No one's going to turn away from the Buffalo wings and River Tots to admire the construction project now underway outside the Freight House Restaurant & Night Club in downtown Stillwater.

But the work represents the start of a long-awaited final phase of a levee project begun two decades ago by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — and it will pave the way for more inviting visual changes about two blocks to the north in Lowell Park.

There, during the fall, the city will begin work on a grass amphitheater that will slope from a pedestrian plaza to a stage to be built next spring near the edge of the park on the St. Croix River, said Shawn Sanders, the city's public works director.

The city wanted to start the amphitheater project by now, but it's had to wait for the corps to install a new storm sewer system in parking lots along Lowell Park. That includes the lot between the park and the Freight House Restaurant.

Earlier this year, the corps awarded a $722,000 contract to the Povolny Group of St. Paul to build the drainage system. Excavation work was underway last week for the project that is expected to run through the summer. Construction had been delayed by federal funding issues.

How long of a wait had it been?

"It has been 12 years since the last phase" of corps' work, Sanders said last week. "You would think the phases would be closer together."

The levee includes a wall at the river and will be at its highest point in the parking lots west of Lowell Park. The final elevation will be about 2 to 3 feet short of the 50-year flood protection level, Sanders said.

This fall, in addition to the amphitheater project, the city will repave three parking lots and rebuild two, he said. A trail also is being constructed along Lowell Park, with the first stretch to run south to E. Myrtle Street. The rest of the trail, from E. Myrtle Street to E. Nelson Street, will be built in participation with the Minnesota Department of Transportation and should be completed by 2017.

For now, Sanders said he expects the more significant visual changes to be the sloping amphitheater and the parking lots.

The changes should be in place by mid-November, he said. □