[SUSTAINABILITY & ETHICS] Reorienting St. Paul to river, one learning center at a time

Imagine if St. Paul was reorientated, so its community was centered around the environment and culture brought by the Mississippi River, not the river’s industrial uses. That’s the goal. Back in 2013, St. Paul approved the Great River Passage Master Plan. The Addendum to Saint Paul’s Comprehensive Plan reads, “The Great River Passage Master Plan (or master plan) presents recommendations for orienting the City toward the river and integrating new and enhanced parks and natural areas along all 17 miles of the Mississippi River through Saint Paul.”
The plan consists of three capital projects completed in the coming years. The River Balcony is a 1.5-mile paved path that will start in Downtown Saint Paul’s Mississippi River Bluff and end at the river. It will connect parks, civic landmarks, and private companies along Kellogg Boulevard. The River Learning Center will act as the city’s entrance to the Mississippi River, a place that will host year-round programming to teach the culture, history, and ecology of the river. The final project is the East Side River District, an urban landscape that will reveal the area’s complex history, help heal the landscape, and protect Dakota sites.
Mary DeLaittre, the Executive Director of the Great River Passage Conservancy, said, “Minnesota is the headwaters state and has more river than any other state for length. So with that in mind, our goal again is really to build the river capital, which means sort of reorienting the city to the river, because as you know, probably for a very long time, cities turned their backs on rivers because they were considered sort of industrial. We’re reorienting ourselves to the river and bringing the river back to the center of St Paul’s public life.”
The Great River Passage Conservancy directs the strategy to implement the plan, including private fundraising efforts for the capital projects. Mississippi Park Connection is also raising funds for the River Learning Center injunction with the conservancy. DeLaittre said, “The mission is to connect St. Paul’s two greatest assets, its people, and the Mississippi River. And how we do that is through, for us, it’s advocacy, fundraising, and then because of my background as both an architect and an urban designer, bringing strategic project development expertise to the table.”
The River Learning Center will be located at Baby Bee Bay in Crosby Farm Regional Park and will include a new National Park Service Mississippi National River and Recreation Area Headquarters. Tucker Blythe, the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area superintendent, said, “Currently, our headquarters is situated in downtown St. Paul, and we are not connected to the river. So our intent is to be in a location where we can actually connect to the river, both the staff being able to get there more easily, but more importantly, connecting school groups and visitors from across the city, in the country, the state, the world to the Mississippi River. And by locating our facility or headquarters there, we feel that it would enable us to do that in a much more rich and slow way.”

Our intent is to be in a location where we can actually connect to the river

— Mary DeLaittre

The Great River Passage Conservancy and the City of Saint Paul are working with W Architecture & Landscape Architecture to develop the schematic designs. Once the schematic plans are revealed in the fall, they will include site analysis and a general overview of what the center will look like and its features. The current vision consists of a new NPS headquarters for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, year-round programming, outdoor recreation, scientific research, a community cafe, and a small marina.
DeLaittre said, “So what we do know is that it’ll be a building in a landscape where we have lots of programming. We do know that the National Park Service, the Friends of the Mississippi’s organization, Mississippi Park Connection, and Wilderness Inquiry, their headquarters will be down there.”
Great River Passage Conservancy has a request for $20 million for bonding money into the state legislature. The House and the Senate will decide if the project is eligible for some or all of the requests by the end of May.


Image created by Ken Lund and can be found on Flickr.