Could the Mississippi River upstream from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge become a haven for birds and animals, a magnet for residents and recreation, and a spark for new, green jobs?

That's the vision proposed by Tom Leader Studio of Berkeley and Kennedy & Violich Architecture of Boston, the team chosen last month as winner of the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition. Sponsored by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, the contest asked four far-flung teams to bring fresh eyes to the largely neglected 5 1/2 miles of riverfront above St. Anthony Falls.

"In a competition, usually you win with a major transformative stroke," said landscape architect Tom Leader. "It's not the right thing here. The big thing is already there: It's the river."

Leader and Kennedy & Violich recently completed a 19-acre park in Birmingham, Ala., that's been heralded as the city's "downtown living room." Like the best of today's urban-landscape projects, it harnesses ecological features -- wetlands and recycled materials -- to create people-friendly spaces.

Although Minneapolis' once derelict Central Riverfront has been transformed by new parks, bike paths, condos, the Guthrie Theater and Mill City Museum, the Upper River -- the portion above St. Anthony Falls -- remains largely unknown territory.

It's a curious mix of sylvan waters and heavy industry, fledgling parks and concrete plants, neighborhood watering holes and funky houses. This past December, three members of the winning design team -- Leader, Sheila Kennedy and Frano Violich -- walked the entire 11 miles of river's edge. They had to scramble and trespass to do so.

"There's garbage. It's a lonely place," Kennedy said the day the team's selection was announced. Leader added, "What we weren't prepared for was the degree of separation. The river has been more like a truck dock."

The "Aha!" moment of the trek came when the trio reached Marshall Terrace Park in northeast Minneapolis. There, a stairway lets you reach the water's edge. "There were little islands with trees and birds," Leader said. "Ice was floating down the river. It was more hospitable and intimate. We agreed this is what we want to see."

Their up-close experience, plus the contributions of nine Twin Cities firms and contacts with 100-plus local groups, gave the team's proposal a groundedness often lacking in design competitions.

TLS/KVA's ideas range from the incremental -- lightweight pedestrian and bike bridges attached to existing bridges -- to the ambitious: covering Interstate 94 to link north Minneapolis to the river. They propose creating wetlands made from dredge material and a lighting scheme coded to the river's health. They envision a river with improved water quality, a place that will become naturally attractive to people.

On the current hot-button issue of jobs vs. parks, TLS/KVA suggested keeping the city's underused Upper Harbor Terminal but transforming it over time to a cleaner, more compact Green Energy Port that would actually result in more jobs. And instead of waiting until industry is gone to extend the city's famed trail system to the north, the team drew elevated trails that could be built anytime.

The team's ideas are intriguing. Equally inspiring is the understanding of the dynamics of urban rebirth behind them.

"It's not just as simple as build a park and they will come," said Leader. "We must build the connections. When you make a physical connection, something happens. Once you turn the river from the back door into the front door, you've fundamentally changed the equation."

Now comes the hard part -- waiting to see a piece of the upper river transformed.

Minneapolis Parks Superintendent Jayne Miller said the Park Board and design team will work together for the next four months to select a project and outline how to accomplish it within five years. A likely target is the 11-acre Scherer Brothers lumberyard property just north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge, which was recently purchased by the Park Board. Stay tuned. TLS/KVA suggested housing and a decidedly low-tech idea -- a beach.

Linda Mack writes on architecture and design. She is vice chairwoman of the Minneapolis Riverfront Corp.