Proposed balcony exploits the bluff to give downtown new ways to access river

Saint Paul officials unveiled the final schematic last week for an ambitious redesign of the downtown riverfront that bridges the divide between the Mississippi and the high bluff along Kellogg Boulevard. The so-called river balcony includes a range of features that bring the river closer to people, including enhanced overlooks, landscaped trails, a stairway and land bridge from the bluff to the river and a boat launch. Small parks, an amphitheater, sports courts and event space would also be provided.

The river balcony has been on the drawing board since the Great River Passage plan began taking shape more than a decade ago. The City Council adopted the Great River Passage in 2013 with plans for the balcony and Great River Passage Conservancy following that.

“It has been a years-long process to get us to this point,” said Mary deLaittre, executive director of the conservancy.

River Balcony
Two views of the proposed river balcony show the new multi-layered look of Kellogg Mall Park near Minnesota Street (above) and the Bluff Garden Walk just east of the Wabasha Street Bridge (below).

Ramsey County Commissioner Jim McDonough praised the vision for the river balcony. “You’ve got to be bold, you’ve got to think big,” he said.

McDonough has worked on riverfront projects for years. He is stepping down from the County Board at the end of the year, but urged citizens to continue to push for the project to be completed.

More than 100 people turned out November 3 to see the final schematics for the 1.5-mile-long project. There, city staff and project consultants described the challenges in getting a plan developed. These included defining the balcony area boundaries, involving the many property owners affected, and doing much of that despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those involved in the project cautioned that there are challenges ahead, beyond raising the funds needed to pay the as yet unknown costs. One is changing the character of Shepherd Road and calming traffic there. Another is involving outside partners in balcony programming and ongoing operations and maintenance.

 

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The balcony plans have dramatically expanded over the past seven years, incorporating such proposed developments as a new RiverCentre parking ramp and rooftop and Ramsey County’s $788 million Rivers­Edge mixed-use development on the former site of the county jail and government center. The plans also tie in to the Science Museum of Minnesota, Lambert’s Landing, Kellogg Mall Park, RiverCentre and Rice Park.

Four areas of amenities

The river balcony plans are divided into four areas. A “big woods” area between Seven Corners and the Science Museum includes a landscaped parking area and trail leading from Kellogg Boulevard to Shepard Road and the river. Among its features are an amphitheater, enhanced overlook and bluff stairs by the museum.

The area around the proposed RiversEdge would include public space atop the bluff and a land bridge from the blufftop, over the railroad tracks to the Samuel Morgan Trail and the river.

The area around Kellogg Mall Park has some of the most ambitious designs. These include a multi-level bluffside park with interactive water features and a dramatic river overlook. The Second Street area below Kellogg Mall would be repurposed as public space on the side of the bluff. At the bluff’s base, what is now parking area could be event space and sports courts.

The area around Lambert’s Landing would have an improved boat launch, a new welcome center and riverfront promenade and seating.

Those involved in the project cautioned that there are challenges ahead, beyond raising the funds needed to pay the as yet unknown costs. One is changing the character of Shepherd Road and calming traffic there. Another is involving outside partners in balcony programming and ongoing operations and maintenance.

With the design in place, determining program governance can get underway to define partner roles and responsibilities. A financing strategy needs to be developed, along with a timeline for construction.

For more information about the river balcony and to view the plans, visit greatriverpassage.org/projects/river-balcony.

— Jane McClure

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