The calls to keep the future Valley Creek Park natural have been heard loud and clear, Woodbury parks planner Mike Adams said.
Initial feedback from residents about plans for the 70-acre expanse of undeveloped public land, located near Valley Creek Road and Settlers Ridge Parkway, has favored restoration of prairie and enhancement of existing forest, the desire for "natural" or "adventure" play areas, and passive recreation like hiking that doesn't require development of a playing field or facility. Access to trails, paved and unpaved, is also viewed as an important element.
"People really value the natural resources in the park, and they want to see us restore and enhance those," Adams said.
An architect summed up residents' desires for the land as "keeping a light touch."
A concept design for the future park was revealed Oct. 15 at a public meeting meant to gather feedback from surrounding neighbors and other city residents. It was also posted online shortly beforehand.
Seeing the initial design for the park seemed to alleviate the worries of some residents.
"We saw a lot of sighs of relief," Woodbury Parks and Recreation Director Michelle Okada said.
Adams explained that the park planning process is "a bit of a chicken-and-egg scenario." To create an initial design, staff must first ask for feedback about what residents want in the park, which the city did at Woodbury Days this summer and with an online survey, which will stay open into November. Upon presentation of the draft concept plan, the city had received about 600 responses so far.
Then a preliminary design is created, often the first time residents get to see how their ideas translate into real spaces.
"So I think that sigh of relief is, 'oh yes, this is what I envisioned, this is what I like, and I'm really excited for this park to get developed,' versus seeing something that maybe they're fearful of happening in that space," Adams said.
Megan Samuel is a resident of Dancing Waters, a large development that abuts the future park. During the meeting, Samuel expressed concerns about the park — bright parking lot lighting, increased traffic and noise — and said she and her neighbors did not want to feel responsible for policing the area.
After the meeting, Samuel said she felt their concerns had been heard and that she and her neighbors are "really excited" about the park. They just want it to be accessible to everyone, from young kids to older adults. They also want to see the land and mature trees preserved.
"We just want to protect it because we know what lives up there and how special it is," Samuel said.
Before his recent move to Dancing Waters, Daniel Fishelson wasn't aware a park was planned right next to his new neighborhood. He said he wanted to attend the meeting to "enhance the revision" of the park design.
"I honestly think it's going to be amazing — it just has to keep the natural feel intact," Fishelson said. "I think Woodbury has a lot of plastic parks, and this ... is going against that in a good way."
Now that feedback has been collected on the draft concept design, Adams and staff will begin looking more closely into things like trail alignment, as well as what he called "real-world constraints," like trees and other topography at the site. The park design will be tweaked to incorporate some of this feedback in time for the second neighborhood meeting, which will be held 5-6:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Woodbury City Hall, 8301 Valley Creek Road.
What to do with Miller Barn?
An element of the future park that has received significant attention is the Miller Barn, a structure built in the early 1920s for dairy farmer August Miller. The barn is one of few surviving structures that date back to Woodbury's roots as a farming community.
The Woodbury Heritage Society formed a Miller Barn Committee in 2016 to formalize its members' ongoing efforts to restore and preserve the barn, believing it to be a vital link to the city's past and important for the education of future generations.
In 2018, the city accepted a legacy grant totaling $160,000 from the Minnesota Historical Society for use in restoring the barn. In April, the deadline to use the grant was extended to December 2020. Plans for the grant money include repairs to the roof and siding.
The Woodbury Community Foundation said it received a bequest of nearly $200,000 from the estate of Inez Oehlke to be used for the restoration of the barn. Oehlke, who advocated for the preservation of the barn, died in 2016 at age 96. Her husband's family was among the early settlers of Woodbury.
Outside of these two sources, Heritage Society vice president Bill Schrankler estimates his organization has raised $30,000-$40,000 to put toward the barn.
In November 2018, the one bid the city received to restore the barn was cancelled after the contractor was not able to meet certain requirements. With a compromised roof still needing repairs, staff from the city's parks department were able to patch holes last fall to avoid further damage to the barn's interior over the winter.
Though various ideas have been floated to make use of the barn, the city ultimately decided to hold off on any action until the completion of the Valley Creek Park master planning process.
"That initial feedback on Miller Barn indicates the community's interest in keeping the barn as part of the park, even if there's no public access to the barn," Adams said.
For its part, the Heritage Society suggests using the barn as a "cultural interpretive center" that would be staffed by volunteers and include displays detailing the city's history, as well as space for meetings and small community events. The group envisions hosting school groups and tours at the barn, similar to the Woodbury Heritage House.
Some early responses from residents have showed a desire to preserve the barn and use it as an interactive learning site — depending on the cost of restoration and upkeep.
The Heritage Society argues the money it has raised should be taken into account and worries residents assume all money going toward the barn would come from the city. A letter from Oct. 7 addressed to Okada and Adams detailed the organization's concerns about certain wording in the online survey. The organization also raised separate concerns about the survey being unfair based on the inclusion of certain phrases in reference to Miller Barn, including: "Renovation would likely cost more than construction of a new park building."
Simply preserving the barn without utilizing it as a community space would be "a big mistake," Schrankler said.
"We have the money to carry out what we'd like to have done there, to make it a real community resource with exhibits, meeting spaces and public use," he said.
Adams said the city would "continue to evaluate this amenity and how it may support park uses during the master planning process" and have yet to determine where it ranks as a priority in the future park.
"That's inconclusive at this point," he said.