The Minneapolis Parks Department has commenced its RiverFirst Initiative, a plan to return portions of the city’s Mississippi River frontage to a more natural state by 2016. The city hopes to position the river at the center of an ecologically focused urban development strategy that will guide growth for decades to come through strategic interventions at seven points along the waterway.
Minneapolis is the first major city the Mississippi River passes on its long path to the Gulf of Mexico. During the course of its development, the city encased the river with concrete at many points, channeling its ebbs and flows for easier use by industry and destroying or diminishing its native ecology.
Last year, Minneapolis Parks Department selected Berkeley-based Tom Leader Studio and Boston’s Kennedy & Violich Architecture (TLS/KVA) from 55 teams who submitted to an international design competition. Scherer Park—planned for the former site of the Scherer Brothers Lumber Company, and only one of several priority projects in the initiative—will anchor the first round of development.
The parks department has set aside approximately $20 million over the next five years for what they estimate will be a $175 million development in total, not including land acquisition, according to Minneapolis Parks & Recreation Board Assistant Superintendent Bruce Chamberlain. So far the department has acquired one third of the land, he said, much of it part of the city’s industrial legacy.
“Sometimes I think of our design process as stripping away the thin industrial layer that covers the site to reveal the river as it actually is,” said KVA’s Sheila Kennedy. “So words like ‘new’ and ‘restore’ don’t really capture the idea that the hard bounded pool-like river we see today is in fact a constructed reality.”
Scherer Park’s design resurrects historic Hall’s Island—a teardrop of land that once existed just offshore from the riverbanks of northeast Minneapolis. It was removed to make room for shipping barges. Rather than promote nature for purely philosophical reasons, TLS/KVA points out that rebuilding the island will create a backchannel hospitable to human use, as well as provide habitat that will foster biodiversity.
“The island provides protection from barge wakes, making it easier to wade, or launch kayaks and canoes,” said Tom Leader. “Really it’s to put the water at the center of the project.”
TLS/KVA’s design replaces the site’s 10-foot-high steep slope to the waterfront with a gradual gradient of stepped terraces. The resulting amphitheater guides visitors into the river. It also creates a prime condition for biodiversity. The gentle slope provides several “ecotones”—places where two ecosystems meet—supporting the project’s goal of habitat restoration.
A parkway and two-way bike lane onsite connect to the Grand Rounds, Minneapolis’ linear parkway system envisioned in the 1880s by Horace Cleveland. The park’s plan reaches out to the neighborhood—previously separated or even physically deterred from river access points—with a boathouse, café, and space for markets and other community programs. A parcel toward the north end of the site is set aside for development that will help screen industrial sections of the river. Revenue from any resulting lease could also be used to finance maintenance for Scherer Park.