New designs for Levee Park released on Friday propose drastic changes that have not been specifically discussed at public meetings: moving the levee wall, adding removable flood gates, building a 100,000 square-foot building and parking lot on space currently occupied by Severson's Sinclair gas station, removing some of the railroad tracks next to the park, removing the "Wilkie pad," removing Cal Fremling Drive, and renaming the park. Also included in the plans are a kayak ramp, a new dock, an overlook jetty, a new cafe building to replace the present building, which would be razed, a sculpture, "water play" areas, rain gardens, and a "urban forest parking lot" behind the present movie theater.
Illustration by U of M Center for Changing Landscapes
A view of the proposed Levee Park redesign from Second and Main streets shows a "water play" area on Main Street leading into the park. The proposal calls for part of the levee wall to be replaced with removable flood gates, allowing a view of the river.
The plans were prepared by University of Minnesota (U of M) designers and just released to the media and the city of Winona Levee Park Committee. Committee Chair Frank Pomeroy and Park and Recreation Community Services Director Chad Ubl noted that many of the proposed design elements are not fully explained. "We're still waiting for a lot of explanation," Pomeroy said.
Levee wall rearranged
The plans call for totally reshaping the levee wall. The former Wilkie site would be removed and lowered to be closer to river level. The section of levee wall would be removed entirely at Main Street and replaced with flood gates. "During periods of high water, this portion of the earthworks will be closed off with floodgates," designers explained. In combination, the two changes would allow for a view of the river from Main Street, a longtime dream for the park. The former Wilkie site would feature an amphitheater-like performance plaza for arts and music events.
To the east, the levee wall would run close to its current location before jutting out towards the river at the park's east end, which would host a new cafe building and patio and a circular Latsch Island overlook and sculpture. The current cafe building in the park's west end, which currently houses the Boat House Restaurant, would be removed under the proposal.
"While the park's namesake levee provides an important structural capacity to resist flooding in the community, the design of the levee itself significantly deters public use and enjoyment of the waterfront," wrote U of M landscape architect Mary Vogel in her explanation of the plans. The redesign balances flood protection with pubic enjoyment, Vogel explained. Vogel goes on to recommend a contest to rename Levee Park "to find a name more encompassing of the public space, its past and its potential."
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has authority over any changes to the levee, and, according to city staff, is generally pretty strict. Director of Public Works Keith Nelson spoke before the Levee Park Committee last month describing the corps' requirements: many of the existing trees in the park need to go, saving planters may be a challenge, any changes to elevation or fill in the park might be impossible. There is a variance process whereby the city could ask the USACE to approve its changes. Nelson described it as time-consuming. When asked if the USACE would approve the changes, Pomeroy said, "At this point who knows?" However, he expressed confidence that the U of M designers are knowledgable about what the corps might permit.
100K-square foot building
The plan also calls for a 100,000-square foot "river education regional center and park offices" to be built at the current Sinclair station site on Huff Street. Vogel describes it as "a multi-use 'river center' … for education, arts, and river-based commerce support." Beyond that, there is no description of the building. Pomeory and Ubl said they did not know what it was intended for.
At a meeting for which there was no public notice, the committee did discuss constructing a new office building and/or visitors center for the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) in the park. Another section of the U of M designers recommendations discusses "opportunities for the [FWS] to locate some facilities adjacent to Levee Park that could strengthen its presence in Winona and add some activity to the riverfront that could support Levee Park through federal appropriations."
In interviews last month, FWS and city officials said there had not been recent discussions of such a center.
In recent years, the city has done in-depth studies of a conference center/performing arts center/arena in the downtown riverfront area. Past plans called for that $30 million structure to be paid for by the city and populated in part by private business.
The Severson's Sinclair gas station is slated to be seized by the Minnesota Department of Transportation as part of the new bridge project. However, the portion of the property planned for the river center is on a section that is not within the permanent right-of-way. The city will only have a chance to purchase it for such a project if the current owners decline their right to buy it back.
Fewer parking spots, rail lines; more boats
The designers call for replacement of many parking spots in the area with green space. A change titled "urban forest parking lot" appears to consist of adding green space and removing some parking spots in the city parking lot behind the Winona Seven movie theater. The plans would remove Cal Fremling Drive, the riverfront road in the park, as well as the small parking lot on the park's east end.
On the east side of what is currently Cal Fremling Drive, a kayak ramp would slope into the water. It would be protected from the main channel by a new dock or pier. That dock would also accommodate motor boaters and large vessels like the American Queen.
The plans were not clear as to what was intended for the rail yard that currently abuts the park. It shows what appear to be some rail lines, but also added green space. Ubl and Pomeroy said they could not provide more details and were also waiting to learn more.
It is unclear how final the plans are, but they have previously been described as final conceptual designs. The committee has yet to weigh in on the designs. The group may request minor revisions. However, the U of M designers will not be available to make large-scale revisions, city officials said.
The Levee Park Committee will meet to discuss the plans on Tuesday, February 11, at 4 p.m. in the Misato Room on the third floor of city hall. The meeting is open to the public; however, there are no plans for public comment at that meeting. The committee does intend to share the plans and solicit feedback at a public forum and open house expected to be held on March 8.