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

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. 

“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.

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.

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Comments (9)

  1. Submitted by Susan Lesch on 01/30/2014 - 10:12 am.

    Absolutely no paucity of parks

    Dear Jay,

    Just a reminder that Minneapolis lacks city planning, not parks. Perhaps Mr. Wilson needs a tour? Take a look: 1) Cancer Survivor’s Park, 2) Gateway Park, and 3) Bridge Square all currently occupy land downtown between the library and the river. What I would really like to see there that we don’t have yet is a free drink of water (somewhat less costly than Whole Foods).

    Re: 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.”

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/30/2014 - 10:29 am.


    My own level of enthusiasm for the projects envisioned for Minneapolis’ north side varies from project to project, but for both of the Twin Cities, the operative phrase of the moment seems to be, or perhaps ought to be, “not yet funded.” Translating architectural renderings into something more tangible is the hard part.

  3. Submitted by jody rooney on 01/30/2014 - 10:38 am.

    It all sounded good right up to housing near Harriet

    Park. It is still a river and that is still a floodplain. True it is a protected floodplain and protected to a fairly high level, the standard project flood I believe, but it still has the potential for catastrophic failure.

    I did the flood damage assessment for the flats in St. Paul many years ago to justify raising the level to the current levels. There were several large firms there that whose spokesperson had made it through the 1965 and 1969 flood and it was difficult to get them to think about their damages because they believed they were well protected. It became a lot easier once one of the engineers shared that the 1965 flood was in the “free board” range – which technically means it exceeded the design capacity of the flood wall and had not the extra “free board” been built the area would have had in excess of 5 feet of water. Note the elevated state revenue building for confirmation of the potential depth.

    Levee failure or over topping because of a catastrophic flood has a very small probability of happening but when it does it will inundate the area quickly and to a great depth and most likely great velocity. This is a great place for parks and uses with substantial construction but this is not a place for residential development.

  4. Submitted by Joseph Barisonzi on 01/30/2014 - 12:52 pm.

    And for the other 6 months of the year?

    I love these conversations. I love the forwsight. I love the engagement. I love when the conversations become visions, the visions become proposals, the proposals become project, and projects becomes places to visit.

    Thank you.

    But . . . (you knew that was around the corner right?)

    It seems as though there are a signficant number of months in Minnesota that sunbathing, kayaking, picnics and outdoor concerts have limited appeal.

    I always wondered why (at least from an intellectual honesty perspective) the wonderfully drawn renditions that accompany reports such as this always seems to reflect the relatively select few days in the year when the leaves are on the trees, the sun is in an unblemished sky and barefoot kids can run in the grass. Why not show me what it will look like from, say — late October through mid March?

    [Disclaimer — I havn’t read the report — so perhaps it does? If that is the case I stand chargrin and hope that the MinnPost article could be updated to allow us to understand the viability of the vision during the other 6 months]

  5. Submitted by Steven Prince on 01/30/2014 - 01:16 pm.

    Don’t forget the kids

    For years big ticket park spending in Minneapolis has focused on recreation for adults, not what we really lack – places to play soccer, basketball and other team sports for kids. Where are the plans for more soccer fields?

  6. Submitted by Sisoka Duta on 01/30/2014 - 09:32 pm.

    Indian Mounds

    Dear Jay,

    Hopewell people did not build the Indian mounds park. Dakota people buried their dead their for centuries. There is documentation from Jonathan Carver and others about the Dakota usage at Indian Mounds park. Saying the Hopewell people built the mounds excludes the Dakota from the historical landscape of Minnesota.


    Sisoka Duta

  7. Submitted by Keith Ford on 01/30/2014 - 09:41 pm.

    It does take time.

    Jay’s language – “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” leaves a hint of a suggestion that these “ambitious redevelopment efforts” are something recent. In fact, Minneapolis’ planners and the Planning Commission were working on riverfront redevelopment plans in the early 1970s. I take no credit for those plans but I do recall the City Council at that time voting on the master plan. In fact I have a copy somewhere.

    While I hope the upper river plans don’t take 40 years, it does take a lot of time to reach community consensus, acquire land (maybe even longer after the Supreme Court’s restrictions on eminent domain), clean up decades old pollution, find all the money for that and then hoping your timetable matches the market’s readiness to invest.

    While a sense of urgency is vital to redevelopment, so too is a recognition of the value of patience.

  8. Submitted by Neal Gendler on 01/30/2014 - 10:57 pm.

    Not a quiet stream

    Continued redevelopment of the riverfront will help make Minneapolis and St. Paul even more attractive, although the first of the artist’s renderings– the one with the woman pushing a baby in a stroller — made me wonder where such a bucolic scene could be other than in the mind of the artist.

    The Mississippi is beautiful to behold, but it is not a quiet recreational stream or lake. When the piece above talked about kayaking or even a beach for swimming, I think it was a bit optimistic. The Mississippi is hardly a place for swimming unless there’s some quiet cove, out of the main flow, of which I’m unaware. The river is wide and pretty fast-moving, dangerous water for all but the well-equipped and experienced. I’m reminded of the admonition: “Look but don’t touch.”

    I don’t think we can play in the Mississippi, but let’s keep on making it easier and more pleasant to look.

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 01/31/2014 - 09:14 am.

    Spilt milk bizarre complaints.

    We missed a great opportunity here. We could’ve put the Vikings stadium up along the river and gotten it out of downtown. Oh well.

    I’m not saying these are all great ideas but the push back here is interesting. Our parks get year round use, they’re not just in play for 6 months, have you walked around the lakes lately? Have you walked along the river? People are down on those trails all year long. No place for children, you’re kidding right? You can’t play in the in the Mississippi? We have a big Mississippi kayak events every year, the Mississippi River Challenge, and a big kayak race. Both Minneapolis and St. Paul have rowing clubs. Yes, the river is more dangerous than a lake, but it’s not a death trap.

    The river is fantastic resource and a wonderful natural feature that distinguishes the Twin Cities. It’s the river not the stadium that keeps us from being a cold Omaha. The upper river is no longer part of an industrial infrastructure so we should absolutely develop it as green space. It’s cheaper than building stadiums and much more advantages than super bowls.

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