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Water Works Update: Mezzanine Phase

First proposed in 2011, the Water Works project has seen several design concepts, finally settling on something fairly close to the original from December 2011 (watch video below):

The first phase of the project goes before the City Planning Commission on Monday, March 25.

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Project description below, excerpted from the staff report & site plan:

SITE DESCRIPTION AND PRESENT USE. The site was once occupied by the Bassett s Second Sawmill, the Columbia Flour Mill and the Occidental Feed Mill. Portions of each of these mills remain on the site. In 1961, Reiko Weston purchased the property. In 1967-68, she built the Fuji Ya Restaurant incorporating portions of the Bassett s Second Sawmill and Columbia Flour Mill into the design of the restaurant structure. The Fuji Ya Restaurant operated in this location until 1990. In 1990, the applicant acquired the property and the site has been vacant ever since. In 2017, the applicant selectively demolished portions of the Fuji Ya Restaurant and stabilized the remaining mill ruins in order to incorporate them into the design of a new park building that will be built on the site called Water Works.

SURROUNDING PROPERTIES AND NEIGHBORHOOD. The site is surrounded by residential developments of varying densities, office buildings, a variety of commercial establishments and the Mississippi River. The site is located in the Downtown West Neighborhood.

PROJECT DESCRIPTION. The Water Works project is designed around providing a mix of indoor and outdoor public spaces and will be broken into two phases: The Mezzanine phase and the Riverside phase. The Mezzanine includes a pavilion with indoor amenities, an outdoor plaza with seating, lawn and outdoor terraces, a small hillside performance venue, and a picnicking and play area. The future Riverside phase (date TBD) will complete the link between downtown and the riverfront with reconfigured trails, public river access, a sunken performance venue, and another plaza area with water features. The two phases are not mutually dependent on the other and will develop on separate timelines as funding is procured.

The entire Water Works project area encompasses approximately 6.33 acres within the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP)-listed and locally-designated St. Anthony Falls Historic District (SAFHD) and the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA) Critical Area Corridor. The milling era infrastructure, extant buildings, and structural remnants located within the Mezzanine Phase project boundaries are listed as contributing archaeological features to the SAFHD.


The design for the Water Works park pavilion is a two-story brick building built into the Basset Engine House and Boiler Room, as well as the void left in the southern portion of the Columbia Flour Mill ruin after demolition for a Fuji Ya addition in the 1970s. The pavilion contains the public park program, including restrooms, lobby, meeting room and a small lounge, as well as a restaurant and kitchen. The majority of park programming and some back-of-house spaces are located on the first floor; careful consideration was given to expose as much of the existing mill ruins in these areas as possible, including the foundation walls of the Columbia Flour Mill in the lobby, the historic walls and ceilings of Bassett Boiler Room in the lounge, and historic walls and barrel-vault ceilings of Bassett Engine House in the meeting room. The second floor is entirely new construction, which contains an upper lobby for circulating between South 1st Street and the West River Parkway and a restaurant comprised of a small dining area and the kitchen.

The applicant has indicated that they are treating the Bassett Engine House, Bassett Boiler Room, and Columbia Flour Mill ruin as found objects in a fundamental way - doing as little as possible to obscure the historic mills, while leaving traces of the Fuji Ya construction in certain places to illustrate the evolving uses of the structure. The existing ruins are an amalgam of many different constructions, both within the period of historic significance and outside of it, and they are preserving and exposing all of these moments within the project whenever possible.

The only modifications to the historic mills consist of four widened and/or new openings between the mills existing rooms to connect existing spaces for circulation and code-compliant egress. Everything else will remain as is.

The Bassett Engine House, Bassett Boiler Room, and Columbia Flour Mill contain a mixture of different materials in significant variation as they are currently found; there are at least three different bricks, two different hues of limestone, rusted steel, several different colors of stucco, and scars created by years of appendages, connections, and alterations. To create a clear delineation between the historic architecture and the new, and to keep the new architecture simple in its expression, the team has chosen an extremely pared-down palette of a neutral monochromatic brick and glass on the exterior, and glass, wood, brick and concrete on the interior. The neutrality of the exterior brick is to provide clarity between old and new, and not muddle distinctions between what is historic and what is contemporary through the introduction of extraneous materials. It also relates to the new
upper terrace through use of a neutral color palette and horizontal emphasis (brick coursing and exposed horizontal concrete formwork).


The Water Works landscape plan serves to reconnect South 1st Street with the riverfront, much in the same way the historic mills and infrastructure once did, through accessible pedestrian and bicycle circulation improvements. It also provides much-needed outdoor park amenities such as seating, terraces, a lawn, performance area, and play zones within the context of the historic mills and infrastructure.

Landscape Highlights:

- South Transition Space: At the south end of the Water Works site where 5th Avenue South and South 1st Street intersect, the south transition space provides a strong ADA compliant pedestrian route between downtown and the lower West River Parkway, a difference of more than 15 feet.

- Upper Terrace: On the north side of the pavilion, the exterior Columbia Flour Mill ruins are no longer part of the pavilion construction and will remain filled. This area of the mill will become an Upper Terrace accessible from the South 1st Street public sidewalk. It will function as outdoor dining and private event space.

- Main Plaza: A Main Plaza in front of the pavilion at West River Parkway level provides flexible outdoor seating for public use as well as overflow for the pavilion restaurant. The main plaza design has moderate changes which include more green space and surface paving of modular pavers in lieu of concrete.

- Columbia Elevator: This historic milling remnant originally was part of the pavilion but has since been integrated into the site design. A portion of it will be excavated to house a remote trash storage area accessible from the Main Plaza. Along its north wall, an exterior stairway will link South 1st Street to the Main Plaza.

- City Steps: North of the Columbia Elevator, the City Steps nestle into the Occidental Feed Mill footprint and provide additional flexible seating for gathering, picnicking, and performances.

- Mezzanine Lawn: In front of the City Steps and wooded slope, the Mezzanine Lawn allows for flexible park uses. Performances may happen at the edge of the Main Plaza or on the lawn in front of the City Steps.
Wooded Slope and Play Area: Further north of the City Steps, an existing steep Wooded Slope predating the district s period of significance will be largely restored. A two- to five-year childrens play area is embedded into the lower portion of the hill.

- South 1st Street: South 1st Street bounds the western, downtown edge of the Water Works site. It also includes a short metal bridge with cantilevered sidewalk on the west side of the street. The bridge dates to the period of significance spans over the Woonerf.

- Woonerf and Rail Terrace: At the far northern end of the site, the South 1st Street and Third Avenue Bridge intersection is about 33 feet higher than West River Parkway. The Woonerf (shared travel way) connection is a former railroad bed that links South 2nd Street (a block away) with the park under a small metal bridge on South 1st Street.

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