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The Next Frontier for Minneapolis Parks

By Mason Riddle

Already known nationally for its parks system, Minneapolis stands to burnish that reputation in the coming years with a new plan for the upper reaches of the Mississippi. RiverFirst aims to establish parks as an engine for economic development along both sides of the river corridor, from St. Anthony Falls to the city limits five and a half miles to the north—an area that has been the site of industry for more than a century. It is the park system’s “next frontier,” says Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for planning at the Minneapolis Park & Recreation Board (MPRB).

“RiverFirst fits the original vision for a linear parks system,” he says. In reknitting the urban fabric between the city and the river, it establishes a continuous public riverfront for future generations, “just as visionary leaders 125 years ago established the Chain of Lakes and Grand Rounds,” he explains. It also creates “multiple layers of public value: environmental function, recreation, community gathering, active living, economic development, and regional competitiveness.”

With a name that neatly reflects its philosophy, RiverFirst is part of a new generation of waterfront development and environmental restoration in cities throughout North America and Europe; a short list includes New York, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and Los Angeles; Hamburg, Germany, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Updating and building on Minneapolis Above the Falls, an award-winning project and vision from the late 1990s for redeveloping the river in north and northeast Minneapolis, this 82-page plan is the result of an intense two-year process that included the Mississippi Riverfront Design Competition (MR|DC), launched in the fall of 2010.

The Walker Art Center and the University of Minnesota’s College of Design (CDES) served as creative partners for the competition, along with the MPRB and the Minneapolis Park Foundation (MPF). The partnership began with a lecture series, the Next Generation of Parks, which brought in speakers from cities such as Chicago, New York, and London to discuss recent urban park projects such as Millennium Park or the High Line. “We are interested in playing a role in our community by extending the idea of outreach to the civic arena,” explains Andrew Blauvelt, Walker curator of architecture and design and one of the competition’s jurors. “Museums are just beginning to understand this role and its potential for engagement.”

Developed by two firms banding together into a bicoastal team—Kennedy & Violich Architecture, Boston, and Tom Leader Studio, Berkeley, (KVA/TLS)—RiverFirst was selected from more than 50 preliminary proposals by international design teams. It stood out to Tom Fisher, dean of the College of Design and jury chair for the competition, because it is “incremental, adaptive, and flexible, responding to the ecosystem of the river like an ecosystem itself. Rather than a highly planned and imposed riverfront design, RiverFirst offers strategies that allow for change over time, incremental growth, and openness to changes as they arise.”

Organized around four 21st-century challenges—water, health, mobility, and a green economy—RiverFirst trains a critical eye on Minneapolis’ vitality in 2050 with its focus on “resilient and sustainable eco-infrastructure,” says KVA/TLS’ Tom Leader. Sheila Kennedy of Kennedy & Violich Architecture sees the plan as cultivating “a blue and green—river-first and sustainable—way of life in Minneapolis, nurtured by responsive, multi-modal public places around which residents thrive and businesses prosper.” In the process, it brings a new focus to one of the world’s great rivers, transforming long-neglected areas into urban assets.

In March, the MPRB approved the initial five-year phase of its 20-year RiverFirst plan, which includes several priority projects to begin in 2013: a trails system; an extension of Farview Park; a network of manmade “BioHaven” floating islands; and three parks—Scherer, Northside Wetlands, and Downtown Gateway. Featuring “knot bridges” at existing bridges to create new pedestrian and cyclist links between roads and the riverfront, the trail system will not only complete Minneapolis’ Grand Rounds National Scenic Byway system, but also better connect North and Northeast Minneapolis. Meanwhile, major extensions to the river from Farview Park, the highest point of the city, are designed to address Interstate 94 as a barrier that has for decades impeded access to the Mississippi River from North Minneapolis communities. In this initial phase, a North 26th Avenue Greenway crosses the highway and runs to the riverfront, but ultimately, the team envisions capping I-94 with a land bridge between North 26th and 28th Avenues.

Anchored to bridge pier foundations along the riverfront trails, the BioHavens, made from geotextiles and recycled plastics, help clean river water while also establishing riparian habitats for endangered wildlife and plants, including Branding’s turtles, ospreys, and the Kamer blue butterfly. Northside Wetlands Park will also feature new riverfront habitats and reclaimed wetlands, while Scherer Park, designed as a vibrant 21st-century repetitive destination for kayakers, cyclists, skiers, runners, walkers, and others—will help generate a surrounding mix of sustainable development. Finally, Gateway Park will offer a dramatic contrast between urban and natural environments at downtown’s historic “front door” on the west end of the Hennepin Avenue Bridge as well as a linear component linking the Mississippi River to Nicollet Mall and the Minneapolis Central Library.

This diverse mix of uses and activities— recreation and development, environmental restoration and industry—over such a lengthy landscape is a key feature that distinguishes RiverFirst, says Fisher. “Most cities are recapturing abandoned industrial zones rather than creating river frontage in the midst of thriving industry,” he notes. “RiverFirst also involves restoring the natural wetlands and open space that existed before human settlement.”

The Walker’s involvement in RiverFirst is part of a long history of civic engagement that includes the 1976 groundbreaking exhibition The River: Images of the Mississippi River; the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, which opened as this country’s first urban sculpture park in 1988; and today, its concurrent work as a partner in the city’s Plan-It Hennepin initiative. “RiverFirst was a perfect opportunity to apply design thinking to a specific yet broad problem: what shape will parks in this century take? How will parks function and for whom?” says Blauvelt. “It is important for design to be understood beyond the gallery walls, since its true context is the world at large.”

Summer view of Kayak Beach from Hall’s Island Pedestrian Bridge

Image courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation ©KVA/TLS

Flyway Bridge, part of a planned extension of Farview Park

Winter view of Hall’s Island from Plymouth Bridge, swimming/skating barge in foreground

Image courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation ©KVA/TLS

Northside Wetlands Park

Image courtesy Minneapolis Parks Foundation ©KVA/TLS