The city of St. Paul unveiled a plan Thursday to transform 17 miles of riverfront into an attraction for tourists and locals.
It will take years for the city to alter roads, buy property and convince developers to work with St. Paul to make the riverfront more friendly to visitors.
Nearly a thousand people crowded the Harriet Island pavilion for a free meal and a look at a series of illustrated drawings. Together the drawings represented an idea retired St. Paul parks director Bob Bierscheid started working on about eight years ago.
"That's when we came up with the concept of let's make it one big park. That way, like in Central Park in New York City, there are all kinds of special elements. Some are very active, some are very passive, some have restaurants and unique features and some are very natural," Bierscheid said.
The result is a 17-mile corridor called the Great River Passage. Jody Martinez of St. Paul Parks and Recreation led the year-long planning process. The planning cost about $1 million. It involved consultants, park and city staff, and many meetings with residents.
Martinez said the first problem planners faced was access.
"That's what we heard a lot from folks was you know we just can't get to the river. It's too hard; we have to cross roads; we have to cross highways; we have to traverse bluffs — so that's a big part of this plan is trying to get people from their homes to the river," Martinez said.
The plan slows down many roads around the river and adds features making it easier for pedestrians to reach natural areas. The drawings show a bridge connecting the Highland Park neighborhood with Pig's Eye Lake, on the east end of the planned corridor.
Traveling west, trails would connect to several gathering areas, including a long balcony along downtown St. Paul's riverfront. The raised boardwalk would connect the Science Museum of Minnesota to the city's new train depot. The area is now blocked from pedestrians by buildings. Jody Martinez imagines the balcony will be lined with cafes and art studios.
"We're suggesting that as these sites get redeveloped — and they will, the economy's not going to be bad forever, and this is a prime site," added Martinez. "This will allow folks to actually walk through at that Kellogg Boulevard level and get to a public space"
Further west, in about the middle of the corridor, the plan calls for rehabbing an empty power plant on Island Station. Martinez said the Island Station complex could include an outdoor outfitter, like an REI, kayak or canoe rentals, and a climbing wall that turns into an ice-climbing wall for winter.
Martinez said the plan has something for everyone. But it does have its detractors. Kent Petterson supports the corridor, but is disturbed by what the plan proposes for the Victoria Park neighborhood: four new soccer fields with 10 high-standard light poles. Petterson owns a business nearby.
"We think it's insensitive to the river valley," he said. "The light pollution, the noise pollution would be insensitive to our neighborhood, we're worried about the parking."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman says, despite the sluggish economy and tight city and state budgets, this was the right time to introduce the plan, because it will take decades to implement.
"This isn't saying we have a large pool of money and we're all of a sudden going to start spending tomorrow. This is to say you know what, this is the greatest natural resource in Minnesota. We have to have a long-term plan and we have to have people understand what the potential of the river is," Coleman said.
The hundreds of people who attended the presentation seemed to understand that. Dan McGuiness, former director of the Upper Mississippi River Campaign for the National Audubon Society and St. Paul resident, said the city must think long-term.
"I think in the short range it's very dismal, to think that how could we possibly do this when nobody has any spare money, we can't even support our schools, we can't support the real basic things we need in this society, but if we didn't start working on these things until the economy improved, we'd probably miss the boat," McGuiness said.
St. Paul city staff now begin the process of wooing developers, and slowly putting pieces of the plan in place.