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Golden Valley Considers Retooling A '50s suburb

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Golden Valley considers retooling a '50s suburb

David Peterson, Star Tribune

Gazing out the window of the Mattisons' house on Sweeney Lake in Golden Valley, you wouldn't think you were in a neighborhood beset with problems. Downtown Minneapolis is close enough to see the glowing skyscraper tips on the horizon, and the darkness beyond the picture window envelopes a scene of snowy, moneyed serenity.

But when the group gathered in the living room starts talking, it turns out they have lots to kvetch about:

"Why do we have to drive our kids to a park?"

"Do you realize this street outside is a 'bike trail' on city maps?"

"I hate those terrible Fort Apache noise walls."

"Highways chop us up, and the two school districts chop us up."

"This lake is barely swimmable."

Last week's gathering was one small part of Envision Golden Valley, an effort to engage Golden Valley residents in reinventing their community. The process has been years in the making and will culminate in a Monday night town meeting. Hundreds are expected.

Even in an era when lots of cities do "visioning," Golden Valley's effort is exceptionally ambitious. And it is resulting in a fascinating critique of a suburb that came of age at mid-century, as seen by the 21st century people who live there.

The pages upon pages of gripes, dreams, hopes and whines collected as part of the effort could be summarized in a sentence: In moving to the suburbs, we lost a lot that lent charm to life in both small towns and cities. And we need to get it back.

In 1986, the last time the city took stock of itself, the complaints were mainly microscopic: Get rid of that eyesore on Hwy. 55, move the post office, don't plow my driveway in with snow.

This time the complaints are cosmic and reach deep into the suburban soul: Stop the loss of green space. Give us transit and not concrete. Make everything prettier. Give us music and theater and painting. Bring us together for fireworks on the Fourth of July. Give us one really nice, distinctive place to eat instead of endless chain restaurants.

The city's marketing literature casts the process as a cheerful "let your ideas bloom." Tensions, though, lie beneath the surface.

Take the Golden Valley Shopping Center, a museum piece of a strip mall that squats beside a parcel the city is trying to turn into a pleasant town center with arbors and benches. The mall was already described as an eyesore in 1986, the city's centennial year. It looks even more out of place today and has inspired numerous calls for improvement. The owner, Trach Properties, did not return a call for comment.

Or consider the widespread clamor for better bicycle trails. That was the first topic to arise in Bob and Sharon Mattison's living room.

"This street right outside here is listed on city maps as a 'bike trail!' " exclaimed a 14-year resident, Jane McDonald-Black. "I'm thinking, 'Wow, a bike trail!' But it's just the street! Let's get real."

Overall, "Develop regional bikeways" was listed as the No. 1 priority under recreation, one of the six main topic areas in the study, and "Provide more formal and established pathways, trails, bikeways, and sidewalks" ranked first in the transportation category.

Uncomfortably, however, the very folks who agreed to host Monday's town meeting, the Golden Valley Country Club, are viewed as a prime obstacle in such efforts.

A proposed regional bike trail would cross property of the country club, which, in the words of assistant city manager Jeanne Andre, is "not wild about the idea" of bikers coming through. Officials are studying how to route riders around the club on streets.

The planning process itself, however, could exert pressure on those who seem to block wider community goals.

"The regional bike trail is something that's been 'two years away' for a long time," Andre said. ". . . If it seems to be at the top of people's lists, it would get more money or more political capital."

The club's general manager was out of town last week, and other club officials did not respond to requests for comment.

Many of the key issues in the preliminary report and in similar communities across America come down to a discomfort with a style of suburbia in thrall to the car.

"We've come a long way from that 'Futurama' vision of ribbons of cars moving at high speed," said Steven Ames, the Portland, Oregon-based author of the American Planning Association's "Guide to Community Visioning."

"The 50s suburb is ripe for rethinking and retooling," he added. "What that means exactly, we're still not sure."

Golden Valley is hardly a Green Party stronghold, but its residents do seem to want more transportation options. Many people mentioned light rail, or the fact that railroad tracks run right past the town center and could become a commuter stop. Many others wanted to make highways and noise walls less stark visually.

The Nov. 11 session at the Twin West Golden Valley Business Council was typical: Participants wanted transit and biking alternatives and wanted "attractive . . . streets and paths, better aesthetics."

Of course, Golden Valley's highway access is also one of its greatest assets. For that and other reasons, residents are far from morose about their hometown, praising its multitude of corporate headquarters, such as General Mills, and its pretty parks.

"Overall," reported consultants who held focus-group sessions, "contentment and satisfaction with the quality of life in Golden Valley was found to be high."

It's a city of "lovely, lovely areas, windy streets and big yards," said the city's communications coordinator, Cheryl Weiler. "But we still need to ask, what is an aging first-ring suburb to do to keep people happy, keep attracting them, and stay hip?"

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