Minneapolis parks officials are seeking a dramatic overhaul of Mill Ruins Park downtown, looking to make it more useful and appealing for the growing number of visitors to the rehabilitated industrial area.

The Water Works proposal would feature a slanting fountain, a seeping wall fed by stormwater and a glimpse of the remains of the building that once controlled the area’s water power.

It would be the first major remake of the Mill Ruins area since West River Road Parkway opened in 1987, the Stone Arch Bridge opened to pedestrians in 1994, and the park opened in 2001.

Park officials want to untangle an area that often becomes a jumble in which bikers, walkers and motorists looking to park compete for right of way at the bridgehead.

“That end of the bridge is just begging for an activation and welcoming presence it doesn’t have now,” said John Anfinson, superintendent of the federal Mississippi National River and Recreation Area.

Park officials say the cost of the two-phase proposal could reach $23 million, money that likely would be sought from metro parks.

The $450,000 plan funded by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation would take at least five years to complete, said Liz Wielinski, president of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board. The Park Board will review the proposal Wednesday.

The plan seeks to untangle bicyclists, pedestrians and motorists by extending recreational paths coming off the bridge’s west end farther up the shore. They’d cross a water basin following the historic rail route once used by the Great Northern Railway. The area between the bridge and Portland Avenue has become a busy connection between two of the city’s higher-volume bike routes.

The plan would add attractions for visitors to St. Anthony Falls and the adjoining bridge, which features iconic views of the downtown Minneapolis skyline and is often used as a cutaway shot for televised NFL games.

Designers say the new proposal would not overshadow the existing amenities.

“I don’t think it detracts in any way from the power of the river and the falls,” said principal designer Kate Orff, from the New York City-based landscape architecture firm SCAPE.

The proposal comes as a community advisory committee is close to finishing a report on proposed renovations for a larger swath of central riverfront.

Said Ted Tucker, chair of that group: “It appears to align itself well with what we were talking about.”

The first phase would unfold between the parkway and S. 1st Street, adding a small amphitheater. The old Fuji-Ya restaurant would be demolished and the foundations of the Columbia Mill on which it rested converted to a series of open-air “rooms” visible from 1st Street. The rooms would allow space for a playground, bocce ball or even badminton. Planners also envision a visitor center accessible on 1st just off the Third Avenue Bridge.

The proposal moves the parkway closer to the river near 5th Avenue S. to allow more space for pedestrians. That’s where the wall would be added, featuring the slow migration of stormwater from a cistern through a wall of stacked stones.

“The idea is to make a living wall,” Orff said, with moss growing in warm weather and ice formations in the winter.

Across the parkway, where a mammoth canal once carried water that powered flour and other mills, the building that controlled that surge would be exposed to its upper arches. That would be visible from a new fountain that would send a sheet of water across stone surfaces in several stages. The area is intended to serve a broad range of ages, with youngsters frolicking in the water while others watch from new seating at the fountain.

Tucker’s group is scheduled to present its recommendations for the broader central riverfront to the Park Board in November. Proposed changes include developing improved recreational trails on the east side of Nicollet Island, creating more room to avoid bike and pedestrian conflicts at a pinch point along SE. Main Street, creating new trails on the East Bank, restoring water to each channel of the falls, creating performance space at Father Hennepin Bluffs, and linking recreational paths to East River Road.

The time frame for those changes depends on funding, but it has taken 42 years for the central riverfront to be converted from its mill and railroad past to the current parks and housing since the adoption of a landmark 1972 plan that charted that course.


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