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Nicollet Island could mean so much more for Minneapolis

The view from Nicollet Island gazes directly into the heart of downtown Minneapolis.

The view from Nicollet Island gazes directly into the heart of downtown Minneapolis. Spacecrafting

Ile de la Cite is one of the most beloved places in the world. Notre Dame, Pont Neuf, romantic, lantern-lit bridges and storied riverside streets -- this island sitting in the Seine is home to pretty much everything that makes Paris… well, Paris.

Minneapolis could have its own Ile de la Cite. We have the perfect spot. As Devin Hogan, a parks enthusiast and previous candidate for Minneapolis Parks Board, pointed out in a tweet: Paris’ crown jewel is about the same size as Nicollet Island, which punctuates the Mississippi between the North Loop and St. Anthony Main.

“My intention is to get people to rethink the geography of our city,” he says. And he thinks Nicollet Island can be so much more than it is now.

The island is owned by the Parks Board and leased to its residents. The south side is pretty much just event space, the Nicollet Island Inn -- a luxury hotel in a historic building -- and some parking lots. The north side has the island’s old residential homes, DeLaSalle High School, and a football field.

But that isn’t the way it’s always been, and that isn’t the way it has to be.

The island used to be thickly forested and an incredibly important place to indigenous people. The Dakota used it to give birth and to hold ceremonies and meetings. In 1838, it was opened to settlement and sold to Franklin Steele -- a military merchant at Fort Snelling -- for $60.

The first home was built in 1849. By 1865, it was a haven for logging and the city’s Gilded Age upper class -- politicians and wealthy millers. Ironically, the owners at the time, William Eastman and John Merriam, tried to sell the island back to the city to be used as a park. The proposal was rejected in a referendum.

There were plenty of milestones over the next few decades, including the opening of DeLaSalle and a fire allegedly set by a couple of boys having a smoke on the west side, which nearly ended up burning down northeast Minneapolis. But 1910 was the next big fulcrum. That’s when the city’s lumber and flour industries started to dwindle, and the island dropped into sharp economic decline.

Nicollet’s lavish houses subdivided into cheap, dense housing, and it became a poor neighborhood run by a few landlords. 

By the ‘50s, the city wanted to start over -- raze the decrepit, expensive historical buildings and replace them with… something. Anything. Proposals ranged from high-rise apartments to an amusement park. But preservationists pushed back. In the 1970s, advocates managed to get it included on the National Register of Historic Places.

In 1979, the Parks Board began to acquire most of the island with funds from the Met Council. The plan was to keep the homes on one side and raze everything on the other -- with the exception of a few buildings, like the Sash and Door Company, which would eventually become the Nicollet Island Inn. Once again, preservationists -- and longtime residents -- pushed back. They liked the island the way it was.

In 1983, the city, preservationists, and residents struck a deal. The occupants were allowed to remain in their homes, which the Parks Board would lease to them for 99 years. To this day, that’s the stalemate. (The board didn’t respond to interview requests.)

These days, nobody really thinks about Nicollet Island, Hogan says, unless they live there, enshrined in expensive history.

“These 600-square-foot houses are worth $1 million,” he says. And the people who live there feel comfortable to stick out their 99-year leases.

But it’s worth thinking about what the island could be under different circumstances. Maybe it could provide some dense, affordable housing for a city that can’t get enough. Maybe it could be returned to the control of the indigenous people who originally cared for it. Maybe it could be the next Ile de la Cite.

Really, it could be anything.

“Our park system is good because we think big,” Hogan says. “So let’s think big.”