Design consultants combine the best of three concepts presented in April.

A new design for the city of Saint Paul’s proposed River Learning Center in Crosby Farm and Hidden Falls regional parks drew a mostly favorable response from 70 people who took part in a virtual presentation on August 11.

The design takes the best aspects of three concepts that were presented in April, according to Anne Gardner, project manager in the city’s Parks and Recreation Department. The design could change based on comments received on August 11, Gardner said. Any revised design will be presented during an October 6 public celebration.

Many people liked what they saw in the design, although a tree canopy walkway drew a mixed response. The walkway is intended to be a more accessible means for people to get from the bluff to the Mississippi River. Some people liked it, while others said it could block views. Concerns were also raised about the potential impact on the floodplain and the appearance of the marina’s outdoor boat storage.

A drawing of how the River Learning Center might transform 25 acres of the park area above and below the bluff near the existing Watergate Marina in Crosby Farm Park.

One big change in the new design is the size of the proposed facilities. The design  included about 35,300 square feet of indoor space, down from 54,900 square feet, according to Barbara Wilke of W Architecture & Landscape Architecture. The New York firm is leading the River Learning Center design work with several local partners, including Saint Paul-based 4RM+ULA.

Wilderness Inquiry will not be moving its operations to the River Learning Center, and that was given as one reason for the size reduction. However, the nonprofit organization will still be providing outdoor programming there.

The River Learning Center will still house the offices of the National Park Service, Mississippi River Connect and the Great River Passage Conservancy. The latter organization heads up private fund­raising and advocacy for the 17 miles of Saint Paul’s Mississippi Riverfront.

Another partner in the Learning Center is Your Boat Club, which operates Watergate Marina. One focus of the project is to reconfigure the aging marina facilities to allow more public access to the river while protecting the privacy of those who rent marina slips.

 

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The central focus for the River Learning Center is to bring the Mississippi “back to the center of our public life,” said Mary deLaittre, executive director of the Great River Passage Conservancy. The project is also intended to better connect Hidden Falls and Crosby Farm parks.

A view of the proposed River Learning Center from atop the bluff off Shepard Road.

Architect James Garrett Jr. of 4RM+ULA outlined the plan, which calls for a more prominent and attractive park entrance atop the bluff. A 15,000-square-foot building there would house offices, restrooms and a trailhead for bicyclists and pedestrians.

A 10,400-square-foot activity center would be located near the base of the bluff. The marina would get new boat storage and operations facilities. Public gathering spaces, river overlooks, a place to launch canoes and kayaks, hiking and biking trails, and picnic and play areas are also planned. Another proposed feature is a place where members of the Dakota tribe can continue to hold sacred ceremonies near the river.

A 3,000-square-foot boat storage facility and 6,300-square-foot operations building are planned for the marina. The harbor would also be revamped. The current peninsula would be turned into an island, and the steep riverbanks would be modified for safer access.

Improvements are also planned along Shepard Road with safer crosswalks and landscaping to soften the road’s appearance and make it less like a freeway.

More detailed design work and fundraising are planned for 2023. If construction begins in 2024, the River Learning Center could be open in 2026.

To view the latest presentation on the plan, visit greatriverpassage.org/projects/river-learning-center.

— Jane McClure

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