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Minneapolis’ Central Riverfront: Rebuilding the City-River Interface for the Long Haul

Central RiverfrontLast week, I gave a presentation at the Upper Mississippi River Conference, hosted in Davenport IA by our good friends at River Action and some of their local partners.  The theme of the conference was “collaboration,” and I was asked to talk about the ongoing redevelopment efforts at St. Anthony Falls in Minneapolis.  It’s an opportune time to focus on this area because the Minneapolis Park Board is undertaking a Central Riverfront Master Planning process, which is likely to shape investment in the area for the next decade or more.

Current work to envision the future of the riverfront around St. Anthony Falls has a long history.  In 1972, the City of Minneapolis developed a plan “Mississippi/Minneapolis,” which was the initial blueprint for redevelopment in this area of abandoned, obsolete industrial and transportation infrastructure.  By nearly any measure, the next four decades have been wildly successful.  According to statistics offered by the City:

  • public investment of $338 million has leveraged private investment approaching $1.9 billion;
  • there have been 7,000 jobs created and/or saved over this 40 year stretch;
  • Estimated Market Value for real estate in the West Side Mill District has grown from $25 million in 1994 to $475 million in 2012;
  • where in 1980 there were 7 housing units in the West Side Mill District, there are now 1,250;
  • dozens of businesses, small and large, have opened, including such destination attractions as the Guthrie Theater, the Mill City Museum (Minnesota Historical Society) and the Stone Arch Bridge linking east and west sides of the river;
  • the Central Minneapolis Riverfront Regional Park draws over a million visitors a year.

As planning and development enter a fifth decade, there remain challenges, of course.  Besides the perennial search for adequate funding, here are a few longer term, more structural issues that agencies working in this area face:

  • the area does not yet attract a substantial visitorship from nearby communities and neighborhoods, particularly from people who may be recent immigrants to the country, or who may not have English as their first language, or from students at the nearby University of Minnesota;
  • the area has for millennia been important to indigenous people here, particularly the Dakota, but that presence and importance is invisible.  What are some strategies to build relationships with those communities so that appropriate visibility can be developed?
  • the importance of this place has always been connected to the power of the river here, at the only waterfall on the entire length of the Mississippi River.  But we know very little about how the water actually works, what it contains, whether it can (or should) be made accessible for swimming, etc.
  • Finally, climate change and the potential encroachment of invasive aquatic species such as Asian carp are long term variables that could fundamentally change the ways people inhabit and interact with the river in this particular place.

There are many more immediate issues that keep planners and managers burning the midnight oil.  Despite these challenges, the Minneapolis Central Riverfront remains a place of regional, national, and perhaps even world, significance.  Along the Mississippi River, it is one of perhaps a half dozen urban sites where the shared future of our cities on rivers is being worked out.  As a lab and “pilot project” for developing a city as if the river matters, Minneapolis is worth continued close examination.


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One Comment

  1. Greg GenzOctober 9, 2013 at 9:49 pm

    The problem with getting one’s arms around connectivity to any Riverfront is the dynamics of some Rivers. Mpls has always approached the River as they would their Lakes. It may look like a lake to observers on the banks, but it is a fickle thing. In low water years it can be slackwater and safe. Several times in the past I have been able to walk across dry land at the Falls. Flows were non-existent or <1,000 cubic ft per second. The other extreme can cause interaction with the River to be extremely daunting. During the Flood of Record in 1965, the flow was almost 100,000 cubic ft per second. Infrastructure to facilitate access is difficult to design and maintain with such a static resource.

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