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Silver Lake Park historic status has focused on dam and lake size

Rochester's Heritage Preservation Commission is slated to return to discussions on the potential for designating the northeast Rochester park as a historic landmark.

Silver Lake
Silver Lake on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — The size of Silver Lake has been at the center of discussions regarding the historic nature of the park that bars its name.

“It sounds as though, if we do designate it as a landmark, it’s protecting the fact that this will remain a lake,” Rochester Heritage Preservation Commission member Mark Hubly said last month as the commission contemplated the park’s historic relevance. “We’re basically saying this is supposed to be a Silver Lake Park, not a Silver Stream Park.”

The commission delayed a decision on whether to officially recommend the Rochester City Council designate the majority of the 134-acre park as an official city landmark, leaving out newer sections south of Seventh Street Northeast.

The majority of commission members voiced support for some form of designation during their Sept. 27 meeting, but debate and uncertainty settled on the dam, which was originally built to create the lake in the park that opened in 1937.

Molly Patterson-Lungren, the city’s heritage preservation and urban design coordinator, said the dam has lost historic integrity, due to a 1991 update that installed gates to raise the level of the lake for cool water intake for the nearby power plant.

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It’s a function Rochester Public Utilities no longer uses.

The Rochester City Council approved plans to seek state funding for a project that would change how water is controlled in Silver Lake , replacing the existing dam structure with what has been referred to as a riffle dam, which would create a series of cascading pools across approximately 750 feet of the current lake east of Broadway Avenue.

Silver Lake Dam
The Silver Lake dam on Wednesday, April 6, 2022, in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

While final designs are not completed for the project, city staff have said the plan would convert 8 acres of the lake, which is reported to be more than 50 acres.

The existence of a dam has been acknowledged by consultants as a key factor in the park’s history, since it created the lake, but Commission Chairwoman Nancy Bergner and others questioned whether the existing dam would need to be in place to maintain historic significance of the park.

Patterson-Lungren said landmark designation of the park, or any structure in the city, doesn’t block potential changes. Rather, it would trigger an added layer of review and study when significant changes are proposed.

In other words, if the City Council seeks to continue its request for state funding and changes to the dam site, final plans would be reviewed to determine whether they affect the park’s historic status and whether alternatives are available to reduce any impact.

She said that means reviewing how proposed changes would affect the lake’s size.

“The lake is the prominent water feature (of the park),” she told the commission last month. “It is in the center of the park, and it was created as the center of the park when the park was developed.”

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The proposal for an alternate dam structure to maintain the bulk of Silver Lake spurs differing opinions among candidates for three Rochester City Council seats and mayor.

While the dam project is a Rochester Public Works proposal designed to coincide with efforts to dredge Silver Lake, the Rochester Parks Board recently adopted a master plan for Silver Lake Park that makes the assumption that the project will eventually be completed.

Silver Lake
Silver Lake on Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022, Rochester.
Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Mike Nigbur, the city’s parks and forestry division head, said the master plan calls for the bulk of Silver Lake to remain as it is. The proposed changes would be to the 8 acres connected to the dam modification, as well as a 2-acre addition to the lake body when an artificial berm is removed on its north edge.

The lake extending east into the park is expected to be maintained, and maps and designs in the master plan show the area of the lake staying in place.

Hubly said that’s a key aspect to consider, especially since original features of the park were designed around the water.

“To me, it’s the level of the lake that needs to be protected,” he said, pointing to three stone pedestrian bridges on the east side of the park. “Otherwise, those bridges look like sore thumbs.”

The bridges are considered as aspects contributing to the historic nature of the park. They remain largely unchanged since being built through federally funded relief program work in the 1930s.

Commission Vice Chairman Barry Skolnick suggested similar status for the existing dam, since it contributes to defining the character of the park, but a majority of the commission wasn’t ready to agree.

“We’ve kind of taken the conversation to one structure, and I’m not sure how we got there,” commission member Jeff Fague said, suggesting discussion of the historic status of the dam could be considered outside of the overall park.

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With a decision about its recommendation delayed, the commission will review updates to the study of the park as a potential landmark.

In a report to the commission, Patterson-Lungren said the updates seek to clarify how the lake and dam fit into historic consideration for the park.

The commission will meet at 5 p.m. Tuesday in council chambers of the Government Center, 151 Fourth St. SE., to continue discussion of the park’s status.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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