St. Paul planners last week detailed their ambitious plan to link the Mississippi River to downtown St. Paul attractions along the bluff, but a few key elements — a price tag and a timetable — remain unclear.
The River Balcony project is designed to tap into the river as an economic development engine by luring visitors and opening new development opportunities, including restaurants and retail, along its 1.5-mile route. Some property owners and developers already said they’ll integrate the balcony into their plans.
Still, the project is split into 50 or 60 smaller segments, planners said Thursday when they introduced a conceptual design to about 100 community members at Union Depot. The expansiveness of the project spotlights the number of stakeholders that need to get involved.
The elevated pedestrian walkway, modeled after New York’s famed High Line, would extend from the water’s edge near Sibley Street, up along Kellogg Boulevard and past the Science Museum of Minnesota.
In addition to physically building out the path, city officials expect property owners along the route to be significant benefactors. There’s no set price tag yet — that will come later, planners said — but private dollars will be a substantial part of the financing mix.
“We need to take this opportunity and maximize the dollars coming from those different buckets,” said Bruce Jacobson, a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Metropolitan Design Center, who helped develop the 3D balcony model unveiled Thursday. The project’s budget is divided into 26 separate areas.
The Exeter Group, the St. Paul developer behind an effort to transform an old post office facility into 202 luxury apartments, has already committed to incorporating the River Balcony into its design. An extension of the path will run along the second floor of the 17-story building, at 180 E. Kellogg Blvd.
Strong support from Exeter — principal Herbert Tousley IV earlier this month called the balcony a “terrific resource” — will likely make Custom House the first property to feature a piece of the project, city officials said Thursday.
Another section of the balcony would touch Kellogg Mall Park. Farther down, the Science Museum is interested in supporting the effort, possibly through a link directly to the river near its property. In addition, the Union Depot — which will link to the balcony — is expected to contribute.
“It’s about making these really important connections to existing assets,” Jacobson said.
With so many stakeholders at play, the River Balcony timetable remains murky. St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said the city will hold several more informational meetings about the project as planners iron out pricing and other details. Actual implementation, though, could take a while.
“It’s not a five-year project, it’s not a 10-year project — it’s a life’s project, reconnecting ourselves to the river,” Jacobson said.
But even before the River Balcony is finished, the city could see increased interest from developers along the route. For planners, it’s a priority to stoke new projects in downtown St. Paul, in part to make the city more attractive to visitors and beef up nearby amenities.
“One of the most important things for the whole balcony is it generates safety, safe activity and it generates new development,” Metropolitan Design Center fellow Mic Johnson said Thursday. “The more of that that we do, the more downtown St. Paul fills out.”
Under preliminary plans, the balcony would connect to the river at several points. Walkways extending to the water’s edge would have a 5 percent grade — a slope that’s not steep enough to limit access.
Direct links between the river and the bluffs will take on new prominence when the Viking Cruise Lines starts bringing travelers up the Mississippi River from New Orleans in higher-end river boats. After service starts, expected in 2017, St. Paul would benefit from a ready-made gateway to other parts of the city.
The River Balcony is designed with visitors in mind, planners said. They expect the corridor to mirror the success that has redefined St. Paul’s Lowertown neighborhood, home to Union Depot.
For decades, the area was primarily an artists’ enclave that struggled to entice developers. But in recent years, a new St. Paul Saints ballpark and a residential renaissance transformed Lowertown into one of the city’s most vibrant neighborhoods.
“The River Balcony is an opportunity to continue that momentum through the center part of the city,” Coleman said.
The city will continue to refine plans based on public input and feedback from stakeholders — like the businesses and property owners the city is counting on to bankroll the project.