The latest schematic for a new Mississippi River Learning Center would transform the park around Watergate Marina into a center for recreation and education with new trails, improved public access to the river, a blufftop trailhead and office building, and an elevated walk leading from the blufftop to the rooftop of the new learning center.

River Learning Center
An artist’s rendering of what one area of the planned River Learning Center on the Mississippi might be like.

More than 100 people attended the October 6 unveiling of the schematic at Watergate. Some type of river learning center has been discussed for Crosby Farm-Hidden Falls regional parks for more than two decades. The current planning effort began about six years ago through the city’s Great River Passage plan.

Saint Paul Parks and Recreation director Andy Rodriguez hailed the schematic. “A lot of hard work has gone into this,” he said. “It’s a huge accomplishment.”

Ward 3 City Council member Chris Tolbert was also excited. The improved facilities will allow more people to use the park and enjoy its proximity to the Mississippi River, he said.

The Learning Center would be built on what is currently a storage area for boats at Watergate…. Boat owners would still have private access to their slips, but the public would also have access to the river along a new trail. The marina’s peninsula would be reshaped as an island, and the area revamped to allow easier access for those who want to canoe, kayak or just wade in the river.

A two-story building off of Shepard Road and the Samuel Morgan Trail would serve as the trailhead for the Learning Center. It would house the offices of the National Park Service and serve as a more prominent entrance to the park. The Learning Center would have classrooms and offices. Also at the base of the bluff would be an educational garden and a redesigned trail connecting Crosby and Hidden Falls parks.

The Learning Center would be built on what is currently a storage area for boats at Watergate. The marina would be reconfigured. Boat owners would still have private access to their slips, but the public would also have access to the river along a new trail. The marina’s peninsula would be reshaped as an island, and the area revamped to allow easier access for those who want to canoe, kayak or just wade in the river. The island would have space for Native American ceremonies.

 

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“There would be a lot of activities, at all levels, going on in the park,” said Barbara Wilks of W Architects & Landscape Architecture. The New York firm worked with the city, the Great River Passage Conservancy and several consultants on the project, including 4RM+ULA, a Saint Paul-based architecture and design firm.

Another consultant was Full Circle Indigenous Planning + Design. According to Sam Olbekson, its founder and CEO, the site has importance both spiritually and culturally for the Dakota people.

Other partners in the project include the Mississippi Park Connection and marina operator Your Boat Club. Wilderness Inquiry would be among the organizations providing programming at the Learning Center, which would be open year-round.

According to Wilks, the construction and landscaping for the Learning Center will take place in areas of the park that were disturbed during the marina’s construction years ago. The intent is to work within flood plain restrictions without disturbing adjacent natural areas.

The cost of the project is as yet unknown, according to Anne Gardner, project manager for the Saint Paul Department of Parks and Recreation. The next steps are to draft a more detailed design and to seek city, state and private financing.

District 64B Representative Dave Pinto said he would carry the bonding request to the 2023 Minnesota Legislature. A bonding bill was not passed during the Legislature’s 2022 session, and 2023 is an off-year for bonding. A best-case scenario would see construction in 2025 and completion in 2026.

— Jane McClure

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