Five decades after being dredged, the island is making a return to the riverfront
The Park Board’s next major river-related project isn’t on the Mississippi River. It’s in the river.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board will begin construction next month on the restoration of Hall’s Island, a landmass upriver of Nicollet Island that was dredged a half-century ago and absorbed into the Northeast Minneapolis riverfront. The board’s vision for the island is to give eagles, mussels and other wildlife a natural habitat and to give Northeast residents a park where they can enjoy the river.
“Our area has always dreamed of access to the water, to nature and to new trails — amenities that other parts of the city take for granted,” said state Rep. Diane Loeffler, DFL-Minneapolis, at an event at the project site Tuesday. “This has been a dream decades in the making.”
The restoration comes after years of planning since 2010 when the Park Board purchased the 11-acre Scherer site, a former lumberyard just upriver from the Plymouth Avenue Bridge. In recent years the large lawn has served as a trail connection and even a venue for concerts and festivals in the park.
The history of Hall’s Island is unclear, but it’s visible on the earliest known survey of the river from around the end of the 19th century. The City of Minneapolis operated a bathhouse for swimmers on the site a century ago. In 1963 the island was sold for $95,000 to the Scherer Bros. Lumber Co., which connected the island to the shore three years later in an effort to expand its operations.
The first phase of construction, a $3.5 million project, will see the creation of a back channel stretching approximately 120-150 feet wide, a softer shoreline and a gravel beach for paddlers. Michael Schroeder, the board’s assistant superintendent for planning, said tons of soil will be brought in to regrade the shore and build the island.
Once rebuilt, the proposed island would stretch from the northern end of the Scherer site to just south of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, roughly mirroring its historic shoreline.
The island itself won’t be accessible to park visitors until the board completes future phases, which will include two bridges to the island, an observation platform and a third bridge connecting the site to Boom Island Park. Schroeder said park staff are in the initial planning stages on these improvements.
In the meantime, the site will serve as a refuge for wildlife. The back channel, with an average depth of six feet, will provide a habitat for native mussels. By next spring, the board will begin planting native grasses, shrubs and trees on the site. A sandy habitat beach and rock ledges are expected to draw animals to the island.
Stephanie Johnson, the Mississippi Watershed Management Organization’s outreach director, said Hall’s Island will improve local ecology in the “heart of the city.”
“We look forward to seeing an island teeming with birds, fish, turtles, mussels and other wildlife,” she said in a statement.
Superintendent Jayne Miller said funding for the project is coming from the board’s Parks & Trails Legacy Fund and a $1.5 million grant through the MWMO. The project comes within a six-year window of time that the Legislature approved in 2013 for the board to rebuild the island. The Park Board will look for bonding money from state lawmakers to further improve the park.
TLS Landscape Architecture and Barr Engineering are the board’s contractors on the project. The board expects the first phase of construction to last about eight months.
District 1 Commissioner Liz Wielinski, who represents Northeast Minneapolis, said the project will catch the East Side up to other parts of the city.
“We want to reclaim the riverfront on this side of the river, north of downtown, for the citizens, just like it is on both side of the river south of downtown,” she said.
The Park Board had previously looked to find a development partner for a corner of the Scherer site that it has set aside for private development. Revenue generated from leasing the property is expected to go toward operations for the rest of the site.
A potential deal with industrial abrasive manufacturer Graco — the company that lies just north of the Scherer site — failed to move forward in 2015. Schroeder said they aren’t actively working to find another partner at the moment.
The effort to rebuild Hall’s Island is a destination project under a larger vision for the city’s upper riverfront called RiverFirst, a joint effort between the Park Board and other groups like the Minneapolis Parks Foundation — its philanthropic partner — to better connect North and Northeast Minneapolis residents to the river.
The board is making progress on several large-scale riverfront projects, including preliminary work with a development team to transform the city’s 50-acre Upper Harbor Terminal site on the North Side and demolishing the Fuji-Ya Building to make way for Water Works, new park and restaurant destination near the Mill District.