Entire city should prioritize riverfront revitalization

As residents of the only Minneapolis ward that crosses the Mississippi River, many of us feel a lifelong connection to and responsibility for the health of the river and its future. And, while the river and its shoreline is a matter of special interest to us, it is also a topic of importance to our entire city.  

Many of us are united in support of the RiverFirst initiative being led by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, the City of Minneapolis and the Minneapolis Parks Foundation that is pursuing ambitious redevelopment projects.

The Mississippi is one of the great rivers of the world and is rightly referred to as “America’s 4th coast.” It was an important economic and spiritual nexus for the Dakota people’s centuries before the first European settlers put down roots on both sides of St. Anthony Falls. Sawmills and then flour mills sprouted around the Falls, attracted by the abundant power of the rushing waters and by what was, until the 1960s, the upper navigable point along the Mississippi.

Our City’s river was a work place, a place that offered little in the way of attraction or accommodation for recreation, housing or leisure.

When the saw mills and the flourmills ceased humming industrial properties went silent and eventually fell into decay or were torn down and left as isolated, unattractive and unlovable vacant lots. The river was waiting for the right combination of leaders, vision and resources.

We now have a new generation of leadership with a vision of the future of our riverfront that is bold, and dramatic. RiverFirst – led by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board with many stakeholders, including leadership from our city, has emerged as the best way to deal with a landscape and a waterway that is a complexity of overlapping city, state, and federal jurisdictions.

Indeed, so complex are the issues surrounding the Mississippi Riverfront that only a coalition of government agencies, private developers, neighbors, public policy activists and citizens have the necessary bandwidth and the multi-dimensional perspective to untangle the knots of jurisdictions, interests, goals and challenges.

Progress is not easy or inevitable. Many members of the RiverFirst coalition are pushing for restoring Hall’s Island. It is not easy to look at an industrial site immediately north of the Plymouth Bridge and realize that it once was Hall’s island, paved over and connected to the mainland.

Returning habitat at Hall’s Island to a natural state is not a project for the faint of heart or for those who lack vision. The issues are complex, the work is painstaking and lengthy and the impacts on other uses of the river must be carefully considered. Indeed, both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have raised legitimate concerns. The issues are currently being discussed through the RiverFirst forum.

These issues are not just local ones; they affect interstate commerce, downstream communities and even migratory routes. Today, the Minneapolis Upper river area is a “missing link” that effectively breaks the habitat/flyway chain of many migratory birds such as waterfowl, gulls, egrets, loons, pelicans, cormorants, terns, coots, grebes, herons and other species. Indeed, our largely armored shoreline and the paucity of island habitat in the area has been described as an ecological “desert” and a “ditch.” That is proposed to change in the RiverFirst Plan.

I encourage everyone to join with us in the Third Ward and throughout the City to get involved and to make your views known. A good starting point is riverfirst.com where you can learn more about the RiverFirst initiative and its 20-year vision to redefine our relationship with the “Great American River” that has long been the inspiration, the lifeblood and the lifeline of its neighbors. Our Riverfront is the front porch to our city!

Diane Hofstede
Minneapolis Council Member, 3rd Ward