'Water Works' project reimagines downtown Minneapolis Mill District

The soon-built reconstruction of the Mill District's riverside area will change the face of Minneapolis. According to an artist rendering, there will be birds.

The soon-built reconstruction of the Mill District's riverside area will change the face of Minneapolis. According to an artist rendering, there will be birds. City of Minneapolis

Minneapolis finally has something to complain about, weather-wise.

We kid.

Construction on a two-phase, $30-million downtown park project will start as soon as conditions allow, according to Kate Lamers, a project design manager with Minneapolis Parks and Recreation. Once completed, the extensive improvement to public land would create a new connection from downtown to the Mississippi River.

Called "Water Works" on city planning documents, the plan envisions reconfigured walkways and bike trails and newly developed outdoor and indoor gathering spaces, not to mention a year-round restaurant and two performance venues.

Along with the Great Northern Greenway Riverlink, a cross-town biking/pedestrian trail, Water Works is among the main initatives of the "RiverFirst" projects with “a generational vision" for the "once-industrial Mississippi Riverfront as it flows through the heart of Minneapolis.”

Both are part of a broader 30-year plan to develop the area around Mill Ruins Park.

The first phase of construction is expected to begin in spring and be completed by spring of next year, at an estimated cost of $20 million. There are two phases of the project: one called "Mezzanine," the other christened "Riverside." While the two phases are not dependent on each other and “will develop on separate timelines” dictated by funding, Lamers says, the total cost of $30 million includes roughly $18 million in “private philanthropy.”

The number of people visiting the Mississippi in that area has increased, thanks largely to the popularity of Mill Ruins Park and the Stone Arch Bridge. But services offered to the parcel hasn't kept up, according to Lamers, who says this plan would enhance the visitor experience for an annual 2.5 million-some tourists, locals and out-of-towners alike.

The six-acre Downtown West park will overlook the Stone Arch Bridge and St. Anthony Falls and stick out within the larger Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park.

The project seeks to recognize the space's significance as the birthplace of the Minneapolis' historic milling district, and to increase access to “a place that has shaped cultural and economic connections for indigenous people and immigrants,” according to Lamers.

Existing mill sites long out of operation would be incorporated into the project. Planning and staging a long-term development has taken a while: Land once owned by the founder of the original Fuji Ya restaurant (opened as Minnesota's "first Japanese restaurant" circa  1968, per its website) was purchased by the city way back in 1990.

Lamers says the city parks department is also close to striking a deal with Sean Sherman, AKA the "Sioux Chef," to operate a year-round restaurant serving indigenous-themed meals. There will also be green space dedicated to traditional food plants grown by Native Americans, which could then be featured in Sherman's restaurant.

The "mezzanine phase" would bring turn the the existing Basset Engine house and Boiler Room into a two-story brick pavilion featuring the restaurant, among other features.

Discontinued grain mill elements would be preserved and displayed as much as possible, according to planning documents, including original walls and "barrel-vault ceilings" reborn in a "meeting room." The pavilion's second floor would be entirely rebuilt.

The "riverside" phase was set to begin in 2021, but has been pushed back. The earliest Lamers could see it starting is 2023, though she said it could take as many as 10 years to start that $10 million project.