At Island Station, future is just beginning to take shape

Island Station’s days are seemingly numbered, but the future of the unique St. Paul site is just beginning to be defined.

The long-dormant power plant on St. Paul’s riverfront was not given historic designation in July by the St. Paul City Council. Following a year-long review of the historic significance of the massive brick structure, and a concurrent moratorium on development or demolition, the motion to designate the property as a local heritage preservation site failed on a tie vote of the City Council at its July 17th meeting.

In recent days, the current owners of the plant, Breckner Riverfront Development, have initiated demolition proceedings with the City. The St. Paul Planning Commission will hear the application later this month. Breckner has indicated they have multiple buyers interested in the property, which they believe will be more salable without the massive power plant.

Not designated

In an unusual move, Friends of the Mississippi River decided in days before the vote on designation to break its silence on the issue and give voice to what several other parties had been quietly concluding: local historic designation was not the appropriate path for the plant. Similarly, the board of local neighborhood group Fort Road Federation, often a key voice for preservation efforts, also considered but declined to recommend local designation.

In recent decades, the plant was repeatedly found to not be eligible under the criteria for federal historic designation, and as such was not eligible for federal tax credits which often prove essential to preservation efforts. Some preservationists had hoped that a local designation and the passage of time might eventually spur a re-evaluation of its viability for federal designation; it might also allow the City to better understand any structural issues. Other community members, including FMR, saw an unusual alignment of opportunities for the site taking shape in the near future – one that might not always be available. These included the momentum of a new Master Plan, potential funding partners, and the active interest of the National Park Service in moving their headquarters and building a riverfront visitor center at the site.

The vision for the Island Station site in the Great River Passage Master Plan includes a small marina (#1), festival lawn (#2), infill development (#3), a small canoe/kayak dock (#4), climbing wall (#6), and mountain bike skills course (#7).

The next chapter

The path forward remains somewhat unclear for Island Station. FMR puts its emphasis on realizing the goals for the site in the city’s recently-adopted Great River Passage Master Plan. Those plans envision that, “[t]he peninsula on which the old Island Station power plant is located will be transformed, through a public-private partnership, into a mixed-use center for adventure, recreation, visitor services, residences, offices, and a community park with public access to the River.”

Pioneer Press columnist Joe Soucheray gave an unusual endorsement to that kind of redevelopment:

I went down there and got out of the car and sensed an unusual urban silence. There is a bit of backwater bay there, created by a natural peninsula.

We are constantly struggling to figure out how to take advantage of the river. No location might offer a better chance to create something fantastic than that location -- a river, a tucked-back bay, a peninsula, 10.5 acres in all. A marina? A marina and a bistro? A park?

There’s increasing and wide recognition of the potential of the site. How to get there is the question. We’re hoping that proactive leadership from the City of St. Paul, combined with careful discussions with potential new owners, will further elevate the potential of the site over the months to come.