West Side residents in St. Paul have had one fewer landmark to use when giving directions to visitors these past six months.

That's because the iconic big green stairs on Wabasha Street are gone.

Built in 1916, the steel-and-wood structure rose 191 steps from the street to the top of the bluffs, where Hall Avenue turns into Prospect Boulevard across the Mississippi River from downtown. Before 1916, the staircase was made of wood, built to get folks from the neighborhoods on the sheer bluffs down to the river flats below and back again.

A rainstorm last spring loosened a large boulder that fell from the top of the bluffs and crashed into one of the staircase's upright supports. City workers tried to stabilize the staircase, but to no avail. It had to be dismantled in May.

Now folks on the West Side, along with three community nonprofits, are working quickly to come up with a suitable and cost-effective replacement. A meeting will be held Thursday night at the West Side Citizens Organization offices for people to review and discuss design concepts.

"It's an icon of the West Side and important in terms of community identity," said Carol Swenson, a neighborhood resident and member of the committee working on replacement plans.

The stairs served several purposes, from practical transportation to punishing exercise to taking in the view of the river valley and downtown.

"From personal experience, it can be faster to take the stairs than wait for the bus," Swenson said.

About 350 people used the stairs on average days and about 1,000 during special events, according to city records. St. Paul used to have more than 200 public stairs. About 70 remain.

"Folks who grew up on the West Side or who lived here have a soft spot for the green stairs," said Chris Romano, executive director of the Riverview Economic Development Association. "It's disappointing the old ones are gone, but it's a good opportunity."

The question hasn't been whether to rebuild the stairs, but how quickly and what will they look like, said Karen Reid of the Neighborhood Development Alliance.

A few public meetings have been held to consider having a viewing area and public art, how to connect the stairs to park trails, and how to ensure security. She's hoping more people contribute.

City workers have some initial design ideas, "strictly structural," said Kevin Nelson, St. Paul's bridge engineer.

Finding money will be a challenge because a stairway isn't the most popular form of transportation these days, Nelson said. "You can't put a bike trail on it, you can't put buses or trains on it. Walking doesn't have a funding category."

Plans should be figured out by January, Nelson said, to make the project eligible for the city's capital improvement budget.

He estimates the new stairs will cost between $1 million and $2 million. Since 1990, the city spent about $17,000 a year to maintain the green stairs. About $60,000 was put into them in the past couple of years for safety.

"We'll have to balance design features with the cost of the whole thing," Romano said. He added that there's hope for federal and foundation money and that a fundraising strategy is in the works.

Chris Havens • 651-298-1542