The railroad tracks that slice through Wayzata have been both a blessing and a curse to the city, separating it from its greatest outdoor asset — the Lake Minnetonka shoreline — but also saving that area from development.
It's the BNSF tracks that have kept private owners from buying and developing a 3,000-foot stretch of shoreline in the middle of the city's downtown. For years, the property's most prominent features have been the tracks and a long, narrow municipal parking lot.
Now Wayzata is preparing to begin transforming the area into something more visually appealing: a $22 million beautification project funded by the city, state, Three Rivers Parks District and private donations.
Formerly called the Lake Effect, the project has been rechristened Panoway on Wayzata Bay. Panoway is a portmanteau combining "panorama" and "Wayzata."
Panoway will celebrate the area that Andrew Mullin, board chairman of the Lake Effect Conservancy, calls "Wayzata's front porch." The conservancy is a nonprofit organization raising private donations to help pay for the project.
Construction is scheduled to begin next year with a streetside plaza. City leaders envision adding parks, a lakeside boardwalk and other attractions as money is raised over the next few years.
The project is designed to enhance downtown Wayzata's lake access and walkability, the two characteristics residents generally say they value most, City Manager Jeffrey Dahl said.
"We think we have a project that really connects the community back to the lake," Dahl said. "It's going to be a great community gathering space, and it's also going to benefit the region."
Wayzata is scheduled this month to bid out the $9.3 million first phase of the project, spanning the area between the railroad tracks and the city. Its main attraction will be the plaza along four blocks of Lake Street, the city's shop- and restaurant-lined waterfront boulevard.
The plaza will include a water feature, greenery, lighting, restrooms and other amenities. Phase I also includes extending the Dakota Rail Regional Trail farther into town as an off-street path and narrowing Lake Street to improve walkability.
The area of the railroad tracks, which carry a dozen trains daily, will be made safer with barriers and a pedestrian crossing.
Construction is expected to begin in March, or as soon as weather permits, and be finished in time for the city's annual James J. Hill Days festival in September.
An attempt to start construction this fall was canceled when bids came in higher than budgeted. The cost was higher partly because construction would have carried over two years, Dahl said.
"This project's evolved a lot," Dahl said. "It's evolving every month and as we move forward we're getting better and better numbers."
If bids come in high again, city officials would consider trimming construction costs by downscaling details such as sidewalk surfaces or lighting styles.
City leaders have spent nearly a decade holding town meetings and conducting surveys to gather residents' views on how best to develop the property.
"That's why we're so confident moving forward, because we think we have a plan that's what the community wants," Dahl said. "It's clean, welcoming and connected ... a great community space welcoming to everybody."
Standards were set high from the start, said Mayor Ken Willcox. "There was a high expectation that we're doing it right, and if we can't do it right don't do it at all," he said.
The project's official launch involves something of a rebranding. For most of its history, the project went by the working title of the Lake Effect. But not everyone warmed to a term that is widely associated with chilliness, Willcox said.
"Of course, people wondered whether we were giving a weather forecast or what," he said.