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 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.
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.
“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.
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.”