There’s hardly an American city that’s not in the midst of recovering its industrial waterfront. San Francisco and Seattle have gone so far as to demolish freeways to open their historic harbors to downtown.
Cities without waterfronts are manufacturing them. Dallas intends to remake the Trinity River, now barely a trickle, into a series of lakes and lush parks.
For 40 years, Minneapolis and St. Paul have been gradually pivoting to face the Mississippi River. The latest piece of the Minneapolis riverfront revival, Water Works Park, is up for citizen and Park Board review, starting Nov. 19. It’s among the last undeveloped links in a 4-mile loop of parklands that encircles historic St. Anthony Falls between the Stone Arch and Plymouth Avenue bridges to form a kind of downtown lakeshore.
Water Works is a small gap, running just three blocks along the river’s west side from Portland Avenue to 3rd Avenue S. The soon-to-be-demolished Fuji Ya restaurant building, the ruins of the old Columbia mill and a grove of tall cottonwood trees now mark the site. But in the 19th century, this was the city’s first intake sluice that drew water from the river for drinking, extinguishing fires and powering dozens of adjacent flour mills.
Aside from celebrating that history, the park aims to restore the riverbank’s natural ecosystem, untangle its many converging pathways for pedestrians, bikes and autos, and become an active, festive attraction for visitors.
The $24 million project would go up in two phases. Plans call for a pavilion with a cafe and a terrace overlooking the river, plus an elevator to carry visitors down a steep embankment to the river’s edge. Other park features include activity “rooms” amid the ruins, an interactive “skim pool” fountain similar in concept to the popular Crown Fountain in Chicago’s Millennium Park and an extension of the Stone Arch Bridge that would alleviate transport confusion at the foot of Portland.
An amphitheater, picnic grounds, tot lot, playing field and boat dock are also part of the plan. In addition, a new trail for pedestrians and bikes would connect the park to the booming district near the Guthrie Theater and the new Vikings stadium.
The privately led Minneapolis Parks Foundation and its partners have done a stellar job guiding the design process and demonstrating the importance of public-private collaboration in meeting the huge demand for adding and refining green space in the city. It’s a task that the Park Board cannot accomplish alone. It needs partners and private fundraising, especially to landscape downtown streets and to complete ambitious plans on the upper river.
For its part, the Water Works plan is dazzling — especially as an attraction for children and families — but it’s not perfect. Partnerships bring a lot of cooks to the kitchen, and this is a very small space with a lot going on — maybe too much. Other parks nearby, Gold Medal and the Commons, will offer playing fields. The planned Gateway Park near the Central Library may have a major performance space. Scaling back those elements at Water Works might save more room for mature trees, thus preserving some of the cozy, woodsy feel of the site. Without more trees, the park runs the risk of losing texture and exposing the riverfront to yet more urban hardscape without a green buffer.
But there’s another aesthetic issue. As an extension of adjoining Mill Ruins Park, Water Works would be tempted to continue mixing ruins with random native plants. But ruins show off best when standing in sharp contrast to their surroundings. A manicured landscape makes them more inviting. That’s the great shortcoming of Mill Ruins Park. Its random native plantings come across to most eyes as simple neglect. Native plantings in an urban setting are impressive only when they appear to be intentional. When randomly planted, they look like someone just forgot to mow the weeds. That’s not the impression Water Works should strive for.
The hope is that construction can begin as early as 2016. Despite its few shortcomings, the plan is stunning, imaginative, and worthy of financial and political support.