A portion of St. Paul's Crosby Farm Regional Park could be transformed into a Mississippi River-focused gathering space with classrooms, canoe rentals, hiking trails and more if officials' plans for a 25-acre plot of city-owned land are realized.
City staff and architects on Thursday presented design plans for the proposed Mississippi River Learning Center, a recreation and education center that would aim to connect residents with the river.
"Our goal has always been to create a place where people can experience the land, the water and the culture of the Mississippi year round and at all ages," said Mary deLaittre, executive director of the nonprofit Great River Passage Conservancy, which is helping design and raise funds for the project.
Officials have not yet determined a final cost estimate for the project, though the city previously sought $20 million from the state's bonding bill, which the Legislature did not pass in its 2022 session.
The latest schemes for the site show a new building atop the river bluff, off Shepard Road, that would house public restrooms, vending machines and office space for the Great River Passage Conservancy, the National Park Service and the nonprofit Mississippi Park Connection.
Roads and an elevated "canopy walk" would connect that area to the river bank, where another building would contain classroom space, equipment rentals and a cafe. A garden and park space, boat house and new marina building would also be built on the lower bank.
The proposal suggests excavating a channel on the river's edge to create an island, which would be ecologically restored so visitors could explore. Other parts of the river bank would be infilled to create a more gentle slope to the water.
Presenters said designs were drawn from community feedback on three earlier concepts for the development. The building blueprints shrank from from 54,900 to 35,000 square feet after people said they'd like to minimize the footprint, said Barbara Wilks, the lead project designer from W Architecture.
"We're building in a pretty restricted site" due to regulations and floodplains, so a majority of the city's land will be left in its natural state, Wilks added.
Other features of the design proposal include safer crosswalks on Shepard Road and a "Falls to Farm" trail that would connect Crosby Farm Regional Park to Hidden Falls Regional Park.
Officials are planning to host another public meeting in October, at which point they will reveal a final design plan and cost estimates. Presenters said if all goes well, construction could start as soon as 2024 with a target opening date of 2026.
The Great River Passage Conservancy is also planning and fundraising for two other major projects proposed for St. Paul's 17-mile stretch of the Mississippi: a 1.5-mile promenade downtown dubbed the "river balcony" and efforts to improve accessibility and stewardship of the East Side River District.
"This is one of the projects that I'm most excited about in the ward," said Council Member Chris Tolbert, who represents the area where the river learning center would be built. "I'm so passionate about us embracing our river and getting more people down to our river."