St. Paul city planners in September 2015 shared a vision for what was essentially a mile-long front porch, linking dozens of downtown buildings along the Mississippi River into a kind of boardwalk promenade.
Oh, what a difference seven years can make.
Officials on Thursday released final schematics of a proposed River Balcony that weaves new scenic overlooks with step-down approaches that will allow people to touch the water in many places, under an ambitious plan to reconnect the city with the waterway that spawned it.
"I grew up in this community. I remember walking in Mounds Park, watching the river," said Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough, 68, a lifelong St. Paulite. "But I can't remember a time when me, my family, where we were actually able to come down and walk up to the river, throw a rock in the river."
The next six- to nine-month "transition period" will be spent firming up costs and construction plans, while also lining up the public and private funding needed to pay for it, said Mary deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy.
"What we see here is a much larger site than what we originally anticipated," deLaittre said of plans that fuse a 1.5-mile meandering promenade from Union Depot to the Science Museum of Minnesota with new tree-covered green space and public spaces from Kellogg Boulevard down to the river.
From a new amphitheater and woods at the Science Museum to a welcome area near Lambert's Landing for Viking River Cruises, the River Balcony is a much more comprehensive riverfront redevelopment than proposed back when Chris Coleman was mayor.
River Balcony planners will coordinate with ongoing projects such as Ramsey County's proposed RiversEdge project and the city's plans for redeveloping the RiverCentre parking ramp.
Kathleen O'Neill lives downtown. She really liked the drawings and details unveiled Thursday.
"I'm very excited. My first impression is very positive," she said. "I mean, it's very complicated. It's hard to see how they will implement it. I used to work as a planner. But I laud the work they've done so far."
Karl Hakanson said it's taken the city decades to realize that it's important to refresh its relationship to the river.
"Any time you can get people down to the river, looking at the river, interacting with the river, I think is great," he said. "St. Paul's skyline is not the prettiest, so I think they could really dress things up."
County officials are working with developer AECOM to build RiversEdge, a $788 million redevelopment on the bluffline above the river that would include a hotel, luxury housing, retail and high-end office space in four towers. Aspects of River Balcony will be phased in as RiversEdge and other projects develop, deLaittre said.
"We open it up and sort of create these wonderful connections where everything has been closed off and sort of divided from one another," she said of new public spaces to come.
River Balcony as envisioned anticipates a very different Shepard Road, which for decades has served as an arterial connection between Hwy. 61 in the east and Hwy. 5 in the west. If it is to safely bring pedestrians from the downtown bluff to the riverfront, St. Paul and Ramsey County officials will need to find ways to calm the traffic that now zips along the river's edge, deLaittre acknowledged. Those discussions have begun, she said.
St. Paul and Ramsey County have worked for years to reclaim the capital city's 26-mile Mississippi River waterfront. Great River Passage Conservancy is the fundraising arm of those efforts. Other riverfront projects now underway include a National Park Service headquarters and learning center at Crosby Farm Regional Park and an East Side district that connects parks and trails while honoring sacred Dakota sites.
The idea of a promenade was the start.
"Frankly, the River Balcony is the catalyst," deLaittre said.