Recreation and Ruins

Recreation and Ruins

A sunken performance space reflects the location of the old canal.
Courtesy MS&R

A collection of flour mills spurred by the activity alongside the Mississippi River’s only waterfall once towered eight stories over Minneapolis’ riverfront and helped give rise to the city. Now, a plan presented on February 27 hopes to give rise to Water Works Park, a three-block expanse built from the mill’s ruined foundations, that would reconnect a burgeoning city with its waterfront.

The privately funded study and concept plan gave a boost to the park’s redevelopment, which could have gotten lost as part of the larger RiverFirst park system stretching five and a half miles upriver from the site. The nonprofit Minneapolis Parks Foundation (MPF) asked Minneapolis-based Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle (MS&R) to figure out how the site could inform Water Work’s design while New York–based HR&A Advisors explored public-private partnerships that could fund the park’s construction and maintenance over a three-month design session with two public meetings.

Water Works Park sits at the southern tip of the RiverFirst park system that will shape the city’s riverfront for the next 20 years. Tom Leader Studio and Kennedy & Violich Architecture were awarded the RiverFirst project through a design competition that redefines the generally industrial and suburban waterfront north of downtown. Because the Water Works Park site is isolated from RiverFirst’s primary study area, the designers chose not to identify it as a key component to the plan. “They made a decision to focus on the upper river,” said Mary deLaittre, president of MPF.

Tailrace tunnels that once powered the flour mills are visible on the waterfront (left). A new glass pavilion emerging from a ruin could house a restaurant (right).

Water Works Park commands a dramatic site on the edge of a burgeoning mill district dropping 20 feet to St. Anthony’s Falls on the Mississippi River. Limestone mill foundations are buried on the riverbank, along with a canal and labyrinth of tunnels that powered the mills. MS&R divided the site into three segments defined by zones of passive recreation around the ruins, active uses along the canal entrance, and a series of pavilions atop the bluff.

Chambers created by excavating mill foundations form distinct rooms along the waterfront. HR&A studied using them as a conservatory or botanical center to generate income. “Because of the importance of the history, it’s most likely this will remain public space with incidental income-generating mechanisms like food carts,” MS&R principal Tom Meyer added.

A shared street through the site is designed to put pedestrians first.

Non-income-generating portions of the site focus on water. A sunken performance space leads to the resurrected canal entrance with a new steel pedestrian bridge flying overhead. Meyer is also exploring an interpretive loop within tailrace tunnels that reveal the hidden geography of the cliff that formed the waterfalls.

In the pavilion zone, a new glass-and-steel restaurant is imagined perched above the century-old foundation of another mill, replacing a decaying 1960s structure. A shared pedestrian/automobile street running through the site allows the Mississippi River Road to cross the site without disrupting the park-like atmosphere. “The first reading of it would be a pedestrian plaza,” said Meyer.

With the concept plan complete, MFP’s deLaittre said finances must continue to be worked out and the relationship to the larger parks system established. “We need to determine whether Water Works Park will be part of RiverFirst or if it will be an independent project,” said deLaittre.

“All ruins are interesting in some way, but it’s the deep history here with the city re-growing up around them that makes it really special. This is arguably the most historic place in the Twin Cities,” said Meyer. “It was a continuous hub of dynamic activity that was the reason there’s a city here. It’s still an area of convergence 150 years later.”