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Water Works: Big plans to make Minneapolis’ riverfront a sight to behold

Four firms selected to create bike and walking trails, floating islands for the protection of wildlife and four more parks.

RiverFirst Scherer Park and Hall’s Island 3D Fly Through Animation from Tom Leader Studio on Vimeo.

Back when I was growing up in North Minneapolis, I learned that the Twin Cities were situated on the Mississippi River.

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But did I ever see it? The answer is: Not often. Once in a while, when my parents drove to St. Paul to visit some distant relation, I remember looking down at it from a bridge on high. For all my fellow Baby Boomers and I knew about the Mississippi, we could have been living in Rapid City or Amarillo.

As with most American cities, Minneapolis’ riverfront had been pretty much gobbled up by industry. Railroads, factories, mills, shipping and power plants created nearly impenetrable walls along the banks; folks who got to see the river up close usually wore hardhats.

In recent decades, that state of affairs has gone into reverse. Manufacturing has mostly left downtown and increasingly land has been reclaimed for parks. On the downtown riverfront, Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, First Bridge Park (under the Hennepin Avenue Bridge on the west side of the river), Mill Ruins Park and the uniting of the West River Parkway and Rice Memorial Parkway and the Stone Arch Bridge, were all completed in the 1990s or early 2000s. Thanks to those efforts, in the course of a year, some 1.6 million people, about 60 percent out-of-towners, come to stroll along the river, view the dam and the falls and cross the Stone Arch Bridge.

The next evolution is the implementation of the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board’s RiverFirst, a 20-year multi-agency plan for the Mississippi that would create bike and walking trails, floating islands for the protection of wildlife and four more parks, including an alluvial wetland. The initial phase includes several priority projects, one of which is a tract between the Third Avenue Bridge and and the Stone Arch Bridge.

It was once the site of the Fuji Ya restaurant, which the Park Board bought in 1990 to make way for the construction of the West River Parkway. In the intervening years, there were plans to put a new restaurant there (no takers) and luxury condos (vetoed by the community for obstructing views). Squabbles and lawsuits ensued, and through it all, the old restaurant sat boarded up with the remainder of the land devoted to — you guessed it — a parking lot.

Ultimately, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a private nonprofit that raises money for parks improvements, spearheaded a study project in conjunction with the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board to transform the tract into a public space that, considering its proximity to the Mill City Museum, the Stone Arch Bridge, the lock and dam and the Guthrie Theater, could become a centerpiece of the waterfront.      

Renamed ‘Water Works’

This week the tract — renamed “Water Works” after one of its historic uses — hit another mark along the way along its Pilgrim’s Progress path to becoming reality. The Parks Foundation chose four firms that will work as a team to create the schematic design, which is due next year.

That sounds like a lot of cooks for only a few acres of broth, but Mary deLaittre, executive director of the Parks Foundation, says that the site requires an inter-disciplinary approach. In addition to the obvious presence of a natural body of water, there’s a history — the falls were sacred to the Mdewakanton Dakota, there’s what deLaittre calls “industrial archeology” — caves and other structures left over from the milling days, and a “tremendous urban system,” with roads, power lines, the lock and dam and so on. “You need a variety of expertise,” she says.

And the team members are impressive.

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SCAPE, a landscape architect company headed by Kate Orff, has among its accomplishments the 103rd Street Community Garden in New York City, which combines athletics, picnic grounds, a playground and horticulture in one small two-block area.  (It won a prize last year from the American Society of Landscape Architects.) Rogers Marvel, an architecture and design firm, has created a master plan for Governor’s Island, the “Elevated Acre” at 55 Water Street and a park in Cody, Wyoming.

James Lima, who served in the Bloomberg administration in New York, brings economic chops to the project because there is some thought to putting businesses in the park that would make it financially self-sustaining. (Hope they’re not thinking of tacky T-shirt shops). Finally, SRF Consulting, an engineering company based here — the only team member not from the Big Apple — completed work on the Lowry Avenue Bridge and the 29th Street Midtown Greenway.

What prompted the five-member selection team (which included planners from the Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board, the Mill City Museum, the University of Minnesota and the city) to choose SCAPE and Rogers Marvel? Their depth of their preparation, says deLaittre. “They did incredibly thoughtful research.”

Not just about buildings

Rob Rogers, who is the Rogers part of Rogers Marvel, says that he has a “personal fascination with public spaces.” He adds: “Now that we are coming to love our cities again, we’re realizing that it’s not just about the buildings — the grand gesture — but also about the streets, sidewalks, the little parks and the surfaces underfoot.”

I say amen to that. So many architects seem to think of a building they design as a monument, without bothering to connect it to its surroundings. They often fail to pay attention the little things that turn out to be so important, like Rio de Janeiro’s crazy patterned sidewalks or those little chairs people can perch on in Paris parks.

What makes Rogers excited about Water Works — and seriously, he did sound genuinely enthusiastic even though he spoke to me at 10 p.m. New York time — is the prospect of unearthing the “layers and layers of history, appreciating the place, the fiber and grain of history.” His aim: to make Water Works a place to linger, which it’s not now by any means. He says he wants people to “engage with the iconic falls.”

I couldn’t quite picture that, but he added that maybe Water Works should have something that would magnify the sound of the water, allowing park visitors to grasp the power of the natural feature that shaped the landscape and the city.

“Like a pavilion or building that echoes the sound?” I asked. Well, something like that, he said.

Rogers emphasized that Water Works should become an all-season destination. “Have you ever been here in the winter?” I asked. “Yes, I have.” He laughed. “That’s why there’s got to be a building.”

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The RiverFirst financial strategy estimates the cost of Water Works at $25 million, which seems ridiculously cheap to me, especially when you compare it to the public’s $500 million share (plus interest) of the Vikings behemoth. About 30 percent is to come from corporate and individual donations and another 15 percent from the parks board. That leaves city, state, federal and regional governments to pick up 55 percent of the tab. I hope they do. There’s no way a city can have too many parks.