When visitors take in downtown St. Paul attractions, they can easily come and go without knowing that a major river flows nearby. Thanks to downtown’s location on a high bluff, physical and visual access to the Mississippi isn’t easy. And even those who know that the river is “over there’’ a few blocks are hard-pressed to easily walk to the water to enjoy it.
That would change if the St. Paul “River Balcony’’ proposal unveiled by city planners last week comes to fruition. It’s a worthy plan to better connect downtown to the river and boost economic vitality.
Renderings and models of the broad pedestrian walkway show it overlooking the river from the edge of downtown. It would be incorporated into existing and proposed buildings between the Science Museum of Minnesota and Union Depot, with Kellogg Mall Park in the center. A series of parks and development sites would be connected by a dramatic public promenade to restaurants, offices, shops and gathering places, all with river vistas.
The balcony would provide additional points of access to the water, including a dock that could offer river cruise customers an attractive direct walkway to downtown. It would be open year-round.
A project price tag hasn’t been established yet. However, it is expected that a combination of public, private and nonprofit funds will support the venture. Some developers already are on board and plan to incorporate the balcony into their plans. Certainly, such a amenity would add value to housing and commercial projects.
The extended-terrace concept is part of an expansive Great River Passage Master Plan, adopted by the city in 2013, to improve access along the city’s 26 miles of riverfront.
The Minneapolis Park Board, the city and its partners have a similar long-term vision for the waterway that gave birth to both twin towns. Called RiverFirst, the plan seeks to develop new green and public spaces, including trails connecting north and northeast neighborhoods to the Grand Rounds and the river as well as green walkways and bikeways across Interstate 94.
Around the country, urban riverfront has proved its worth. A 2013 Minneapolis city estimate found that $300 million in public dollars spent on the central riverfront area leveraged $1.75 billion in private investment over 30 years. Bringing more people and activity closer to the Mississippi isn’t just for looks. At the right price, the St. Paul balcony plan merits support for its aesthetic appeal — and as a smart economic, residential and commercial development tool.