The Mississippi River’s blue-brown water lapped against the hull of Cory Parkos’ solar-powered leisure boat as he steered it away from Boom Island Park in Minneapolis toward the wide expanse of the mighty river.
Parkos, captain of the Minneapolis Water Taxi service, stared thoughtfully toward shore.
“Why isn’t there more activity out here?” he wondered aloud.
The stretch of the Mississippi between the upper St. Anthony Falls and Minneapolis’ northern border is poised for a once-in-a-generation transformation, as the river transitions from an industrial shipping corridor to a place beckoning boaters, kayakers, revelers and residents. A key trigger for the potential metamorphosis was the closing of the Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam in 2015, effectively ending commercial river navigation north of downtown Minneapolis.
While discussion about the river’s next act has gone on for nearly a half century, efforts have intensified lately with talk focusing on the future of the Upper Harbor Terminal, a shuttered city-owned barge facility featuring 48 acres of prime developable land in north Minneapolis — and a coveted swath of waterfront. At the same time, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking public input about the fate of the lock and dam, with ideas including a visitor center with riverfront dining, boat access and event space. On downtown’s western shore, construction recently began for Water Works, a $20 million pavilion, plaza and restaurant project.
“The river itself is more than just some backdrop for a real estate development,” said Phillipe Cunningham, a Minneapolis City Council member who represents part of north Minneapolis that hugs the Mississippi shoreline. “It is a critical life-giving resource that we’re blessed to be able to share space with.”
Planners envision recreation and housing taking root along a span of river more accustomed to barges hauling commodities like coal, road salt and scrap metal.
“You’re slowly seeing more recreation here,” said Parkos, a Columbia Heights native who played along the riverbanks as a child. “It’s pretty exciting to see.”
But parts of the shoreline remain industrial, and development efforts are often slow to take root because much of the area remains in private hands. Planners are also trying to find ways to better connect north Minneapolis to the river, after Interstate 94 bifurcated the community when it was built in the 1960s.
The area just north of St. Anthony Falls “has been defined and shaped by a series of transportation corridors,” beginning with the earliest trails used by indigenous people along its banks, according to the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board’s Above the Falls master plan. Lumber milling was one of the first established industries, fueled by a growing city and the powerful force of the falls for saw and flour mills.
Brickyards and breweries came and went along the river as well. Scrap metal yards, attracted to freight-rail access and vacant land, moved in. So did foundries, fabricators and machine shops — and some remain to this day, the plan notes.
Because St. Anthony Falls is the only true waterfall along the entire 2,350-mile length of the Mississippi River, water navigation above the falls was limited until 1963 when the Upper St. Anthony Falls lock and dam opened.
But both the upper and lower St. Anthony locks were closed four years ago to protect Minnesota’s northern lakes and rivers from invasive carp. Commercial traffic on the upper Mississippi had also been declining for at least a decade.
“People think the Asian carp closed that lock, but it was really the economic trigger,” said John Anfinson, superintendent of the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area. Now, “for the first time since the cities were founded we can have a conversation about the future of the river that’s not based on navigation.”
That has prompted sometimes contentious discussion among officials at the city, the Park Board and its foundation, private developers, the Army Corps and the public, about the river’s future.
“We are changing what was 100 to 150 years of industrial use,” said Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation. “It’s daunting when taken in all at once; you need to take a 10- to 20-year approach. It will take patience, resolution and flexibility.”
A linchpin in that transformation is the Upper Harbor Terminal site in north Minneapolis, which is owned by the city. A mixed-use development near the waterfront is planned, anchored by an outdoor performing-arts center to be operated by First Avenue Productions.
The Upper Harbor Collaborative Planning Committee, consisting of north Minneapolis residents, will craft a plan to help guide the city and developer, Minneapolis-based United Properties, on the project.
“It is rare in today’s world to have access to 48 acres on the river with a mile of river frontage,” said Brandon Champeau, senior vice president at United Properties. “We knew it would be challenging, we knew there would be a lot of different perspectives, and that has certainly played out. But you have to get it right, too.”
So far, the broad outline for the project includes affordable housing, jobs-generating office space, a hub for green businesses, a hotel, performance space for 7,000 to 10,0000 people, and nearly 20 acres of park.
Cunningham is adamant that the Upper Harbor development serve as an extension of the North Side’s McKinley neighborhood — and not just an outgrowth of the upscale North Loop. “We want this for us, and by us,” he said.
Critics of the plan say more park space should be set aside, and they question why the city signed on with a single developer and whether the performing arts space is too large.
“It looks like a plan that centers on the wealth of a developer and a few small private individuals rather than building wealth and opportunity for the entire north Minneapolis community,” said Colleen O’Connor Toberman, river corridor program director for Friends of the Mississippi.
Recreation on the river
Meanwhile, the Park Board has been quietly pursuing land near the river’s shoreline, either by buying it outright or gaining easements, to “piece together a patchwork quilt that will eventually all be interconnected,” said Katherine Lamers, the Park Board’s design project manager.
Some stalwart industries, such as Xcel Energy’s Riverside Generating Plant (with a nearby rookery of herons) and the Graco Inc. facility in northeast Minneapolis, have bordered the river for decades. But the North Side’s Northern Metal Recycling scrap yard, which has attracted fines for air pollution, remains open as the company negotiates its departure with state officials.
Still, the river’s landscape has already changed.
“Now, you go down there in summer, you see kayakers, boaters, people fishing,” Evers said. “The river puts you in touch with the natural world in a different way. You have a sense that you’re connected to something greater.”