For decades boats have moored at a discreet landing in Minneapolis extending from the western shore of Nicollet Island into the Mississippi River, where they can be seen from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.
Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board ordered them gone, removing an electrical line that served houseboats at the location. Park staff also barred the stairs leading from W. Island Avenue down to the landing, citing their "extremely poor condition" and lack of disability access, and they are considering whether to remove the river access point entirely.
The crackdown on unpermitted mooring has also prematurely ended the Minneapolis Water Taxi's business season.
The taxis, which offered cruises north of St. Anthony Falls by the hour, had moored for years at the so-called "Nicollet Island Quay". Two houseboats also docked there. One is the home of the taxis' owner, Capt. Cory Parkos.
Parkos moved his three taxis into storage as told. But in an act of defiance, he now anchors his houseboat straight in the river, where it continues to sit in the exact same spot — just technically beyond the Park Board's jurisdiction.
"We lost probably 150 cruises that were already reserved, not including how many more might have been reserved up until the end of next month when we close [for the year]," he said.
Essential to the dispute around the quay is "who controls MPRB property," said Park and Recreation spokesperson Dawn Sommers. "The MPRB has an ordinance that prohibits anyone from docking a boat on MPRB property without a permit," she said. "The City Charter is clear that parkland is under the exclusive control of the MPRB."
Nicollet Island power struggle
The Nicollet Island Quay was built by developer John Kerwin of Nicollet Restoration Inc., who has repeatedly run afoul of the Park Board's efforts to exert sole control over its land the past 40 years.
On the island, Kerwin is known for saving the historic Grove Street Flats rowhouses from demolition in the early 1980s. He also constructed the adjacent townhouses at 45 W. Island Av., infuriating Park and Recreation commissioners at the time by cutting down 93 trees without asking.
In 1982, three years before the land was transferred to the Park Board, Kerwin got permission from the Minneapolis City Council to build a public river landing opposite the Grove Street Flats. His permit allowed him to terrace the riverbank and install pathways, stairs and underground electrical service. It required him to keep the premises in clean and safe condition.
Kerwin said he spent $30,000 in 1982 dollars to build the quay and about the same in the intervening years on maintenance. He argues his license still applies because the city never terminated it.
"I maintained the space and kept it open to the public," he said. "It's a scenic river and it's supposed to stay open and get used. … For 40 years, we've been making that available."
Things started changing in 2020.
In January of that year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the city lacked jurisdiction over park property. In a case pertaining to the newly built Commons park in downtown Minneapolis, the court opined that the city charter reserved that power for the Park Board alone.
Shortly after, a Nicollet Island resident reported that a truckload of rock had been spread along the riverbank. Park and Recreation lawyer Brian Rice investigated, finding rock dumped without the Park Board's permission and two houseboats tied to park property without permits.
Kerwin said he had the rock spread near the quay in order to stabilize it from erosion. He points to a 1983 bank stabilization permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources giving him the "responsibility of maintenance of any structure or path below the ordinary high-water level."
In the course of citing the houseboats for illegal mooring, the Park Board also discovered Kerwin had been charging boat owners $200 a month, and kayak and canoe owners $100 a year, to store their watercraft on the landing.
"Mr. Kerwin has been charging boat owners a monthly fee to dock their boats on MPRB land," said Sommers. "Mr. Kerwin has no right to do so."
Fighting for river access
Kerwin said he collects fees from the quay's regular users to help offset the cost of maintenance and electricity.
Zachary Norman, the owner of the second houseboat moored at the Nicollet Island Quay, said he's happy to pitch in. He credits Kerwin with maintaining the island's only motor boat docking facility in usable condition for the public over the decades.
"John's not making any money down there," Norman said. "We love the river. We want more people using the river. … I think that a lot of things can be worked out — accessibility, safety, they're all fixable."
The district court found Norman guilty of illegal mooring in June and fined him $128. He continues to moor at Nicollet Island, however, holding out to see if some agreement can be struck with the Park Board to preserve the landing.
Tuesday evening, the Jolly Roger (a pirate flag) flew over Parkos' houseboat as he pulled up to the Nicollet Island Quay in one of his water taxis. Kerwin climbed down from the street, wearing a Chinese Cultural Revolution cap, and boarded for a visit. Scott Olson, the inventor of inline skates and a part-owner of Parkos' houseboat, dropped in to swim.
These days, the only part of Parkos' Minneapolis Water Taxi business that remains is his partnership with the Nicollet Island Inn, which offers a twilight river cruise and dinner package.
"What we have been able to do with the water taxi between last year and this year is [take] close to 600 people on the river. … A lot of them that we talked to had never done that," said Larry Abdo, owner of the Nicollet Island Inn. "We have to find a way … to get cooperation from the Park Board for them to carry on this activity."
Parkos is currently in negotiations with Park and Recreation staff to become a permitted water taxi vendor. The staff would welcome the opportunity to work with him through an official board-approved agreement, Sommers said.
In that case, Parkos would be allowed to moor his taxis at the nearby Boom Island docks, but he would have to pay the Park Board 12% of his gross income and install his own electricity and security cameras.
Parkos makes $70,000 in a good year, he said, and he fears the infrastructure enhancements alone would be cost-prohibitive.
The future of Nicollet Island Quay is also up in the air.
Included in the 1993 park master plan for the Nicollet Island area, the landing was left out of the most recent 2016 Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park Master Plan. That plan only includes docks for motor boats at Boom Island and calls for "shoreline restoration" where the Nicollet Island Quay is located.
"With the eviction, it's kind of hard to want to make a deal," Parkos said.
Park and Recreation Commissioner Billy Menz, who campaigned on increasing access to the Mississippi River, wants to see the Minneapolis Water Taxi stay because he believes offering recreation on the river will make people care more about its quality.
However, the aging quay poses a risk, and the Park Board would be held liable if someone were injured trying to dock or climb on its stairs, he said.
"The Park Board is enforcing the rules that we have on the books, and whether or not those rules have been enforced in the past appropriately," he said. "If people get in the same room, the Park Board is committed to working with any type of water taxi vendor. We want recreation along that river, but we want to make sure that it's done in a safe way."