Winner named in Mpls. riverfront design competition

TLS/KVA riverfront proposal
The TLS/KVA teams hopes to restore wetlands, install environmentally-friendly storm water systems and build green housing along the Mississippi River in Minneapolis.

Organizers of a competition to design a new system of riverfront parks in Minneapolis announced a winner today.

A team comprised of architecture and design firms from Boston and Berkeley has won the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, chosen by jury of Minneapolis designers and city officials.

The TLS/KVA team -- as it's known -- recently transformed a vacant industrial lot in Birmingham, Ala. into the $25 million Railroad Park.

Nine Minnesota firms will join them in their effort to revive an urban riverfront that's seen better times.

The downtown Minneapolis riverfront is a picturesque place, with St. Anthony Falls, old mills, and the Stone Arch Bridge. But head north just a mile or so and things aren't as pretty.

Interstate 94 cuts a deep trench near the Mississippi River's west bank. As she drives through the area, Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition director Mary deLaittre describes what she sees as the biggest challenge for people living here.

"The combination of 94, and the industrial uses and the lack of physical connections to the river provide quite a number of barriers to the residential area."

DeLaittre said people living here should be able to walk or bike along the river just as easily as people in South Minneapolis amble around the lakes. "We hope that people will see a river that is accessible to everybody," said architect Frano Violich, who is on the team that'll design the new riverfront. "Where the edge of every linear foot of that river is inhabited by people, inhabited by animals, being able to fish."

That includes connecting Farview Park over the freeway to the river. But Tom Leader, another architect on the team, says it's about more than just accessibility. He hopes to restore wetlands, install environmentally-friendly storm water systems and build green housing. Leader says that doesn't mean pushing out riverfront industries.

"On the west side, barge loading still needs to happen in some cases," he said. "So we used the topography to ramp up and create bridges across these loading areas so the two can still coexist."

However, the designers say the concept is still just that. Detailed plans and cost estimates will come later, and that's drawn some skepticism.

"Where and when are they going to get the money to implement anything?" said Jim Rosenberg, who owns the Sample Room bar and restaurant in northeast Minneapolis. He was on the community advisory board for the Above the Falls plan a decade ago, a riverfront design proposal that got little traction. Rosenberg fears this latest effort will fade away, too. "These designs and ideas are great, but you just look at them and the dollars just start adding up. Just to acquire the property to start to do something would be astronomical," he said.

But design competition organizers say Minneapolis has a successful track record for things that started as pie-in-the-sky ideas. Former Parks Superintendent David Fisher said the area around St. Anthony Falls is a perfect example.

"We didn't know how much that was going to cost when we started it, but we know how much benefit it's been since we built it," he said.

Fisher said that project eventually cost well over $200 million, but attracted private development quickly. Planners are hoping for similar success on the north riverfront.

But it will be awhile before crews in hardhats arrive. Planners hope to start by overhauling one park within the design area. They hope to decide by June where they'll begin.

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