Historic Sustainability on the Mississippi River by Philip Cooper
Recently, River Talk gave some space to some of the most interesting new voices we’ve heard recently. These five young people were all students in the Honors Seminar last fall, “Living Sustainably with the Mississippi River.” We hope you agree that students like these are promising lights for the future of sustainable rivers. See the rest of the student posts on our For Students page.
The term ‘sustainability’ has become almost synonymous with environmental protection in current Mississippi planning discourse, suggesting that the stewardship of the river’s natural resources is the key to its future. In many respects this is true, for the Mississippi’s health has significant implications for the well-being of humans and wildlife. However, this notion that sustainability is vital to enhancing the waterway’s future can be extended beyond purely environmental concerns. The Mississippi does not exist in a vacuum, but is part of a larger system which includes the human societies that have been built and continue to develop around it. Therefore, it is important that planning efforts keep in mind the importance of protecting the equally valuable man-made institutions which define the river’s purpose.
This need is particularly apparent in the challenges facing historical preservation efforts. One such pressing issue comes in the form of the Pillsbury A Mill which lies on the Mississippi’s east bank at the end of the Stone Arch Bridge. The mill was constructed in 1881, and the enormous capabilities of its dual 1,200 horsepower Mississippi-powered turbines proved instrumental in propelling Minneapolis to the head of the world’s flour industry in the early 1900s. Despite the milling business’ decline in second half of the century, the mill remained in operation until 2003, leaving a lasting impression on Minneapolis’ economic and social systems and relationship to the river. However, this longstanding importance imparted its own set of challenges. The Pillsbury mill is currently physically intact, a relatively rare feat given its age and the combustible nature of flour. Unfortunately it is in very poor structural condition, leading to the National Trust for Historic Preservation adding it to its list of “America’s most endangered historic places” in 2011. This physical instability has severe ramifications for the mill’s sustainability as both a historic landmark and a part of Minneapolis’ civic future. An early 2000s revitalization plan which would have preserved the main building while adapting the space for housing and other modern purposes was withdrawn in 2010 due to financing issues, leaving the mill once again crumbling and vacant. Despite the structure’s centrality to the region’s history and the opportunities it offers for future development, preservation efforts for this component of the Mississippi heritage have proved problematic.
Fortunately, over the past few months, mill revitalization has returned to city planning discourse. Dominium, a developer group, has introduced a proposal to convert the structure into affordable housing aimed at local artists, an approach which would provide 252 living units while providing for the physical preservation of the mill. However, the project has met its own share of challenges, including questions about financing the $113 million restoration and opposition from local residents. Regardless of the outcome of this particular proposal, this debate represents an important step for the building’s future. The mill’s sustainability as a community institution depends on public interest in the structure, an awareness which is vital for shaping its future. Given the mill’s longstanding importance to the Twin Cities, it must remain a crucial element in Mississippi planning.
Guest post by Philip Cooper.