St. Paul riverfront roundup: Five projects to watch

by Colleen O'Connor Toberman
The Mississippi River runs alongside downtown St. Paul, where tall buildings sit on a steep bluff above the river and road.

Downtown St. Paul could gain better connections down the bluff to the water's edge through the River Balcony project. (Photo credit: Great River Passage Conservancy)

St. Paul has a lot of projects in the works along its 26 miles of Mississippi River shoreline. Here's an overview, in downstream order, of some of the public park and infrastructure projects being planned and designed right now. 

If you'd like to get notifications from FMR when future community workshops or other engagement opportunities for these projects arise, sign up as a River Guardian

River Learning Center

Two projects from St. Paul's Great River Passage Plan are moving into a phase of more advanced design. The first is the River Learning Center, a river-focused visitor center in Crosby Farm Regional Park (in the area now home to Watergate Marina).

The River Learning Center will provide a riverfront hub for education and recreation in our national park, something St. Paul currently lacks. FMR envisions a center with a strong National Park Service presence, programming from partners such as Wildnerness Inquiry and Mississippi Park Connection, and visitor amenities to make the river more accessible and inviting. The center should be "light on the land" to enhance rather than detract from its setting in one of the jewels of St. Paul's park system. 

Community engagement began this spring for the project's schematic design phase, which will lead to a preliminary design outlining the River Learning Center's amenities, size, layout and cost.

You can take a community survey about the project through April 30. In June, design concepts will be released, and there will be more opportunities for community feedback.

River Balcony

While downtown St. Paul sits along the Mississippi River, seeing and accessing the river from downtown isn't always easy. Bluffs, buildings, streets and railroad tracks all inhibit access. The River Balcony, another project from the Great River Passage Plan, will address those challenges to create a more contiguous and enjoyable promenade along 1.5 miles of the downtown river bluff edge. 

The River Balcony will include gathering spaces, pedestrian and bike paths, improved access down to the river and other infrastructure improvements to make the river area less industrial and more inviting. 

Early concepts were released in February, and the materials are available on the project's webpage. Further schematic designs will be shared over the summer and fall for community feedback. 

Wakáŋ Tipi 

Wakáŋ Tipi Center watercolor
A rendering of the future Wakáŋ Tipi Center Lower Phalen Creek Project. (Image courtesy of Lower Phalen Creek Project)

Lower Phalen Creek Project is leading the development of Wakáŋ Tipi, a cultural and environmental interpretive center to teach and celebrate Dakota history and culture. The center will be at the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary, where FMR collaborates on restoration, right on the edge of downtown St. Paul in an area with immense significance to Dakota people. Fundraising and development plans for the center are underway. 

If you're interested in experiencing the site in a different way, you can bring your phone to the nature sanctuary to explore a new augmented reality "Dakota Spirit Walk" featuring sound and animation by artist Marlena Myles. Lower Phalen Creek Project also offers a variety of classes, tours and volunteer events to learn about and help care for this special place.

Battle Creek Regional Park Master Plan

Moving downstream to the East Side of St. Paul, Ramsey County is completing a major update of its Battle Creek Regional Park Master Plan for the first time in decades. The master plan outlines recreational improvements, desired land acquisitions and natural resource management plans for this sprawling and unique park. The adjacent Pig's Eye Regional Park area is included in the plan too.

FMR and many residents submitted comments on the draft plan this past fall. (Read FMR's comments.) We anticipate that the county will finalize and vote on the plan soon.

One big change we still hope to see in the plan? The addition of a rare 77-acre grassland parcel adjacent to the park that's providing critical habitat for endangered birds. The county already owns the grassland, so expanding the park boundary to encompass it would support permanent protection for this vanishing habitat. If you live in Ramsey County, encourage your commissioners to permanently protect this special place.

BTT (Boys Totem Town)

Another county-owned property next to Battle Creek Regional Park is BTT, formerly known as the Boys Totem Town juvenile correctional facility. The county closed the program a few years ago and hasn't made any concrete decisions yet about the future of the site.

While most people familiar with BTT know it for its buildings, the majority of the property is actually undeveloped oak savanna bluffland: another habitat type that's been widely eliminated throughout the metro.

FMR is working with a diverse range of community partners (including Lower Phalen Creek Project, Circle of Peace, the Science Museum of Minnesota and neighbors) who are interested in the future of BTT because it's significant in so many ways: as an area with Dakota connection — and high archaeological potential related to the long Dakota presence in the area — as a correctional institution where some youth were traumatized or abused, as a site that could be restored and preserved for habitat and recreation and as a large public property with potential for community-serving reuse of the portion that's already developed.

For all of these reasons and many more, FMR and our partners want to see a careful community-centered planning process that considers all of the ways that the BTT property can heal and be healed.

Groups or individuals interested in joining the effort to engage residents, elected leaders and other stakeholders in the future of BTT can contact me, Colleen (ctoberman@fmr.org or 651.222.2193 x29), to learn more. 

Want to get more updates?

We keep our St. Paul-area River Guardians informed about opportunities to participate in the future of these projects and others. If you'd like to hear about community meetings, surveys and other ways to be involved, sign up as a River Guardian today through the form below.

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