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Daniel Carlson looks at the Mississippi riverfront and sees a steam plant spa. A swimming channel. Terraces that lead to the water's edge.
At one point, he and other students even saw a ferris wheel. A professor nixed that.
Still, plenty of wildness remains in the University of Minnesota students' project and exhibit, "Imagining the Mississippi: 30 Ways to Transform the Riverfront" on view at the Mill City Museum.
"We thought some of the ideas were crazy. We know some of them are," Carlson said. "But the more we designed them, the more they took root and really felt like they belonged there, to us."
The four architecture students had seen enough uninspired "master plans." They wanted their vision of the Mississippi riverfront to take more chances, going beyond better signs and brighter lights.
"We hope to get people to think more creatively about urban design," said Carlson.
The project started with Carlson, who traveled to northern Europe in 2008 to study 10 waterfronts that, despite similar climate and topography, were much more accessible than areas of the Mississippi.
"He came back and asked, 'Why can't we do some of this stuff here?'" said Pat Nunnally, U professor and coordinator for the Institute on the Environment's River Life program. "If you unlock yourself from the traces of institutional thinking, you say, 'Hey, why not?'"
Riverfronts, he said, are "expressions of why we were here," and are "liable to be the future of the city again."
Carlson and the three other seniors got funding through the U's Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and began throwing out ideas.
They dug through aerial photos and historical maps but learned as much from canoe trips and picnic lunches by the water.
Studying the history of the river from Boom Island to the University of Minnesota, Carlson was struck by how much had changed in less than a century. Islands were flattened to bring trains through. Mills were built and torn down. Buildings were turned into condos.
"Looking at the history inspired us to be bold," Carlson said, "because we realized a lot can change -- a lot more than we think does change."
They whittled 150 ideas down to 40, down to 30. Other architecture students helped out, pulling 16-hour days perfecting text and graphics.
In one idea, angled terraces transform "the inaccessible and overgrown riverbank beside Main Street into a modern, tiered shoreline."
The idea for a "West River Swimming Channel" features Minnesotans floating amongst the bright blue.
"They assumed the water would be clean enough to go swimming and boating in," Nunnally said. "That is a hugely optimistic and hopeful view that I think is wonderful."
Setting up the exhibit, a staff member at the museum took the students aside: He had seen their idea for an outdoor spa using the excess hot water from the steam plant.
Did they know that in the 1800s, that spot was home to hot springs?
"We didn't know that," Carlson said. "But it did seem to us that it belonged there.
"There's history we keep discovering."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168