The First River Plans: Long Before “Above the Falls” and “RiverFirst”

“I have been trying hard all Winter to save the river banks and have had some of the best men for backers, but Satan has beaten us.” H. W. S. Cleveland to Frederick Law Olmsted on efforts to have the banks of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis preserved as parkland, June 13, 1889 (Letter: Olmsted Papers, Library of Congress. Photo: H. W. S. Cleveland, undated, Ramsey County Historical Society)

Considerable time, effort and expense—$1.5 million spent or contractually committed to date—have been invested in the last two years to create “RiverFirst,” a new vision and plans for park development in Minneapolis along the Mississippi River above St. Anthony Falls. That’s in addition to the old vision and plans, which were actually called “Above the Falls” and haven’t been set aside either. If you’re confused, you’re not alone.

Efforts to “improve” the banks of the Mississippi River above the falls have a long and disappointing history. Despite the impression given since the riverfront design competition was announced in 2010, the river banks above the falls—the sinew of the early Minneapolis economy—have been given considerable attention at various times over the last 150 years.

Remember Nicollet Island!

The first effort to create a park along the river above the falls — or anywhere else in the towns of St. Anthony and Minneapolis — was in 1865 at Nicollet Island. The plan was to merge the towns on either side of the Falls, and use the southern half of Nicollet Island in between them for municipal buildings and the northern half as a city park. The Minnesota legislature passed a bill authorizing the civic union, but required a referendum in each town.

Minneapolis voted first and voted “No,” not primarily because voters opposed merging into one city, but because they thought the price to be paid for the Nicollet Island Park was too high. St. Anthonians never got the chance to vote. In defeat, park advocates acquired a battle cry—”Remember Nicollet Island!”—that would rally supporters for decades when anyone objected to acquiring park land. Advocates of merging the two towns achieved their goal in 1872, when a park on Nicollet Island was not part of the question.

When the Minneapolis park board was created in 1883, the new board asked Chicago-based landscape architect Horace William Shaler Cleveland for his advice on creating parks in the city. He presented a comprehensive blueprint, “Suggestions for a System of Parks and Parkways for the City of Minneapolis,” which gave the highest priority to making a park of the Mississippi River gorge below the falls:

 “You have it in your power to convert its banks into the most attractive and most conspicuous ornament of the city, one that is entirely unique…of such picturesque character as no art could create.”

Horace Cleveland proposed this system of parks and parkways in 1883, including the “Proposed Park” along the river in northeast Minneapolis. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

Cleveland also suggested, with much less enthusiasm, a large “driving park”—scenic roads for carriages—along the banks of the river in northeast Minneapolis. (See Northeast River Parks for more on the topic.) But the focus of a newly created park board was on acquiring and preserving more desirable land for parks than a riverside tract in Northeast that “offered no topographical features of special interest,” in Cleveland’s words.

The park board attempted to buy the  east bank of the river gorge, downstream from the University, in the late 1880’s, as recommended by Cleveland, but the owners of the land challenged nearly all park board appraisals and the board abandoned the effort, at least for a time, leading to Cleveland’s complaint to Olmsted. He was referring at that time only to the splendid bluffs and unspoiled gorge ushering the wild river south below the falls. If Cleveland and the “best men” couldn’t “save” those picturesque, precipitous and largely unused bluffs, it should be no surprise that the park board had little interest in the river banks on the flat, unremarkable land above the falls, which was ideally suited for railroads and industry. (For a snapshot of the industrial west river bank, see an article on the area around the mouth of Bassett’s Creek.)

The park board had plenty more to do at the time that did not meet such strong resistance from property owners. In a remarkable stretch of about 25 years, the park board acquired the shores of most Minneapolis lakes and Minnehaha Falls and Creek, created neighborhood and recreation parks—Riverside, Loring, Farview, Logan, Elliot, Windom, Powderhorn, Columbia, Van Cleve, Jackson Square, North Commons, Kenwood, Parade, etc.—and acquired a large park that compared in size with Central Park in New York, Glenwood (Wirth) Park. This was in addition to trying to acquire river frontage—a remarkable list of accomplishments for a volunteer board and a few full-time employees during a period that included one of the worst depressions in U. S. history, the Panic of 1893.

The Birth of the Grand Rounds

The issue of the river banks as potential park land was brought back into focus by the report of a special park board committee, chaired by William Folwell in late 1890. Folwell was concerned that the park board had lost its vision of the “system” of parks Cleveland had recommended. As Folwell was preparing his committee’s report on potential enlargement of the park system, Cleveland, his good friend—who had by then moved to Minneapolis from Chicago—wrote him a letter from across town on October 9, 1890 (Folwell Papers, Minnesota Historical Society).

My dear friend

I wish you could find time to go with me to look at some of the places along the margin of the river (I mean down at the foot of the high banks) of which you can get no conception till you get down into them and see what wonderful capacity for development they possess.

If all your committee could go it would do their souls good if they’ve got any, but when you once take in the possibilities that are open it will drive you frantic to think of losing them.

I can show you a sample a little below Riverside Park which I can reach by electric cars in 20 minutes from my office (I’ve timed it) — or I will devote a day or any part of a day to the exploration of as much as you like and it will inspire you to make a Report that will drown the sound of an eighteen ponder.

Truly Yrs
H.W.S. Cleveland

I don’t know if Folwell accepted Cleveland’s offer, but Folwell’s report, published in the park board’s 1890 annual report, was loud. It’s “report” reverberates still through the Minneapolis park system, partly because Folwell did what Cleveland had not; he gave a name to Cleveland’s “system” of parkways. He called it the “Grand Rounds.” The name gave new life to the concept.

Folwell’s committee recommended very strongly the acquisition of the gorge on both sides of the river as a park, but also went further. Folwell wrote several times of the need to protect the city’s water supply, which was drawn from the Mississippi, and he repeated that advice in his report, recommending that the city own the river banks on both sides of the river for “some miles” above the Camden water-pumping station in north Minneapolis.

“A considerable strip of land on either side of the stream must be kept clean of houses, barns, cattle sheds, slaughter houses and other filth-producing establishments. To convert the lands so acquired into beautiful parks and to maintain them as such, is the obvious and appropriate disposition.”

Sickening, Criminal Calamity Averted

Under intense pressure from the eastsiders, the park board finally purchased the east bank of the river—from the University campus downstream to St. Paul—for about $115,000 in 1893 just before the economy sank into depression. Added to the purchase of Columbia Park in 1892, the river bank acquisition went a long way toward redressing an imbalance at the time in parkland on the east and west sides of the river. (The imbalance was caused in part because so much land, especially near the lakes, had been donated west of the river; landowners on the east side had not been as beneficent.)

From 1893 to 1902 the park board purchased practically nothing. It could barely afford to maintain the parks it owned; acquiring more was impossible. The idea of acquiring more river frontage for a park did not go away, however. Folwell would not let it—as illustrated by his annual reports as president of the park board.

1898 — “The west river bank is so eminently adapted by situation, contour and natural vegetation [to be a park] that its loss to the city would be a calamity.”

1899 — “To see the chance of acquiring these properties at low figures slipping away makes me sick.”

1900 — “The riverside element of our system must be further developed, both above and below the Falls of Saint Anthony. If we may put any confidence in the taste and judgment of Olmsted, Cleveland and Manning, Minneapolis possesses in the banks of the Mississippi, an opportunity for park effects as splendid as it is unique. The river bank and slopes on the east bank we have happily acquired. Not to add the west bank, from Riverside Park to the Soldiers’ Home, would be a disgrace and almost a crime.”

What Folwell had in mind for the river above the falls in 1900 isn’t known, but as the Minneapolis economy continued to recover, Folwell kept on pushing for park expansion. By the end of 1901, he felt the time had come.

“For a period of seven or more lean years the board has been forced to talk poor and sing small to such a degree that we hardly know how to change to the manner of discourse appropriate to good times. These are good times.”

After years of parsimony, the park board finally was able to acquire new park land in 1902. It’s first acquisition in years was the west bank of the Mississippi River from Franklin Avenue to Minnehaha Park. Horace Cleveland had not lived to see it; he died in Chicago in 1900 at the age of 86. The price tag for the purchase of the west river bank — less than $43,000 — indicates how badly the 1893 depression had hit Minneapolis real estate and how long the road to recovery was. The land acquired on the west bank was a mile longer and 100 acres larger than the east bank purchase in 1893, but it cost barely one-third as much.

West River Parkway looking south from near Franklin Avenue, 1910. This is the “improved” parkway. (Hennepin County Public Library, Minneapolis Collection)

The impact and importance of that purchase was heightened because St. Paul also did its part to create the spectacular river gorge we enjoy today. St. Paul acquired as park land all of the gorge on its side of the river, from Minneapolis to the confluence with the Minnesota River and beyond. Other than acquiring the land on both banks, however, the Minneapolis park board didn’t pay much attention to the river. Riverside Park had been one of the top priorities in 1883 when the park board was created, but the board saw the value of Riverside Park more as a neighborhood recreation park than as a riverfront park.

The park board hired landscape architect Warren Manning to create a plan for the east river flats in 1899 and, following Manning’s recommendation, the park board established playing fields and a bath house there. But the park was never developed into a citywide playground on the scale Manning proposed. It is no surprise, however, that little was done to the river gorge. Horace Cleveland had argued for nearly three decades that the river banks should be preserved to protect them from exploitation and left in their natural state, or as he wrote in 1883,

“No artist who has any appreciation for natural beauty would presume to do more than touch with reverent hands the features whose charms suggest their own development.”

Halls Island in 1903 plat book (John R. Borchert Map Library)

The most significant development along the river above or below the falls in the early 1900s — a project of the city council, not the park board — was the creation of a swimming beach and bath house on Hall’s Island. (Read the Hall’s Island story.) The original bath house on Hall’s Island was moved there from the park board’s East River flats for reasons I’ve never uncovered.

The park board’s only activity other than on the river flats was building parkways along the bluff.  The first parkway on the western bluff was built in 1904, but one of Theodore Wirth’s first priorities when he succeeded William Berry as park superintendent in 1906 was to improve West River Parkway, which he did. East River Parkway was improved beyond a simple carriage path the following year.

The Civic Commission’s Grandiose Plan

Less than 30 years after the park board was created and only ten years after the acquisition of the banks of the Mississippi River gorge, park board president Wilbur Decker revealed a rekindled interest in the river above the falls at the park board meeting on July 3, 1911 when he said.

“It occurred to me that it might, at some future time, be desirable to establish parkways along the river banks north of the business center, as recommended by the Civic Commission. “

Decker’s seemingly off-hand reference to the Civic Commission was extraordinary because the commission’s plans had attracted considerable attention in the city. The casual reference — “it occurred to me”– indicated what little regard civic leaders must have had for the Minneapolis Plan.

The Civic Commission was the creation of private interests in Minneapolis in late 1909. The Commercial Club, a chamber of commerce-type group, had expressed an interest in promoting a unified plan to improve Minneapolis. Minneapolis had specific planning concerns at the time — before city planning was widely recognized as a function of municipal government — such as building a new post office and train station, addressing the issue of railroad grade crossings, improving traffic routes, even integrating The Gateway, the first downtown park, into city plans.

The Commercial Club convened representatives from several other civic organizations — including the park board — to nominate an 11-person Civic Commission. C. J. Rockwood, the park board’s attorney, and park commissioner Edmund Phelps — Phelps Field’s namesake — were two of the Commercial Club’s three representatives to the committee. Representatives from other organizations included former or future park commissioners Francis Gross, Thomas Voegeli, Wallace Nye and Harry Jones — in addition to three park commissioners sent to represent the park board officially.

When the committee representing those civic organizations selected eleven men — none of them from the park board — to serve on the Civic Commission, it also published its goals and objectives (Minneapolis Tribune, May 1, 1910), noting that,

“Practical men realize now that overcrowding and congestion tend to paralyze the vital functions of a city and they are turning their attention in increasing numbers to working out the means whereby the city may be made an efficient instrument for providing all the people with the best possible conditions of living.”

On a short list of general and specific issues for the commission to address — most having to do with transportation infrastructure and the location of public buildings — was “the possible reclamation of the river frontage.”

The Mississippi River through Minneapolis (looking upstream) as it could have looked. From the Plan of Minneapolis by the Minneapolis Civic Commission in 1917. The two-page illustration was labelled, “The Greatest of Great Opportunities,” in reference to the potential transformation of the riverfront. Ironically, St. Anthony Falls is a barely visible afterthought just above the Stone Arch Bridge near the top of this re-imagining of the city. (Jules Guerin, Minneapolis Civic Commission)

The commission ultimately produced the Plan of Minneapolis. City plans were very trendy at the time. Many cities — Chicago, San Francisco, Detroit, Cleveland and more — had already produced them during the “City Beautiful” era around the turn of the century. While Minneapolis had practical and specific objectives for a city plan, rather than simply municipal beautification, the Civic Commission hired the same consultant, Chicago architect Edward Bennett, who had worked with Daniel Burnham of Columbian Exposition “White City” fame on many other “City Beautiful” plans.

The Civic Commission’s charge to Bennett on river issues was made more explicit (Minneapolis Tribune, November 29, 1910) after he presented preliminary traffic plans. The commission directed Bennett to include in his report “every foot of the Mississippi river banks from the city limits on the north to the Lake street bridge.” It was a sweeping charge, and one that Bennett largely ignored.

Bennett issued a preliminary report in early December 1910 that hinted at the meretricious final report he would produce in early 1912. The preliminary plan, previewed by Bennett in The Western Architect in early 1911 for all to admire, provided very little detail on “possible reclamation of the river frontage” other than to suggest boulevards that ran beside the river in places and were elevated in other places to run above the riverside railroad tracks that served the mills and passenger stations downtown. He also suggested a bridge to Spirit Island, near the Stone Arch Bridge, and making it a park.

Bennett’s final plan was completed in early 1912 and was publicly displayed along with Jules Guerin’s illustrations in the McKnight Building downtown in May 1912. Bennett called the riverfront the “Greatest of Great Opportunities” for Minneapolis, but really devoted little space to the river banks. He was more concerned with prettier, more “monumental” bridges over the river than what was done on the banks.

Bennett focused most of his attention on the first park Minneapolis “lost” in 1865, Nicollet Island. The plan claimed what early pioneers had long believed, “The manifest destiny of Nicollet Island is to become a park.” What was new was Bennett’s suggestion to build a large stadium on the island, one that could host the Olympic games, and serve as a landing field for aircraft. In defense of the Minneapolis Plan, it did recommend the acquisition of both river banks above the falls as park, but provided no details.

The plan and illustrations were again put on display at the new Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1915, but publication of the book, Plan of Minneapolis, didn’t follow until 1917. The delay apparently was due to the fact that 1000 copies of the book were to be produced for sale by subscription, but almost no one subscribed. The plan had bombed in 1912 and five years did nothing to rehabilitate it. Still, it had provided a moment of inspiration for Wilbur Decker in the summer of 1911.

Theodore Wirth Gets River Religion

Perhaps the Civic Commission plan—and Decker’s modest interest—influenced Theodore Wirth and his perception of the river banks. Wirth exhibited little interest in the river above the falls in his early years as superintendent of parks in Minneapolis, which began in 1906.

The first riverfront acquisition he recommended was a stretch on the east bank downstream from the Camden Bridge as a part of the planned parkway from Camden Park to Columbia Park in 1913. Two years later, 1915, the park board purchased its first recreation park on the river in Northeast when it acquired Marshall Terrace. At that time Wirth noted that a “much larger tract of river frontage will be due that section of the city later on.” What he had in mind, he didn’t say.

The teases continued. In his 1916 annual report, after praising the beauty of the river gorge below the falls, and the park pioneers who acquired it, Wirth wrote, “the river to the north might, in some places at least, be made similarly attractive through shore parking and plantings.” In late 1917 Wirth presented plans to the board to extend Camden (Webber) Park east to the river, what would much later become North Mississippi Park, although he admitted that a clay soil covering of the former lumber yard would be required for the land to be useful as a park.

It was in the 1918 annual report, however, that Wirth gave full expression to hopes for riverfront parks above the falls for the first time. He proposed a detailed riverfront plan upstream from the river gorge to the northern city limits and beyond — what Edward Bennett had been asked to do eight years earlier. Wirth even inserted a large, fold-out map of the city in the annual report that showed his proposal for the entire river frontage.

In this section of the fold-out map accompanying the 1918 annual report, Wirth showed existing parks in green, land the park board should acquire in brown, and river frontage the park board should at least plant to make it more attractive, even if it remained in private hands, in red. (Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board)

By this time, of course, the undersubscribed Plan of Minneapolis had been printed and Wirth may have used it as a starting point for his proposal.

He noted of the land marked in red on both banks, including Hennepin and Boom Island, that it could be “very effectively planted without interfering in the least with buildings there now or the activities on the property…Such treatment would greatly enhance the very picturesque appearance of this section of the river.”

As for Nicollet Island, Wirth wrote, “Eventually, the city will surely acquire the whole of Nicollet Island, but for the present the shores should be leased or purchased and the present planting effects retained and improved.” Of the rest of the east bank, extending a mile beyond the city boundary, he wrote,

“There does not seem to be any serious obstacle in the way of acquisition of a strip of land from fifty feet to two hundred feet or more in width. North of the Northern Pacific Railroad Bridge, along Marshall Street, is a splendid opportunity to establish an appropriate entrance to this River Shore Park, if we wish to call it such. I have indicated on the plan a stretch about four blocks long taking in all land between the river and Marshall Street.”

The west bank was a little trickier. The railroads owned all the land from Union Station downtown to Twenty-Sixth Avenue North, but Wirth suggested that the “banks can be readily planted so as to be attractive and screen the yards from view.” He thought the railroads might be glad to have that done to “hold the banks and prevent washouts.” From there north, he foresaw few obstacles to acquiring the river banks and suggested that it would be in the interest of property owners to donate the land.

Echoing Horace Cleveland, Wirth concluded,

“To control for all time to come, nearly all the shores of the river along its course through the city, to prevent the disfigurement of them by unsightly structures and public dumps and, on the contrary, to beautify them with the pleasing colors of foliage of trees and shrubs and, possibly, to provide for walks and drives, boating and bathing places as well is worth all it may cost.” 

Wirth’s report had an immediate effect as the new board voted promptly in January 1919 to acquire the river banks he recommended. But as with earlier proposals and plans, other priorities deferred riverfront acquisitions. The park board tried again in late 1922, directing Wirth to make a survey of the river banks to determine what land should be acquired. A year later, the park board told the engineer to submit a plan to acquire all land on the west bank of the river from Union Station to Shingle Creek. Finally, in his 1924 annual report Wirth referred the board again to his detailed plans of 1918 and repeated his suggestion to control all the river banks.

“Nothing is gained,” he concluded with a hint of resignation, “by delaying steps to carry out such a plan, and I recommend that this matter be given early consideration.”

It was the last plea Wirth or anyone else would make for about fifty years for parks on the river banks above the falls. But those were fifty remarkably eventful years: market crash, Great Depression, hot war, cold war, evolution, revolution. And along the way Minneapolis made one of its most lamentable decisions: the push for a lock at St. Anthony Falls so it could build a harbor on the upper river. That action led to a much more complicated riverfront above the falls and a much less attractive Falls itself, not to mention a defaced Stone Arch Bridge and a disappeared Spirit Island.

But the little island wasn’t all that disappeared from the vicinity of the Falls in that half century. So too did the need for falling water to power Minneapolis’s economy, and the need for longitudinal stacks of tracks to carry trains, freight or passenger, through the city’s core.

Missteps in Modern Times

With the diminished need for water power and railroad tracks, the old hold of industry on the central river front was gradually broken and the park board was drawn into the resulting vacuum in the early 1970s. Some of that story is outlined in City of Parks, and much more remains to be told. For now, let’s just say that creating parks on reclaimed industrial river banks presents challenges Minneapolis hasn’t faced before.

The beauty of the river gorge below the falls is that it’s wild and remarkably natural—so undesigned—just as Horace Cleveland thought it should be. Such treatment isn’t a possibility above the falls now, especially at the Scherer site, the former lumber yard immediately north of the Plymouth Bridge. We cannot just “touch with reverent hands the features whose charms suggest their own development,” as Cleveland said of the river gorge. There are no features; there are no charms. There is only river and a barren, flattened, leaked-upon, denatured version of soil on river banks that have already been rearranged once or twice.

The riverfront there and to the north cannot simply be left to nature and be beautiful. Some design, some intervention, is required to make the land useable and attractive in the short term. The question is, “How much design?”

The greatest successes on the central riverfront required little design at all. The simple parkway along the west river bank provides a green ribbon along the banks and access to the river. That’s all that was needed for development. The other great success—arguably becoming the leading attraction in the city—was the opening of the Stone Arch Bridge to foot and bicycle traffic. It is spectacular. Even Mill Ruins, Main Street and First Bridge parks draw on what was already and uniquely there: the remains of once-essential infrastructure. These were all found attractions — and wisely developed.

Created parks and new structures have been much less successful. Hideo Sasaki, one of the nation’s leading landscape architects at the time, failed in 1976 to create something special at Father Hennepin Bluffs. Its location, next to the Stone Arch Bridge, and its bandshell are now the park’s attractions. I don’t think the park board would have hired Sasaki to imagine just a bandshell—and the Stone Arch Bridge wasn’t open yet then. The three-quarters of a million dollars worth of landscaping and design—walks, stairs, trails, bridges — below the bluffs are practically gone. Some walkways long ago toppled into the river.  The last time I visited, railings hung from the bluffs like remnants of an ancient river civilization. In what should be an idyllic spot — imagine finding arrowheads — you’re more likely to stumble upon a beer can. Some would argue that the Sasaki landscape could have been maintained better. Others would argue that it would have been if anyone used it. The remnants of mill machinery scattered through the bluff-top park attract little attention.

Landscape design along the river in the 1980s fared no better. The city and the park board punted on most of Nicollet Island. They effectively said, “Let someone else sort that out in 99 years,” and issued long-term leases to lottery winners to make their (old) homes there. And maybe that was wise with so much else going on at the time. Placing part of the old Broadway bridge across the east river channel on Merriam Street was, however, an inspired decision.

Further upriver, Boom Island is still as sterile and empty as ever. The original design for the park never worked, not the silly light house pleading to become an icon, nor the artificial sledding hill that once blocked views of the river, nor the little marina which has been used by dozens of boats in the last 25 years. Perhaps it’s no wonder, because the park’s designer told me he first discussed the project on a Friday afternoon and delivered an initial plan the next Monday morning.

The place has always had an abandoned, tumbleweedy feel—kind of like the hallways at St. Anthony Main and Riverplace if I can stretch the metaphor of spooky riverside emptiness. It still does—even after last year’s modest renovation and the equally modest development of the adjacent B. F. Nelson site. On a gorgeous September Saturday afternoon this fall those parks were deserted, in stark contrast to the social and recreational whirl around the lakes the same day.

The question for Boom Island, B. F. Nelson and, now, the Scherer site is whether they need to be places to go or whether they serve a purpose by being somewhere pleasant enough to pass through. The answer matters. Residents of the neighborhood will likely fight for something that won’t attract too many outsiders, as they seem to have done effectively so far. A design-intensive and expensive solution that requires economic development—condos and restaurants—to pay for it is a gamble.

A River First?

The city cannot afford a Father Hennepin/Boom Island design failure at the Scherer site. And I fear an underused, Boom-Islandesque outcome for the proposed re-creation of Hall’s Island on the Scherer site if it relies on the swimmin’ hole and skatin’ pond aesthetic first proposed by design competition winners Tom Leader Studio/Kennedy Violich Architecture (TLS/KVA). That failed 100 years ago on the same spot. I don’t want to see a faithful recreation of that Hall’s Island. The proposal to add a kayakin’ cove might be more appealing if you could paddle more than a mile downriver without plunging over the falls or didn’t have to paddle against the current a couple miles past pristine scrap yards to reach non-metallic scenery up river. I know that will eventually change, the up-river part at least, but questions remain. Is Hall’s Island a reasonably safe location for unsupervised newbie kayakers? Is the river interesting enough there to attract more experienced kayakers regularly? Are there enough of either to justify the staggering cost of rechanneling a river to create a cove for them?

The initial plan appears to accommodate swimmers and waders in the cove too, but I used to get funny looks from other Minneapolis parents when I told them I took my daughter swimming in Lake Harriet—as if that were vile, filthy water. Will a similar prejudice prevail against a splash in what some people still think of as the nation’s drainage ditch full of chemical and treated “natural” products?

I know skating rinks are cute novelties in some cities. Maybe those cities don’t already have dozens of skating rinks scattered around town like Minneapolis does — some of them very little-used. I can’t imagine a prettier place to skate than Lake of the Isles, for example. I drove there almost nightly for several winters, and I was often nearly alone on that vast ice sheet. I also enjoyed skating on Lake Harriet, beautiful too, until the park board gave up keeping a patch of ice cleared and a skate-changing room open just for me. Ice skating, like swimming, may not have the attraction of novelty in Minneapolis as it might some places.

Certainly Leader, Kennedy and Violich are more astute observers than I of the qualities that attract people to urban spaces and make those places vibrant and alive. Now that we have come this far, at this expense, I hope the park board turns TLS/KVA loose to give us their very best shot at the Scherer site. And that might mean dialing back support or timetables for a handful of other worthy projects for a while at Water Works, Library Square, Gold Medal Park, the Farview Park land bridge, to name a few.

I wish the Minneapolis Parks Foundation could channel Paul Reyelts’ generosity and engagement at the former Fuji-ya site—redubbed Water Works—into the RiverFirst framework it helped create. I hope Reyelts’ offer of material support for the development of that site does not suffer the same fate as John Bradstreet’s offer to build a Japanese temple in Lake of the Isles in 1910—because it might be one project too many.

I suppose the alternative to focusing public support on one important project at a time is to develop all the new park ideas at once—each subsidized by competing condos and restaurants, if that many developers and restaurateurs can be found—and see which ones fail. To even get that off the ground, however, might require a separate conservancy or benefactor for every new park — the foundationalization of our park system. In that, RiverFirst could be the beginning of the end of Minneapolis’s storied park board. In the future, the park board might only maintain neighborhood playgrounds, while a variety of 501(c)(3)s compete for contributions to keep our water-based amenities open to the public. I’ve heard talk of that already.

You only have to look at the five priority projects in the RiverFirst “Implementation Framework” to see that the park board is the key agency only in the two projects that require land the park board already owns. The rest of the “park” projects will be driven by others. That is sadly how the next generation of parks could play out.

Minneapolis is still digesting a Guthrie Theater district and an expanding Target Field neighborhood, and soon will have to sustain the environs of a new Vikings Stadium, too. As ambitious and successful as this city can be, there are limits to how many projects we can pull off at once, to how many new bars and restaurants we can support, to how many places we can fall in love with. And that’s really what we’re asking Tom Leader and team to pull off: make us fall in love with a new place. Especially if it’s going to take a recreated island and cost us millions more.

I’d like to see the river sites transformed into something uniquely Minneapolis, but not more of what we already have. I want to see a site that would make Pearl Hall’s jaw drop. Pearl Hall was the doctor who donated a small island — hence Hall’s Island — to the city to become the site of a garbage burner more than one hundred years ago. When they unveil the new Hall’s Island park I want to imagine Dr. P.M. and Anna Hall thrilled, but also a bit embarrassed as they whisper to each other, “And to think we just wanted to put a garbage burner here.”

If we can’t have that kind of place, we should get our million-and-a-half back and pave a bike path through the site. A real nice one with two lanes.

Minneapolis has been trying for 150 years to create parks along the Mississippi River. If we don’t have the cash or the ideas to create something special on the riverfront above the falls, something majestic and magnetic, lets just focus on getting more land and knitting it together with greenery and trails. That would be a huge step forward. If the land — the park — is there, one day someone will know what to do with it. Maybe for now it will be just a delightful bike ride or stroll along the river to Psycho Suzie’s. That wouldn’t be so bad. I think Horace Cleveland would be good with that for now.

David C. Smith

©David C. Smith

2 comments so far

  1. […] on Nicollet Island see previous posts on Horace Bushnell, the first European to suggest it, and the first ideas for parks upriver from St. Anthony […]

  2. […] When you look at these pictures it’s obvious why the Civic Commission and the park board were interested in reclaiming the riverfront 100 years ago. […]

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