Architects on Thursday gave St. Paul residents a first look at their vision for the city's river balcony, a 1.5-mile promenade that would connect downtown to the Mississippi River.

James Corner Field Operations, the firm hired by the city and nonprofit Great River Passage Conservancy to lead the project's schematic design, described their initial plans for the ambitious development and asked for feedback from community members in a virtual meeting.

Lisa Switkin, a senior principal at the company, described the balcony as a series of overlooks along the river, linking many of the existing institutions at the water's edge in St. Paul.

"These are kind of like a string of pearls. They really draw you in from the city, and they're visible from the river as well," she said.

The balcony would be anchored by the Science Museum and Xcel Energy Center in the west, and Union Depot and Lambert's Landing in the east. Representatives from James Corner Field Operations said they were struck by the opportunities they see in existing infrastructure in downtown St. Paul and at the river's edge.

Their designs included the creation of park areas, watch platforms, sport courts, sandstone steps, food and drink kiosks, public art and event spaces. Among the biggest changes proposed was the transformation of E. 2nd Street, which would be closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian-only space.

The plans also aim to spruce up the area around Lambert's Landing, where luxury cruise line Viking will start docking for Mississippi River tours starting this summer.

The river balcony designers are coordinating closely with Ramsey County and others working on projects along the Mississippi, including the proposed $800 million RiversEdge development that would bring housing, commercial space and a park to the riverfront.

Presenters stressed that the designs were preliminary, based off focus groups conducted in the fall.

"The top priority was connecting people with the river," Switkin said. "But there was also a great desire for creating public space at the river's edge and access … to quality outdoor space."

Project leaders plan to conduct surveys and host an additional community workshop in May. Their goal is to identify a more final design, plans for maintenance and ownership, cost estimates and funding opportunities in the fall. Residents can learn more about the project at

Dozens of residents listening to the virtual meeting responded enthusiastically to the proposals. Many said they would like to see more done to make it safer for pedestrians to cross Shepard Road, more ideas for winter programming and additional connections to the city's bikeway system.

The concept of the river balcony was included in St. Paul's Great River Passage master plan, which the City Council approved in 2013. The 300-page document laid out grand plans for projects along the city's 17-mile river corridor, which staff at the time said could cost $300 million to $500 million over the next 50 years.

The city and the Great River Passage Conservancy also recently hired New York-based W Architecture & Landscape Architecture to lead the schematic design of the proposed River Learning Center, a recreation and education center that would be located at the Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Regional Park. That firm is working to prepare plans and cost estimates for the site by the fall.