Mile-and-a-half promenade would connect downtown to riverfront.

Preliminary designs for a 1.5-mile promenade along the Mississippi Riverfront in downtown Saint Paul received favorable reviews at a virtual unveiling on February 10. The so-called river balcony would extend from Upper Landing Park and the Science Museum of Minnesota to Lambert’s Landing and Union Depot.

James Corner Field Operations of New York City has been working on the schematic with the Saint Paul Department of Parks and Recreation, Great River Passage, Saint Paul Parks Conservancy and other consultants. James Corner was involved in the creation of New York City’s High Line, a 1.45-mile-long elevated greenway and trail on a former New York Central Railroad spur in Manhattan. The High Line attracts about 8 million visitors each year.

River Balcony
The promenade between Upper Landing Park and the Science Museum on the west and Lambert's Landing and Union Depot on the east would stitch together existing and future attractions along downtown Saint Paul's riverfront.

The design of the river balcony and promenade is about halfway completed, according to James Corner senior principal Lisa Switkin. She described how the planners have worked to “stitch together” existing and future attractions along the riverfront. The process has involved many challenges, including changes in topography and dealing with many different property owners. However, Switkin added, they were also pleased with the features and infrastructure that are already in place. 

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The preliminary designs suggest numerous features, including overlooks of the river valley, a “tailgating plaza” across from Xcel Energy Center, and pedestrian connections to Upper Landing Park, Kellogg Mall Park, Lambert’s Landing and a new amphitheater…. Spaces that are now fairly plain would be transformed. A sidewalk along Eagle Parkway would become the Big Woods Walk. What are now parking lots would be turned into places for recreation. Dark underpasses would be livened with lighting and public art. Several new pedestrian connections to the river would be provided.

The river balcony would tie together several downtown attractions, including Ramsey County’s $800 million Riversedge development, which is planned for the bluff where West Publishing and the county jail once stood. Public surveys, walking tours and outreach to potential balcony users have informed the project, and more of that outreach is planned. 

The public comments have been vital to the planners’ work, according to Switkin. “The top priority we heard was connecting people with the river,” she said. Respondents have also felt strongly about having public spaces along the river and what she described as “quality” outdoor spaces. Some of the riverfront’s current public spaces, such as Lambert’s Landing, do not have many amenities, she added.

The surveys found that the top three desired uses for the riverfront are walking, getting something to eat and drink, and relaxing and enjoying the view. There is also a desire to enjoy activities focused on health. Another big issue that came up is the need to consider public safety along Shepard Road.

About 2.9 million people are expected to visit the river balcony each year. While the park is seen as a popular attraction for visitors, studies indicate that most of its users will be residents of downtown and the West Side. Those neighborhoods are growing, not just in population but in diversity of age, income and ethnicity.

The preliminary designs suggest numerous features, including overlooks of the river valley, a “tailgating plaza” across from Xcel Energy Center, and pedestrian connections to Upper Landing Park, Kellogg Mall Park, Lambert’s Landing and a new amphitheater. Many amenities are included in the designs, such as seating, stairways, a fountain, a nature play area, a welcome center, and courts for playing basketball and tuj lub, a popular Hmong game. One idea is to close Second Street to motor vehicle traffic and open it up to pedestrians.

Spaces that are now fairly plain would be transformed. A sidewalk along Eagle Parkway would become the Big Woods Walk. What are now parking lots would be turned into places for recreation. Dark underpasses would be livened with lighting and public art. Several new pedestrian connections to the river would be provided.  

Switkin said planners are just beginning to look at potential costs of the project. Another issue that will have to be sorted out is the governance of the space.

The river balcony project draws on the Great River Passage plan that the City Council adopted in 2013. That plan recommended $300 million to $500 million of new features and amenities along the 17 miles of Saint Paul’s Mississippi riverfront.

For more information about the project, visit greatriverpassage.org/projects/river-balcony.

— Jane McClure

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