Park Board adopts concept of future riverfront park

Credit: Photo courtesy of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board has approved a concept design of a nearly $27 million overhaul of the downtown Minneapolis riverfront that’s years in the making.

Park commissioners voted 7-1 Wednesday, Sept. 23 to approve concepts of Water Works, a project that would build on the current Mill Ruins Park on a four-acre stretch of parkland between Portland Avenue South and the Third Avenue Bridge.

Water Works would capitalize on the area’s rising popularity with a massive makeover to expose historic ruins, add visitor infrastructure and forge stronger connections to the Mississippi River. In the past few decades, Mill Ruins Park has gone from largely blank parkland to the third most visited park in the city with more than 2.3 million visits annually due to destinations like the Stone Arch Bridge.

“Water Works will be an exciting, iconic destination that builds on the Central Riverfront’s rebirth as a place where a full range of Minneapolis’ diverse communities can engage with the river,” said Park Board President Liz Wielinski in a statement.

The two-phase Water Works would begin with adding a visitor pavilion with concessions, restrooms, a patio and an outfitting shop. This first phase, expected to be completed in 2019, would also bring a new mezzanine lawn, play spaces and outdoor classrooms that could host visitors. The second part of the project, slated for a 2023 completion, would uncover historic mill infrastructure, add a skim pond and overhaul the riverside of the park. 

A central tenet of the project, the first of several transformative developments under the board’s 20-year vision for its riverfront land, is opening up a riverfront overburdened by visitors and downtown commuters. Water Works would also untangle a mess of bike and pedestrian paths down to the riverfront, which has been largely separated from the rest of downtown. 

A major stopping point to the river has been the former Fuji Ya restaurant building, which has sat vacant for nearly 25 years on the site of the former 1878 Standard Mill, blocking a hill and access point to the river at West River Parkway and 1st Street South. Water Works plans call for dismantling the building, which the board purchased through eminent domain for $3.5 million following the 1990 closing, to expose the historic ruins underneath during the project’s first phase.

The Fuji Ya building could be demolished as early as 2017 or possibly sooner, said Tom Evers, executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, a nonprofit that serves as a philanthropic arm of the Park Board. 

“It will be a real visual moment for the park,” he said. 

Evers estimates the foundation will be looking to raise about half the project’s $26.7 million price tag from companies, individual donors and foundations. He plans to unveil a plan for the project to commissioners during the board’s Oct. 7 meeting that will break down their fundraising strategy as part of an agreement with the board.

How many public dollars would go toward the project has yet to be determined, but Evers said discussion of the board’s commitment will be part of the agreement. The remaining half, about $13 million, could be made up of the board’s traditional regional park funding dollars, in addition to federal funding, state historic dollars and/or other third-party sources. Water Works checks a lot of boxes for funding sources — from providing boat access to uncovering historic infrastructure — so the foundation will help the board explore options it typically doesn’t look to, Evers said.

Another unknown is what could happen with a National Park Service and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property adjacent to the Mill Ruins Park, which is associated with the recently closed Upper St. Anthony Falls Lock and Dam.

Commissioner Anita Tabb, whose district includes the future Water Works site, amended the resolution to begin working on a partnership with the two parties to reuse the building as part of Water Works in the future.

The site is listed under Water Work’s second phase and is not included in the park’s total cost. Bruce Chamberlain, Minneapolis Parks fellow of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, told commissioners that the property could be developed concurrently with Water Works to house park programming or other uses.

Through Water Works, the Park Board would remove 64 parking stalls along West River Parkway and the Fuji Ya building. The board plans to offset the loss through the Mill City Quarter senior housing development that will include a “woonerf” or shared street with 70 spaces of parking accessible to the public and a direct connection to the proposed Water Works pavilion. The board agreed to waive a $62,400 park dedication fee in February in exchange for dedicating the private land for a public use. The development is currently being constructed at 3rd Avenue & 2nd Street.