A new Mississippi River Learning Center near Crosby Farm Regional Park in St. Paul would not only give visitors breathtaking views from a bluff above the river, but a chance to go down to the shore, wade in the water, launch a canoe and hike nearby wooded trails.
The center would be open year-round.
On Thursday, officials with the city and Great River Passage Conservancy unveiled designs for the proposed center, which include an easy access promenade from the river bluff to the Mississippi and a new island with a Native American ceremonial space.
"It is beautiful, isn't it?" Mary deLaittre, the conservancy's executive director, said of nine renderings made public Thursday.
The designs are the result of nine months' work by W Architects & Landscape Architecture of New York, in what deLaittre said was "a very robust process."
"We really had to balance conditions, needs and values," she said. "What will the site allow us to do? What are the community's values? And, also, what do the Dakota and local native communities have to say?"
The goal of the River Learning Center, deLaittre said, is to help people reconnect with the river. Working with Mississippi Park Connection, the National Park Service and Your Boat Club, the project would start by meshing a new trailhead to the Sam Morgan Regional Trail with a new Park Service headquarters building. Visitors could then follow the promenade down to the Learning Center, near a retooled Watergate Marina, where enhanced access would bring them to the river that helped spawn St. Paul.
Once at the riverside, visitors would find a new island — created by cutting a shallow channel through an existing peninsula — allowing them to frolic in the water or explore the woods. The island would serve a couple purposes, deLaittre said: It would allow habitat restoration and provide a ceremonial space for Native Americans. Full Circle Indigenous Planning + Design is participating in the project.
Sam Olbekson, founder and CEO of Full Circle, said he appreciated being part of the planning process for a facility at the center of Dakota cultural and spiritual life in Minnesota.
"This is not a park, but a shared community and sacred place that needs care, protection and respect," he said. "The river learning center will provide an opportunity to restore the lost connections to a site that's part of a larger system of important natural and Dakota cultural areas."
Meant to build enthusiasm for the project, Thursday's "community meeting and design celebration" included boat, walking and birder tours of the site for dozens of area residents to imagine how the new center could transform the area.
It also kicked off a six-month transition phase meant to develop final designs, cost estimates and a strategy to pay for it all, deLaittre said. Officials plan to seek state bonding from the Legislature, she said.
State Rep. Dave Pinto, DFL-St. Paul, said he's introduced a bill to do just that.
"And I have been pushing really hard at the Legislature to try to make that happen," he said.
City Council Member Chris Tolbert predicted the learning center would become a magnet for school groups and families from across the state seeking fun as well as an educational experience.
"It's one of those projects where every single year, when I've learned about it or thought about it — or came down here and experienced what it could be — I've gotten more and more excited and more and more interested in making sure this happens," he said.
The Learning Center is one of three projects for which the Conservancy is tasked with raising money. River Balcony, a proposed 1.5-mile promenade along downtown St. Paul's river bluff, would connect public spaces, civic landmarks and commercial sites to highlight the river's importance to downtown. And the 1,000-acre East Side River District seeks to blend and balance the area's development history while also accentuating and protecting sacred Dakota sites throughout the area.