Star Tribune Editorial

Despite its historical significance, the upper Mississippi riverfront in Minneapolis isn't much to look at today.

Like many cities that historically turned their backs on rivers when other forms of transportation became more dominant, the five-mile stretch of the river that runs north from downtown is lined with scrap yards, industrial buildings, open spaces, and scattered, isolated stands of trees.

Much to its credit, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has a more visually pleasing, interactive and prosperous future in mind for the city's northern riverfront.

Together with the city, the board envisions that part of the river as a magnet for commercial, recreational and residential activity.

In partnership with the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, the University of Minnesota College of Design and the Walker Art Center, the board is seeking a design concept that will transform the area into a vital link between neighborhoods and the river and a connection to other city trails and parks.

It's a forward-looking vision that has the potential to improve the city's vitality, livability and economy.

Over the next generation, redeveloping the upper Mississippi in Minneapolis could easily be a multimillion-dollar project. Understandably, some might question whether spending on parks and riverfront beautification should be a priority in tight economic times.

However, the redevelopment planning is just starting; no price tag has been set, and parks officials emphasize that public-private partnerships are key.

Possible funding sources for design and construction of public portions of the redevelopment include the Legacy Amendment, metropolitan regional park and federal park funds, as well as private fundraising.

Fifty-five landscape and urban design teams from 14 countries responded to the Park Board's request for bids for a design concept; that group was whittled down to four teams from New York, Boston, Berkeley and Beijing.

The firms were asked to outline a framework and theme for developing the 5.5 miles of the upper riverfront from the Stone Arch Bridge to the city's northern boundary.

The firms were asked to address infrastructure, ecological and environmental conditions, development opportunities, and ways to connect neighborhoods to and across the river.

The Park Board expects to announce the winner on Feb. 10, and that firm will be awarded a commission for the first of several riverfront projects.

As Park Board officials point out, improved use of the riverfront should spark economic development. Redeveloped waterfronts in cities such as Chicago, New York and Baltimore have attracted more business, residents and tourists.

Closer to home, when the Minneapolis Park Board joined with other public organizations to create more than 120 acres of new parkland along the river between Plymouth Avenue and the Interstate 35W bridge, private development followed.

In that case, public investment of $289 million leveraged $1.3 billion of private spending. From 1977 to 2005, nearly 10,000 jobs were preserved or created. And more than 4,000 housing units and 4.2 million square feet of business space were developed.

There's much work to be done, but the riverfront neighborhoods north of downtown offer similar potential.