Reviving the riverfront

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March 12, 2012 // UPDATED 10:59 am - July 18, 2013
By: Nick Halter
Nick Halter

New vision for old Fuji Ya site calls for new restaurant, access to mill ruins

There may not be a more historically significant stretch of land in Minneapolis. A few blocks of riverfront on the west bank of the Mississippi near Downtown sit atop the infrastructure that made the city what it is today.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is moving forward with a vision for that land that will reconnect residents with the mills that powered the city 150 years ago.

Most residents know the area as Mill Ruins or the old Fuji Ya site. The Park Board hopes to open a new restaurant at the site similar to the popular Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Falls and open up below-ground tunnels and rooms that are the remnants from old flour mills build in the 19th century. The Park Board is branding the project “Water Works.”

MS&R Architects, funded by the Minneapolis Park Foundation, presented concepts for the Works project to neighbors and stakeholders on Feb. 28.

The Water Works site is roughly bounded by the Mill City Museum to the south, the 3rd Avenue Bridge to the north, 1st Street to the west and the river to the east.  

“This is a really special site, and it’s a really special site not only because of its location in downtown, but because of its ability to be a hub within what is to be considered the next Chain of Lakes,” said Danny Fuchs of HR&A Advisors, the company hired to look into the feasibility of the project.

The project’s lynchpin would be a new restaurant at the site of the old Fuji Ya building.

The foundation of that building is over 100 years old. In 1968, Reiko Weston moved her popular Fuji Ya restaurant to the site after building on the old foundation.

The Park Board paid $3.5 million for the building in 1990, and it has sat vacant ever since. Tom Meyer, an MS&R architect, said the building would have to be torn down and replaced. A rendering shows a building with glass façade that provides a top level for beautiful river views.

“We concluded it was not practical to re-use it,” Meyer said of the building.

In 2011, Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Park paid the Park Board $240,000 in a revenue sharing agreement. Fuchs said a similar restaurant at Water Works would provide revenue that would pay for the park’s operations.

The building would also serve as a warming house in the winter and house restrooms.  

South of the Fuji Ya building, the vision calls for the opening to the public of the mill tunnels, which sit about 25-feet below ground at the site. The tunnels are the remnants of the roughly 150-year-old mills that operated on the western riverfront. They run all the way from the Stone Arch Bridge to the Fuji Ya site, and it might be possible to connect the tunnels to the restaurant building.

The plan also calls for a new West River Parkway that might use a shared street model, meaning planters would replace curbs and traffic would be slowed to 15 miles per hour.

The plan also calls for a fountain area and a skating area in the winter.

It also calls for the opening up underground mill ruins that would act as history rooms. One of those rooms would be dedicated the history of Native Americans and Spirit Island.

Of course, the big question is money. Bruce Chamberlain, the Park Board’s assistant superintendent of planning, said the Board has set aside $7 to $8 million over the next five years for capital improvements to the central riverfront district. He said that pot of money would likely act as seed money, encouraging private investment.

“In some ways, this is really seed money to try and leverage those dollars for private investment, for grants and for other funders that are out there,” he said.

Asked by the audience how long until the project might be completed, Chamberlain said it could be done in less than 10 years, with smaller changes happening soon followed by major projects starting in a few years.

The Park Board is collecting public input on the project through March 31. To view the project and post comments, visit minneapolisparks.org.

Reach Nick Halter at nhalter@mnpubs.com.