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Monday
Feb042019

Opinion: Act to Protect the “Power of the Falls”

By Cordelia Pierson

Growing with Integrity to Protect Our Historic Mississippi Riverfront

Our elected officials will soon decide how our Mississippi riverfront community will grow, as they review a proposal to redevelop the General Mills Riverside Technical Center, just one block from the Mississippi River.  Despite a 15-17 story height maximum, Doran/CSM is proposing a 32-story tower for the 311 2nd Street SE project, transforming two full city blocks between Second Street and University Avenue.  The site is next to the Pillsbury A Mill complex, a National Historic Landmark, in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District’s Water Power Character Area, where the historic mill buildings define the district on both banks of the Mississippi River.  The 32-story tower would dwarf the historic industrial buildings surrounding the Pillsbury A Mill, now prominent features in the protected “key viewshed” from the Mill City Museum and Stone Arch Bridge.

Now is a great time to ask our elected officials to vote to protect the “Power of the Falls” by supporting growth that honors this riverfront area’s integrity.

What is the “Power of the Falls?”

What places do you choose when you are welcoming visitors from other countries or cities here?

The Stone Arch Bridge? Mill City Museum and the Guthrie Theater? Perhaps Gold Medal Park?

All of these places are along the Great River Road, in the St. Anthony Falls Historic District.  The Great River Road is an 80-year old National Scenic Byway, connecting communities from the Headwaters at Lake Itasca to Forest History Center in Grand Rapids, from Oliver Kelley Farm to Fort Snelling, from Oheyawahi (Pilot Knob) to the National Eagle Center in Wabasha.  Along the Great River Road, people can experience beautiful views and nature; learn about American Indian culture today; discover stories about how farming, sawmilling and grain milling here changed our state and nation; and enjoy biking, paddling and walking.  I serve as regional commissioner on the Mississippi River Parkway Commission, which protects and enhances the Mississippi valley and the Great River Road.

Here in Minneapolis, by the Mississippi River’s only falls, our riverfront boasts an incredible blend of all those values – scenic, natural, spiritual, cultural, historic, recreational.  We are lucky to have two National Historic Landmarks – the sister mills facing each other, one now the Mill City Museum, and the other affordable artist housing at Pillsbury A Mill.  We can easily see these mills and grain elevators that define the area’s “Water Power Character” area, at the heart of this national and state-designated St. Anthony Falls Historic District.  This protected, historic character makes this area unique, and private and public investment – well over $2 billion - has followed. 

While we have a National Scenic Byway Great River Road that is hundreds of miles long, we have only one national park on the entire length of the Mississippi River.  Our Mississippi River in the metro region earned its National Park status – the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area - because of this concentration of amazing, diverse assets at the falls.  Standing on the Hennepin Bridge and looking downstream at night, you can see “Gold Medal Flour” towering over the West bank, and “Pillsbury” atop the Red Tile Elevator on the East bank.  These mill complexes define this Water Power Character area, tying us to our sister communities in Greater Minnesota, where grain elevators dominate the landscape of rural towns. 

So why the “Power of the Falls?” That phrase captures more than the hydropower we draw from the Mississippi here.  It is the title of the St. Anthony Falls Heritage Board’s interpretive plan for the area because the “Power of the Falls” also captures the area’s spiritual, cultural, historic and natural significance and inspires new plans for the area’s future. “The enduring sense of place that drew people here many hundreds of years ago is prompting new generations to embrace the riverfront and care about its future.”  According to the plan,

  • Spiritually significant place for indigenous people: This relationship with the river is felt by many and is inspiring a new understanding of the river among others. St. Anthony Falls continues to be a place of homecoming for Dakota people.
  • Historically significant: The Mississippi River’s steepest drop attracted waterpower for industries that helped build a city, shape the region’s economy, and change how we eat.
  • Uniquely scenic: This is an urban landscape shaped by human and natural forces. The dramatic tension between these two forces resulted in a setting that is unlike any other in the region.

This is indeed a place of power – unique, and worth protecting, investing our lives in, and sharing with our visitors from afar.  Did that power draw you, too?

What does “Growing with Integrity” mean?

The City of Minneapolis adopted St. Anthony Falls Historic District Guidelines to protect the integrity of this area and the “Power of the Falls.” These rules apply to all private and public development here – parks, like Father Hennepin Bluffs Park, now in planning for $1M in 2019; public facilities, like WaterWorks and the Lock and Dam visitor center, now proposed; and private development, like the General Mills Riverside Technical Center redevelopment.  The City has also adopted a Mississippi River Corridor Critical Area plan, which applies to the entire historic district as well. 

Our elected officials are charged with applying these rules to all developments, private and public.  Everyone considering whether to invest here knows about both the historic and river protections. 

A key test for whether to grant permission to build here is whether the project “will ensure the historic district’s continued integrity” as well as being “compatible with the historic designation” and “consistent with the spirit and intent of preservation policies and laws.” 

“Growing with Integrity” means two things:  following the rules that apply to us all, and ensuring the historic district’s continued integrity. 

The proposal Doran/CSM submitted in December 2018 does not meet that standard. 

  • Height: The rules clearly require a maximum height of the Red Tile Elevators, which is 15 – 17 stories, and a 32-story tower does not meet the requirement of being “compatible with the character area.”
  • Visual impact: The rules list specific “key view opportunities” to gauge visual impact, particularly from public ways, and require new structures to be low to maintain views, such as from Mill City Museum and West River Road, our Great River Road.  Whether the project reduces the prominence and scale of the historic resources is the key test.  The 32-story tower would loom over the Pillsbury A Mill complex, and indisputably impact these historic resources.

Other towers have been approved in the historic district, close to the activity center along University and Central Avenues.  To use them as an excuse for allowing excessive height closer to the National Historic Landmark Pillsbury A Mill and deeper into the historic district and residential neighborhood is simply to abandon the design guidelines that aim for building compatibility in height, mass and scale. Previous loss of integrity underscores the importance of adhering to the guidelines and maintaining the integrity that remains in the district. 

Act to Protect the “Power of the Falls:” Urge Our Elected Officials to Support Growing with Integrity

You were drawn to the “Power of the Falls.”  You can act to protect it.

Members of the Heritage Preservation Commission on January 22 said they would deny permission for the 32-story proposed, and the developer agreed to return on February 19 with a revised proposal.  The City of Minneapolis now has until April 12 to approve or deny the developer’s project, a planned unit development.

Contact our elected officials – Council Member Steve Fletcher; Zoning and Planning Committee Chair Jeremy Schroeder; Council President Lisa Bender; Mayor Jacob Frey.

Encourage them to deny approvals for this 32-story project.  Encourage them to ask the developer to submit a revised proposal that preserves the integrity of the St. Anthony Falls Historic District by meeting historic district guidelines, including honoring the Red Tile Elevator maximum height (15-17 stories) and meeting visual impact requirements. 

Learn more at Power of the Falls – East Bank Development Task Force of the Marcy-Holmes Neighborhood Association.

Join me in acting to protect the “Power of the Falls” and welcome growth with integrity.  And the next time you tour the area with a visitor, you can be proud that you have helped protect the future of our Mississippi riverfront, leaving an inspiring legacy for generations to come.

Cordelia Pierson, Mississippi River Parkway Commissioner, Metro Region

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Cordelia Pierson, 1st elected to the Mississippi River Parkway Commission in 2011, serves as Vice Chair. Contact Cordelia at cordelia.pierson@gmail.com

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