More than 30 years since a foundational plan for riverfront park development launched huge changes in the St. Anthony Falls area, a new plan takes stock of what’s undone, urges correcting what was done wrong and adds new ideas.

The plan given preliminary approval at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board Wednesday night follows more than $1.2 billion in private investment and several thousand housing units that sprouted along the river since the last parks master plan in 1983. During that period, riverfront development has become de rigueur for big cities that have a river, especially as river-dependent industry has dwindled.

The board also gave final approval to new plans for Wirth Park and Nokomis-Hiawatha Regional Park.

The biggest undone tasks are creating better access to the river and completing an East Bank trail system that exists in some places only to disappear in others, according to Ted Tucker, chair of an advisory committee that developed the plan. Among the proposed new foot and bike access points are the Gateway area at the main Post Office, just downriver of the Third Avenue Bridge, and at 8th Avenue N. in the North Loop.

The plan also urges correcting conditions at Father Hennepin Bluffs Park at the east end of the Stone Arch Bridge to add rest rooms, create a performance lawn, and end the conflict between trails and a bluffside bandshell. It wants more public access to the park pavilion on Nicollet Island, now leased to a private concern.

Among the new ideas are adding a walkway across the river suspended below the 35W bridge, portages at the falls now that the lock is closing, and restoring through a former mill outlet a tunnel for pedestrians between Mill City Museum and the mill basin.

The ambitious plan would cost an estimated $66 million to complete, and covers the river between Plymouth Avenue and Bridge 9 at the University of Minnesota.  It comes at a time when the Park Board is trying to make headway on a master plan for the river above Plymouth that’s 15 years old and would cost several times as much.

Tucker said his group’s charge from the board was to set priorities for the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park, but it’s the board’s prerogative to decide among competing areas. “We already have a magnificent park,” he said. But as one exmaple of where an improvement is needed, he cited a need for better circulation patterns on either end of the Stone Arch Bridge, where people don’t know where to go.

Some urged the Park Board’s planning committee to think bigger. “This is a good beginning but we have an opportunity to do so much more,” said St. Anthony West resident Tony Hofstede. “Let’s do something exceptional that will be remembered for a hundred years,” said former politico Dan Cohen.

The group also recommended that the park’s name be changed to the less prosaic St. Anthony Falls Regional Park, which the board balked at doing immediately without more public input. Tucker's group also urged expanding the park’s boundaries, most notably moving the downriver border from the 35W bridge to the next crossing, Bridge 9.

That accomplishes two things, Tucker said. First, it joins the central park to the existing Mississippi Gorge Regional Park, making the riverfront seamless set of reigonal parks. The new areas also become eligible for regional development money if the Metro Council eventually approves the plan. Also proposed as additions to the regional park are part of the main Post Office site, and Star Tribune-owned land on West River Parkway.

Nearly half of the cost would come at the mill ruins area of the West Bank, where a Water Works Park has been proposed with new water features like a weeping wall and a horizontal fountain. Also recommended are two visitor centers with bathrooms -- a new one at Third Avenue and the lock and dam interpretive center -- only three blocks apart. Public agencies are discussing how to operate the lock's observation deck, which has been seasonal, once the Corps of Engineers stops locking operations in June.

Better trails for the East Bank are also proposed, ranging from a long-sought recreation trail connection between SE. Main Street and East River Road to more extensive trails deep below in the East Bank gorge. An unpaved trail up the east side of Nicollet Island would connect Main and Boom Island Park. There’s support for roomier trails paralleling the historic Main Street SE area, and also for continuing trails through a gap at Hennepin Avenue E.

The board also heard pushback from some residents of the Lake Hiawatha area over a proposal in that park’s plan to eliminate a swimming beach; two dozen have commented in opposition. Dozens of other residents have opposed a proposed new road connection on the southwest corner of Lake Nokomis, and the plan was modified for designate the area for further study.

(Photo above: Ruins of the Columbia Mill overlooking West River Parkway and the Third Avenue Bridge are recommended to become open-air play rooms as part of Water Works Park. Photo by Steve Brandt)