The idea is to breathe new life into the riverfront over decades and turn it back into the city's front door.
In a dazzling effort to invigorate St. Paul's 17 miles along the Mississippi River, the city has devised a breathtaking long-term vision for transformation of the river banks from the Minneapolis border to Pig's Eye Lake.
Among the goals are a massive upgrade to the Watergate Marina to include a restaurant and canoe outfitter, a swimming pool on a barge east of downtown and a Riverview Balcony promenade at the former West Publishing site to physically and visually connect downtown to the riverfront with eateries and walkways.
Mike Hahm, St. Paul Parks and Recreation director, called the voluminous plan "an epic vision not just for transforming parks but the city and its relationship and connection with the riverfront."
He said "underutilized is the most generous" way to describe the city's tie to the river now.
That would change dramatically as other anticipated amenities include a climbing wall area to be flooded with ice in the winter, a skate park, mountain bike paths, the unearthing of an existing stream from the Ford Plant to the river and a National Parks Service headquarters at Island Station, the former energy plant near where Shepard Road meets Randolph Avenue.
Shepard would become a parkway near Rankin Avenue, dropping the speed limit to 35 miles per hour and adding landscaping to make it a bucolic urban pathway to downtown. A preserve near Pig's Eye Lake would allow for eagle watching and protection of a heron rookery.
Under Don Ganje, city projects manager, the $1 million vision plan came together in a year, with city staff, hired consultants and residents meeting for intensive design sessions. The stretch of the Mississippi will now be called the Great River Passage to evoke the historic significance of the river as a conduit for explorers and commerce.
The master plan is intended as a road map for decades, not something to be built overnight.
The three tenets of the vision are to enhance the environment, revitalize the urban core and increase the waterway's connection to residents. City leaders compare the plan to the landmark design of the Minneapolis parks system by H.W.S. Cleveland just before the turn of the 20th century. In the City of Lakes, the parks remain in progress more than 100 years after Cleveland completed his design.
In St. Paul, the river is the defining element. To some, the plan sets a forward-looking course for environmental preservation and urban redevelopment. Others fear the vision is too expensive and will trample wilderness.
Tonya Nicholie, president of the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation, said, "It's been a long process and there's been a lot of good things that have come out of it, but a lot of missed opportunities." While she likes the proposed improvements to Crosby Park and Hidden Falls, she wanted more pedestrian access to the Mississippi.
Patrick Seeb, executive director of the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., a nonprofit development organization, called the plan "environmentally sensitive" and "incredible work" that sets the stage for the next generation of investment on the river. He insists the plan won't collect dust.
"I know things are going to happen. We know cities constantly reinvent and reinvest in themselves," he said.
Peggy Lynch, a member of the task force that worked on the plan, questioned whether it would squeeze restaurants and parks into tracts and flood plains that can't handle them. "Some people get upset if there's grass nobody is standing on," Lynch said. "They took the parks we have and said, 'Let's put Adventureland there.'"
The Highland District Council adopted a resolution urging the city to leave Crosby and Hidden Falls untouched by recreational, commercial activities or motor vehicles.
State Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, however, called the plan a "smart and courageous effort" to reclaim the river as an economic engine. To those who would leave the area alone, Hausman said, "We are in a city and we do have to make public places for people."
To her the project means a higher standard of living. "The reason people want to live in Uptown in Minneapolis is the number of restaurants and coffee houses within a block of their homes," she said. "When people are proud of where they live, there's a healthy economy."
Rochelle Olson • 651-735-9749 Twitter: @rochelleolson
What: A free celebration, including food, boat rides, live music, art show and a climbing wall.
When: 5 to 8 p.m. Thu.
Where: Harriet Island.
More information: www.greatriverpassage.org