Design teams get first look at riverfront

Four teams competing to redesign a 5-mile stretch of the Mississippi River share their first impressions and visions for the site after a late November visit

Design teams from New York, Boston, Berkley and Beijing visited Minneapolis during the last week in November to get an up-close look at the Mississippi riverfront they’re competing to design.

The teams are all participating in the Minneapolis Riverfront Design Competition, an event organized by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, Minneapolis Parks Foundation, University of Minnesota College of Design and Walker Art Center. The teams, selected in November from a pool of 16 finalists from throughout the globe, are developing designs for a 5-mile section of riverfront stretching from the Stone Arch Bridge to the city’s northern limits.

Teams will present designs in January and a winner will be announced in February. The top design will be used to guide a major revamp of the riverfront that the Park Board hopes to make the “crown jewel” of the Minneapolis park system.

The Southwest Journal caught up with leaders of each of the teams after their visits to the site last month. Here’s what they had to say about they’re first impressions and their thoughts on the competition’s efforts to produce a “21st century” park.

Southwest Journal: What was your first impression of the project site?

Dr. KJ Yu, principal, Turenscape (Beijing): “I was in Minneapolis four years ago, so I know the site quite well… On this trip, we spent four days in Minneapolis. I actually took three trips along the river walking back and forth.

“It’s very challenging, but at the same time there are opportunities. It’s challenging because the river has been destroyed, basically. It’s so different from what I imagined, what I heard about, the stories of the Mississippi, from my dream of what the Mississippi should look like.

You virtually see all of these industry sites, it’s totally a brownfield (a term for underused or abandoned industrial land). You simply cannot imagine, because I live in China and the U.S. is supposed to be the most advanced society in the world, that you still have these very primitive industrial sites like that.

“I think this riverfront has to be changed. There are many challenges. We face not only the waterfront, but we also face each individual site of industries… We got excited because they can be transformed into a magnificent landscape. The river can be reclaimed, it can be recovered, it can become a real exciting river.”

Tom Leader, principal, Tom Leader Studio (Berkeley): “We were stunned by the river itself, the beauty of it… It’s not easy. I think what’s happened over time, is people have turned their back doors to the river for a lot of reasons. But the river itself is such a beautiful thing. It’s really alive. It’s not just a pond, not just a pool. And all the communities up and down it are great. We spent a lot of time visiting places, Psycho Suzi’s and Marshall Street…

“The Mississippi is not a living room, but it’s more than that. It’s the lifeblood and circulation of the whole city and state really. We kind of see it as our job here to help with restoring that in areas where it’s a little tougher. In the same way, you’re excited about working with people that have a civic-side approach and helping people from the private side.”

Chris Reed, principal, Stoss Landscape Urbanism (Boston): “The river itself is stunning in its scale and scope and as the city has kind of refocused its energy on the central riverfront, the river has a presence within the city and you can see these new areas emerging, building up around Downtown and around the Guthrie and around the river that really start to look back at the river as a source of community, as a source of civic pride. That isn’t present as you move up beyond the falls. You have this amazing wildlife up there, where the river almost denies its suburban context…

“What’s most interesting about the competition, though, is that you have this amazing ecological resource, the river, that is wrapped with all these working landscapes, these industrial areas and this infrastructure. And all of that has had an impact on the land and the river itself. So it’s a bit messy, it’s a bit complex, we have issues of contamination and then of course it’s very much disconnected from the surrounding urban fabric.

“In many ways it’s an overlay of a bunch of different, but interrelated issues that create something that is complex and rich… So in a way, it bridges scales in a way that the project bridges disciplines. It’s very much of interest to us and very much at the core of the interest of our team.”

Ken Smith, principal, Ken Smith Workshop (New York): “I’m a native Midwesterner, I grew up in Iowa and I used to go to Minneapolis because it was the big city… It’s a fabulous project with a lot of factors. This is a part of the city I didn’t know very well, the upper part of the river. I walked around those neighborhoods and it’s very different…

“Minneapolis is known as the city of lakes, but the fact is that it’s a city of a really great river. It wouldn’t be a city without the river.”  

What is your vision for a 21st century park?

Dr. KJ Yu, principal, Turenscape (Beijing): “We have to understand the 21st century challenges… Global warming, which is very 21st century. We have the issue of cultural, social conflict and tension, we walk into the communities and we feel that we still have the problem of social equity, social justice and how can you pull these cultural varieties into a harmonious society…

“How can we blend new lifestyles, technology and green technology… If we can address these challenges, we’re likely to design a 21st century landscape or 21st century city.

“Getting to know the community and the history of the city is very important, that’s why I’ve made three trips to the site in the past five days. And we are really getting excited because we saw the opportunity here.”

Tom Leader, principal, Tom Leader Studio (Berkeley): “This comes up a lot, on many, many projects we’ve worked on. This is the goal.

‘I don’t really think of 20 or 21st century. First, you kind of read and know a situation, then you bring an understanding to it where things are not laid on top, overlaid or fought down. It builds up into kind of an armature for growth and it has a tendency to structure and to promote and stimulate growth over time…

“It’s not about the gadgets, it’s not necessarily about being digital. It’s about the structuring and organization of all that to both in special terms and in visual terms, to create space for people that brings the river and the people together. It’s really about the river. The river is very 21st century, it’s very 5 million years ago, too.

“In our minds, if we do it right and if we bring the river to a healthier state and we find a way to connect people across it and up and down it and make that the lifeblood of communities on both sides, that’s very 21st century.

Chris Reed, principal, Stoss Landscape Urbanism (Boston): “In many ways, open space needs to do many things these days. It needs to perform many roles. I think the park system needs to be thought of as a piece of infrastructure, as a set of interrelated and dynamic ecological systems. In needs to be thought of as those urban design frameworks and a social catalyst and it needs to fulfill the basic needs for open space, recreation, bodily health, those sorts of things. So in many ways, the 21st century park needs to do more.

“Minneapolis has a great park system from the 19th century built around its lake system and in many ways provides environmental benefits and in the way it links, forms a circuit and links different parts of the city. It performs an urban design function, sets up an urban design function, sets up a framework for the city. I think those things need to be pushed and extrapolated, but I think this idea of a working park or the role that open space or landscape may play as infrastructure is very important here.”  

Ken Smith, principal, Ken Smith Workshop (New York): “Increasingly, parkland is converted from old industrial land. There are brownfield issues and ecology restoration…

“Our society has changed from the 19th century, from a culture that did mostly manual labor. Parks were a place for respite, to take a stroll. Our recreation needs have changed. Today, we need physical exercise; we need to get people active. The importance of programming is more important…

“Parks also should be a focal point and connection for communities and neighborhoods, a place to gather and meet people.”