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As Stillwater plans new riverwalk, restaurant sounds battle cry to save its trees

20August 2020

A plan to build a new riverwalk south of downtown Stillwater along the shores of the St. Croix River has outraged the owners of the Dock Cafe in Stillwater.

The proposed new path would cut through the popular restaurant’s riverfront property and destroy five trees that shade its brick patio, said Sherri Hopfe, general manager and co-owner of the Dock. “It would change the entire ambience of our place,” she said. “It takes down all of our trees and all of the shade off our south lawn. That’s where people come and have a drink and sit by the water. It’s where they wait for tables.”

The area, she said, “is one of the hidden gems of Stillwater.”

But city officials say the riverwalk is needed to “improve pedestrian safety and mobility along the St. Croix.” With the recent completion of the new Loop Trail, the 5-mile trail that runs between the historic Stillwater Lift Bridge and the new St. Croix River bridge in Oak Park Heights, the area is jam-packed with cyclists and pedestrians and St. Croix Boat & Packet Co. passengers, said Bill Turnblad, the city’s community development director.

The new 10-foot-wide concrete pedestrian walkway — which will run parallel to the river from Lowell Park to the historic Shoddy Mill and Bergstein Warehouse buildings south of downtown Stillwater — is part of a larger $3.3 million riverbank restoration project designed to restore eroded riverbanks and protect a sanitary-sewer line threatened by erosion. In 2018, the city applied for and received $1.65 million in general-obligation bonds from the state Legislature for the project.

Three river overlooks are included in the design. The northernmost overlook will be near the St. Croix Boat & Packet Co. docks, and will accommodate passengers waiting to board the boats, Turnblad said.

City officials have a 12-foot trail easement that runs through the Dock Cafe’s property, said Shawn Sanders, director of the city’s Department of Public Works. He said city officials want to work with the owners of the Dock to obtain a temporary construction easement over the Dock’s property in order to construct the riverwalk.

Construction of the project, which requires permits from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, is slated to begin this winter, he said. Appraisers will make a determination of “just compensation” for the temporary construction easement, and the city “plans to make every reasonable effort to avoid litigation by acquiring the property through direct negotiation,” according to a July 9 letter written to Dock owners Hopfe and Michael McGuire.

“Is the project a go? Yes,” Sanders said Wednesday. “This is the direction we have gotten from the (Stillwater City) Council — to put in a riverwalk by the Dock Cafe. Once we get permit approval, we are proceeding with the project. Plans have called for this for several years, and we’re just proceeding with that plan.”

City Council Member Mike Polehna said the trail easement over the Dock Cafe property has existed for more than 30 years. “The city has always planned on having a trail across there,” he said. “It’s going to be awesome.”

City officials last year offered to compromise and build the walkway closer to the river instead of on the easement land, “which is right in front of their deck,” Polehna said  “We offered to go down below, along the river, but they don’t want it paved there. Well, we have to have a paved trail there. It all has to be handicapped-accessible and passable for everybody. It has to be used by everyone.”

Shoreline erosion has been a significant issue along the river bank, Polehna said, and the city’s sanitary-sewer system is “at risk of possibly breaking and spilling into the river,” Polehna said. “There are 2 million gallons of effluent going through that area per day. Can you imagine the natural disaster we would have on our hands if that broke?”

Plans call for the shoreline to be hardened with rocks and vegetation, and new trees will be planted, as well as native grasses and other natural vegetation, he said.

Hopfe and McGuire want the city to consider another option: They have proposed that the city widen the trail that runs behind the restaurant “instead of going in front of us and cutting down shade,” she said.

A trail between the St. Croix River and the Dock Cafe doesn’t make sense, she said, because “it would be unusable many months of the year due to flooding.”

McGuire owns the land adjacent to the path behind the restaurant building and would be amenable to selling some of it to the city to widen the trail, Hopfe said.

“If that path is not sufficient, let’s just add to it,” she said. “It runs through a parking lot, but it wouldn’t affect parking. It really wouldn’t affect anything, and it doesn’t have to ruin us.”

The restaurant, located in a former two-stall car wash, was built in 1986 and opened in 1987, she said.

After such a long tenure and “after paying property taxes all these years,” Hopfe said she and McGuire were especially upset with the news because “we had always felt that we had a really good relationship with the city.”

“We were flabbergasted,” she said. “We just couldn’t believe it. It’s offensive. We’re just hoping that they will come to their senses.”

The restaurant has been temporarily shuttered since March, when Gov. Tim Walz ordered all dining rooms closed because of Covid-19.

“Our plan was to hang out a little more and open closer to fall,” she said. “But now, if they are going to be doing all this work in front of us, it would be very difficult to open up our dining rooms again.”

Hopfe has been encouraging Dock Cafe patrons to contact city officials and tell them “you don’t want our old trees cut down,” she said. “Tell them to add on to the current bike path and not ruin our view or ambience.”

Banners proclaiming “Save Our Trees” will be hung on the property this week, and lime-green-and-turquoise ribbons will be tied around the trees, she said.

“The trees were here long before we opened the Dock,” she said. “In fact, the trees have more history in them than many of the buildings in downtown. We are devastated at the thought of losing them.”

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