An ambitious vision for the Mississippi

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October 10, 2011
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter
Bikes, bridges, beaches and birds: Riverfront plan dazzles, but has a hefty price tag

In 1883, Chicago-based landscape architect Horace Cleveland presented to the freshly created Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board his plan to turn the Chain of Lakes into a park system.

It took the Park Board 40 years, strange negotiations with landowners, countless design debates, lots of digging and plenty of tax dollars before the Chain of Lakes park system took the basic shape it has today.

On Sept. 21, Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston presented to the Park Board its own ambitious proposal to turn the riverfront north of downtown into a park system of similar magnitude. Local leaders are optimistic that the Minneapolis Upper Riverfront plan will one day have the same success as the Chain of Lakes, even if takes decades.

“If you think about this, this is probably the largest undertaking this board has taken, really since the establishment of the [Chain of] Lakes,” Park Board President John Erwin said after seeing the plan’s first draft, which is open to public input for the next month.

The KVA plan provides framework of a riverfront that boasts trails, bridges, beaches, kayaks, ice skating and biohavens for migrating birds.

It also comes with a steep price tag. It will cost an estimated $145 million to $175 million to accomplish the first phase of the project, a five-year plan. Costs beyond the first phase are unknown. That could be daunting in this economic climate.

“There were plenty of naysayers if you look at the history about when they were digging up the [Chain of] Lakes,” Erwin said. “But I think it’s important that we think 20 to 30 years ahead and push forward, even though these are tough times.”

The vision

While the RiverFirst project is intended to be phased over 20 years, much of the central work in the plan is planned to happen in the first five years. Here are some highlights:

1. A complete bicycle and pedestrian trail from Plymouth Avenue to Camden. Though trails currently run along the west side of the river just north of Broadway, the east side is without trails north of Plymouth. The plan calls for aggressive attempt to secure easements to continue a full loop to Camden, including the construction of “knot” bridges that would attach to the Plymouth, Broadway, Lowry and Camden bridges. The plan also has hopes of securing the Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad bridge for bikes and pedestrians, but that would take some convincing of the railroad. The trails and bridges are estimated to cost $86 million, but that price tag does not include potential costs of purchasing land from private property owners.

2. The development of the former Scherer Brothers lumber site, which the Park Board already owns and is in the process of clearing. The plan calls for a 7-acre park, setting aside another 4 acres for mixed-use private development that would help pay for ongoing operations. Hall’s Island, once protruding from the water just above the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, is not currently an island. It would be recreated in order to allow for a beach cove and a swimming and ice skating barge. Park land would be dedicated to open space, a playground and a veteran’s memorial. Cost estimates for the Scherer development totals $27.7 million, not including remediation costs.

3. A North Side wetlands park just north of Lowry Avenue on the western bank. The plan would consolidate the Upper Harbor Terminal to make room for a wetlands area that would include a kayak launch, a water course and an amphitheater. Total cost is estimated at $54.4 million, not including remediation.

4. Seven acres total of biohavens made of recycled plastic bottles and anchored on bridge piers. This would provide habitat for migrating birds and other species. Total cost: $12.2 million.

5. A Downtown Gateway Park that connects Nicollet Avenue to the river with green space. This is not a new idea, as the Trust For Public Land has been working on a plan for several months. No cost estimate.

Optimism abounds

Diane Loeffler sits on the RiverFirst project’s steering committee as well as its finance committee. The state representative from district 59A says that while the price tag is a big one, she’s optimistic about the project’s chances because it’s a rare undertaking that has local, regional, state and national significance.

The project, she said, could be eligible for all four categories of the Minnesota Legacy Amendment, a sales tax approved by voters in 2008. The money is meant for four things: Enhancing habitats for game, fish and wildlife; clean water; regional parks; and arts and heritage, which the plan could qualify for because it could include an arts center near the river.

The river is a national park, and Loeffler said it could qualify for federal funds. It’s also supposed to be a public-private partnership and the design team has hopes of securing private investment, especially in the case of the Downtown Gateway Park.

“I think there’s a variety of potential doors, it just depends on how it’s developed and how well it competes with proposals from other areas of the state,” Loeffler said. “But I would assume that we’ll continue to have the state be a partner in this and I will certainly be a strong advocate for that.”

City Council Member Kevin Reich (1st Ward) said the project rivals the work done on the central riverfront in the 1960s and 1970s.

Reich, another steering committee member, said the plans might need some tweaking to better connect Edison High School to the river, but he applauded the design because it could give Northeast a “world class riverfront in our neighborhood.”

He said the trick to making the plan gain traction is to be patient and work collaboratively.

“This will be something that will be done slowly, incrementally, and with lots of partners,” he said. “Otherwise it just won’t happen.”

A design plan is scheduled for Park Board approval in December, but first the project is collecting community feedback on the draft it presented on Sept. 21. To view the proposal and provide feedback, visit before Nov. 6.