A new downtown Minneapolis park that aims to draw more visitors to the historic Mississippi riverfront is now open.

Water Works, a $24 million, three-acre project, sits within Mill Ruins Park and overlooks the Stone Arch Bridge. It features an 1,800-square-foot patio with gas fire pits, terraced steps with a winding ramp for accessible public gatherings, a mezzanine lawn for performances, a playground and a combined bike and pedestrian street, called a woonerf, connecting downtown Minneapolis to West River Parkway.

A pavilion that will house Owamni by the Sioux Chef — the highly anticipated debut restaurant of James Beard award-winning chef Sean Sherman — as well as a Park Board-staffed visitor center will open in coming months.

"This is a fascinating site with an influential and complex history, and I'm glad we took the time to create an ambitious vision and execute it well," said Superintendent Al Bangoura of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.

The new features sprawl across the remains of the Bassett sawmill, the Columbia flour mill and the Occidental feed mill, relics of the 19th-century milling district that harnessed the power of the only major waterfall on the Mississippi River to establish the city of Minneapolis. The area is also the birthplace of General Mills.

Owamni will occupy nearly the same place and enjoy the same river views as Fuji Ya, Minnesota's first Japanese restaurant. It opened in the 1960s in what was by then an industrial wasteland.

Fuji Ya moved in the 1990s when the Park Board purchased its land through eminent domain with the long-range vision of rehabilitating the riverfront for recreation. The Park Board never had enough funds to fully excavate the mill ruins, however, and the Fuji Ya building sat dormant and deteriorating for nearly 30 years.

"People would come here and they could see the arches and the walls sticking out of the top of this hillside that had overgrown, and people wondered what was down there," said Kate Lamers, design project manager.

"Certainly the project got a lot of interest when the Sioux Chef became our partner. People were excited to see that there was going to be a living, ongoing presence here."

Damon Farber Landscape Architects blanketed the park with pre-European settlement plantings that Dakota people would use for food and medicine, including white pines, tamaracks, aronia berries, wild ginger, nodding onion and sedge.

A rainwater recycling system will use the runoff from condos adjacent to the park to flush the toilets in the visitor center and irrigate the lawns.

Indigenous artists furnished beadwork for the fire pit covers. The city of Minneapolis has a $400,000 request for public art to acknowledge the Dakota people who lived near Owámniyomni (St. Anthony Falls) and Waná i Wíta (Spirit Island), a sacred island lost to quarrying.

The Dakota people were nearly all exiled from Minnesota after the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, which included the largest mass execution in American history.

St. Anthony Falls has also been vastly diminished from its natural state, patched and bolstered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers after mills blasted so many shafts in the riverbed that the waterfall nearly collapsed in 1869.

"It's just such an incredible opportunity because so much damage was done, so much shortsightedness happened during the industrialization of this area," said Sioux Chef co-founder Dana Thompson. She emphasized that the Park Board and Parks Foundation were sensitive to this history by involving the Sioux Chef team throughout the design of Water Works.

"I just really hope that it's a message to people in our country specifically, and maybe people worldwide, about how sacred our natural resources really are," she said.

The Sioux Chef is awaiting some licensing approvals and purchasing equipment ahead of Owamni's opening, slated for mid-June.

Water Works was funded in large part by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation's RiverFirst capital campaign, which raised $16.2 million from private donations, including $3 million from General Mills. The Park Board contributed $6.6 million. The Mississippi Watershed Management Organization gave $900,000.

Future plans for the site, to be pursued after the U.S. Army Corps makes a final determination on the decommissioned lock and dam, include further developing the river edge and excavating a gatehouse structure now interred beneath the Mill Ruins Park parking lot.

"We're standing over fill over fill over fill. The land that was here presettlement is gone. ... One of the elements that goes throughout this entire park is trying to reconnect with the Indigenous history of the region," said Tom Evers, executive director of the Parks Foundation. "I can't wait to have this space filled with people."

Susan Du • 612-673-4028