Downtown St. Paul sits on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. But finding a route down to the water can be confusing, said Lowertown resident Kathy Powell, who is often asked how to get from one area to the other.

The river — long the industrial and commercial heart of St. Paul — was for decades laden with industrial waste and sewage, and cut off from downtown by rail lines and parking lots. Now St. Paul, like cities across the country, is transforming its riverfront and reversing the history of neglect.

The city will debut a final master plan this month for the latest piece in that transformation: a River Balcony along the bluff. The 1.5-mile overlook and pedestrian path would stretch from the Science Museum to Union Depot and add connections from the balcony to the riverfront.

“This clearly puts us on the map of the great river cities of the world,” St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said at an event last week where project details and riverfront art installations were unveiled.

Early renderings of the first section that would be built between Union Depot and Robert Street show a balcony held up with supports resembling trees. It could offer lounge chairs, space for lawn games, a fire pit and connections to a market inside the Custom House apartment complex, said an architect working with the city and Custom House developers.

Construction on that section, one of three phases, could begin next year and would be paid for with a mix of public and private dollars, Principal City Planner Lucy Thompson said. But major questions — like how much it would cost, who would pay for what and when the balcony would be completed — remain unanswered.

Those questions will be ironed out as the city works with property owners along the bluff to prepare the space for construction, Thompson said. That could be a lengthy process. To make the balcony a reality, she said, community energy behind the project will need to be sustained “for a while — maybe a decade.”

Riverfront returns

The River Balcony originated as part of the Great River Passage Master Plan, which the City Council approved three years ago.

“The promenade will bring the city to the edge of the river, and create new opportunities for development along the river,” the plan stated.

Other cities that have invested in their riverfronts said the efforts spurred development.

Green Bay, Wis., was one of the places St. Paul researched when planning the River Balcony. The city on the Fox River completed the CityDeck in 2012.

Green Bay had previously “turned our backs” on the river, said Kevin Vonck, the city’s director of economic development. The downtown waterfront was lined with parking and a retail building that didn’t connect to the river, Vonck said.

The quarter-mile CityDeck cost about $12 million to build, he said. Since its debut in 2012, Vonck said, two apartment buildings have been built nearby, retail spaces along the CityDeck have filled up and a restaurant is expected to open soon.

In Minneapolis, public agencies have spent roughly $338 million on central riverfront revitalization over the past four decades and private and nonprofit agencies have invested about $1.9 billion in the area, according to city calculations from 2012.

Taxes generated from properties along the central riverfront have grown from 9 percent of the city’s total property tax revenue in 2004 to about 11 percent in 2014, according to the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership.

“There’s good economic return for the city and governmental bodies involved in this revitalization,” said Kathleen Boe, the partnership’s executive director.

Minneapolis’ opening of the Stone Arch Bridge to walkers and cyclists in 1994 was key to the revitalization, she said.

“You have to have some early risk-takers that are willing to make some decisions that are bold and daring,” Boe said.

Unknown costs

If construction of the eastern section of St. Paul’s River Balcony begins in 2017 — a start date that Thompson warned is tentative — it would come as the city’s waterfront is seeing another major addition: the arrival of Viking Cruises.

The company has said it will start offering trips up the Mississippi River, with a stop in St. Paul, late next year. City officials said the balcony will help connect visitors to the rest of downtown.

After the first phase of the balcony by the Custom House wraps up, the western end, by the Science Museum, would be next, Thompson said.

The final section would be the most complicated and include a parklike land bridge over the railroad tracks to the riverfront.

While the River Balcony presentations to the community and St. Paul City Council last week were generally met with enthusiasm, there was also some trepidation about unknown costs.

Council Member Dan Bostrom said he doesn’t want the city to take money from St. Paul neighborhoods in need and channel it to downtown.

“It’s a great plan,” Bostrom said. “If you can figure out how to fund this without taking away from neighborhood resources.”

The River Balcony master plan will be posted in mid-May for public comment and go before the City Council for a vote by early fall, Thompson said.

Custom House developer James Stolpestad, whose company is helping pay for the initial design of the first section of the balcony, said at last week’s community event that he had been worried the master plan would be “too grandiose.”

“It looks like it might be doable,” Stolpestad said. “Now we have to roll up our sleeves and raise some money.”