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The unlocking of Upper St. Anthony Falls. Will a view restaurant or whitewater park come next?

MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Once the final vessels have passed through on the evening of June 9, the upper gates will be closed.

At midnight on June 9 the lock at Upper St. Anthony Falls will close permanently to shipping traffic. Blame the invasive carp.

An act of Congress last year directed the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop allowing tugs and barges to use the lock no later than June 10. It’s a defensive measure against the invasive species that has been working its way up the nation’s river systems. The fish, which could crowd out native fish, has already been found as far upriver as Hastings.

The Corps will keep the facility functioning but only for flood control, something that’s been required for just six times in its nearly 60-year life, most recently last June. Once the final vessels have passed through sometime that evening, the upper gates will be closed. During the following two weeks, a set of massive steel bulkheads will be lowered in slots just upstream to protect the gates. The lower gates will be left open and the water level inside the lock will remain at the level of the river below the falls.

It’s currently in the hands of the engineers. But after the lock is closed to navigation, others will begin to let loose their imaginations to envision what the 1960s era facility might become.

Regional and federal park planners have long been thinking about the river and the riverfront from downriver of St. Paul to upriver from Minneapolis. It is part of the larger Mississippi National River and Recreation Area run by the National Parks Service. It is also contained within the St. Anthony Falls Regional Park Master Plan by the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board.

Employing a narrower focus, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation is working to realize its Water Works Vision in the area around the lock – from the 3rd Avenue Bridge to Portland. But because the lock and dam were not then in line for closure, the plans either make passing reference to the structures or don’t mention them.

That could change, said foundation executive director Tom Evers, once the federal government decides what the future of the locks will be. The first phase of Water Works will be in the upland area nearest the 3rd Avenue S. Bridge. The second phase will involve the area closer to the river including the gatehouse that allow river flows into the complexes that used its force to power flour mills.

“We anticipate in that time period we’ll have a more-clear vision of what’s happening with the site,” Evers said. “We do hope to see the lock and dam as part of the story that will be told.”

Also keeping an eye on the lock is the park board, which discussed but decided against asking the state Legislature next year for money to begin planning a different future for the lock complex. Board President Liz Wielinkski said she thought it was premature and that taking an incomplete proposal to lawmakers could endanger other park priorities, such as developing property at Hall’s Island near the Plymouth Avenue Bridge and the Upper Harbor Terminal remediation.

“We can’t keep adding a million things to our list,” she said.

One commissioner who was ready to include the lock idea in the bonding request was John Erwin. He said the park board and other partners such as the Corps and the National Park Service have a chance to do something dramatic with the property.

“My hope is it would be transferred to the National Park Service and then we could have use of it,” Erwin said. What kind of use? Erwin sees the building adjacent to the lock as a visitor center with a view restaurant that would overlook falls that he envisions being lit at night.

“At night with the Stone Arch Bridge lit up and the falls lit up, it would be a pretty dramatic place to go,” Erwin said. “I think you’d see a lot of public support for a restaurant.” He even thinks the lock itself could be used for a whitewater park.

Evers said a view restaurant would complement what Water Works planners want for a new Pavilion Building near the 3rd Avenue Bridge. That building would house restrooms, vendors who would rent watercraft and bikes, as well as a cafe and viewing areas.

Those who want to repurpose the lock and the attached building have a kindred spirit in Col. Dan Koprowski, commander of the St. Paul District of the Corps of Engineers. Koprowski said the Corps plans to hire a part-time employee who will continue to conduct tours of the facility by appointment. The nine workers now employed there will be dispersed to other locks on the river.

On the short term it must be prepared to reopen the lock should Congress change its mind. It ordered the lock closed, not deauthorized so it must be kept in working order with gates being tested each month. The lock system was authorized by Congress in 1937. The Lower Falls Lock opened in 1956 and the Upper Lock followed in 1963.  

Once the lock is secured by the bulkheads, he would like to see a study conducted on its future. Such a study was authorized as long back as 1970 but not funded.

In the meantime, the Corps has been talking with regional national park officials to discuss the lock’s future. Should Congress deauthorize the lock, its future could involve either the Corps retaining ownership or it being passed to some other entity. Either way the flood control aspect must be maintained.

“What I hope to see is beneficial use of the site,” Koprowski said Wednesday from the top story of the control building, which has quite a spectacular view of the crest of the falls. “We are too valuable of a location, it’s too much of a resource for people who live in this community to just let it sit here and do nothing. Whatever it is, I hope we can work with other stakeholders and concerned parties to find a way to make use of this facility.”

And what vessel will have the honor of being the last one through the lock? Koprowski said he has been told by commercial tug and barge operators that they won’t risk waiting until Tuesday for fear that a breakdown would strand expensive equipment upriver. That leaves the privilege to a group of paddlers who Koprowski has heard are planning a late Tuesday passage.

But once through, they will have to do what all kayakers will have to do from then on. They will have to find a way to portage upriver past the historic falls.

“I imagine that’s how they did it before this lock was here,” he said.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/05/2015 - 11:15 am.

    “a lot of public support for a restaurant” – REALLY ?

    Maybe this is Erwin’s pet idea, and he gets all worked up about it, but I could count on one hand people I know who would have even the LEAST enthusiasm for yet another high-priced restaurant downtown. Maybe he has developer friends who’d like to see this idea advanced.

    Why not instead focus on development which would benefit the entire public, draw thousands to the riverfront, and would have a long-lasting appeal for all ?? This would bring more people to the downtown area where they could give their additional business to the EXISTING restaurants and bars.

    A whitewater chute, which I’ve heard mentioned before, would bring not only kayaking enthusiasts, but spectators, too. I’m sure there are plenty of other good ideas which are not purely focused on making a buck.

    I vote for uses accessible to a wider public audience – not more purely commercial development.

    • Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 06/05/2015 - 08:22 pm.

      I know there has been discussion of a restaurant along the lines of Sea Salt (at Minnehaha) or Tin Fish (Calhoun) for the park along the river. I don’t know if that’s the type of restaurant Erwin is thinking of, but it would be a great attraction.

      • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 06/06/2015 - 02:30 pm.

        Yes, something along those lines would be OK,…

        …especially if down on the street level, accessible to those on the streets or in a park area.

        A good alternative also would be to license specific spots for the street food vendors who are now all over downtown on weekdays. I’m sure they would be very enthusiastic about it, it would require NO NEW BUILDING of restaurant space, and there would be no need for upscale pricing attached at those ancillary amenities. So all in all, this would be a terrific bargain.

        The public money spent could be entirely invested in the park itself, not in commercial development.

        What the heck is wrong with taking further advantage of resources we ALREADY HAVE, and supporting businesses that already exist ??

  2. Submitted by Patrick Phenow on 06/05/2015 - 01:53 pm.

    Reason for the closure

    While for many people, closing the lock because of invasive carp seems good enough, that’s not actually the official reason. What is the official reason? There isn’t one.

    Initial WRRDA 2014 (https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/113/hr3080/text/enr) discussions had the closure based on the need to stop invasive species. Though I don’t think that ever made it into any versions of either the House or Senate bills. (I might be wrong about this.) And yes, clearly that is the reason being given when anyone associated with the closure talks about it. But that basis was left out of the bill language for fear that it would set a precedent for closure of other locks in the system.

    Next, they tried to use the low levels of activity through that lock as the basis for the closure. From earlier versions of the bill:

    (b) Mandatory Closure- Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam if the Secretary determines pursuant to the study conducted under subsection (a) that the annual average tonnage moving through the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam during the preceding 5 years was not more than 1,500,000 tons.

    Out of fears that THAT language would also set a dangerous precedent, that was also removed. Incidentally, the annual average tonnage target of 1.5 million tons, was set absurdly, intentionally high.

    Note that in the final version that passed, any mention of tonnage, invasive species, or any other reason for the closure is conspicuously absent:

    Sec. 2010.
    Upper Mississippi River protection
    (a) Definition of Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam
    In this section, the term Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam means the lock and dam located on Mississippi River Mile 853.9 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
    (b) Mandatory Closure
    Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary shall close the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.
    (c) Emergency operations
    Nothing in this section prevents the Secretary from carrying out emergency lock operations necessary to mitigate flood damage.

  3. Submitted by Doug Verdier on 06/08/2015 - 04:30 pm.

    Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock Closure

    A lot of people seem to be getting ahead of themselves in proposing new uses for the lock. I’ve heard visitors center, restaurant, whitewater park and other suggestions. First of all, the lock is not going to be decommissioned. It must be kept operational and will be tested monthly. Why? Because it is required for flood control. But what is unsaid is that there could be scenarios where the lock would need to be used for navigation above the Falls.

    Consider: last year there were three barges used beneath the 3d Ave. bridge when repairs were being made to the structure.That project is not completed. Where did the barges come from? Downriver. The Plymouth Ave. bridge also could require use of vessels or barges that come from downriver for maintenance or repair. And just because plans call for minimal navigation above the Falls, doesn’t mean there will not be a need for dredging sometime in the future. That equipment will need to transit the Lock to get upriver as well.

    So before everyone gets all wound up for remaking the Lock into something else that would preclude its use for the purposes for which it was built, perhaps it would be a good idea to step back and think about what is the best way to preserve the capability to transit vessels above the Falls and maintain the capability to use the Lock in cases of emergency.

    As for the restaurant idea, one only needs to look within a several block area around the Falls to discover a number of restaurants that have failed and have remained closed for years. The tours that are given by the Corps of Engineers (CofE) are a wonderful way for visitors and residents to learn about the Mississippi River and its history. These tours could attract more people to the riverfront if they were made more available and conducted more frequently. I’d favor keeping the visitors center at the Lock operational and for the CofE to conduct more frequent tours, perhaps in conjunction with the Mill City Museum. The Parks Foundation and Park & Rec Board should investigate a way to incorporate the Lock into its Water Works Park plans. The current version of the Water Works Park project is very innovative and makes use of the features and beauty of the area near the Falls.

  4. Submitted by S.T. Malleck on 06/10/2015 - 02:20 am.

    Incredibly stupid and shortsighted

    Most cities are limited to only road and rail transportation, and occasionally expensive air travel. What other inland US cities could claim to having a PORT? If utilized and marketed properly, it could’ve been a boon to Minneapolis and a decisive economic advantage, providing cheap and direct access through the lock to the Gulf of Mexico and international trade routes.

    Instead, our public officials chose to fritter this asset away, for no reason at all. The invasive carp would’ve been stopped anyway by the Coon Rapids Dam a few miles upstream, so that’s not a reason. What carelessness and incompetence.

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