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Big plans being hatched for downtown waterfronts in Minneapolis and St. Paul

Once industrial, today’s riverfronts host new parks, luxury housing and office spaces — with all kinds of ideas percolating for the future.

A rendering of a planned riverfront park in Minneapolis.

This is the second of three articles exploring the role of the Mississippi riverfront for the future of the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. They are adapted from a report for the McKnight Foundation’s Food for Thought series by local author Jay Walljasper. The first story, “A river runs through us: Why the Mississippi is crucial to MSP’s future,” examined the potential of the Mississippi River to boost the region’s international image and maintain our prosperity. 

As the heart of the metropolitan region — the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul — becomes a growing center of development and population growth that would have surprised people 20 years ago, the heart of the two cities themselves — the downtown riverfronts — have become the focus of ambitious redevelopment efforts that would have shocked people 50 or 100 years ago.

Although both towns were born on the banks of the Mississippi, the riverfronts were quickly scorned as foul-smelling, unhealthy, immoral, ugly and dangerous places. Local citizens saw their future in the outlying neighborhoods, and the river was left to industrial plants, railyards, hobos and highways. As late as 25 years ago, raw sewage still flowed into the Mississippi when storm sewers were overloaded.

But today the river hosts new parks, luxury housing and office spaces with plans for even more big changes in the coming years.

St. Paul: Rediscovering the river

For years the Mississippi was barely visible from downtown St. Paul. Indeed, prisoners enjoyed the best view inside the county jail, which was built into the river bluffs. Now you can easily reach the water via steps down from the Science Museum and from the new Wabasha Street Bridge. Parks and trails follow the river on both banks for most of its 17-mile journey through the city.

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The Upper Landing, at the bottom of the bluffs from downtown, attracts bicyclists and walkers, and Harriet Island Park across the river brings St. Paulites together for festivals, concerts and celebrations. This area evokes steamboat days with a showboat presenting theatrical productions, a bed-and-breakfast aboard a towboat and a floating village of houseboats.

Downstream from downtown you’ll find one of the city’s oldest and one of its newest parks. Indian Mounds Park, providing sweeping views of the river as it widens across the valley, preserves Indian mounds that ancient Hopewell people erected in this sacred spot. The Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary is a newly opened park pushed for by east side residents who wanted to restore these 29 acres of bluff, woods, prairie, and wetlands in their backyard.

Courtesy of the City of St. Paul
The vision for Harriet Island Park.

Patrick Seeb of the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation marvels that there is now an outfitter in St. Paul that rents paddleboards for people to go onto the river in their swimming suits. “It would have been unimaginable 20 years ago that anyone would want to get that close to the water.”

The city’s Great River Passage plan, approved in 2013 but not yet funded, calls for more big changes on the riverfront in the coming years guided by the themes of “More natural. More urban. More connected.” The plan includes:

  • An elevated riverwalk called “the balcony” offering scenic views from the top of the downtown bluffs.
  • Traffic calming to make Shepherd Road on the east bank feel more like a parkway than a highway.
  • An environmental education center at the Watergate marina upstream from downtown.
  • Public plazas, homes and offices to create an urban village on the West Side Flats next to Harriet Island Park.
  • A kayaking route with shuttle service from Hidden Falls Park (near the Ford Bridge) to Pig’s Eye Lake.
  • A floating swimming pool in a barge anchored at the downtown waterfront.
  • Improved access to the natural splendor of Pig’s Eye Lake Park on the East Side.
  • Improved parkway connections between the riverfront and neighborhoods.

Ideas percolating for the 132-acre Ford plant site on the river includes a mixed-use neighborhood and business center, both based on pioneering green practices such as net zero energy use, a district energy system and ecological storm water treatment.  Minnesota Secretary of State Mark Ritchie, with backing from former Gov. Arne Carlson and former Ambassador and Vice President Walter Mondale, proposes staging a world’s fair as the first phase of development plans.

Minneapolis: Making the most of the Mississippi

The Stone Arch Bridge is muscling its way past the IDS Center and Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture as Minneapolis’ premier iconic symbol. This amounts to a startling comeback for an 1883 landmark that was fenced off for a quarter-century after rail traffic ceased in 1978.

The handsome bridge now stands as a centerpiece of the city’s reviving central riverfront, home to four new parks — Mill Ruins, Gold Medal and Water Power along with the planned Water Works — as well as the Guthrie Theater, Mill City Museum, MacPhail Center for Music and acres of recently constructed housing and office space. Even by conservative estimates, every public dollar spent here leveraged at least five more in private investment.

The next focus on the city’s riverfront is the Gateway district on the downtown side of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, envisioned 100 years ago as the pulsing heart of the city but now mostly empty. Plans promoted by the Downtown Council and other groups call for making Gateway Park into the central gathering spot the city so dearly needs. Green space would front one side of Nicollet Avenue from the light-rail station on 5th Street to the riverfront, with a plaza built at the foot of the bridge. This would strengthen the connection between the river and the Central Business District, along with fixing what David Wilson of Accenture calls one of the downtown Minneapolis’ major flaws: “a paucity of parks.”

Even broader improvements are being proposed for five-and-a-half miles of the Mississippi north of St. Anthony Falls, where neighborhoods in North and Northeast Minneapolis are bereft of waterfront parks and trails, which do so much to boost livability and neighborhood stability in South Minneapolis. 

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“These are neighborhoods that have been disconnected and underserved in terms of parks,” notes Mary deLaitre, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which is partnering with the city and park board on the projects. “The river becomes North and Northeast’s version of the lakes.”

This 20-year project, called RiverFirst, is not yet fully funded but the design team of Berkeley-based Tom Leader Studio and Boston-based Kennedy & Violich Architecture has been selected to carry it out. 

“We want to expand the sense of the riverfront beyond just grass and trees,” says Haila Maze of the Minneapolis planning department, who is working on RiverFirst. “We’re looking at things like swimming beaches, amphitheaters and gathering places” as well as chance to bring more jobs to an economically challenged community.

Here’s an outline of what’s proposed for the next few years:

Bike and walking trails: Adding bike and walking paths between Plymouth Avenue to meet regional trails that start at the Camden Bridge. Bike and pedestrian lanes being will be attached to existing bridges and the BNSF rail bridge converted to pedestrian and bike use, a favorite idea of former Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Water Works Park: Centered on a 4-acre site overlooking St. Anthony Falls on the west side, this project will create opportunities for active recreation where kids and adults can touch the water and explore mill ruins.

Scherer Park: The site of a lumberyard recently acquired just north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, this new park will include a restored river island with a beach for sunbathing and perhaps swimming.

Fairview Park Expansion: A land bridge over Interstate-94 in Fairview Park between 26th to  28th streets has been proposed to reconnect North Minneapolis with the riverfront, providing low-income communities access to the Mississippi with a pier and overlook.

The Upper Harbor Terminal: This city-owned facility will close next year, creating the chance to restore 6-8 acres of wetlands and to redevelop the facility.

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Our very own national park

A 72-mile stretch of the river flowing through the heart of the Twin Cities became a national park in 1988 thanks to bipartisan legislation introduced by then-Sen. Dave Durenberger and the late Rep. Bruce Vento. The Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) encompasses the river itself, nine islands and 27 acres onshore at the Coldwater spring site south of Minnehaha Park

The Park Service plays an active role protecting natural assets and promoting cultural amenities throughout the river corridor. In addition to the popular river visitors’ center in St. Paul’s Science Museum, its “Bike with a Ranger” 3-hour interpretative tours get families connected to the river at various waterfront locations. And more than 50,000 local students have ventured out on the river in classes conducted on paddlewheel boats and 10-person voyageur canoes.

“They’re terrified at first because few of them have much experience with nature,” says National Park ranger David Wiggins who leads canoe classes for middle-school students in partnership with the Wilderness Inquiry outdoor education organization. “Out on the river, we tell them this belongs to all of you, it’s a commons. Kids get that and you can see the transformation, especially for those who may live in tiny apartments and feel they don’t have much. It gives them a new sense of their relationship in the community.”

Wiggins is exploring other ideas on how to connect local residents and visitors to the river in partnership with the city of Minneapolis, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota Historical Society. These ideas include:

  •  Opening up access to a web of tunnels that run underneath St. Anthony Falls.
  • Launching taxi canoes between Boom Island across the river to the mouth of Basset Creek, which flows underground through the North Loop neighborhood.
  • Establishing an interpretative site in the historic limestone structure (once housing Fuji-Ya restaurant) overlooking the falls, which could offer traditional foods and crafts of the native people who lived on the Mississippi before white settlement.
  • Offering one-hour tours of the Fort Snelling riverfront for passengers landing or changing planes at the MSP airport.
  • Creating new recreational opportunities if the lock at the St. Anthony Falls dam is closed to prevent Asian carp from migrating upstream. The gorge could become a top-flight destination for paddlers and boaters.

Jay Walljasper writes, speaks and consults about urban and community issues. He is author of the” Great Neighborhood Book” and “All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons.”

Friday: The Mississippi’s strategic importance to MSP does not stop as it flows south to Lake Pepin.