Golden Gate Park on the Mississippi? University of Minnesota architecture students suggest grand plans, encounter grander obstacles

Images from MDC report

For years, the future of Minneapolis's riverfront along St. Anthony Main has been rich in promise but lacking in follow-through. New proposals for the area poured in after a plan to reinvigorate the area collapsed in the 2008 recession. To help educate them on options for their neighborhood’s future, residents of the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood and the greater University District sought the help of Ignacio San Martín.

As Director of the Metropolitan Design Center, a research-based institution within the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, San Martín delegated this long-term project to his Masters-level students seeking to hone their urban planning skills.

“We make an effort to find sites that are complex and conflicting, with multiple clients having different sorts of values, expecting different outcomes. So we thought that this site was an especially unique opportunity,” said San Martín.

Thanks in part to the results of the MDC’s ongoing study, the area’s previously lauded “complexity” has skyrocketed. In the two years since the project began, new developments slated for the area have been formalized. Not only is Dominium converting the former Pillsbury A-Mill into affordable housing for artists, Doran Companies is also planning to turn the two blocks directly adjacent into waterfront living units.

Just as ground has been broken, the students took their findings public at a recent meeting of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association (the parent neighborhood in which the St. Anthony Main riverfront is located). “In terms of reception, it was extraordinarily successful,” says San Martín.

At a basic level, the ideas presented by the students shared an ambition to go beyond the solely residential nature of the Doran and Dominium’s plans in favor of making the area a destination for commerce and community engagement as well as living space. Some suggested a publicly accessible observatory, while others plotted out cafes and open terraces encouraging foot traffic down to the actual riverbanks.

On a personal level, San Martín believes that Minneapolis has a unique opportunity to create a site of national significance on par with destinations such as San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or St. Louis’ Gateway Arch.

“After all, the birth of the Mississippi River is here. One can say without stretching pretty much, at least in a historical point of view, that is our Nile, our Ganges. Our beginning is here. We should celebrate that perhaps in a different way” than what is already underway, said San Martín.

This sentiment rang true for Richard Gilyard, a member of the Prospect Park Neighborhood Association and board member of the University District Alliance. In addition to acting in such leadership roles, his extensive experience as a practicing architect earned him a position on the committee tasked with critiquing the students' progress as they worked on the St. Anthony Main project.

When it comes to the value of San Martín and the MDC’s projects, Gilyard is effervescent. “They get out ahead of things and really demonstrate opportunities we might not otherwise see, then educate us as residents, businesses and stakeholders as to these opportunities. They’re able to raise the sights of developers and the city about what our possibilities are and what we've got to hold out for.”

Gilyard had attended the Marcy Holmes neighborhood meeting and agreed with San Martín’s recap of the presentation. “You kind of wish some of his work had been available before, when he could slow the whole process down.”

Will the dreams come true?

If both the academic and popular camps acknowledge the less than idyllic nature of existing plans for St. Anthony Main, then the weak link in implementing the MDC’s findings falls on the level of governance and investors alike. 

“Even when we have grand plans, we tend not to commit the resources to implement them,” cites Gilyard. “It's nobody's fault, but we don't have a way of thinking about public realm in a policy-based, comprehensive way.”

The City of Minneapolis’s pronounced laissez-faire attitude strikes San Martín as backward. “Most great cities really tell you what to do. This business of ‘We don't want to interfere with development’ is absolutely strange to me. You might say, well, ‘You can't have urban design visions for every area,’ but this is one of the most important. This is the birth site of the city. You must have an idea!”

Ultimately the future of the area comes down to capital, and who is ready to invest it now. Gilyard explained that the city fixated upon the tax revenue from projects of this type. In such a situation, it’s impossible for them to take a step back, slow down their commitments, and asses whether the plans for development currently in the works truly address the highest and best purpose of the land itself.

In order for the St. Anthony Main riverfront to its utmost potential, the area needs what Gilyard refers to as “patient capital,” or a combination of money and influence who’s scope would address a broader vision of the area’s future.

“Everybody's got to think longer-term,” he asserts. “For me we need to be thinking about the 100-year plan. There's nothing we can say for sure about how the next four or five years evolve, but we know that twenty-five, fifty, and a hundred years from now, only two things are going to stay the same: the University will be here, and the river will be here.”

Criticisms aside, no one is blind to the fact that these are trying times. Gilyard’s decades of experience as an architect let him see both sides of the issue. “I see the developers' point of view and I see the neighborhood's point of view; so we need to be very, very precise about what is really valuable.”

As for San Martín, the best outcome he envisions for his students’ work isn’t implementation. “We don't expect everything we do to be embraced. But especially with that site, one would hope that a different approach of thinking would benefit everybody. That would be a phenomenal thing.”

(Diane Hofstede, city council member and District 3 Commissioner, did not respond to requests to comment for this article.)

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    Sarah Brumble's picture
    Sarah Brumble

    Sarah Brumble is a freelance writer who would love to hatch plans, discuss the concept of the zero, and people-watch with/for you.

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    Making Our Mississippi Riverfront Great

    Your title really caught my attention.  Our Mississippi River already shares a great deal with Golden Gate National Recreation Area: we enjoy a partnership national park, with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and other park agencies providing critical leadership. 


    On a personal note, my kids and I returned in March from the Golden Gate, where we picked up a mug encouraging us to "Take a Hike," decorated with emblems for each of the parks that make up the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.   Why not "Take a Hike" in our own outstanding park?


    On March 31, an assorted group of adults and children hiked from Minneapolis's northern city limits at North Mississippi Regional Park about 16 miles to Fort Snelling State Park and historic site. We climbed over tornado-strewn trees, peeked inside mammoth stormwater tunnels, spotted otter tracks, and oohed and aahed at view after view.  What if more people could "Take a Hike" here?


    Promoting awareness of our riverfront's assets - the heron rookery, quirky restaurants, and sawmill-themed playground - and its potential is one driver for the Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the vitality of our Mississippi riverfront.  What if we created a partnership mug celebrating the constellation of great parks that make up the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area?


    The Minneapolis Riverfront Partnership advocates for consistent focus and greater investment to shape a great riverfront city.  This requires persistence and patience.  


    Keep it up, Minneapolis; you are doing a great job, and can do even better.  After all, doesn't the Mississippi River rival the Golden Gate as a household name?  We have a great river worthy of our greater commitment, an asset whose value we are only now beginning to realize. 


    Get out and explore our own partnership national park, and advocate to connect up all our little riverfront gems into one continuous park and trail.  That will put us on the map - and maybe we will even create a "take a hike" mug to celebrate.