Great River Passage: Launching St. Paul’s master plan for the Mississippi River corridor


It’s official now.  Saint Paul’s long-in-the-works Mississippi River master plan was rolled out last Thursday evening (June 16) on Harriet Island to more than a thousand river enthusiasts.  Declared the Great River Passage by Mayor Chris Coleman, and legislators Sandy Pappas and Alice Hausman, the master plan carefully maps out the future development of the city’s 17 miles of river valley, 26 miles of shoreline and 3,000 acres of river parkland development.

FULL DISCLOSURE: Mason Riddle writes on the visual arts, design and architecture and has been an adjunct team member at the Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Center since 2002.  She participated in ongoing adjunct team meetings and several community dialogues and charrettes for the development of the master plan.

Earlier, families, public officials, artists, community groups and just about anyone else who was enjoying the beautiful evening, wolfed down a picnic dinner of hot dogs, potato salad and lemonade.

Then, inside the Wigington Pavilion, a robust singing of Woodie Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and “America, The Beautiful” preceded introductions by Mike Hahm, Director of Saint Paul Parks and Recreation, the department that led the master plan development team.  He gave an overview of its scope, vision and seven-year history.  Next, consultant and team member Bill Wenk, of Wenk and Associates, the Denver, Colorado planning and landscape architecture firm, presented Passage particulars to be realized over the next decade, through a PowerPoint and video presentation.

Building on the three previously established guiding principles for river valley development – More Urban, More Natural, More Connected – the Passage is founded on four key concepts:

  • protect and enhance the natural environment;
  • bring new life to the river;
  • revitalize river sites and promote economic vitality; and,
  • create better connections.

In addition to restoring and protecting natural habitats including river bluffs and wetlands, the Great River Passage focuses on the development of greater access to the river through more trails and parks, including a canoe and kayak trail, and better management of Crosby Park.  The plan also calls for centers of activity for sports enthusiasts and families such as a mixed-use hub at Island Station that will feature climbing walls, a skateboard park and an ice hockey rink, a splash pad on Harriet Island, and an enhanced and more accessible Watergate Marina.

Educational opportunities along the riverfront will reinforce environmental, historic and contemporary connections to the Mississippi and its cultural richness.  The plan would revitalize Shepard Road by reducing speed limits and increasing pedestrian crossings.

Perhaps the urban pièce de résistance is the construction of Riverview Balcony, a publicly accessible gathering space – an actual balcony-like promenade — that will span the distance between the Science Museum and the Wabasha Bridge. A place for walking, lounging and hanging, it will all but dissolve the boundary between downtown and the river.

As Mayor Coleman emphasized, the river valley has been a vital resource for people for more than 12,000 years.  “It is an incredible resource that literally pours through the city,” he stated.  Recently returning from a global conference in Spain, Coleman related that many attendees did not know where Minnesota was.  When he noted it was the headwaters of the Mississippi, everyone knew. “It was the power of the Mississippi River,” he stated. “Everyone knew Minnesota.”

The presentation was light on funding details, but some elements are already underway.  In 2009 the city received state bonding to begin the planning and implementation process to acquire, protect and connect recreational and open spaces along Saint Paul’s 17 miles of riverfront.  The city has also received Legacy Amendment Funding to realize elements of the master plan in the last two years.

Mayor Coleman, Hahm and Wenk all underscored that the Great River Passage is the result of the time, energy and input of countless individuals, from community members, urban planners and designers, architects and landscape architects, artists and city, Ramsey County and state officials.  Among many Great River Passage partners, the team included the 106 Group, Forecast Public Art, Barr Engineering, Tunheim Partners, and Little and Company, all based in the Twin Cities, and Charlier Associates of Boulder.  The Great River Passage was also skillfully guided by the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation and its Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Center led by Tim Griffin, and the Hoisington Koegler Group, a Minneapolis Landscape Architecture and Planning firm.

Mayor Coleman declared that, in the end, “It is all about what do we want for the future,” and that “the city will never turn its back on the Mississippi River again.”  In her final proclamation, Senator Pappas declared the Mississippi to be “the life blood of the city.”

Coverage of issues and events that affect Central Corridor neighborhoods and communities is funded in part by a grant from Central Corridor Collaborative.