Demolition begins next month for an overhaul of parkland beside the Stone Arch Bridge, transforming an unused slope into a year-round gathering space alongside one of Minneapolis’ top attractions.
The long-planned Water Works park project will create green space, gathering areas and dining options around the former Fuji-Ya restaurant building, which has been empty since 1991. Crews will start deconstructing that building in September, revealing historic mill remains beneath it that will be incorporated into a new structure.
“It’s really exciting to think, ‘Gosh, we’re actually going to be able to do this,’ ” said Anita Tabb, president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, at a news conference Thursday. “We’ve been waiting a long time for this.”
The first phase of the project is limited to land on the downtown side of West River Road, with construction expected to be complete by 2019. The second phase — possibly opening in 2023 — would create improved connections with the river itself, which remains somewhat inaccessible in the heart of the Mill District.
The star of phase one is a new pavilion with the Minneapolis parks system’s first all-season restaurant, as well as a rooftop terrace. It will be surrounded by a concrete plaza, sloping steps with views of the river and a large lawn. Officials said they will have updates about the food vendor in several weeks.
“It will successfully open the river for our generation and for many generations to come,” said Sarah Harris, chairwoman of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which oversaw fundraising for the project.
The first phase will be largely privately funded, with the subsequent phase relying much more on public coffers. The foundation has so far raised about $12.5 million of its $17.9 million goal for both Water Works phases and a separate project at 26th Avenue North — though most of it is for phase one.
There’s still time to raise money. Bruce Chamberlain, Minneapolis Parks fellow with the foundation, said bids for construction of the pavilion and surrounding amenities will likely be solicited in July 2018.
The Water Works project is the latest effort to breathe life into a pocket of the city that just three decades ago was dominated by industry and railroad tracks. Earlier public projects converted the Stone Arch Bridge into a bike and pedestrian corridor, created Mill Ruins Park, built West River Parkway and helped preserve a number of historic buildings.
“As Minneapolis continues to evolve into a diverse, 21st century economy, the central riverfront has emerged as one of the critical pieces of that regeneration,” said Park Board Superintendent Jayne Miller.
Fuji-Ya was the state’s first Japanese restaurant when it opened downtown in 1959. But owner Reiko Weston really turned heads in 1968 when she built a new location beside the Mississippi, then an overlooked part of town.
“Nobody looked twice at the riverbank site until Mrs. Weston got there,” Minneapolis Star columnist Barbara Flanagan wrote in 1968. “Leave it to a woman to show the way. Now everybody’s interested in the river.”
Before demolition work begins, crews will remove trees and conduct archaeological examinations of the former mills at the site: Bassett, Columbia and Occidental. The mills were built in the 1870s and 1880s, harnessing water power to make flour and cut lumber. The goal is to integrate the remains into the new project.