Minneapolis Central Riverfront
The decline of flour milling in the 1930s left Minneapolis’ Central Riverfront abandoned for decades. The old mills, railroad tracks, depots and warehouses crumbled into a vast stretch of industrial wreckage that blocked access to the Mississippi River, both from the downtown core and from residential neighborhoods on the opposite bank. Moreover, the city’s historic birthplace, near St. Anthony Falls, lay essentially buried in the rubble.
Opening up the river to pedestrians and others carried a potential that was plain to see, but the task would be monumental. The city began work in the 1970s by establishing a Riverfront District. The goal was to restore vitality in incremental steps so that eventually the river and its historic surroundings could resume their position as a central focal point.
Redevelopment has proceeded in fits and starts. But now, more than 30 years later, a foothold has been established. The Guthrie Theater, Central Library, Mill City Museum, McPhail Center for the Arts, Open Book, Gold Medal Park and Mill Ruins Park are part of the cultural revival. Offices (including the Minneapolis Federal Reserve), restaurants, bars, shops, hotels, a movie theater, ice rink and several thousand lofts and condos have been fit into the historic setting, although scores of prime building sites remain to be filled in.
Thanks to the restoration of the Stone Arch Bridge in 1994 and additions to the Grand Rounds parkway system, a four-mile walking (and biking) loop was created. The tree-lined loop forms a kind of “central park” for Minneapolis, running along both banks between the Stone Arch and Plymouth Avenue bridges. It’s a spectacular hike through wooded ravines, through the city’s oldest quarter, and past the ruins of historic flour mills, with nice views of river, falls and skyline.
But the loop’s importance goes beyond recreation. It has helped to spawn three adjacent walkable mixed-use neighborhoods, neighborhoods in which “walkability” achieves its full meaning: walking—rather than driving—to accomplish one’s daily tasks.
Of those neighborhoods, Old St. Anthony (annexed by Minneapolis in 1872) stands out. Located on the river’s East Bank, the district clusters along Main Street and East Hennepin, Central and University avenues. People living in the hundreds of lofts, townhouses and apartments can, within a few blocks, walk to an amazing variety of destinations: supermarket, pharmacy, cinema, bakery, wine and cheese shop, laundry, hotel, several banks, a number of delis and specialty stores and two dozen bars, nightclubs and restaurants. They can use the aforementioned riverfront loop for recreational walking, or they can use it to walk to cultural attractions, the downtown office core and sporting events on the west side of the river. For those less inclined to walk full distances, more than 270 buses per day—all operating in the 50-cent zone—interlace the area.
The biggest obstacles for the project were finding money and collaborating with city, metro, county, state and federal agencies, as well as nonprofits and private businesses.
Spawning walkable neighborhoods was not an implicit goal when riverfront development was first contemplated in the 1970s. But two of the goals (opening public access to the river and creating mixed-use neighborhoods) would have been hard to accomplish without a pedestrian emphasis. The important point is to cluster destinations in ways that don’t allow cars (and parking lots) to dominate the streetscape.
Among other goals:
- Remove blighted barriers to revitalization and add infrastructure to support public access and promote development.
- Preserve history and communicate its significance.
- Generate jobs, tax revenue and economic activity.
- Reversing a “wrong side of the tracks” reputation for the area while avoiding gentrification.
- Historic designation of the area.
- Progress on the massive project required:
- Patience; a realization that redeveopment would take decades and that market would ebb and flow.
- Cooperation with many partners, including, city, Park Board, county, metro, state, watershed district, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the National Park Service. Other partners included neighborhood boards, non-profits, heritage boards, businesses and the University of Minnesota.
- Build on existing strengths.
- Money. More than $300 million is strategic spending from various sources was required. By 2010, the city estimated that the project was two-thirds finished.
- More than 140 acres of new riverfront parkland.
- Preservation and reuse of more than 80 historic buildings.
- Connection to the 52-mile Grand Rounds parkway system.
- Nearly 5,000 new housing units with 1,000 more in the pipeline.
- 8,300 jobs preserved and 1,400 new jobs created.
- 4.3 million square feet of new office, commercial and industrial space.
- $301 million public investment leveraged $1.7 billion in private investment.
Much work remains, even though many of the development tools and funding sources used to redevelop the Central Riverfront have been lost.