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St. Paul Riverfront May Have a Southern Accent
By William Wilcoxen
June 7, 1999
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The latest phase of Saint Paul's riverfront-development plan is a series of three-dozen proposals aimed at spreading parkland and public spaces through areas adjacent to the Mississippi River downtown. City officials, who introduced the "Renaissance Project" this spring, say it uses concepts that have worked well in other cities, including Chattanooga, Tennessee.

THE RAILROAD TRACKS that connected American cities in the 19th century often ran along river valleys, helping to turn urban waterfronts like Saint Paul's into corridors of industry. But in recent decades, many riverside smokestacks disappeared as heavy industries closed or moved. Now, a number of cities are using parks and trails to help residents rediscover their post-industrial riverfronts. Toronto-based urban planner Ken Greenberg helped devise Saint Paul's Renaissance Project.
Greenberg: What the Renaissance Project is is a green web that embraces the Mississippi on both sides that links together a group of wonderful public spaces that already exist in Saint Paul and creates some new ones and really creates a superb context for things to fit into.
The ideas that comprise the project involve changing the landscape and streetscape to emphasize connections. A roster of proposals includes a river's-edge trail, a bluff-top walkway, water taxis crossing the river, and entryways to riverside neighborhoods adjoining the downtown. Patrick Seeb directs the Riverfront Corporation, a non-profit group affiliated with the city.
Seeb: We have these great pockets of strength and vitality in Saint Paul, like the Rice Park area or Mears Park in Lowertown or even the Irvine Park neighborhood or West Side neighborhood, the Concord Business district. But they're broken, they're separated from each other. And through this strategy, we begin to connect these areas of vitality in Saint Paul.
In the Tennessee River Valley, new connections are distributing Chattanooga's booming tourist traffic over a wider area. A July first deadline looms for stone cutters and other crews to get Coolidge Park ready for its grand opening. The interactive fountain will feature eight stone animals sporadically spouting water on any sweaty bodies that approach. A nearby pavilion will hold the hand-carved wooden menagerie of a carousel. An expansive lawn and concert stage front the river.

With about 160,000 residents, Chattanooga is considerably smaller than Saint Paul, but its location just north of the Georgia state line puts it within a two-hour drive of Atlanta, Nashville, Birmingham, Huntsville, and Knoxville. Chattanooga has become a popular day-trip destination for southerners, particularly since a world-class aquarium opened here in 1992. The Tennessee Aquarium draws more than a million people a year to the Tennessee River's south shore. The opening of Coolidge Park on the north shore is part of an expansion of visitor traffic. As in Saint Paul, much of the riverside traffic is on foot or bike or skate. And in Chattanooga many of those travelers cross the river on a pedestrian bridge. Walnut Street Bridge is billed as the world's longest pedestrian bridge.

At a half-mile, the 110-year-old Walnut Street bridge is billed as the world's longest pedestrian bridge. Fifteen years after the state closed the bridge for fear it would collapse under its own weight, a development group called River Valley Partners raised the money to restore it for pedestrian use and connected it to the river walk, a paved trail taking shape along the Tennessee. When the RiverWalk is complete it will span 10 miles from Ross' Landing, where the city began, and the aquarium now sits, upstream to the Chickamauga Dam.

The three trail segments that now exist wind past riverside museums, parks, businesses, and through a historic residential neighborhood. River Valley Partners Vice President Jim Bowen says the initial trepidation of homeowners along the trail soon melted away.
Bowen: Originally, they wanted the RiverWalk fenced off from the neighborhood because they were concerned with security. And we had the design sessions in the homes and, as we got further along, they realized this was something that would be a positive addition to the neighborhood. And the sidewalks connect right to their homes now.
Scott Schoolfield, the parks and recreation director for Hamilton County, Tennessee, says park rangers who patrol the trail are on a first-name basis with many of the homeowners. He thinks the popularity of the RiverWalk and its parks has helped minimize security problems.
Schoolfield: We have found - and we fully believe - that when you develop something quality the public somehow senses it - even if they don't openly know it - and they don't destroy it. They don't vandalize it, they don't litter it. So we've had very little vandalism.
The county's most-visited park encompasses two miles of the RiverWalk and is nicknamed "the fishing park" after the five fishing piers that extend into the river. It's a common picnic spot for out-of-town school groups before or after aquarium visits. The park is lighted and patrolled around the clock. Schoolfield says that provides river access to people who keep unusual hours.
Schoolfield: We'll come down here maybe at midnight, one o'clock and you'll see people just sitting and watching the river. Maybe they have problems that they're trying to work out in their head or maybe they're just relaxing.
Designing, surveying, and developing the 40-acre fishing park cost more than $5 million. Three similar-sized parks are planned for future RiverWalk segments. Jim Bowen of River Valley Partners says the popularity of the existing park makes it easier to raise public and private funds for the next ones. He thinks of the RiverWalk as a necklace and the parks along it as jewels, but the crown jewel, he says, is the Tennessee Aquarium.

The aquarium has been an even bigger draw than its planners expected. Its $45 million cost was raised from private sources, with a local foundation the biggest donor. $8 million in public assistance was then applied to the area surrounding the aquarium, a plaza with sculptures, fountains, and other public art and landscaping that provides an aesthetic transition from downtown streets to the riverfront.

Some of the artwork traces the area's history, bringing visitors back in time as they approach the river. Artifacts and symbols built into the stone of the plaza signify landmarks ranging from the first Coca-Cola bottling plant to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo to the forced removal of the Cherokee from the region.
Bowen: For instance, we're in the Civil War-era here and you'll see built into the rockwork Confederate and Union belt buckles and mini-balls and that kind of thing.
The aquarium is oriented toward the river but doesn't quite reach the water's edge. A four-lane highway separates the plaza from the riverbank, much the way Shepard Road and Warner Road separate downtown Saint Paul from the Mississippi. Chattanooga's riverfront success has fueled a movement to re-locate the highway, just as Saint Paul plans with Shepard Road.

The influx of visitors to Chattanooga's waterfront is rippling through the rest of the downtown. A series of free Friday-night concerts is held on a plaza almost a mile inland from the river and attracts a mix of residents and visitors. Jim Bowen says Chattanooga's development surge has grown outward..
Bowen: Drop the $45 million here as a catalyst. There is now over $400 million of investment around the edges in new retail, restaurants, shops, museums, theatres. All of that has happened in a short period of time. This aquarium opened in 1992 and - seven years later - you've got a major spinoff.
Saint Paul expects some riverfront projects nearing completion will produce major economic spinoffs in the new century. The hockey arena and science museum under construction are projected to attract millions of people. This summer, Mayor Norm Coleman will describe his vision to Saint Paulites of a Major League Baseball stadium on or near the Mississippi. The enhancements that make up the Renaissance Project are meant to create appealing links between the destinations along the river. The Riverfront Corporation's Patrick Seeb hopes they will occur within five to ten years but, says there's no timeline for the project.
Seeb: The beauty of this is that we can create a big picture, but then it can be broken down so it matches the timing of available resources and appropriate developments. So you don't have to do it all at once hoping development follows; you can do it incrementally.
Chattanooga and some other cities have done more than Saint Paul in carrying out waterfront projects. But Ken Greenberg, the director of Saint Paul's Design Center, say few cities have put as much into planning those projects.
Greenberg: The real distinction that Saint Paul has - and I think it will be able to use this to great advantage - is the effort that has gone into thinking this thing through in a way that has engaged the whole community.
The three-dozen public improvements described in the Renaissance Project may not all come to fruition. But if they do, the total cost of the project is estimated At $175 to $200 million, which would come from city, county, state, and federal sources.