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Big donation starts Minneapolis riverfront parks overhaul

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Rendering of planned Water Works redevelopment
Rendering of planned Water Works redevelopment of the downtown Minneapolis riverfront looking downstream with the Stone Arch Bridge in the background.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis Parks Foundation

Minneapolis is preparing for a riverfront revival when it comes to city parks.

The city is pressing ahead with two new parks along the Mississippi River after a nearly completed fundraising campaign. More are on the drawing board to spruce up a stretch from downtown to the city's north side.

The revitalization, known as RiverFirst, is built around a vision for five distinct park projects that would highlight trails, provide beach access, showcase art, and usher in a year-round restaurant.

Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, speaks about the planned redevelopment along the Mississippi River. Behind Frey, from left, Katie Simpson of Bank of America, Minneapolis Park Board Superintendent Mary Merrill, Park Board President Brad Bourn, Park Board Foundation executive director Tom Evers.
Brian Bakst | MPR News

The transformation will also use the river as a natural way to connect and enhance neighborhoods, said Minneapolis Park Board President Brad Bourn.

"All you have to do is look at my part of town in southwest Minneapolis to the chain of lakes, to Minnehaha Creek and compare that with some of our amenities in north and northeast Minneapolis and it becomes crystal clear that we have a tale of two cities," he said.

Bourn spoke at a news conference to announce a $1 million donation from the Bank of America Foundation. It puts the RiverFirst campaign just $600,000 shy of an $18 million goal.

And that's close enough to make project officials confident they'll break ground early next year on the first two pieces. Interim Minneapolis Parks Superintendent Mary Merrill described one of them to convert a space near the Stone Arch Bridge and St. Anthony Falls.

"Water Works is a huge opportunity to open more access to the riverfront in an area that is already full of visitors and residents," Merrill said. "It will educate people on the riverfront's rich and very complex history."

Rendering of planned Water Works redevelopment
Rendering of planned Water Works redevelopment of the Minneapolis riverfront.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis Parks Foundation

It will include a mezzanine and pavilion with a green roof. A building will house The Sioux Chef restaurant that will feature Native American cuisine prepared by an indigenous-led team.

The other early addition is the Great Northern Greenway River Link that will sit where a blighted dead-end street is now. The park will have a river overlook and a junction for bike and pedestrian trails.

The first phase of the Water Works project is set to open in 2020. The plan is to cycle in other improvements over the next five to 10 years. 

"This is an unfolding vision that these are the first two projects we are raising capital for," said Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Park Board Foundation, adding that the private financial involvement has been a vital component.

"We also wanted to make sure we weren't creating parks that were going to start taking resources from the rest of the park system," Evers said. "So, the private philanthropy is helping to ensure that this gets done at a world-class status but it also doesn't start to draw resources from the rest of the parks system."

Rendering of planned Water Works redevelopment
A top down rendering of the planned Water Works redevelopment of the Minneapolis riverfront between the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam and 3rd avenue.
Courtesy of Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis Parks Foundation

He said revenue generated in the new parks is designed to pay for their maintenance. 

Mayor Jacob Frey said the planned park improvements complement a makeover along the river that already includes new greenspace where there were once surface parking lots and new condominiums where there were rundown buildings.

"The Mississippi River was not a focal point. It was not where people in Minneapolis directed their gaze," Frey said. "Our Mississippi River runs right through the center of our city and it deserves to be highlighted."