Putting the River First: Minneapolis and the Mississippi
Putting the River First: Minneapolis and the Mississippi
Daniel Cusick - Minneapolis, MN

 

MINNEAPOLIS -- Minnesota’s largest city has long touted its water features as being at the heart of its economic and cultural identity. An abundance of freshwater is embedded in the city’s very name: “mni,” the Dakota Sioux name for “water,” and “polis,” Greek for “city.”

Minneapolitans, too, embrace their watery identity, making lakeside living, water sports and leisurely walks around the city’s famed Chain of Lakes a central part of daily living no matter the weather, which ranges from uncomfortably hot in summer to unbearably cold in winter.

But in a place famed for its lakes, it’s easy to forget that Minneapolis’s most defining water resource is actually a river – the Mighty Mississippi.

The 2,300-mile waterway begins life as a working river at river mile 493 – site of the once mighty St. Anthony Falls and now the northernmost lock-and-dam on the Upper Mississippi River. Here is where Minneapolis was born as a milling center, fur-trading post and cultural crossroads for Native Americans, French-Canadian fur trappers and Catholic missionaries like Father Louis Hennepin, whose name is enmeshed in the region’s history and geographic identity.

Today, tens of thousands of people work and play along the quarter-mile-wide channel that frames the central city and bisects the University of Minnesota campus before flowing south and east to its convergence with the Minnesota River at historic Fort Snelling and beyond to St. Paul.

For those drawn to its understated charms, this stretch of the Mississippi – from St. Anthony Falls to downtown St. Paul – is the river’s answer to the Chain of Lakes. Attractive homes line the winding bluff-top parkways, where bicycles intermingle with baby strollers, while the river gorge itself is interspersed with grassy floodplain parks and tufts of hillside forest.

Above the falls, however, lies another river, one where industrial grittiness gives relief to non-descript warehouses, weedy lots and wastewater discharge pipes. Literally severed from the scenic river below St. Anthony Falls, this section of the Mississippi bears the scars of a river abused, neglected and nearly forgotten.

Until now. 

Minneapolis’s urban river is seeing long-awaited new attention as part of a broad re-visioning project spearheaded by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board in cooperation with the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. Together, the three agencies, in partnership with landscape architects from Berkeley, Calif., and Boston, have planted the seeds of a $170 million restoration program known as RiverFirst Initiative.

It is the latest and most ambitious plan conceived for the river in 40 years, and it builds on earlier successful efforts to convert the city’s former milling district into a vibrant collection of parks, museums, trails and tourist attractions. Today the Central Mississippi Riverfront adjacent to downtown is one of Minneapolis’s premier recreation and tourist sites, drawing an estimated 1.8 million people annually.

A primary objective of the RiverFirst Initiative is to replicate much of the lower river’s recreational and environmental appeal above St. Anthony Falls. Planners believe the first step toward doing that is connecting existing high-use areas – such as the Central Mississippi Riverfront and the more suburban North Mississippi Regional Park – with a series of intermediary parks along both banks of the river.

The new parks, which will be laced together via pedestrian and bicycle pathways that run along and occasionally cross the river on multi-use bridges, will provide key recreation assets for traditionally underserved parts of the city and also help physically reconnect Minneapolitans to a section of the Mississippi that many have forgotten.

 

A Lumberyard Reclaimed for and by the River

A half-mile south of north Minneapolis’s Lowry Avenue Bridge – whose elegant tied-arch design and innovative stormwater capture system make it an architectural and environmental landmark – is the former Scherer Bros. lumberyard, soon to be reborn as a 21st Century Park, the first signature project of the RiverFirst Initiative.

More than a conventional river park with a look-over for visitors to gaze down into the depths of the big river, 21st Century Park’s designers – led by Berkeley, Calif.-based landscape architect Tom Leader and Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston – are bringing concepts of urban ecology into full practice by allowing the Mississippi to reclaim part of its historic floodplain.

Where a non-descript brownfield currently sits high above the river, armored by a wall of boulder-sized rip-rap and sheet pile, planners plan to re-contour the site so that visitors will be able to stroll from a street-side market area across a gently terraced pavilion to the river’s edge, where they can wade, swim or launch a canoe or kayak.

Moreover, the plan calls for the reincarnation of Hall’s Island, a one-time natural river feature that was buried during the 1960s to create the lumberyard’s riverside dock. The new Hall’s Island, according to planners, will be a water-swept lowland populated by native plants and animals, including bald eagles and osprey. The river’s flood stage will dictate the island’s accessibility in summer, and planners envision the backchannel being used as an outdoor ice skating area in winter.

Leader, whose firm won the Minneapolis contract in an international design competition, said in an interview that the 21st Century Park concept will be among the most ambitious urban river parks ever conceived. But he believes Minneapolis is ideally situated for such a project, in part because the city is experiencing a demographic rebirth in its central core, and newcomers to the region view the Mississippi River as an aesthetic prize and unparalleled recreational resource.

“It’s remarkable the changes one sees when the back door becomes the front door,” Leader said.

His firm, Tom Leader Studio, won the 2012 Urban Land Institute’s “Urban Open Space Award” for converting a blighted railroad corridor in downtown Birmingham, Ala., into an 19-acre green space for family outings, cultural events, concerts and other activities.

In Minneapolis, the scope is much broader and the challenges much larger. The RiverFirst Initiative covers 5.5 river miles and 11 miles of adjacent riverbank, where as many as four interconnected parks will cover 23 acres of land. And while some of the brownfield sites like Scherer are shovel-ready for restoration, others present unique and longer-term challenges.

 

Converting a Gritty Port into a Wetland Park

The gritty Port of Minneapolis, a 50-year-old barge docking station and concrete platform for offloading gravel, sand, coal, asphalt and other bulk commodities, is unquestionably one of the city’s largest riverfront eyesores. For years, it has remained cordoned off from adjoining neighborhoods and river sites by a chain link fence.

On a visit to the site last year, a front-end loader straightening up heaping piles of gravel and coal appeared to be the port’s only activity. Barge traffic declined precipitously in 2013 in anticipation of the expiration of a contract between the City of Minneapolis and the port’s private operator. In February, the city gave final approval to shutter the facility by the end of 2014 at a cost of between $2.1 million and $2.8 million.

The closure could facilitate several major goals.

First, without a port facility in Minneapolis, the Army Corps of Engineers could permanently close the St. Anthony Lock and Dam – effectively blocking the up-river migration of invasive Asian carp. Federal legislation regarding this issue is now pending.

The port’s closure could also facilitate the creation of what planners call Northside Wetlands Park – a sprawling reclaimed floodplain that would provide wildlife habitat, river access, flood protection and runoff filtration.

Other parts of the 48-acre port site could be redeveloped into lower-impact commercial, residential and light industrial sites, according to planners. Such a vision could propel Minneapolis to the top of the list of American cities recreating their urban waterfronts, according to planners.

“One of the best signs of success of the river-focus movement is that condos with river views in downtown Minneapolis are more expense than those without,” says Paul Labovitz, then-superintendent of the Mississippi National River & Recreation Area, in an interview last year. “It’s an amenity that today people are willing to pay for. That wasn’t the case 10 or 20 years ago, when the river was viewed mostly as a conduit to move barges and wastewater.”

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board President Liz Wielinski, whose district encompasses the city’s historic Northeast neighborhoods along the Mississippi, says her constituents have waited decades for their stretch of river to get the kinds of attention and investment that communities “below the Falls” enjoy.

“This is a long-term dream that’s finally going to be realized,” she said on a 2013 visit to the Scherer site, which even in its unfinished state has already hosted several events, including a local food and craft beer festival and summer movie series.

Among the films screened on an August night was Disney’s 1993 feature “The Adventures of Huck Finn.” And while Mark Twain’s protagonists – Huck and Jim – never saw this part of the Upper Mississippi, the significance of the journey wasn’t lost on those who attended.

“What we’re doing here is transformational,” says Park and Recreation Board member Anita Tabb,  is a strong proponent of the RiverFirst Initiative. “The river has been a part of our city’s history for 150 years. Now we’re getting a chance to reclaim some of it for posterity, so people can experience the river in ways they couldn’t before.”

 

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