City’s ‘green infrastructure’ turns into boulevards-gone-wild eyesore

The hype over the city’s installation of so-called “water gardens” along two miles of boulevard along Grand Avenue in Minneapolis more than met the media’s usual frenzy for eco-friendly solutions in search of a problem.

The whole idea is to prevent precipitation from going where it’s supposed to, namely, into the gutters and storm sewers designed to handle it. MinnPost joined the media chorus in touting the project’s announcement of 126 such installations along Grand Avenue.

Rather than a continuous curb along the length of the grassy area separating the street from the sidewalk, the boulevards feature cuts into the curb with special drains that will cause water from the street to drain into the boulevard itself, rather than along the gutter into a storm drain.

The boulevard rain gardens — technically known as “bioretention areas” — are part of a citywide effort to take a more eco-friendly approach to managing stormwater runoff.

The benefits heralded on the city’s website make the curbside plantings sound like the Garden of Eden.

Collects rainwater from the roads, sidewalks, and buildings and lets it soak into the ground 

Adds native plants and trees, and protects existing trees 

Reduces hardcover and greens the city 

Creates a community amenity  

Combines safety and environmental goals 

But now into the first full year of letting boulevards go wild, neighbors along Grand Avenue don’t necessarily consider the tangled thickets of weeds and wild plants in front of their houses to be the promised “community amenity.” Residents told the Star Tribune no one appears to be in charge of maintaining the mess the city made.

Neighbors along Grand have questions and concerns around their long-term upkeep, especially as the city looks to install more across Minneapolis with new street projects.

“It wasn’t really clear who was supposed to be taking care of this big weed pit in the front yard,” said Claire Blanchette, who was out weeding behind her garage Tuesday. “Am I supposed to be in there? Or is someone coming to do this? I’ve definitely heard that from people.”

Some residents brought the problems to the city’s attention last year, but nothing came of it. Others told KARE-TV the so-called “bioretention areas” present a biosafety hazard for some individuals.

Alice Johnson and Amy Crawford said it was unclear whether people should water or weed the rain gardens. They are also concerned about how steep some of the trenches are, falling away significantly from street level.

“It just makes some kind of dangerous trenches where some old person like me or some young person to fall into and break something,” Johnson told KARE.

You might expect the embarrassing episode to cause city hall to think twice about the utility of “water gardens.” No such luck. All Minneapolis street projects going forward must incorporate the utterly unnecessary plantings by ordinance. But no worries, city workers will “probably” be responsible for maintaining them.

Liz Stout, a city engineer who specializes in surface water management, said the contractor will refresh the gardens and the city will be responsible for upkeep while the plants are being established.

“We’re going to be working with them to get this corrected. It will probably then fall on the city to do more of the intensive maintenance,” Stout told KARE. “These are stormwater infrastructure. These are going to be maintained by the city.”