The Once and Future River

Promenades and parks, cappuccino and condos: Tomorrow's upper Mississippi looks dandy. But first, can't city hall get rid of those grimy scrapyards? Why, yes.

It seems the cutting edge Schoen was perched on when he undertook the project has dulled, and a new vision has taken its place, of parks, promenades, marinas, amphitheaters, and clusters of tony condominiums and rental units up and down the riverbanks. Although turning that vision into reality is still a way off, Schoen is feeling the pain today. The future according to city leaders has already scared away a series of interested buyers--who wants to buy a building city hall wants to tear down?--and left Schoen in a chokehold with a business he can't sell. As for his former allies--council member Biernat and the MCDA--he can't quite figure out what went wrong. "We had mutual goals," Schoen says somewhat wistfully. "Unfortunately, those goals seem to have shifted."

Schoen he looks to be the first casualty in a brewing battle over what the best land use is on the upper Mississippi. Before the end of the year, city council members, private developers, and public officials with a say in the riverfront's fate will see the unveiling of a much-anticipated report authored by a private consultant concerning the destiny of the river above the Plymouth Avenue Bridge. Judging by late-stage drafts, they expect that report to recommend phasing out heavy industry on the river and replacing it with a fair chunk of greenery, plenty of housing, and a host of recreational amenities.

It is no surprise that business owners and operators in the corridor--from the concrete plants to the metal-salvage yards--aren't fond of the scheme, because it means they're history.

Jeff Tolbert

To that end the city council has imposed a moratorium on all business development and expansion in the corridor, and is in the process of overhauling the zoning code to make the freeze permanent. Biernat, as the chief advocate of what's called the "master plan" for the upper river, says he believes the riverbanks can ultimately be emptied of heavy industry through the process of "attrition." Those who own the targeted businesses are more likely to call it the squeeze, brought about by the tactics of a city government willing to force longtime industry off the riverfront by any means necessary.

 

Plans to recast, re-imagine, rethink, and retool Minneapolis's upper riverfront are hardly new. The current thinking can be traced back to a city document dubbed "Mississippi/Minneapolis," published in the fall of 1972. The years since then have seen redevelopment of the lower and central stretches of the river, bringing parkways and upscale housing; and there have been a host of proposals for altering the upper riverfront, which is generally defined as the area north of the Plymouth Avenue Bridge along both sides of the river, all the way to the city limits.

This time around, though, city shakers and movers appear determined to bring all those blueprints into being. A $600,000 study--financed with public money--by urban planning consultants BRW, Inc. is being prepared for the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the MCDA, the Minneapolis Planning Department, and Hennepin County, with delivery expected within the next few weeks. When the park board sent out the original request for proposals, it clearly noted that a primary objective was "the development of a riverside park corridor." The size, scale, and cost of the study signals a readiness on the part of city leaders to get on with transforming the land above the falls.

At a September 30 informal presentation to the Minneapolis Planning Commission, BRW staffers unveiled the tentative master plan in the auditorium at Franklin Junior High School in north Minneapolis. Once the lights were lowered, they began showing slides: of the revamped waterfronts in Seattle, Portland, and Milwaukee--once industrial, now all high-density housing and public leisure space. The hometown version, BRW told the audience, would include, among other features, 2,500 condos, townhomes, and apartments, and would finally make use of the Mighty Miss as the "great amenity" it is, one the city has too long overlooked by allowing heavy industry to occupy the banks.

As the lights went up, area residents, business folks, politicians, and gadflies rose to speak to the plan. Some praised it, others said it looked good but could use a few more parks. But many were critical. Randy Kouri, who has lived in one of the few houses on the east bank for 25 years, stood and denounced the scheme as an affront to those facing displacement: "This is a kick in the ass to us," he told the planning commission.

During the hourlong presentation, there was little concrete discussion of the final price tag for a revamped upper river. But a copy of the working draft proposal from BRW estimates that more than $200 million in public money will be spent on the works, even after land sales to private developers of an anticipated $41 million; acquisition, relocation, and demolition of existing businesses and homes are projected to cost $102.5 million. (The bottom line does not include costs for cleaning up any soil contamination.) Plan advocates are hopeful that some property can be acquired by private interests, without the public sector--via city, county, regional, and federal governments--having to get involved. Private investment from developers is estimated to reach $500 million. BRW also recommends that the city establish a private, nonprofit corporation for the exclusive purpose of overseeing the whole enterprise from start to finish, rather than relying on the MCDA.

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