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Great River Passage plan will guide St. Paul’s Mississippi River vision for decades

In the works for nearly three years, the plan lays out a vision for the many parks along the city’s 17 miles of riverfront.

The St. Paul City Council recently approved a long-range plan for development of the city's 17 miles of riverfront.

There should have been more fanfare last week when the St. Paul City Council approved a long-range plan for development of the city’s land along the Mississippi River.

The council voted unanimously to adopt the massive Great River Passage Plan, which lays out in great detail the ways the city can improve access and connections to the city’s riverfront parks over the next 30 to 50 years.

The plan took tons of time and energy, and not just from bureaucrats and policy wonks; hundreds of residents weighed in, too. The end result is 300 pages of details — a wish list, of sorts, for the river’s future.

Sure, it’s just a plan, and there’s really no money yet for such projects as improving Watergate Marina or providing better roads and paths to help people actually find their ways to the riverfront or set up those riverside restaurants and canoe rental shops.

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But we should have celebrated up and down the river, with champagne toasts on the Padelford and singing on the Harriet Island pier, because the document means the city is pointed toward a path of river improvements which, as Paul Robeson might sing, “will just keep rollin’ along.”

Certainly City Council President Kathy Lantry has enthusiasm for the plan. Her ward spans a stretch of the river that includes the very under-used Pig’s Eye Park.

“This is a really a big deal,” she told me after the vote. “The Mississippi River is a tremendous asset for the city, and it’s a big part of our story as we try to distinguish ourselves from other places.”

Not every city can say the Mississippi runs through it. And St. Paul’s 17 miles of riverfront includes the most Mississippi park acreage of any city in the country.

City Park and Recreation Director Mike Hahm says it sets the stage for sustainable development and will help create “a unique and connected riverfront.”

Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, raves about the plan, too.

“I talk to people up and down the entire river, and they’re jealous of what’s happening in St. Paul,” said Labovitz, whose local National Park Service headquarters is based in the Science Museum of Minnesota building — on the river bluff, in St. Paul.

“It’s a big city with a lot of complex land use issues, and here they’re making it a priority to protect their riverfront,” he said.

Previous studies

In the storage rooms at City Hall, you’ll find dusty copies of previous river-related studies conducted by the city, including a river framework from 1997, a corridor plan in 2001 and the Great River Park Chapter on 2007.

Says city Parks Designer Don Ganje:

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“There’s been strong interest in the river, going back 30 years as it evolved away from its long-time industrial uses. 

“But we never really had a plan to step back and look at all 17 miles, at what we are missing, where it should go and how we can connect the disjointed parts together; and how can we connect it all to the neighborhoods.”

This new plan does that, with a lofty vision:

Saint Paul’s 17 miles of Mississippi River riverfront has unrealized potential as a regional and national natural, scenic and cultural resource. Through sound management and protection, an enhanced corridor will continue to improve the quality of life for Saint Paul residents by expanding recreational and open space opportunities. In addition to greater access to the waterfront, the Great River Passage project will also identify areas for new sustainable development and re-development to be used for new businesses and residential housing.

The Great River Passage project will lead to …  new tourism opportunities for Saint Paul. Working in concert with federal and state agencies, as well as non-profit organizations, Saint Paul hopes to promote the River corridor as a national recreational and cultural resource.

Planners and river-supporters had worried that without that kind of overall perspective,piecemeal changes might occur without regard to the system as a whole.

mississippi fall photo
The plan aims to make St. Paul’s stretch of the Mississippi more natural, urban and connected.

“The city now has laid out its vision. Instead of waiting for bad ideas, we can put forward good ideas and support them,” said Labovitz of the Parks Service.

The plan

The plan, says Ganje, aims to make the river:

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  • More natural
  • More urban
  • More connected

“The goal is to preserve the wild naturalness but still bring people to the river, because this is an urban area. And we want more connections between the places on the river, and between the neighborhoods and the river,” he said.

The plan looks at four distinct regions of the river as it runs through the city:

  • The Gorge: from Minneapolis to Fort Snelling
  • The Valley: the Watergate Marine, Lilydale, Island Station
  • Downtown: from the High Bridge to Lafayette Bridge
  • The Floodplain: around the bend and south past Pig’s Eye Lake

Already, city officials are working to provide better signs to show people how to get down to some of the harder-to-access spots on the river, Ganje said.

Some of the big projects on the wish list that will need big funding infusions, include:

  • Watergate Marina improvements that could include a riverfront interpretive center for environmental learning, along with restaurants, canoe and kayak rental. (The city has already submitted a bonding request to the Legislature for $1.4 million to do design and engineering work.)
  • Shepard Road, between downtown and Hwy. 5, could become more of a parkway, with easier ways for people to get across from the neighborhoods to the river.
  • Island Station, the old power plant off Randolph Avenue, could be a new home for the National Park Service, as well as a center for training and outdoor activity.
  • Harriet Island Park, the home of large weekend gatherings in the summer, doesn’t have much happening during the week; more activities could be set there.
  • Swimming Barge, anchored between the Wabasha and Robert Street bridges.
  • River Balcony, an elevated promenade along the downtown bluffs, extending from the Science Museum, along whatever replaces the West Publishing buildings and old jail, through Kellogg Park and out to the Trout Brook regional trail. 
  • Pig’s Eye Park could get a new road to provide access to the little-used East Side Park, with parking and a boardwalk and view spots for the heron rookery.

With these, and more details in the master plan, the city will be ready if and when funding opportunities arise.

Did someone say funding? When’s that going to happen?

In this tight fiscal environment, no one knows, Lantry said.

“The cost to implement these plans is extraordinary, and there will never be enough city money for them,” she said. “So we’ve got to engage all our partners, the non-profits, the state and federal governments. And now we can say we took the time to engage the community to talk about the long-term vision, so we’ll have better access to those resources.”


Council President Lantry raved about the process for developing the plan, with the help of a 56-member task force, a 17-member technical advisory group, and many focus groups.

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“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that kind of energy around something. People were so excited about this, and staff listened to what they had to say.”

boat club photo
Minnesota Boat Club on Raspberry Island

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman was happy to see all the civic input, which he says will help the city “set the stage for economic development, restoration of sensitive ecological areas, and will result in more sustainable and accessible parks and open spaces.”

Labovitz, too, lauded that level of community involvement: 

“You have to admire the city for developing a process that provided so much opportunity for people to get involved. That’s not what public agencies often do; it takes more time and money. But there was a genuine desire to hear what was on people’s minds.

“Of course, you can never do everything for everybody, but they did listen, to a fault. It can be painful, from an administrative perspective, to spend all the time needed to hear everyone, but now people understand what the product is, and there’s buy-in.”

The bottom line, said Labovitz:

“If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll never get there. Now we can piece things together with the public and private funding needed, and we’ll have the energy to do it.”