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Winning design for Minneapolis riverfront brings people to water's edge

Image from the winning riverfront design.
Courtesy of TLS/KVA
Image from the winning riverfront design.

Of the thousands of miles of waterfront in Minnesota none are more oddly obscure than the banks of the Mississippi River in North and Northeast Minneapolis. It's safe to say that most residents are barely aware that one of the world's great rivers flows nearby, largely because its shoreline is obscured by a barricade of factories, scrap yards and industrial loading docks, forming a kind of "keep out" zone.

But all that will change over the next 30 years if the city follows the winning plan in a design competition that drew a surprising crush of attention. Tom Leader Studio of Berkeley, Calif., and Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston were announced on Thursday as the winning design team, beating out other finalists from Beijing, Boston and New York. Initially, 55 teams from 14 countries had entered the competition to imagine a better future for the 11 miles of upper river shoreline.


In the end the right team was selected. While Turenscape of Beijing dazzled the overflow crowd of 600 two weeks ago at the Walker Art Center, it was the Leader/KVA presentation that showed the greatest insight into the river's potential — as a generator of new development, as a connector and convener of existing neighborhoods, and as a teacher of sorts that might inspire future generations to respect the river's beauty, history and environmental value.

Going with the flow
The team's greatest wish is to bring people to the water's edge, Leader said. "The river now is a lonely place; a place that's largely unknown," he said. "At first we were looking for a big feature to put along the river. Then we realized that the river was the big feature. If we put the river first, everything else would follow."

"Our idea works with the land and water, not against it," said Sheila Kennedy, a principal of KVA.

More than the other finalists, the Leader/KVA team seemed to understand the importance of not just design but local relationships. Kennedy, especially, was a tireless researcher in the political and social eccentricities of Minneapolis, while Leader immersed himself into the local culture and Juan Frano Violich help to recruit 120 local advisers. Team members walked the entire shoreline — and said they were nearly arrested for trespassing as they hopped over fences to catch a closer view of the river.

Their ideas are best captured in their presentation and video. But here's a brief summary of how the river might look by mid-century if their recommendations fall into place:

  • In North Minneapolis, Farview Park, on Lyndale Avenue and 26th Street, would be extended eastward over the Interstate 94 freeway to the river's edge. The park would include extensive urban agriculture, including fields, orchards and a farmers' market.
  • Just to the south, River City, a new medical and smart-tech center would develop along the east side of 94, along the river's edge.
  • Two miles upriver, the current Port of Minneapolis would be transformed into Green Port, specializing in eco-friendly products such as sustainable fertilizers and road salts.
  • Tree-lined bike trails and walking paths would run along the river's edge, softening the landscape between industrial, recreational, office and other uses. "Clip-on bridges" and stairways would be attached to car bridges to allow pedestrians to move upward from the river's edge to river crossings. These connections would become part of the city's Grand Rounds park system.
  • Wetlands and inlets would be restored as filters for storm-water runoff and habitat for wildlife. "Biohavens" would be constructed on the river itself to provide habitat for migrating birds. Floating islands would absorb pollution and help to clean the river. Kayaking, canoeing and fishing would be encouraged, as would winter activities like skating and cross-country skiing.
  • Commercial and mixed-use clusters would develop at bridgeheads, Some industrial buildings would be converted to live-work quarters.
  • A public beach and housing would be developed on the site of the old Scherer Bros. lumberyard near the foot of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge in Northeast. The beach would also include a heated pool and offer stunning skyline views.
  • A major downtown park, Library Square, at the Hennepin-Washington intersection would extend the riverfront into the heart of the central business district.

If the plan has a shortcoming it's a lack of housing. Adding population as well as jobs is one of the city's major goals. It hopes that a cleaner, more attractive upper river will be a catalyst for housing and commercial development in parts of the city that have been long neglected.

If built, the plan would take decades to complete and require immense cooperation from riverside industries. No price tag was placed on the project and no funding plan was identified, although the Leader/KVA plan expects that federal, state, local and private money will be involved, and that revenue from many riverside activities could be used to maintain the parks.

Vision is important
"How we get this done is a tough question," Mayor R.T. Rybak acknowledged at Thursday's announcement. "But for generations we've had big visions in Minneapolis. And just because these are difficult times doesn't mean we should stop, because when you no longer have great visions that's the moment you're no longer a great city."

Patrick Seeb, director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., said he was impressed with the proposal but cautioned that redeveloping away from downtown near struggling residential neighborhoods would be difficult. "Downtown was the low-hanging fruit," he said, referring to riverfront revival in both cities.

Minneapolis Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller said the next step will be to form a steering committee to, among other things, select a first project within the plan, one that could be started within the next five years. That decision is expected in June.

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Comments (3)

Usually, I pick losers in this sort of thing, so I'm surprised, and pleased, that the plan I thought was the most comprehensive and focused turned out to be the one selected.

But plans are, in relative terms, easy. The hard part will be converting the plan to reality, and much of that will be taking place when it's not likely to make much difference for me personally. I don't expect to still be around, at least in current form, in 30 years.

I'd have to go for Liberty Park and the Fairview Park and Sher brothers Beach all at once. Got to be cheaper them a Vikings Stadium.

"Patrick Seeb, director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., said he was impressed with the proposal but cautioned that redeveloping away from downtown near struggling residential neighborhoods would be difficult. "

Patrick Seeb seems to hesitate to voice a varying point of view.

Tradition says that public goods are either “good” or “bad” (freeways are “bad” whereas public transit is “good”). Certainly, parks are host to families munching on Doritos while their burgers sizzle, athletic moms pushing chubby toddlers in jogging strollers, young men tossing Frisbees across green lawns edging the river; this is all good. Perhaps Patrick Seeb could paint a picture of hoodlums hanging out in the picnic shelters, a dealer doing business on the corner or worse. Fear of this type of activity was voiced by neighbors in a previous post: Looking at the Upper Riverfront through youthful eyes: Will new parklands be safe places? And if this is the end use of the green space, a critic could say that the public purse was used to create an environment that actually exacerbates another public good: street safety.

I don’t think public goods are good or bad; they have no more personality than fishing wire or hairspray. What is interesting to me is to watch how they interact when they are produced and consumed.