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St. Paul reaches for waterfront potential with a new nature center, Mississippi River Balcony, East Side River District

20March 2021

It takes a certain imagination to envision the 17 curling miles of Mississippi River corridor in St. Paul transformed in ways that invite the public to the water’s edge.

Mostly recognizable these days for hosting one of the largest rail switching yards in the state, the 1,000 acres of land surrounding Pig’s Eye Lake could someday be known as the East Side River District, a cultural corridor that preserves the sacred sites of the Dakota people and celebrates the many migrating birds that travel along the nation’s largest river.

In downtown St. Paul, international tourists may someday meander along a balcony-like promenade traveling 1.5 miles from the Union Depot transit hub to the Science Museum of Minnesota.

Further south, a site within Crosby Farm Regional Park, by the historic confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota rivers, might someday host a nature center, a river gateway of sorts offering canoe access and educational amenities.

Pandemic? Recession? Organizers say those are just further incentives to focus on potential along the river’s edge.

“These kinds of projects that we’re working on are really critical to the blueprint for recovery for St. Paul,” said Mary Elizabeth deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy. “St. Paul has more river at 17 miles, and more river edge at 25 miles, and more publicly-owned land at 3,500 acres, than any other city along the length of the Mississippi. We’re the river capital in the headwater state along the ‘fourth coast.’ How do you bring the river from the edge to the center of public life, and make it part of the community’s psyche, for lack of a better term?”

A GATHERING OF PLANNERS

Mary Elizabeth deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy, at Hidden Falls Park in St. Paul. (Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press)

Last summer, deLaittre convened a virtual gathering of planners, developers and dignitaries linked to key real estate projects in various stages of implementation along the Mississippi River in St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Conservancy is a nonprofit organization that focuses on riverfront projects in partnership with the city of St. Paul.

From the Waterford Bay at Island Station apartments to new housing at Highland Bridge, the former Ford auto manufacturing campus in Highland Park, the capital city was heavily represented.

In fact, of the 17 projects she tallied, 11 of them were in St. Paul, adding up to a future estimated investment of $2.6 billion in both public and private dollars for the capital city alone. While deLaittre was thrilled, she said she recognized that social unrest, the pandemic and an uncertain economic recovery loomed over them.

She said those challenges aren’t just bumps in the road — they’re motivation.

A pandemic that brings people outdoors for socially-distanced recreation underscores why St. Paul so badly needs a nature center to offer long-overdue links to the water. Questions about social disparities drive home the need to celebrate the river’s sacred role in the heritage of the Native American community and make river access equitable to communities of color.

The currents — both literal and figurative — drawing fresh economic development along the Mississippi will bring St. Paul needed housing and municipal tax base.

If St. Paul is going to put the pandemic in the rearview, deLaittre said, the river will be key.

THREE PRINCIPALS

The lights of downtown St. Paul are reflected in the Mississippi River in this view from the High Bridge. (John Autey / Pioneer Press)

Three projects in particular — the nature center, the East Side River District and the River Balcony — are all entering critical phases, with the Great River Passage Conservancy serving as a leading convener.

Each site is at least partially city-owned, and the city is partnering with the Great River Passage Conservancy to oversee fundraising and legislative lobbying.

“The Mississippi River is our greatest environmental asset and an essential economic engine,” said Mike Hahm, St. Paul Parks and Recreation director, in a statement. “Creating public spaces that connect all of St. Paul to the river will promote the physical and mental health and well-being of our communities and allow us to further connect with and compete in the global marketplace.”

The conservancy, formed in December 2018, hired deLaittre — a trained architect who has built a career in municipal policy — as its first executive director two years ago. She was previously the executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation and manager of the Great River Passage Initiative for the city of St. Paul.

NATURE CENTER SEEKS $3 MILLION IN DESIGN, SITE PREP FUNDS

Wilderness Inquiry, a nonprofit that offers voyageur canoe adventures to urban youth, families and community groups, is working with the conservancy this year on making a $3 million pitch to the state Legislature.

A group of Wilderness Inquiry trainees participates in a skills class to become Voyageur boat captains at Hidden Falls Regional Park. (Richard Marshall / Pioneer Press)

While 2021 is not an official state bonding year, there’s still hope of eking out off-year bond funds for a schematic design of the future nature center, which would anchor the land currently occupied by the Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Regional Park off Shepard Road. Funds would cover site evaluation and site prep, including dredging.

As a key partner, Wilderness Inquiry could simply launch its canoes from the nature center, or move right in.

“The schematic design process is going to help us understand to what extent they (Wilderness Inquiry) are going to be joining us,” deLaittre said. “Is it going to be their headquarters or operational center? The river learning center is all about hands-on learning experiences for people of all ages to connect with the river.”

The National Park Service would likely have a sizable presence in the nature center, as well. The second bay in the two-bay marina would have to be dredged. “Land in that area is heavily disturbed and we need to prepare it,” deLaittre said.

Kim Keprios, executive director of Wilderness Inquiry, said her staff fluctuates from 18 full-time employees to as many as 50 in the high season, which could pose a challenge for the nature center. “We don’t want to overwhelm the land with a bunch of buildings,” she said. “There may not be room for us to have our full operations there.”

Still, Keprios said, “the pandemic has certainly magnified how critical it is to invest in Mother Nature, and take care of it. For kids, our goal is that they realize what is in their back yard, and how to safely enjoy it, and how to be good stewards of their environment. That’s the weird gift of the pandemic: outside is where everyone went, even in Minnesota at 20-below. We have rediscovered the power of Mother Nature and its ability to connect, both for individuals and families. We don’t always look up and embrace it until there’s not a lot of other things to do.”

As for making that case to state lawmakers, the conservancy contracts a state lobbyist shared with Mississippi Park Connection, another St. Paul-based nonprofit active on the river.

Elsewhere along the river, the Lower Phalen Creek Project is assembling funding for the creation of the Wakan Tipi Center — a Native American interpretative center — at the entrance to the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary. The center would be named for a cave, sacred to the Dakota people and located a mile to the east, which is sometimes referred to by residents as Carver’s Cave.

FROM PIG’S EYE LAKE TO EAST SIDE RIVER DISTRICT

Just past Environmental Wood Supply at 2165 Pig’s Eye Lake Road is the unmarked Pig’s Eye Regional Park. These are the last signs you will see on Pig’s Eye Lake Road before you turn off to the most hidden St. Paul park. (Jean Pieri / Pioneer Press)

When Dan Marshall ventures out to Pig’s Eye Regional Park, he has to admit the reclaimed landfill-turned-wilderness at the end of Pig’s Eye Lake Road is “both beautiful and inaccessible.”

East of downtown St. Paul and south of Warner Road, an incongruous mix of historic, natural and industrial uses dot the 1,000 acres of land surrounding Pig’s Eye Lake.

The unlikely stew includes two barge terminals, two Superfund sites, the largest rail switching yard in the region, multiple sites sacred to the Dakota people, hiking trails and an archery range. The acreage hosts 60 percent of the migrating birds that pass through the river corridor, making Pig’s Eye a birder’s getaway.

“I’ve tried to convince others to visit but they’re deterred by how difficult it is to reach,” said Marshall, proprietor of Mischief Toy Store on Grand Avenue. “There isn’t even a sign right now and it feels like trespassing. Also, the wood ticks are fierce.”

Like Marshall, deLaittre wants to see a little more appreciation for Pig’s Eye. The Great River Passage Conservancy is raising funds toward a schematic design of an East Side River District, where signage and stewardship would tell the tale of one of St. Paul’s most overlooked river destinations.

Partnerships with like-minded agencies — from businesses and nonprofits to tribal governments — will be key. “We are talking to a corporate partner who is seriously considering two-year support for the East Side River District as one of their initiatives,” deLaittre said.

Conversations are ongoing with a wide cast of additional partners, including the city of St. Paul, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Lower Phalen Creek Project, the Minnesota Indian Affairs Council, the St. Paul Port Authority, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the St. Paul Port Authority.

Tom Dimond, an East Side advocate, said all he’s seen to date is neglect.

“Pig’s Eye Lake has been a city park for decades, and they won’t even maintain trails and basic amenities,” Dimond said. “They’ve allowed non-parks uses to encroach on the property. There’s a boat ramp and trees have fallen across it — several.”

RIVER BALCONY

A picture shows a 3-D model of the conceptual design of St. Paul’s River Balcony, an elevated pedestrian path that will provide visual and physical connections between downtown and the Mississippi River. The publicly accessible pathway will extend from the Science Museum of Minnesota to Union Depot. (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Design Center)

For years, city planners and downtown advocates have talked up the possibility of a 1.5-mile promenade along the downtown bluff edge adjacent to Kellogg Boulevard. As planned new real estate comes online within the proposed corridor, the Great River Passage Conservancy hopes to move the “River Balcony” from concept to execution.

“We are about to launch the RFP (request for proposals) to begin the schematic design process in April,” deLaittre said. “It is truly a public-private partnership — there’s both public and private monies that have gone to the schematic design pot.”

For the tourism industry and many locals alike, that infrastructure can’t get here fast enough. Viking River Cruises has already sold out eight-day and 15-day trips from St. Louis and New Orleans to St. Paul, scheduled to begin next summer.

On March 25, the conservancy will host a kickoff briefing with key real estate developers, land owners and public partners focused on the promenade and other projects along the river.

The schematic design process is likely to include cost estimates and a phasing plan, programming opportunities and a definition of what partner roles and responsibilities would be. Despite the pandemic and recession, “in a weird way, we’ve been on good footing,” deLaittre said.

That footing includes flattering attention from Harvard University and the High Line Network, a coalition of about 40 infrastructure reuse projects inspired by a retrofitted elevated rail corridor in New York City that now functions as an elevated pedestrian corridor. Real estate growth along New York’s High Line has been little short of startling.

“It totally transformed (its corner of) New York, and it totally transformed how we think about urban reuse projects,” deLaittre said.

With an eye toward engaging the city’s growing diversity in the river balcony, the conservancy is now enrolled in the High Line Network’s “Equitable Impacts Framework Initiative.” That includes six months of research, technical support and practical recommendations from Harvard on how to approach community engagement and partnerships, followed by six months of execution strategy from the Urban Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C.

“It’s really raised our profile,” deLaittre said. “And we learn from one another. Really, this year is devoted to understanding what is equitable development for us under those three criteria of organizational approach, engagement and partnership. They’re very interested in us because all the work we’re doing is across Dakota homeland and sacred sites. It’s a different relationship to the river than with perhaps newer immigrants.”

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