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Park commissioners push back on idea for ‘promenade’ over St. Anthony Falls

Commissioner Mike Opat envisions a ¾-mile promenade that uses St. Anthony Falls’ infrastructure to connect both banks of the river.
RSP Architects LTD
Commissioner Mike Opat envisions a ¾-mile promenade that uses St. Anthony Falls’ infrastructure to connect both banks of the river.

A Hennepin County official has a dramatic plan to elevate the region’s status for architecture: a wishbone-shaped walkway above the Mississippi River in downtown Minneapolis.

Commissioner Mike Opat
Commissioner Mike Opat
Commissioner Mike Opat envisions a ¾-mile promenade that uses St. Anthony Falls’ infrastructure to connect both banks of the river.

Opat, who is retiring at the end of the year, unveiled his ideas for the promenade last month. Since then, supporters ranging from Native American communities to downtown business groups have hailed the idea as an ambitious plan to open up the riverfront and bring more people downtown.

But some key voices in riverfront development — as in: members of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board  — are not convinced that the “wishbone” is the right answer for redeveloping the area.

“The park board and other stakeholders have been working on a vision for the river for a generation, and this plan looks interesting but it just sort of dropped out of the sky,” said MRPB Commissioner Brad Bourn. “It will take some time to reconcile the two visions.”

Dreaming of ‘something spectacular’

Opat who represents Brooklyn Center, Brooklyn Park, Crystal, New Hope, Osseo and Robbinsdale on the county board began planning for the wishbone more than two years ago. Inspired by the High Line, the elevated park along a former rail line in Manhattan, he partnered with the Minneapolis-based RSP Architects, which has a portfolio that spans the globe, to design a riverfront project.

“We’re Minnesotans, so we typically like to underplay everything, but if we were to let ourselves dream a little bit here, I think we’ll end up with something spectacular,” Opat said in an interview.

A long-time politician and the driving force behind the county’s support for Target Field, Opat has experience navigating complicated projects. Since the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers closed the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls in mid-2015, planners at all levels of government have been discussing various proposals.

RSP Architects LTD
Supporters ranging from Native American communities to downtown business groups have hailed the idea as an ambitious plan to open up the riverfront and bring more people downtown.
Once the center of the city’s flour mill industry, the falls and lock are part of the U.S. National Parks Service’s Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. But the area is also contained within the Park Board’s Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park Master Plan, which the board last updated in 2016.

“No one owns it — everybody owns it,” Opat said to Hennepin County commissioners at a committee meeting last month, when he introduced renderings and his rationale for the promenade. He said Hennepin County could be a partner but not necessarily the lead agency on the redevelopment project, which could cost an estimated $50 to $100 million. 

To build most of the elevated walkway, RSP Architects President Dave Norback said they’d use existing structures upstream to the lock, the lock itself and the area’s seawall for foundational support. In remaining areas, including a portion where Xcel Energy operates a generating facility, crews would build new structures to hold up the path. The walkway would hover above the water but would be underneath the Stone Arch and 3rd Avenue bridges, with new access points that connect to Main Street and West River Parkway.

Minnesota Supreme Court Associate Justice Anne McKeig, a descendant of the White Earth Nation, said at the committee meeting that members of the state’s 11 Native nations are intrigued by the invitation by Opat to help guide the redevelopment project. “From all perspectives, we have been meeting this with great positivity,” she said.

Park board: ‘bigger priorities’ upstream

Less enthusiastic are members of the MPRB. Several commissioners have said that while they appreciate the attention to riverfront development at the county level, Opat’s proposal “fell real flat with the board of commissioners,” according to MPRB Commissioner Steffanie Musich.

Among other things, Opat’s proposal goes against that goal to alleviate disparities in the parks system, some commissioners said. MPRB Commissioner Chris Meyer, who represents the riverfront area, said the project doesn’t make sense when the area has already received heavy investment from the county and state with the construction of the Stone Arch Bridge. Meanwhile, swaths of industrial land above the falls remain underdeveloped.

MPRB Commissioner Chris Meyer
MPRB Commissioner Chris Meyer
“For suburban commuters, the downtown part of the city is what they experience, so it’s their play land,” Meyer said of supporters of the wishbone. “But for the people who actually live in Minneapolis, we have much bigger priorities.”

He said a lot of his constituents also don’t like Opat’s proposal because they think it would damage the character of the historic area. Or they think other projects are more deserving of taxpayer money, including the 30-year Water Works Vision that includes a pavilion with a restaurant on the downtown side of the lock, Meyer said.

For that project, the parks system has developed a two-phased plan that would eventually redevelop the 6 acres between the 3rd Avenue Bridge and Portland Avenue. Construction on the first phase began last summer. The second part which targets the parking lot near the Stone Arch bridge is on hold until the state sets aside money for it, commissioners said. “It will go a long way to better activate the riverfront for $5 million, but we don’t have funding for it,” Meyer said. “Our priority is to increase access to those parts of the city that don’t have it.”

Musich echoed those sentiments. “There are a lot of unfunded projects all along the riverfront that are already vetted with the public … that really ought to be funded at this time if there are funds available somewhere in government,” she said.

And though MPRB Commissioner Meg Forney sees Opat’s proposal as a positive sign for what could happen next with development — raising awareness for the need to build new overlooks and access points to the river — her focus is upstream, between Plymouth Avenue North and 42nd Avenue North, she said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve closed the door to the central riverfront, but we would love to see more public dollars going into that section [above the falls],” she said.

Who has final say on the riverfront’s future? 

Ultimately, the Hennepin County Board of Commissioners will decide what happens next with the wishbone proposal.

MPRB Commissioner Jan Callison
Hennepin County Commissioner Jan Callison
In his talks with colleagues, Opat said commissioners have seemed both enthusiastic and cautious about proceeding further. Commissioner Jan Callison, who represents the Minnetonka area, said she catches the energy and excitement of the project’s supporters, but she needs more specifics on its cost and source of funding before she can make a full evaluation. She is also wondering who, exactly, has the final say on the vision for the central area MPRB, the city of Minneapolis or someone else. Clearly, there’s some need to kind of have an overall sense for what’s trying to be achieved there and how does this project fit with the other projects that are being proposed,” she said. “That’s a legitimate set of questions.”

Opat is hoping to provide some answers before the end of the year or before he leaves office. In the coming weeks or months, he said he anticipates the county board voting on whether to conduct a feasibility study for the wishbone plan, an analysis that he said would determine a more specific price tag and what jurisdiction oversees what portion of the waterway.

“I don’t think there’s any reason to think that there’s a finite number of things that can be planned,” he said, addressing commissioners’ concerns. “Most of those other projects are specific to the city of Minneapolis and don’t have the broader appeal that this would have.”

Comments (20)

  1. Submitted by Ole Johnson on 02/25/2020 - 08:24 am.

    Absolute bafflement. What exactly is the purpose of this project?

    The Stone Arch Bridge already connects the two sides of the river. How many people are actually demanding a secondary walkway across the river?

    My cynical guess is that Target Stadium is almost paid off and Opat wants to find something new to spend that existing tax on. Heaven forbid you actually just end a tax.

    And how much did Opat pay for this study? And if everyone isn’t on board with the idea of the project, how did he get that money approved?

  2. Submitted by William Hunter Duncan on 02/25/2020 - 09:38 am.

    That money would be better served rewilding the river, removing infrastructure, not adding more layers of infrastructure.

    • Submitted by Dan Bensman on 02/25/2020 - 01:12 pm.

      Agreed. This project — building another artificial structure across our nation’s preeminent river — takes us in the wrong direction. The idea of removing the lock and dam, and returning the natural rapids to the area has far more legs. What other major downtown has that feature? And the analogy to NYC’s High Line? It falls flat — the High Line was an existing structure, repurposed to provide recreation and access to nature, not the other way around.

  3. Submitted by Norm Champ on 02/25/2020 - 09:52 am.

    Bafflement part 2:
    I increasingly wait for citizens to ask all sectors of government to do a little maintenance before embarking on further eye candy. In 2018 I noticed the Park Board had spray painted holes and seams in the Chain of Lakes Bike paths. in 2019 I noticed they had repainted the same problems (in a different color), without any repairs. I cannot wait for the spring to finally arrive and with it an new color of spray paint (or will they return to the original 2018 color since it has long ago faded away).
    Not to let my city off the hook: in 2018 I noticed sidewalks marked for removal replacement in So Mpls. The paint has long ago faded (the upheavals and cracked concrete remain), yet nothing was done.
    Take care of what we have before adding new projects!

    • Submitted by Ben Irwin on 02/26/2020 - 01:35 pm.

      We need to address the needs of our existing infrastructure before building more that we will not be able to maintain.

  4. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 02/25/2020 - 10:10 am.

    It’s really unfortunate that Opat decided to dedicate his time to this white elephant, when there are far more pressing priorities that could use his skillful backroom organizing and Hennepin County’s funding. Fully funding the Water Works plan is one, extending the Midtown and Great Northern Greenways across the river are two more. Expanding aBRT, building Midtown Rail, making county streets safe for all users, etc. etc. etc.

    It’s nice to dream big, but $50-100 million for another walkway over the Mississippi just doesn’t seem like a useful way to spend the money.

    • Submitted by Mike Davidson on 02/26/2020 - 03:16 am.

      There are other ways to revitalize our beautiful riverfront. Why not spend the money to make sure our existing parkways along the riverfront are up to date? Why not plant more trees? Why not spend some of that proposed money to make sure the Stone Arch Bridge itself has all of the repairs it needs? Or if we have that money to use, why not use it to look more closely at the proposed island development in North Minneapolis. This proposed monstrosity does nothing but actually take away from the historic beauty of the Stone Arch area.

  5. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/25/2020 - 10:13 am.

    The Minneapolis Park Board lacks all credibility seeing as how they don’t even show up for their own meetings:

    “Four commissioners were missing from both meetings: Londel French, AK Hassan, Kale Severson and former President Brad Bourn. While French, Severson and Bourn gave reasons for their absences Wednesday when reached by the Star Tribune, Vetaw said she did not know they would be missing before the meeting started.”

    We use the MPB River Flats area for Gopher football tailgating. The MPD is erratic in their rules and when we called the U of MN they indicated that the MPD is extremely difficult to work with and non responsive to most requests.

    Again, zero credibility at present…

  6. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/25/2020 - 10:24 am.

    I’d be curious to see the ROI financials. Anyone that walks this area knows that on nice days there are lots of folks, dogs, bikers, visitors etc. down here, not to mention the additional folks that will be showing up with all the Apartment/condo buildings going up in the area. Tax base, tax base tax base.

  7. Submitted by Adam Miller on 02/25/2020 - 11:26 am.

    Like, why? There are already great access points for views of the falls – the Stone Arch Bridge and the adjacent parks, including on Nicollet Island. What does this provide that those do not? I’m really not sure this would be worthwhile even if it were free, and it definitely will not be free.

    If we have the funds, spend them on aBRT and housing. We have real needs that matter to real people.

  8. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 02/25/2020 - 11:32 am.

    I think it would be interesting if minnpost were to write an article breaking down the cost of each level of government involved in these things. The Park Board, the city of Mpls, Hennepin Ct. Did it ever occur to anyone the reason why your taxes are so high is there are so many layers of government involved in every project?

  9. Submitted by Paul Juhl on 02/25/2020 - 12:24 pm.

    One thing the park board needs to do (if it’s their responsibility) is repave the roadway around Lake Harriet. It was getting bad last year and is nearly impassable now with so many potholes. It’s an embarrassment to the city if any visitor to Minneapolis wanted to check out the beautiful lake and drive around it.

  10. Submitted by Brian Simon on 02/25/2020 - 12:38 pm.

    Like the rest, I gotta wonder how this bubbled to the top. Even after wrangling all the local players, the feds are going to have a say in this too, the Mississippi being a national river & recreation area. I would think Opat would be aware of that.

  11. Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/25/2020 - 10:31 pm.

    Opat sees the area as a resource to the entire county, beyond the parochial interests of partisan MPD commissioners who have lots of opinions but little commitment to their jobs as evidenced by their failure to even get to a quorum at their meetings.

    It’s hard to find fault with the results of Target Field and Opat is to be congratulated for showing the courage to take the lead in getting it done.

    I’ll trust his judgement that this is a worthy project to pursue.

  12. Submitted by Scot Kindschi on 02/25/2020 - 10:56 pm.

    How much would it cost to blow up the damn dam? There’s your budget…problem solved.

    • Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 02/26/2020 - 08:19 am.

      You are aware that the reason for that, damn-dam is that if it wasn’t there the falls would probably have eroded the river bed and moved 1/2 way to Plymouth Ave by now!

      • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 02/26/2020 - 11:24 am.

        Bombing runs 50′ above river level dropping 4′ boulders from one end of Nicollet Island to the other.

        Used to watch the MN ANG roll jeeps and trucks out of their cargo planes in Jordan: perfect practice, save on parachute expense….

  13. Submitted by Suzanne Nelson on 02/26/2020 - 08:11 am.

    The county’s been working on developing a plan to spend 50 to 100 million of our tax dollars on this monstrosity for two years and we’re only hearing about it now? How about figuring out what the public wants by talking to us before you start trying to tell us what that is!

  14. Submitted by Larry Moran on 02/26/2020 - 08:36 am.

    Roads? Bridges? Improving HCMC? Working with cities to help reduce homelessness? I could think of a lot of things to do with $50-$100 million. This project is not one of them.

  15. Submitted by Be Joeshmoe on 04/27/2020 - 11:17 pm.

    What an embarassing intrusion on a bit of a natural wonder. It would make more sense to restore the falls to a semblance of its natural self, a fake tumbling facade over which it can cascade and still generate power. People do not need to get closer to what is fundamentally a dangerous river. Back off and be respectful. What could work is to expand the sidewalks of the Third Avenue Bridge so there are places to sit and gawk at the Falls.

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