The three visions for the River Learning Center near Watergate Marina are “The Bridge,” “The Path” and “The Destination.” An online survey on the concepts will remain open until June 24.

More than 125 people attended a workshop on June 9 at Watergate Marina to view and comment on three conceptual plans for Saint Paul’s proposed Mississippi River Learning Center. An online survey on the same three concepts remains open until June 24.

The city and Great River Passage Conservancy are working with New York-based W Architecture & Landscape Architecture to lead the design process on the plans. The goal is to unveil the chosen option during a second public meeting on July 21. The completion of the design is expected this fall.

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All three concepts would entail office and public gathering spaces, river overlooks, launches for canoes and kayaks, hiking and biking trails, and picnic and play areas between Hidden Falls and Crosby Farm parks. What differs among the three is where the facilities would be located and how visitors would access them.

All three options call for about 43,400 square feet of space, with about 8,000 square feet for programs and the rest for offices and parks administration. All three plans call for reconfiguring Watergate Marina, improving pedestrian safety above and below the river bluff, restoring natural areas and being mindful of flooding.

Option one:

“The Bridge,” would have a tall facility that could be accessed by pedestrians via Shepard Road and the Samuel Morgan Trail. Views of the river valley and Pike Island would be available from the top of the bluff. Visitors could take steps or an elevator to the base of the bluff and the rest of the center. Vehicle parking would be at both the top and base of the bluff.

Option two:

“The Path,” would consist of two buildings connected by a pathway: a welcome center atop the bluff and the River Learning Center built into the bluff base below.

Option three:

“The Destination,” would have one large building by the river and marina. The marina would be reduced in size and walkways would lead from the bluff down to the center.

Steve Buege of the Friends of Pool Two said that the plans lack a dedicated space for launching motorized boats. “That would provide a needed public access point at the northernmost marina on the Mississippi” for fishing as well as pleasure boats, he said.

Several people at the June 9 presentation objected to any plans that would remove trees. Barbara Wilks of W Architecture said the intent is to restore disturbed areas near the marina and to take out as few trees as possible. “The flood plain forest is
magical,” she said.

Most people who looked at the designs said they liked what they saw. A few marina users said they want to learn more.

Steve Buege of the Friends of Pool Two said that the plans lack a dedicated space for launching motorized boats. “That would provide a needed public access point at the northernmost marina on the Mississippi” for fishing as well as pleasure boats, he said.

Mary deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy, said the purpose of the center is to connect Saint Paul’s two greatest assets—its people and the Mississippi River. The conservancy is a fundraising and advocacy group for the city’s  17 miles of riverfront and for the 2017 Great River Passage Plan for its improvement.

Anne Gardner, project manager for the Saint Paul Department of Parks and Recreation, said the center would be a year-round place where people could learn about and experience the river. She said the center would create a “falls to farm” trail experience and improve the connection between Hidden Falls and Crosby Farm parks.

Other partners in the project and possible occupants of the center include the National Park Service, Wilderness Inquiry and Mississippi Park Connection. The Tribal Historic Preservation Offices could also be included, as the site and the nearby Bdote area are considered sacred to Indian tribes. So could Your Boat Club, which operates Watergate Marina for the city.

Architect James Garrett Jr. of Saint Paul-based 4RM+ULA said almost 550 people responded to an initial survey asking what they would like to see at the River Learning Center. “Folks just want to be in this environment,” he said.

A cost estimate for the center will not be known until a design option is chosen. Planners are looking at tapping a combination of public and private funding. The city was seeking $20 million from the 2022 Minnesota Legislature, but no bonding bill was passed during the regular session. It could still be brought up during a special session this summer.

The best-case scenario is that the center would be built in the next few years and open in 2026.

The current survey on the three concepts may be taken and the plans’ presentation seen at greatriverpassage.org/projects/river-learning-center.

— Jane McClure

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