Big plans for Bixby

Bixby Park, an approximately 100-acre area shown above, is bounded by I-35 on the west and by Highway 8 on the north. The Park Board is working on a master plan for the biodiverse area. (Photo by Clint Riese with pilot Paul Michaud)

City envisions transforming park into regional nature destination


Clint Riese
News Editor

A potentially major recreational facility project is slowly growing its way onto the city’s radar. A plan to combine three parks in northwest Forest Lake into one giant nature area with a host of amenities will likely be presented at a council meeting and be the subject of a public forum after the Park Board liked what it saw last week.

A landscape architect on Monday, Oct. 15 presented revisions to a Bixby Park master plan first introduced to the group in September. It entails multiple phases of improvements costing multiple millions of dollars.

Park Director Renae Reedy this week was quick to point out that discussions are in their initial stages, and any significant additions at Bixby Park are likely years out.

In fact, she said the topic came to the Park Board this fall only because the Comfort Lake Forest Lake Watershed District has major water improvements planned in the wetlands of Bixby.

“The real catalyst was the watershed district telling us they were doing some things in that area, and you want to jump on board because the timing is right,” Reedy said.

A Natural Wonder

Still, when considering the full-scale model the Park Board dubbed the “Cadillac” plan, it’s easy to imagine connecting with nature at Bixby for an afternoon, or even a full day.

If the full plan, estimated to cost $4.8-$5.1 million, were to come to fruition, visitors would not be short of recreational options. They would follow Eighth Street NW, near what is now Cedar Park, to Bixby Park’s new main entrance and follow a wetland-facing road to a circle of parking areas. This hub of the park would occupy its southeast corner and provide walking access to one of the main features – a nine-acre, fenced dog park.

Near the parking lots would also reside a three-season building that could be rented, a community garden and plaza, a children’s play feature such as a water-shooting “splash pad,” a picnic shelter and an open lawn. In addition, a quarter-mile, paved trail loop would wind nearby and feature nature-based play features for children. An existing water tower would overlook the entire main-entrance area, and could be outfitted with a nature-themed design via a new screening product.

A second hub would lie to the west. It would include a tiered amphitheater with a raised stage, a smaller picnic shelter, and a spiraling boardwalk and trail leading to a three-story observation tower.

“It would be a wonderful overview,” the architect, George Watson of Minneapolis-based WSB & Associates, told the board. “You could take everything in without having to go any further.”

But further you could go, given that a system of paved trails, unpaved trails and boardwalks would loop around the park’s perimeter. Along the way on a northern loop, visitors could stop at a series of five educational nodes.

“We’re talking about the idea of creating these interesting observation points at various locations and what we’re trying to do at each one of those is expose people to different elements, different environments of the wetland system,” Watson said.

The bigger, northern loop would run close to Interstate 35 and Highway 8. Wetland mitigation is proposed to take up four acres by the trail near the intersection of the two roads.

Interpretive learning pods would line a trail system at Bixby Park under a master plan being developed by the City of Forest Lake. (Illustration courtesy of WSB & Associates)

On the park’s eastern edge, the plan calls for the rebuilding of the ballparks now part of Schilling Park. The fields would sit near the intersection of two park trails and Seventh Avenue, which visitors could take to the Hardwood Creek Trail.

The park’s southern trail loop would run through now-private property bordering I-35 and Broadway Avenue before jutting north and running behind a block of mixed-use development.

On Feasibility

The substantial price tag was the elephant in the room at the Park Board meeting. The approximately $5 million estimate for the “Cadillac” package did not include consideration of work that could be done by city staff or volunteer groups. Such in-kind labor would almost certainly take place, and the park board and city officials said that grants would need to cover a large portion of the final cost in order to bring Bixby to its full potential.

The state’s sales-tax-driven Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment fund, in particular, would be a targeted grant source. Access to the interstate and the regional trail would potentially be factors working in the project’s favor regarding grant acquisition, as would the park’s potential regional significance, given its size of approximately 100 acres.

“This [impact] extends beyond Forest Lake into Washington County and up into Chisago County, so I think there’s a lot of synergy,” Watson said. “If enough people put their efforts forward and show cooperation, I think it’s something that would be significant.”

In any case, the project would be tackled in phases as funding comes in. Watson broke the full master plan down into five stages.

“This is a big project, this is an impressive project, there’s no question about it,” he said. “You shouldn’t think that this is something you need to do in one try. It’s something that can grow over time.”

Reedy felt that a one-stage-per-year schedule would likely be unrealistic. She noted that at this point the board is simply agreeing to a long-term vision.

“There’s not a lot of thought yet on how we will implement this plan,” she said. “Sometimes in government you have to sit on things and wait.”

If funds are slow to come in, features could always be cut to allow the project to go forward in a more timely manner. For instance, the master plan as it currently exists calls for over $500,000 in boardwalks.

Filling Gaps

Besides jump-starting the Bixby Park Master Plan, the watershed district’s major water improvement project will provide the opportunity to share a small portion of the work, primarily in trail development.

Whenever the rest of the Bixby is developed it will undoubtedly be a jewel of the city’s park system.

“One of the things the city lacks is a more natural park,” Reedy said. “A big area we lack is trails, and a third thing is a dog park. So it would fill in some of the gaps that are missing in our system. It would be a park people would drive to purposefully.”

The Park Board expressed approval of the plan’s general concept and specific components.

“It’d be a good use of space that’s not doing much now,” said board member Karen Morehead.