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Mississippi River walkway planned in St. Paul

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Undated courtesy rendering of Saint Paul’s proposed River Balcony, an elevated pedestrian path that would provide visual and physical connections between downtown and the Mississippi River.
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ST. PAUL — When Viking Cruises begins trips up the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Paul, visitors from around the world will disembark at Lower Landing Park onto a mile-long river balcony.

The elevated pedestrian walkway will lead them from the river's edge, around Sibley Street and past the former Kellogg Boulevard post office tower -- soon to be known as the Custom House luxury apartment building -- and past the Science Museum of Minnesota.

There may be a coffee shop or two along their path, as well as a beer garden, a few joggers and a mother pushing a baby carriage above the gently rolling waters of the Mississippi.

Sound familiar? Probably not. That's because the St. Paul river balcony is an optimistic vision that exists only in a three-dimensional model, a digital display and a handful of additional renderings. It has no firm funding, timeline or even a price tag attached -- at least, not yet.

St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and research fellows from the University of Minnesota's Metropolitan Design Center unveiled the river balcony concept to the public Thursday in the Union Depot waiting room, a site that would effectively bookend the future balcony.

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"So much of this is aspirational," Coleman told a crowd of several dozen onlookers. "Parts might be built out fairly soon. Some of it might take a little bit longer."

Hopefully not too long, said retired Mayo Clinic nurse Linda Letts, who moved to Lowertown in 2012. "I walk along this river four days out of seven," Letts said. "Seems overdue," chimed in friend Nancy Crohn. "It's exciting. I'm sorry it has to be done in phases."

City planners say the final design for Phase 1 -- from Robert Street to the Union Depot -- could be ready by the end of 2016, and some partners are already emerging.

In a statement, Jim Stolpestad, a principal at Exeter Group, said his company's efforts to convert the post office tower into market-rate apartments "will serve as an important anchor in bringing this larger River Balcony plan to life."

Coleman was in Dubuque, Iowa, last week for a conference of Mississippi River mayors, where he rubbed elbows with representatives of Viking cruises. Company officials reiterated their intention of launching river cruises from New Orleans in 2017, though the mayor said the Swiss-based operation is still working through federal licensing requirements.

Viking has six ships on order, and would most likely roll out the trips in segments as ports come online, Coleman said. The company is studying a St. Paul destination with the St. Paul Port Authority, but the Robert Street Bridge would prevent a large vessel from passing farther.

That makes Lower Landing Park, near Sibley Street, a logical point to disembark. Creating clear paths to CHS Field, the Science Museum and other destinations would help tell the story of St. Paul to visitors from around the globe.

"You only have one chance to make a first impression," said Coleman. The mayor called Viking's arrival "a given" but said a port location is not set in stone.

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Bruce Jacobson, a research fellow at the Metropolitan Design Center, said Second Street beneath Kellogg Boulevard could be closed to vehicles and transformed into a pedestrian- and bicycle-only boulevard with garden plantings and other amenities. "We want to make that a place, with or without Viking cruises," he said.

The river balcony would have 25 to 50 or more individual segments, and each segment poses its own challenge and opportunity, said David Horner, another research fellow at the design center. He presented a digital mock-up of possibilities.

Landings with walkways to the river's edge would be situated like dumbbells near the balcony's two bookends -- the Science Museum and the Union Depot. At 5 percent grade, the gentle slope would be accessible to those in wheelchairs.

At those and other key areas, vertical circulation towers with stairs and elevators could connect visitors to below-grade parking.

The general gateway to the river balcony would likely start at the RiverCentre parking ramp, with the new walk snaking around a development opportunity on top of the ramp, such as a multi-level retail building.

Because of liability concerns, the walk would then weave inbound toward Kellogg Boulevard as it passes the District Energy plant. It would soon snake back out toward the river bluff at the Ramsey County Government Center West building, which is in the process of being demolished.

The former home of West Publishing represents yet another development opportunity, and whatever developer eventually buys the vacant property from Ramsey County would be expected to come to the table ready to partner on the balcony.

Tom Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota's College of Design, said there's plenty of precedent for elevated walkways. Projects in recent years have included the Seattle RiverWalk, Manhattan's High Line park and Houston's Buffalo Bayou Promenade.

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"Downtown St. Paul is going through this sort of renaissance," Fisher said. "There are so many reasons to come downtown. We wanted to create one more."

John Ryan used to come downtown with his mother to shop as a boy in the 1950s and 1960s. He and his wife, Nancy Norling, have lived in Lowertown for 12 years, and they long to see projects like the river balcony boost retail and tourism.

"We're really excited about the prospect of making downtown vibrant again," Norling said.

Frederick Melo can be reached at 651-228-2172. Follow him at twitter.com/FrederickMelo .

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