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Politics & Policy

This article details the interesting saga of the Minneapolis Central Avenue Medians project and how ultimately a native landscape became the solution.

Publications: MinnPost
Author: Doug Grow

On Wednesday morning, there was a small ceremony in a traffic island on Central Avenue in northeast Minneapolis as City Council Member Kevin Reich and a handful of others planted native prairie plants, in this case Indian grass and yellow coneflower.

The idea is to make a two-acre strip of busy roadway look like a natural prairie.

It’s also about Plan C in ways to make a section of Central - also known as Highway 65 - look a little less industrial and grimy.

MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

Volunteers plant Indian grass and yellow coneflower in a Central Avenue median.

Plan A: In 2004, the island separating lanes was added as part of a restructuring of the roadway.

Plan B: Plant lovely trees, rose bushes and other traditional ornamental plants to make the island look lovely.

“The hope was to create Grandma’s back yard,” said Reich.

One problem with the plan.

“Grandma wasn’t there to give it the constant attention it needed,” Reich said.

The ornamental plants and the trees couldn’t survive on a diet of road grime and salt and huge piles of icy snow pushed over the plants each winter. Stuff died. The island, which runs for several blocks going north from 27th Avenue Northeast, looked terrible.

This led to community meetings - everything in Minneapolis leads to community meetings - and Plan C. 

The prairies were here long before the people, the roads, the trees, the ornamentals. The prairie grasses, given a chance to return, are tough. The prairie grasses can withstand drought, exhaust fumes, road salt.

But the prairie grasses do take a little time - and a little help -  to get established. In the first couple of years, it’s hard for many of us to separate a weed from a native grass and, in fact, for a couple of years, herbicides are needed to beat the weeds that plague lawn keepers everywhere.

One other thing about native prairie grasses: It takes awhile to appreciate them as beautiful.

“They [prairie grasses] are gorgeous - if you understand them,’’ said Justin Sykora, who heads Prairie Restorations, a Minnesota company that does native plantings throughout the country.

Understanding the beauty of the natural grasses isn’t universal.

Back in 2005, for example, city officials didn’t understand the beauty of prairie grasses and flowers that had been growing for five years around the YWCA on Lake Street. Despite the signs that pointed out the different species of plants, a city mower whacked virtually everything to stubble before finally being stopped.

Individuals in Minneapolis who have attempted to grow “native” yards also have occasionally run into problems with both neighbors, who prefer neatly trimmed bluegrass yards, and city officials who mow first and ask questions later.

But new city ordinances about managed natural landscapes - developed in 2011 - have helped educate the public and officials about native species.

Reich said that the state transportation department, the city’s parks department and all other city government bodies are on board with the effort on Central.

MinnPost photo by Doug Grow

Molly Hinderaker from the Green Council at Edison High, Justin Sykora, coordinator, Prairie Restorations, and City Council Member Kevin Reich.

But patience will be needed. A natural prairie won’t just happen overnight.

For the first three years, Sykora said, herbicides will be needed to keep out invasive weeds. That maintenance cost, however, will be minimal, compared with trying to create Grandma’s backyard look.

After that, however, the prairie on Central Avenue should require virtually no maintenance, meaning no cost, and the grasses should be full and colorful.

Tomas Grim, who is on the community board that developed Plan C, says all of this is going to take time.

“Right now,’’ he admitted, “it doesn’t look very good. I know we live in a time of instant gratification, but this is different. It’s slow but exciting. This is going to take three or four years but sometimes, beauty takes time.”

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