Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat has begun an intriguing conversation about how to attract more visitors to the drama and history of St. Anthony Falls.
His proposal is for an over-the-water version of New York's popular High Line, the elevated and generously planted linear park that runs for a mile and a half through Manhattan's lower west side. The Minneapolis adaptation, dubbed "Wishbone" for its curved design, would be one-third shorter than the High Line but would invite pedestrians from both sides of the Mississippi River to within a few feet of the roaring, gushing spillway.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board gave the proposal an initial, mostly positive, review last month but is revisiting the project to address some of the issues that have surfaced since. Among the obvious questions about cost, governance and ecological impact are these two: Is Wishbone compatible with other attractions underway downtown and along the river? And is the falls, in its current form, worthy of the extra attention that Wishbone would provide?
As to Wishbone's compatibility, the answer is probably yes. Neither Opat nor designer Dave Norback of RSP Architects envisions the project as a commercialized pier with a wax museum and amusement rides, but rather a green promenade that complements the network of relaxed parks and walkways that Minneapolis has been incrementally developing along its central riverfront since the 1980s. That includes Water Works, the terraced extension of Mill Ruins Park now under construction.
Wishbone also fits into the Downtown 2040 Plan as the northern anchor of a 20-block pedestrian trail linking the Mill District to the Sculpture Garden and Walker Art Center via the newly reconstructed Nicollet Mall and Loring Park. By 2020, this "urban trail" intends to become "as much a signature for Minneapolis as the Boston Common, the San Antonio Riverwalk, the Embarcadero in San Francisco, or the Magnificent Mile in Chicago," according to the plan.
The trail's biggest challenge involves not the parkland but the departure of retail from Nicollet — a shopping street bereft of shopping. A similar irony haunts Wishbone: Is St. Anthony Falls the best waterfall it can be? It is not, after all, a natural falls but a giant concrete spillway. It's an impressive engineering feat that recalls the mighty river's industrial past. But it's hardly a scenic attraction. Could some of its natural beauty be restored? Perhaps.
After centuries of migrating upstream, the falls was stabilized at its current location by a series of dams installed between the 1870s and 1960s. Now some naturalists suggest removing the dams to allow the river to flow as rapids through the city. Others, in light of the Wishbone proposal, seek to add natural features to the spillway. Boulders resembling the rocks that were once part of the natural falls might add drama, beauty and a touch of authenticity to the site, thus enhancing the Wishbone idea.
In any case, a study commission should explore the cost, benefit and feasibility not only of Wishbone but of a reconstructed, naturalized St. Anthony Falls. Special attention should be paid to the geological underpinnings of the entire area. Anything built above rides on the stability — or instability — of structures below the river. History suggests that St. Anthony is a fragile slice of the planet.