The effort to recast the upper Mississippi River in Minneapolis has reached a significant milestone: More than half the shoreline above the Plymouth Avenue Bridge is in park hands.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board now owns 54 percent of the riverfront above the Plymouth bridge, most of which is developed parkland, according to a recent calculation for the Star Tribune by the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, which tracks river data.
If non-park holdings owned by the city are added, almost 70 percent of the upper river is in public hands. That doesn’t count a two-block riverside easement for trails along Graco’s factory in northeast Minneapolis. The city’s biggest riverfront holding is the 48-acre former barge terminal, which is slowly being readied for redevelopment.
As recently as 2004, less than a third of the upper river was in park ownership. But the Above The Falls master plan adopted 15 years ago set a path for redevelopment of the upper river, and the Park Board has accelerated purchases in recent years.
Developed parks now line 47 percent of the upper river, according to a recent update.
“This Park Board is really phenomenal in terms of keeping it in the forefront,” said Mary Maguire, who sits on the partnership board and the public advisory panel for the upper river plan.
Still, much of the land the Park Board has acquired in recent years is in scattered parcels that can’t yet be used for public recreation. Some worry that the board lacks sufficient money to buy more expensive industrial parcels.
The upper river’s West Bank illustrates both the progress made by planners and activists and ongoing obstacles in realizing their dreams.
The Park Board acquired its riverside frontage north of the Plymouth bridge from the city in a land swap, adding trails there in 2007. But the trails dead-end at Orvin “Ole” Olson Park, blocked by construction-supply businesses.
From there to the city’s former barge terminal, there are other riverfront businesses — a propane storage plant, a scrap yard and a roofing plant — that would be expensive to buy from even willing sellers.
One public outpost nearby is the solid waste truck yard, which the city hopes to vacate. The Park Board also bought a former factory just south of the Lowry Avenue Bridge, under which Hennepin County left space for a future parkway and trails. Two key parcels separate the barge terminal from North Mississippi Regional Park, which occupies more than a mile of city riverfront.
Despite the challenge of acquiring the intervening parcels, momentum is building.
The closing of the St. Anthony lock and the resulting end of barge traffic has some riverfront users rethinking their plans. A metal recycler is considering moving its shredder out of the city. Recreational initiatives are springing up.
Hennepin County and Minneapolis are studying improvements for NE. Marshall Street, which parallels the river. The upper river plan recommended a boulevard-like street that connects northeast riverfront parks and includes a protected bike lane, likely to be a concern for businesses that want to protect parking.
On the west side, a shared foot-bike path along a rebuilt 26th Avenue N. is scheduled to be completed in 2016 from Wirth Park to within two blocks of the river. The Park Board is hoping to build a river overlook and a trail across private land to Olson Park.
Tom Evers, staff director for the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, said 26th Avenue will be crucial in providing better access to the river for North Siders. The foundation has raised $115,000 to study that and other nearby projects.
On the east side, a recreational link generally following 18th Avenue NE. is expected to be mostly complete in 2017. The west and east side legs are labeled the Great Northern Greenway; linking them over the still-active BNSF rail bridge would extend the park system’s recreational loops northward. “The ultimate coup de grâce … would be the rail bridge itself,” said Council Member Kevin Reich, who represents the area. However, the railroad has safety concerns over shared use.
Kathleen Boe, the river partnership’s director, applauds progress in acquiring land.
“I don’t want people to get too excited about we’re halfway there. We want to get all the way there.”