Neighbors Find Light-Rail Plan Less Than Utopian

The Minneapolis-area light rail project is planned for this bucolic stretch of parks along the Kenilworth Trail. (Courthouse News photo by Dionne Cordell-Whitney)

MINNEAPOLIS (CN) — Frank Lloyd Wright began calling his idealized vision of an American community “Usonia” in the 1930s and the Usonian homes he built then were affordable and simple, and showcased the influential architect’s utopian vision.

From 1948 to 1956, Wright designed an entire suburban community in Usonia, New York. Forty-seven homes were built, three of them designed by Wright; the last three homes completed in 1963.

In “Usonia, New York: Building a Community with Frank Lloyd Wright,” Roland Reisley and John Timpane wrote that the owners of those homes became so attached to their houses, land and community that when life changed and their needs in a home changed, they built additions instead. The Usonians “enjoyed a remarkable quality of life, the sense of living in an extended family in beautiful homes particularly related to their natural surroundings,” the authors wrote.

In Minnesota, Wright completed the Frieda and Henry J. Neils House in 1951. The Usonian-style home sits on half an acre in the Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood in Minneapolis, overlooking Cedar Lake. The home was listed in the U.S. Register of Historic of Places in 2004 and includes some of Wright’s signature features, such as oversized windows, use of stone and wood and a floating cantilevered roof, mirroring the wooded landscape surrounding the home. It’s Wright’s only home to use marble walls.

A three-minute walk southeast from the Frieda and Henry Neils House is Kenilworth Trail.

The 1½-mile trail is popular with neighborhood hikers, cyclists and runners, partly because it connects to the Minneapolis Chain of Lakes Regional Park, with seven parks, two gardens, a plethora of shorelines and paved scenic paths. It also connects to the Grand National Scenic Byway, 50 miles of roadway that link to other parks throughout the city, built as part of a public works relief program during the Great Depression of the 1930s. It’s the largest system of public urban parkways in the United States and is heavily used year-round, even during Minnesota’s frozen winters.

The semi-congested area, however, has become an issue for many Cedar-Isles-Dean residents in recent years. In 2010, the Metropolitan Council applied to the Federal Transit Administration for approval to add a light rail route from downtown Minneapolis through the communities of St. Louis Park, St. Louis Park, Hopkins, Minnetonka and Eden Prairie.

The Southwest Light Rail project is to include 16 new stations, with connections to other light rail routes and bus routes. The $2 billion project is the state’s largest public works project and is funded by county, state and federal governments, with the federal government contributing 46 percent of the cost.

Plan for a light rail station provided by the Minneapolis area Metropolitan Council.

The Metropolitan Council estimates that 34,000 commuters will ride some portion of the train’s 14½-mile route to and from the suburbs each work day. It will run through the affluent Cedar-Isles-Dean neighborhood, which includes some of the city’s most expensive homes. The Frieda and Henry J. Neils House, for example, is on the market for $2.95 million.

Opponents of the project have been trying to bring it to a halt since its start. Claiming that the environmental review process was inadequate, the nonprofit Lake and Parks Alliance of Minneapolis, created to preserve the Kenilworth Trail, sued the Metropolitan Council in 2014, saying the route was negotiated before an environmental study had been completed, in violation of The National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA.

The Metropolitan Council and the city reached a memorandum of understanding that year, agreeing that existing freight rails would continue to operate in Kenilworth corridor, a narrow strip of land between Lake of the Isles and Cedar Lake, and that a shallow tunnel for part of the corridor would be made for the light rail trains. That is the current plan.

But last year, U.S. District Judge John Tunheim found that the Metropolitan Council “did not irreversibly and irretrievably commit itself to a specific light-rail route, despite giving the appearance that it did.”

The agreement was made after the Twin Cities & Western Railroad Company said that derailment could be a risk if it moved the freight traffic to another route, Tunheim wrote in a 17-page opinion. He found that these agreements are “promises that can be broken.”

Mary Pattock, a spokeswoman for the Lakes and Parks Alliance and longtime resident of Cedar-Isles-Dean, said there is apprehension about impact of the light rail’s vibration on surrounding buildings and houses, and the environmental advantages of the route versus the disadvantages.

“They need to change the route,” Pattock said. “They need to go back redo the study and do it in good faith.”

The council completed its final environmental impact statement in 2016, and the opponents argue their case before the Eighth Circuit on Thursday.

“The record demonstrates that the Met Council … prematurely eliminated reasonable alternatives not because of a careful evaluation of the environmental risks, as NEPA requires, but because of the steady drumbeat of political expediency,” said their attorney Richard Landon, with Gray, Plant, Mooty & Bennett of Minneapolis.

In essence, the Lakes and Parks Alliance challenged the political conduct of the Met Council, not just a technical challenge to the environmental analysis.

U.S. Circuit Judge Jonathan Kobes asked: “Counsel, you have to agree that this court has never recognized that cause of action before, would you not?”

Landon responded: “There is no precedence in this case that deals with these facts. We acknowledge that the Eighth Circuit has previously held there is no private right action under NEPA. However, the court has not precluded any NEPA claims such as this, where a state actor was in a position to eviscerate any potential federal remedy under the APA [Administrative Procedure Act].”

The Lake and Parks Alliance asked the appeals court to declare that the Metropolitan Council violated NEPA, and enjoin it from continuing construction until a final environmental impact statement is completed that satisfies the requirements of NEPA.

U.S. Circuit Judge Bobby Shepherd asked Landon: “Isn’t that relief an impossibility now, because the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] has issued a record of decision and final impact study has been completed and been approved? What can the court really do at this point? Hasn’t the ship sailed so to speak?”

Landon replied: “No, I don’t believe it has, your honor. It’s not an impossibility because the regulations allow for a supplemental environmental impact statement to be released if there are any changes in circumstances that require further consideration. Finding the Met Council had inappropriately politically predetermined the outcome would constitute the circumstances that would allow for a supplemental environmental impact statement.”

Landon said that the council limited other routes when it signed agreements in 2014 with St. Louis Park and Minneapolis. The agreement said that freight trains and light rail trains would run alongside each other in the corridor. The environmental review was completed in 2016.

But Met Council attorney Charlie Nauen argued that the court lacked subject matter jurisdiction, and that the Lake and Parks Alliance failed to timely challenge the FTA’s record of decision, rendering their claim moot. He said that memoranda of understanding are by their nature nonbinding agreements and that the political process does not result in a binding commitment.

Cedar-Isles-Dean is a tightly knit, affluent community, in which some residents did not want to offer opinions about the project on the record.

A longtime Cedar-Isles-Dean resident who was walking her fluffy poodle mix Saturday morning, and did not want to give her name, commented: “We’re going to be totally affected it by it. I’m a big fan of mass transit and I love the idea of a light rail, but I have to side with [Lakes and Parks Alliance] because I do feel like the Met Council wasn’t on the up and up with us about it and pushed it through.”

The woman, 56, said the light rail was not truly designed to serve residents of the neighborhood, as the closest two stations lie half a mile away, in contrary directions. She does not anticipate excessive noise, as she lives a couple blocks away from the Kenilworth Trail, but says she hears “rattling” now and then again. She doesn’t mind that, though, as she likes trains.

“Anything to get people out of their cars I’m a fan of,” she said, “but will I be able to use this? Not unless I am really mindful, park my car and add another 20 minutes to walk to the station. I’m mixed. I just don’t think it’s been thought through very well.”

Cyclists Jesse, 39, and Ryan, 37, who declined to give their last names, said they support the Southwest light rail project as long so it does not harm the environment or reduce accessibility to bike paths to and through the Chain of Lakes. “It seems like it would be better for the environment if people aren’t driving cars,” Jesse said.

Nicole Feist, 38, who moved to Cedar-Isles-Dean in 2017, lives a few houses down from the freight tracks and says the project is not as “near and dear” to her as to some of her neighbors who have lived in the neighborhood for decades.

“All you can really hope for is that they’ve performed due diligence on the environmental impact analysis and what it will be like for all the residents around here,” Feist said.

Feist said she walks and bikes to most places and probably won’t use the train because she doesn’t have a real reason to get out to the suburbs. “The train won’t be a huge benefit to me, but if it’s a benefit to someone else, it’s worth it,” she said.

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