by Chris Rogers
Growing public criticism has spurred Levee Park project leaders to distance themselves from a recently released plan for the park, and to accelerate the public input process. The plan, released at the end of last month by University of Minnesota consultants working for the city of Winona's Levee Park Committee, calls for moving the levee wall and replacing part of it with floodgates. The committee has also set a mid-June date for submitting a recommendation to the City Council, though committee members said that plan may simply be a request for more time and money to develop plans.
For one of the few times in the committee's yearlong tenure members of the public attended a meeting earlier this month and expressed concerns over the cost of the proposed flood wall changes and the impact it may have on flood protection. Committee members said they have also been receiving phone calls to the same effect, and at this week's City Council meeting, council member George Borzyskowksi announced that he will oppose any plan to alter the levee. The park project was a major part of Mark Peterson's mayoral campaign in 2012, when he defeated Borzyskowski. Borzyskowski said he does not oppose the park project in general, however.
"The plan that you're referring to is not the plan of the committee, but the plan submitted by the consultants," Mayor Peterson responded.
"These are not our recommendations, these are recommendations that we paid for," said Levee Park Committee member Mike Kennedy last week. "But the public has been [saying], 'Well why are you going to do this?' And we had people at our last meeting telling us how crazy we were to implement this and [asking] how we were going to pay for it."
Committee chair Frank Pomeroy, who has urged the committee to consider alternatives that do not involve levee wall changes, agreed with Kennedy. "People are misunderstanding our intentions relative to the flood wall. That tends to grow rather quickly; I think we need to put it to rest with an open house," he noted.
The committee drafted a statement that is not endorsing the plan but simply seeks public input. Peterson announced earlier this week that the open house will be held on Monday, March 31.
That is a shift from earlier this month, when the committee had planned to host an open house on a weekend in April and spend more time reviewing the plans beforehand. At the time, city staff stressed the committee's need to fully "digest" the plans, some of the details of which were not clearly understood due to a lack of explanation by designers.
'Fingerpointing' between designers, committee
Levee Park Committee members were surprised by the designers' plan when it came out. In nine months of meetings prior to the start of actual design work by its consultants this winter, the committee spent little time discussing specific design ideas, and due to a falling out, communication between the committee and the consultants during the actual design process was limited.
The fallout can be traced to last fall, when designers posed "what if" scenarios involving falling manufacturing employment, less barge traffic and a growing tourism sector. When local leaders balked at the postindustrial implications of the scenarios, the committee directed the designers to cut the "what ifs" and design a plan for the park. Since they invested so much time on the "what ifs," the designers asked for more money, and contract negations followed. The designers did not get more money, and they refused to come to Winona to explain their plan to the committee or the public. Also, the designers' timeline for planning the park was cut in half and previous plans for multiple drafts followed by committee feedback and revisions were dropped.
For their part, the designers criticized the committee for a lack of engagement in the project. One committee member likened the situation to "fingerpointing." Perhaps the committee did rely too heavily on the designers, Pomeroy acknowledged in an interview last December. "We asked [the designers] to take a leadership role, that put us [the committee] on the sidelines a little bit, because they did take a leadership role," he said.
Narrative sections of the designers' plan include some of the same postindustrial implications that sparked backlash last fall, as well as criticisms of the current Levee Park's "overbearing emphasis on flood protection." The committee has reviewed the entire plan during meetings, but did not discussed those parts.
After the open house, the committee will study the comments before making a recommendation to the City Council in June. The committee debated last week what those recommendations should be.
Is it the committee's role to control the scope and expense of the project, or is that left up to the council, asked committee member and architect Owen Warneke. Who provides the "reality template," as Warneke's colleague and fellow committee member Jacob Nicklay put it. "That's what we need to really go forward. You can't bring in consultants unless they know what their constraints are," Warneke said.
Warneke asked if the committee would be making recommendations with cost estimates. "How do we make that [sort of recommendation]?" Sorensen replied. "It's a circular argument. We don't have the information to make that kind of recommendation. We're talking concepts."
Realistic cost estimates will not be possible without more specific designs, Sorensen said. Preparing cost estimates will not be possible before June, said Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl.
The committee might simply ask for the council's preliminary support to continue planning for the park or it might request more funding for planning work, Ubl suggested. If the committee wants a new vision for the park that does not involve altering the levee wall, additional conceptual design work will likely be needed. Later on, when the time comes for actually implementing a plan for the park, the committee could seek the council's support and funding — along with private donations and possible grants — via the city's annual Capital Improvement Plan, he said.