by CHRIS ROGERS
This month, the Levee Park Committee members rallied around a new design for redeveloping Levee Park. As it happens, the new draft plan shares many of the same features as one of the old plans for the park. This month, the committee also reversed its plans for Cal Fremling Parkway and revived discussions of a parking ramp.
When Winona Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl called Barry Drazkowski earlier this month to ask the former Riverfront Committee member for a large version of the design the 2008 committee developed for Levee Park, Drazkowski could not help but notice the similarities. "He said to me with a little chuckle, 'Boy, it sounds like you're on the same track as we were,'" Ubl recounted.
In August 2008, the Winona City Council voted unanimously to hire a landscape architect to finalize the Riverfront Committee's designs for Levee Park, but the architect was never hired. The Riverfront Committee's plans have sat on a shelf at city hall ever since.
When Mayor Mark Peterson's Levee Park Committee met for the first time in early 2013, all of the members were given a copy of the Levee Park plan generated by their predecessors, the 2008 Riverfront Committee, to help inform their work. That work led to the production of the Levee Park Vision Plan in spring 2014. However, citing citizen concerns over flood protection, the City Council voted against seeking a cost and feasibility estimate for the plan's most distinctive feature: a proposal to replace a portion of the levee with removable floodgates. Subsequently, the Levee Park Committee decided against the Vision Plan's other signature feature: a floating dock and artificial eddy or kayak ramp at the river's edge.
Earlier this month, the Levee Park Committee unveiled a new, draft conceptual plan. The new proposal has yet to be finalized, but shares many of the features of the 2008 Riverfront Committee's proposal.
In both plans in-fill would be used to raise the ground level on the south side of the park east of the former Wilkie site and west of Center Street, so that the elevation would nearly match the height of the flood wall.
The 2008 plan suggested an open air structure be erected at the former Wilkie site to shelter performances, though the Riverfront Committee acknowledged that it was not part of its purview. Former Mayor Jerry Miller had appointed a separate committee to develop a recommendation for the former Wilkie site area.
The Levee Park Committee's new draft plan for the park also calls for an open air structure described as a performance pavilion to occupy the former Wilkie site. The Levee Park Committee members shared images of circular, arching pavilion structures reminiscent of the 2008 Riverfront Committee's design as examples of what the performance pavilion might look like. However, the new plan calls for the structure to be oriented at a 45 degree angle to the river, allowing views of the stage from the in-filled area to the east.
Both plans call for a recasting of Cal Fremling Parkway as a pedestrian mall. The Levee Park Committee has discussed using fill to raise the level of the roadway to match the elevation of the curbs, and paving it with decorative concrete finishes or brick pavers. The effect would be a surface that could be driven on, but that invited pedestrian traffic, committee members said.
Both plans also suggest the use of the brick-paved plaza north of Center Street as the site of a proposed John Latsch statue, and call for creating terraced seating on the sloping lawns in the park. The old plan called for terraces on the lawns on either side of the Wilkie site. The new plan only proposes such seating north of the Boathouse Restaurant.
Changes to plans for cars in park
The committee's latest plan for Cal Fremling Parkway — converting it to a pedestrian mall — is a departure from a decision the group made in November.
At its December 16 meeting the committee discussed converting the roadway into a pedestrian mall and replacing some of the parking spaces on Cal Fremling Parkway with brick pavers or green space. Regular traffic would be restricted, though vehicles could use the road for emergencies or special events.
The Levee Park Committee wants to develop a park where people will want to eat lunch, said committee chair Frank Pomeroy. "Making this more pedestrian friendly is key to that," he stated at the December 16 meeting.
At its November 4 meeting, the committee had decided not to eliminate any parking in the park and to leave Cal Fremling Parkway open to regular vehicular traffic. Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President and committee member Della Schmidt stated that special events in the park would require as much parking as possible. "The consensus is that we do not remove any of the parking that presently exists," Pomeroy had stated at that meeting. The committee did mention its November 4 decision during its December 16 meeting.
"I think people adapt to whatever is good to do in a park, and our current park is good to drive through," Levee Park Committee member and City Council member Pam Eyden said, supporting the recent decision to restrict normal vehicular traffic on Cal Fremling Parkway. She added that the vehicles and roadways should not stand between park goers and the river.
Double advocates for parking ramp
Another familiar idea resurfaced at the Levee Park Committee's December 16 meeting. City Council member Paul Double advocated for the development of a parking ramp and commercial center in the parking lot between the park and the movie theater.
In 2007, the city studied an idea for a $30 million parking ramp/basketball area/performing arts center/convention center. Levee Park was not officially acknowledged as a potential site for the center, but city officials quietly led consultants on a tour of the site. The center would have been sited in the parking lot and extended over the railroad tracks and into the park.
Double proposed a multi-level parking ramp with a green roof over its top most level that would extend over the railroad tracks and into the park. From the garden-like top of the parking ramp, visitors would have an excellent view of the park and the river, Double said. Levee Park Committee member Mike Kennedy added that by angling the performance pavilion to the east, such a parking ramp — or one further east — would also have a good view of the proposed stage.
"When I really got far out, one of my thoughts was to have the stage that would float up and down as an attraction," Double said, laughing. He described a floating stage that would rise up and down within a water-filled cylinder.
"Just for the record I love these ideas," said Levee Park Committee member and former city manager Eric Sorensen. He noted the similarity of Double's idea to previous parking ramp proposals. "No, it's not crazy. The issue is, how do you put it together?" Sorensen added. Double suggested leasing the airspace over Levee Park as a source of funding.
Architect and committee member Owen Warneke said that there is a great deal of potential for development in the downtown riverfront and that the Levee Park project will increase that potential. He added that he is working for a client who owns property near the park who seriously considered the idea of developing a parking ramp himself. "It's not a pipe dream; people are thinking it could be a reality," Warneke said. He added, "I think this an ideal spot for multilevel parking for Winona. It's just perfect."
Pomeroy asked if there were rules limiting such private development of a city park. There are no rules preventing the city from selling parkland or developing it, though citizens may petition the city to decide whether to sell public parkland via a voter referendum and some city officials have described such a sale as "political suicide." Sorensen noted that the city could avoid that issue by leasing the land to developers for 100 years while retaining city ownership.