In the Spotlight

News & Features
Reclaiming the River
by William Wilcoxen
December 10, 1999

The new Science Museum of Minnesota marks the opening of a new era, not only for the museum but also for its host city. Saint Paul officials say the museum's new location makes it a key to linking downtown with the Mississippi River.

A series of gardens will cascade down to a riverside park. The four lanes of Shepard Road now occupy the waterfront, but will eventually be moved back from the river to let the new park extend to the water's edge.
THE DAKOTA BANDS that traveled the Mississippi in previous centuries called the land where downtown Saint Paul now sits "White Rock" in honor of the 80-foot limestone bluff that towered above the river there. Settlers later docked their boats at two breaks in the bluff line and built Saint Paul between the Upper and Lower Landings. Industry changed the face of the bluff during the 1900s, but at the dawn of a new century, the city is returning to the Upper Landing to open the new Science Museum of Minnesota. Museum President Jim Peterson says staircases inside and outside the building connect the top of the bluff to the flood plain.
Peterson: It's a long drop from downtown to the river and it's difficult to get to the river in most parts of downtown Saint Paul. So here, right in the midst of downtown - or on the edge of downtown - we can provide that quick and easy access.
As visitors step from the museum's lobby into the exhibit area, the first gallery they'll see is one devoted to the Mississippi River. Peterson considers the river itself to be the museum's largest exhibit. The museum is built into the bluff and most of the walls facing the river are made of glass. Lead designer Bill Sears of the Ellerbee Beckett architectural firm says instead of climbing up from a first floor entrance, visitors to the Science Museum will make their way down toward the Mississippi.
Sears: The building actually forms the turn in the river bluff, which is below us and behind us. So the landing is more clearly displayed and the bend in the building opens up that panorama.
A towboat sitting on a balcony is the first of the museum's outdoor exhibits. Sears says the museum's exterior is intentionally plain because plans call for draping the sides of the building with more outdoor displays. A series of gardens will also cascade down to a riverside park. The four lanes of Shepard Road now occupy the waterfront, but will eventually be moved back from the river to let the new park extend to the water's edge. Sears says the other side of the building is meant to link museum visitors to downtown Saint Paul.
Sears: The main lobby is very open to the city. As you're standing in the lobby you can see a beautiful panorama straight into the heart of Rice Park. So the people that come here and may not know about Rice Park or may feel uncomfortable walking in a strange city will see a very inviting perspective.
An inviting entry to the downtown is a change that pleases people who live in adjacent neighborhoods, particularly the West Seventh Street area. Kurt Schwichtenberg, president of the West Seventh Federation says the museum and the green space in front of it are a welcome change from the factory and parking lots that previously occupied the site. Schwichtenberg says a "blacktop valley" has long posed a physical and psychological gulf between downtown and the neighborhoods around it.
Schwichtenberg: Basically, surrounding the downtown is this paved circle of freeways or surface parking. And where West Seventh Street enters the downtown is really the only connection left between the lower-density peripheral neighborhoods and the downtown core.
The West Seventh Federation was formed in the 1970's by neighbors wanting to save and renovate the city's oldest residential area, Irvine Park. Director Ed Johnson says since then the group has fought against intrusive development, such as a plan to make Shepard Road a freeway with elevated interchanges. Johnson says the Science Museum's move to the Mississippi helps ensure that future riverfront development will be pedestrian friendly...
Johnson: Once the Science Museum came in, and given their commitment to being connected to the River corridor, then we had a great ally in basically just softening the road; don't let the road overtake the Mississippi River corridor. So it was helpful and they came in at a very opportune time to basically say "If this is what we're really serious about in terms of connecting to the river corridor, these are the things that are going to have to be done."
The Science Museum joins Saint Paul's convention center and arena in a cluster of new development where West Seventh meets downtown. The opening of the museum is widely expected to be a catalyst for additional development but what it will lead to remains to be seen. Whitney Clark, director of the group Friends of the Mississippi River, hopes it will lead to more educational exhibits about the river, perhaps at Fort Snelling or at the Historical Society's site in Minneapolis' flour-milling district.
Clark: The more people who come to the river and understand the river, through the exhibit and other efforts, the better; the better for the river in general.
Clark says studying the river helps people understand their interconnectedness. He says the connection between upstream and downstream is readily apparent.
Clark: But the same is true laterally, as well. We live in a watershed. A river's just part of a hydrologic system that's a watershed. The river's the bottom of that watershed. So the Science Museum is a focal point but it can help teach us about how we're all related to this river by virtue of being citizens of this watershed.
If unifying a watershed and calming a road make the museum's impact sound abstract, consider this: it's expected to attract a million or more visitors per year, which is 30 percent more than it drew at its old location on Cedar Street. Patrick Seeb, who directs a development group called The Riverfront Corporation, says investors are eyeing nearby land for hotels, restaurants, and housing. Seeb says the Science Museum's opening demonstrates that neglected land in the core of the city can be successfully redeveloped. He says there are 200 acres of vacant or blighted land downtown waiting for new uses.
Seeb: If you talk about smart growth and how to limit urban sprawl, one way to do it is to reclaim land in the core of the city. And what the Science Museum does, because of the way it's positioned, is it gives confidence that we can reclaim this blighted land; in fact, it has already, some 20 acres. But it also showcases and puts in front of people some 200 other acres where we have the same opportunity.
The Science Museum cost more than $99 million dollars to build. About 55 percent of that amount came from public sources, the remainder from private donations.