Saint Paul on the Mississippi River

From Saint Paul’s origins, all the way through the early twentieth century, the Mississippi River served as the city’s main source of economic development. In its earliest days, Saint Paul citizens valued the river not just for transportation and commerce but for its scenic beauty and recreational offerings. Renowned landscape architect Horace Cleveland told city leaders in 1885, “The day is not distant when the thickly wooded banks, the deep and dark ravines, the rugged and precipitous rocks, and the picturesque cascades which form the shores of the majestic river will be regarded as your choicest possessions for the unique character they will confer upon the city. No money could purchase what nature has here provided; leave them as they are, such as creation’s dawn beheld.”

However, as Saint Paul became more industrialized, the River gave way to neglect. By 1919, industrial waste and untreated sewage polluted the river. Scrap yards were built at the river’s edge, rail lines restricted access to the water and riverside neighborhoods were demolished in response to flooding and to make way for industrial yards. Decades of disregard resulted in a river bereft of wildlife and with few allies.

Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation History

1984 Mayor George Latimer establishes a Riverfront Commission to explore revitalization of the downtown riverfront; The Commission forms the non-profit Riverfront Development Corporation.

1985 Sewer separation begins per the federal Clean Water Act of 1983.

1986 The Riverfront Land Use Plan begins to address riverfront revitalization, spurring the acquisition of underused, blighted and vacant lots along the river.

1992 Ben Thompson’s Great River Park vision is introduced, portraying the city as an area where neighborhoods, businesses, industry and transportation work in harmony with the environment, using the river as a unifying force.

Ben Thompson’s “Great River Park” helped Saint Paul see the Mississippi River as an important ecological and economic asset.

1994 Mayor Norm Coleman reinvigorates the Riverfront Development Corporation, renaming it the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation.

1994 The National Park Service designates a 72-mile stretch of the Mississippi, including Saint Paul’s 17-mile river valley, as the National River and Recreation Area (MNRRA).

1997 The Saint Paul on the Mississippi Development Framework is published, putting stewardship of the river at the forefront of the city’s redevelopment agenda.

1998 The Saint Paul on the Mississippi Design Center is established as a program of the Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation, in partnership with the City of Saint Paul.

1998-2004 An unprecedented period of riverfront revival includes the Wabasha Street Bridge, Harriet Island, the Science Museum of Minnesota, Lower Landing, Landmark Plaza and initial work on the Upper Landing.

2004 The Grand Excursion draws additional interest and investment to the river.

2006 The National Great River Park concept, a community-driven vision drawing on Ben Thompson’s vision and  guiding a new phase of riverfront rebirth, is introduced.

2007 The National Great River Park is adopted as official city policy by Mayor Christopher Coleman.

2008 The Grand Opening of three National Great River Park cornerstones is held: Upper Landing Park, Raspberry Island Park and the Bruce Vento Nature Sanctuary.

2009 The Grand Opening of the Harriet Island Esplanade Phase II and the City House on the Upper Landing. State bonding secured for National Great River Park master planning, a pivotal step in moving the initiative forward.

2010 The Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation expands to assist city leaders in a new era of redevelopment throughout Saint Paul, maintaining that urban design contributes to the city’s economic and community development.

2012 Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation helps to convene the first Placemaking Residency, kicking off what has become an annual initiative focusing on the intersection of design and issues of the day. Subsequent Residencies held in 2013-2016.

2015 Saint Paul Riverfront Corporation receives a grant through the Knight Green Line Challenge Grant to host the River Balcony Prototyping Festival September 2016.