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


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.)