Championing an Inclusive Vision for the Minneapolis Riverfront

January 22, 2020 by Tom Evers

The Minneapolis park system is at a pivotal juncture, and 2020 is the year that the Minneapolis Parks Foundation will celebrate milestones for RiverFirst and clarify a vision for our future investment on the Upper Riverfront. 

Our role in Minneapolis is to guide philanthropic investment toward transformative public realm projects and programs that are rooted in equitable outcomes and informed by broad community input. In 2020, we will open two significant new riverfront park spaces that were the result of meaningful community engagement and strong public-private partnerships. 

The Mezzanine Phase of the Water Works site will include a year-round pavilion inhabiting two former mills long left dormant, as well as new public greenspace facing the river at Saint Anthony Falls. With the addition of the Sioux Chef restaurant slated to open spring 2021, residents and visitors will experience amenities and programming on the Central Riverfront worthy of the Mississippi’s growing attraction.

Further upriver, the new Great Northern Greenway Overlook will connect neighborhoods in North Minneapolis to the Mississippi for the first time in nearly a generation, introducing a new amenity along a stretch of otherwise unreachable waterfront for community members to embrace the river.

Both Water Works and the Overlook culminated from thoughtful community engagement within the context of the RiverFirst Vision, in deep collaboration with public processes and with the support of philanthropic investment. In 2015, the Parks Foundation introduced the RiverFirst Campaign, through which individuals, foundations, and corporations have contributed nearly $18 million to these two projects. We’re just $600,000 shy of our goal and if you haven’t already joined us, please consider making a gift now.

Last week, the Star Tribune reported on a new proposal for repurposing some infrastructure near the Stone Arch Bridge into an elevated walking deck, spanning the river immediately upstream from the St. Anthony Falls. This concept, referred to as the Wishbone, has drawn both curiosity and concern – especially from those who have been tracking the broader vision for the Mississippi Riverfront.  

It is exciting to consider the possibilities for better connecting our city and its people to the river by repurposing existing infrastructure. And the possibility of new investment by Hennepin County into the Minneapolis riverfront is a welcome addition to any funding equation. But we owe it to ourselves to define the full context for all future park investments and measure their potential within broader community efforts. 

For the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, we have adopted five lenses to evaluate our involvement:  Striving for an equitable park system; ensuring environmental sustainability; broadening access to health and wellbeing; deepening human connections to nature; and expanding economic vitality.  The City of Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Park Board, and Hennepin County also have priorities identified within their comprehensive plans that guide public realm investments.

The full promise of the RiverFirst Vision populates the riverbanks from downtown to the city’s northern border with new parks, interconnected trails, and dynamic crossings. Integrated into to the initiative is a commitment by the Parks Foundation to address historic inequities that influenced previous community investments and fulfill the original vision for the Grand Rounds.

Looking ahead to the end of this pivotal year, you’ll know we’ve been successful when the Parks Foundation and our partners have helped to clarify a big vision for the Mississippi River and our parks that includes all voices and helps residents and donors identify where new investments can activate our river, draw new communities to its banks, and strengthen neighborhoods through parks.

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