Finalists for Minneapolis Riverfront Design present their visions


The Walker Art Center Cinema was full on January 27 as the four winning design firms of the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition shared their visions for the future for the Mississippi River, presenting to a packed house of 400 people in the audience and another 200 online. The presentations culminated a five-month international design competition in which four design teams explored what could be done to transform the 5.5-mile stretch of river running north from the Stone Bridge to the city limits of Minneapolis.

Each of the four teams were awarded $30,000 to pursue, plan, and design a vision for this stretch of the river. Funding was provided by the Parks and Trails Legacy Funds allotted to the Metropolitan Council for regional parks development and then distributed through the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board.

Selected from an initial pool of 55 applicants, the four firms—Ken Smith Workshop, Stoss Landscape Urbanism, Tom Leader Studio and Turenscape—were chosen in November of 2010 to begin their design process. The presentations are available online at the Minneapolis Riverfront’s website and will be exhibited at the Walker through the end of February. A 14-member community jury consisting of local designers, parks administrators and elected officials met Friday, January 28 to discuss the four finalists and make their selection of the winning team, to be announced at a public unveiling celebration at the Nicollet Island Pavilion on February 10.

“The charge was to create a vision for the Mississippi from the Stone Arch Bridge to city limits. Designers were to reestablish parks as an economic engine for Minneapolis and make it easy fro people in community get to and across river to redirect city towards the river and its connection to the world,” explained Mary deLaittre, the project manager for the design competition.

“This is a legacy project,” emphasized Ken Smith in his presentation and expressing the sentiments for many of the designers, “It’s an honor to participate in something like this because it’s the kind of project one trains for their entire professional life, because of its capacity to transform a city.” 

Transforming the city from a City of Lakes to the City of the River was exactly the organizers’ goal. At every step, participants’ visions have been judged for how well they met these five criteria:

  • A framework for development, looking at the entire length of the riverfront, illustrating new or enhanced opportunities for ecological or environmental sustainability;
  • Design development of critical connections from neighborhoods to and across the river;
  • Identification of strategic sites reflecting convergences of physical features and latent opportunities for design and development;
  • Concept development of the highest priority strategic site;
  • Estimates of the short-term and long-term costs of design features.

The four regional partners of the design project were the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board, the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, the University of Minnesota College of Design, and the Walker Art Center. An additional 60 community decision makers formed a design advisory committee to be advocates and provide technical support for the project. Community engagement included distributing community surveys, compiling an extensive community resource manual, organizing and implementing a school curriculum component for neighborhood students, and a meeting where 70 community members shared their opinions about what they wanted for the future of their community and river.

Spending money on park design might seem like a luxury during a recession, but Project Manager Mary deLaittre insists it was well worth the investment, “Each of the four finalists contributed on average $250,000 per plan, in hours, travel, materials and experience. Minneapolis is getting over $1 million in long term visioning and experience for a $120,000 investment. People in Minneapolis are passionate about great design and city building. Locally people are really primed to begin dreaming about what the river could be next.”

Dream they have, the four finalists had complimentary visions and shared design elements for the future of the North Mississippi Riverfront. Increasing public access to the river featured prominently in all of the proposals. Addressing storm water runoff, cleaning the Mississippi River and reintroducing native plants and animal populations were also core features of the proposals. Using mussels as an indicator species of water and habitat, health was brought up by the speakers as a way to connect river health with public awareness. Differences of opinion were held on ensuring job creation and increasing worker productivity among the sites.

After the winning design team is announced the next step will be to secure funding to develop one park element of the chosen plan along the riverfront in the short term, to be completed in the next 4-5 years, and determine the next steps for the long term initiative. Partnerships are still being developed and sought out by the Design Competition partners to begin implementing this vision along the riverfront and turn Minneapolis into a City of the River once again.