person happy, I know we’re going to be walking out of this … with even more resources for the East Side community.”

‘A MUCH BETTER FUTURE’

The original land swap proposal between St. Paul Parks and Recreation and St. Paul Regional Water Services drew hackles from East Side advocates when it came to light a few weeks ago, but the compromise agreement was approved by the city council 6-0 on Wednesday in an effort to satisfy the city’s Parkland Diversion Ordinance and the city charter’s “no net loss” of parkland requirements. Council Member Dai Thao was absent.

“For much of the last century, the East Side riverfront — and Pig’s Eye Lake in particular — was the city’s dump,” said Council Member Jane Prince, who had originally joined critics in raising concern about the land swap and long-term lease agreement. “Today’s action does represent a much better future for this part of the East.”

Among the terms added to the land swap, the water utility’s new soil recycling center will sit on an estimated five acres of land at Pig’s Eye Regional Park, instead of eight acres, as originally proposed, following a land appraisal. The lease terms will be shortened from 29 years to 20 years, allowing the city the opportunity to cancel the arrangement with one year’s notice if a better use for the land emerges after the first five years.

St. Paul Regional Water Services will contribute $100,000 toward the schematic plan for the East River Passage, area improvements that would span the East Side riverfront and include Pig’s Eye Regional Park. It also will provide parking stalls, signage and other improvements to create an official entrance to Pig’s Eye Regional Park. And no debris crushing will be allowed on the site.

The city will still lease water utility land at 750 Snelling Ave. South, as originally proposed, for future soccer fields. That lease arrangement also received the support of the council Wednesday in a 6-0 vote.

“I really felt like I was back at the bargaining table again,” said Yang, a former union steward with TakeAction Minnesota, following the council vote. “We actually have a funding source to be able to make Pig’s Eye Park accessible. I’m celebrating a lot tonight.”

NOT EVERYONE SATISFIED

Not everyone was satisfied with the compromise. In a lengthy written statement issued a day before the council vote, former City Council Member Tom Dimond said the water utility could have relocated the soil recycling center to 68 acres of land it already owns and plans to sell.

“How can this be considered anything but discriminatory treatment of less affluent and more diverse residents of our city?” he wrote.

Dimond and other critics have pointed out the water utility, under expired no-money leases and a gentleman’s agreement, has been dumping at Pig’s Eye for years.

Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said on Wednesday that his department would take a closer look at that arrangement.

“We would … look back and perform valuation for the use that the water utility has enjoyed for the past 10 years,” Hahm said, “and settle that up for the purpose of parkland diversion, as well.”

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