Upper St. Anthony Falls visitor center proposed

While park leaders are planning a major overhaul of the downtown riverfront, a new civic group is planning to add to that vision by turning the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam into a world-class visitor and interpretive center.

Friends of the Lock and Dam (FL&D), a new nonprofit led by former Minneapolis Parks Foundation board member Paul Reyelts, is proposing an estimated $45-million project anchored by a 50,000-square-foot interpretive center and a 7,500-square-foot visitor center. The new use for the 400-foot-long lock and dam structure is meant to complement Water Works, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s approximately $27-million makeover of the nearby area surrounding Mill Ruins Park.

The future of the lock infrastructure, which is owned by the U.S. Corps of Engineers, has been hazy since it closed to navigation last year following an act of Congress. Currently Crown Hydro is proposing a hydroelectric plant for the lock and dam site.

FL&D’s plan, dubbed The Falls, is meant to create an alternative to the hydro project, which the group says would preclude access for canoes and kayaks and other improvements included in planning work from the Park Board and other local groups.

“We’re here because no body else was in a position to do this,” said Reyelts, who led the foundation’s efforts related to RiverFirst, which includes the Water Works project. “We feel there’s a better use of that space.”

On top of the visitor and interpretive center, The Falls proposal features one acre of new parkland, below-grade parking for visitors, a restaurant, an event space, a kayak landing and portage and an observation deck with 360-degree views of the falls, Stone Arch Bridge and the downtown skyline.

Reyelts said they’ve already received a $5-million pledge from a private donor for planning and development costs. The rest of the estimated $45 million would be funded through a new public-private partnership. Revenues from concessions, parking and events would be used to cover ongoing operation and programming, the group said in a statement. It’s undetermined who would own or operate the center, he added.

The Park Board’s Water Works project would update one of city’s most popular park destinations with a new visitor center and café pavilion near the Third Avenue Bridge, river access for canoes and kayaks, water features and outdoor gathering spaces. It is the signature project of the board’s RiverFirst initiative, a 20-year vision of large-scale park projects around the city, including at Scherer Park, Gateway Park and a greenway on 22nd Avenue Northeast.

The Parks Foundation, an independent nonprofit that philanthropically supports the city’s park system, is handling fundraising for Water Works. The area is part of the Central Riverfront Regional Park, one of the city’s most popular destinations with about 2.5 million visitors annually.

Tom Fisher, an FL&D board member and the director of the Metropolitan Design Center at the University of Minnesota, said the proposal would stop the “reindustrialization of the river.”

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create a riverfront that is a destination landmark. It’s a site we hope to protect and preserve as a centerpiece for our community, for generations to come,” said Fisher, who is also a foundation board member, in a statement.

FL&D filed a motion before the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last month to reject the hydroelectric plant proposal for the lock and dam. If FERC won’t reject it outright, the group also said the project needs additional review through an environmental impact statement.

If The Falls proposal is successful — it would, at a minimum, require approvals from the City of Minneapolis and Park Board, in addition to being fully funded — FL&D said construction could begin between 2021 and 2023 in tandem with the second phase of Water Works.