Consider it St. Paul’s attempt to get things rolling on the river.
A year after unveiling a vision for the downtown St. Paul riverfront that included a 1½-mile promenade connecting Union Depot and the Science Museum of Minnesota, plus new ways to access the Mississippi from mostly inaccessible bluffs, the city hosted a two-day festival of music, art and activities to show what’s possible.
The first-ever River Balcony Festival, held Friday and Saturday with craft beers, food trucks, live music and art installations, was intended to boost enthusiasm for what, essentially, could be St. Paul’s new front porch.
The River Balcony remains years from completion, officials acknowledge. But its anticipated collection of plazas, parks and pathways is part of a master plan to better connect downtown businesses and hotels to the river.
“The community expressed a desire for a stronger connection to the Mississippi River in the Great River Passage master plan,” said Darlene Walser, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp. “The River Balcony Festival is designed to help people explore and experience the possibilities for this community gathering place along the river bluff and get a taste of what a future River Balcony could be.”
The weekend’s events kicked off with a “pre-party” Friday at the Kellogg Craft Beef Overlook at Kellogg Mall Park, featuring food and musical performances. Saturday’s events moved to areas surrounding the Science Museum, Kellogg Mall Park and Union Depot and featured installations by local artists and more music.
The festival is the culmination of months of work by public and private partners, including the city, Public Art St. Paul and the Knight Foundation.
A year ago, the city unveiled what a River Balcony could look like during an open house at Union Depot that attracted more than 100 visitors, prompting Mayor Chris Coleman to say: “If this doesn’t capture your imagination, then you don’t have an imagination.”
Because nearly all of downtown St. Paul rests on a high river bluff, the River Balcony would be a series of elevated walkways and decks that not only would connect businesses along the bluff but also create new ways for pedestrians to safely and easily get to the river itself.
The first phase of the project will be near the Custom House, a 17-story apartment and hotel development nearing completion on Kellogg Boulevard. The final design of the balcony’s first phase is expected to be complete by the end of the year.
Construction of that phase is tentatively set to begin in 2017 — about the time the city is expected to become a stopping off point for Viking River Cruises.