Riverfront development in St. Paul gets first flood test

Upper Landing
The Upper Landing development along St. Paul's riverfront, pictured Feb. 22, 2010, just outside of downtown, was built on higher ground that essentially elevated the new homes out of a flood plain. With the National Weather Service predicting flooding in downtown St. Paul as early as Friday, residents will have their first chance to see how their homes holds up in high water.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

A new housing community along St. Paul's riverfront is about to undergo its first test against Mother Nature.

The National Weather Service is predicting the Mississippi River will hit flood stage in downtown St. Paul as early as Friday.

Mayor Chris Coleman's office has issued a declaration of emergency, which allows the city to request assistance from higher levels of government if needed.

The likely flooding means residents of the Upper Landing neighborhood will get to see how their new homes, which were built to withstand most floods, hold up to a raging river.

Looking out on a rising Mississippi River, Gregory Page takes stock of the waterway that has drawn hundreds of new residents to urban living in St. Paul.

"What a spectacular river," he says.

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Page is with the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation. Over the past 15 years, his group has championed the revitalization of the city's riverfront.

When Mother Nature does what she wants to do, no amount of what man is going to do is going to stop it.

Upper Landing, parts of which were once a junkyard, is a symbol of that rebirth. Behind Page are seven blocks of upscale condos and colorful apartments. Joggers and dog-walkers pass by along paved trails.

About seven years ago, the first condominium buyers began to settle this so-called urban village. Up until the 1960s, the area was home to mostly poor immigrants and went by the nickname "Little Italy." Page says residents back then, in what was then called the Upper Levee, prepared themselves for high water.

"We are told that the residents there had eyes and hooks in the ceilings of their houses, so when the floods came, they could take their couch and piano and hang it from the ceiling and abandon the site while it flooded, except for visits by rowboats," Page said.

But this spring, Page and city officials don't think residents will be forced to paddle in and out of their homes. The new neighborhood has been essentially elevated out of a flood plain, thanks to 33,000 truckloads of dirt that were hauled in when developing the site. And, the housing units sit on top of garages, giving them extra protection from high water.

"So that the streets are above a 100-year flood, and the residential units are up on stoops and their floor levels are out of the 500-year-flood plain," Page said.

Still, some residents, like retiree Jim Bohn, are second-guessing their decision to live so close to the river's edge. Bohn said his wife, Linda, persuaded him to share in her frontier spirit by buying a condo at Upper Landing two years ago.

"At the time we bought it, it did violate some of my common sense because that land has flooded out before, and they've tried to do whatever they could do to prevent it from happening again," Bohn said. "So hopefully, it will hold up, but I don't know. When Mother Nature does what she wants to do, no amount of what man is going to do is going to stop it."

Bohn said he received an email from the property managers alerting residents of possible seepage in the garages, some of which sit below grade level. Bohn stores some of his belongings in the garage while he's down south for the winter.

"That doesn't make me feel very comfortable. We even paid for our garage spaces, $10,000 a piece, and now they're going to get wet because of high water?" Bohn said. "I don't know about our wisdom there. I'm not blaming anyone. It's our problem."

Officials with Gittleman Management Corporation, which manages the four condo buildings on Upper Landing, say they are preparing residents for various scenarios. For instance, they may have to move their vehicles out of the garage.

A more serious response would be needed if the river reaches about 25 feet, which would be 11 feet above flood stage, said Gittleman's Michael Cleary, who has been involved with the community's flood-contingency plans. That could cause the city to close its sanitary lift station and force the evacuation of Upper Landing residents.

The last time the Mississippi River crested that high was in in the 1960s, and the weather service says the chances are slim that the river will rise to that point this spring.

The city of St. Paul is monitoring the updates from the weather service, which expects the river to eventually rise to up to 19 feet, or five feet above flood stage.

"We'll see some traffic impacts in the downtown area, and we'll certainly be taking some emergency measures," said Rick Larkin, St. Paul's emergency management director. "But if it holds at that level, I think we will be adequately protected."

Officials at St. Paul's downtown airport say they're also getting their first chance to test their new armor against high water.

Two years ago, Holman Field constructed a new floodwall after a major flood in 2001 caused the airport to shut down for more than two months. This week, workers began to put up temporary portions of the floodwall, which required closing off two of the three runways.

Patrick Hogan, spokesman for the Metropolitan Airports Commission, says by Friday the airport may set up the entire floodwall, which would shorten the third runway.

"So it will have an impact on operations certainly, but the good news is, if the floodwall does what it's supposed to, and we have every reason to believe it will, we'll be able to maintain operations at the airport."

The National Weather Service is forecasting major flooding by Sunday in St. Paul, with levels rising into next week. But what makes some flood-watchers nervous is that the forecasts only extend a week out. That means it's too early to say when -- and at what level -- the river will crest.