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Levee Park plans head to council (06/16/2014)
By Chris Rogers
For 50 years, Winonans have dreamed of beautifying the downtown riverfront and lamented the Levee and “concrete park” that separates the heart of the island city from the Great River. None of the numerous plans for Levee Park have come to fruition, however. Last week, Winona’s latest Levee Park Committee laid out its plan to, at last, move plans for the park from the drawing board to the real world.

After nearly 16 months of meetings, the Levee Park Committee appointed by Winona Mayor Mark Peterson will present its recommendations to the City Council on Monday. Included in those recommendations is an outline for how to move the project forward. Some of the details have yet to be determined. What is clear is that several layers of planning work are still ahead.

The Vision Plan prepared by consultants from the University of Minnesota (U of M) needs more detail — and, potentially, major revisions, since some of its design ideas could be scrapped or significantly altered — before it is ready for final engineering, committee leaders determined. Additionally, the Vision Plan lacked detail on funding strategies, committee members noted. A “design development” phase is need to revise and refine the design for the park and to begin building funding partnerships, Levee Park Committee leaders decided.

Once the design development phase is completed, the City Council could seek bids for final engineering of the park and fundraising for construction could begin in earnest, according to a preliminary timeline outlined by the Levee Park Committee.

However, before design development, the Levee Park Committee decided that the city needs to study the feasibility and cost of design ideas such as installing floodgates, adding fill, and overhauling Cal Fremling Parkway, the site of the proposed river shelf or kayak ramp. The committee hopes partners will help finance the feasibility studies.

Before the feasibility studies, the committee wants to arrange a one-day workshop with consultants to provide cost estimates for conducting the feasibility studies and an overall strategy for fundraising and implementation. The committee is asking the City Council for $6,000 to fund the workshop.

Without some sense of what design ideas and planning steps might cost, the City Council is “flying in the dark,” commented Levee Park Committee member and Winona County Economic and Sustainability Director Natalie Siderius at the group’s meeting last week. She also stressed the value of conducting the workshop as soon as possible so that project leaders do not miss the opportunity to apply for the numerous state and federal grants with deadlines in the fall.

Internal deadlines for including feasibility studies in the 2015 city budget are coming up, too, Park and Recreation Director Chad Ubl noted.

Committee outline, step-by-step:

1. A one-day workshop with consultants would create an overall strategy and “roadmap” for the project, as well as cost estimates for feasibility studies.

2. Feasibility studies of the floodgates, fill, and river shelf concepts would help determine how realistic and how expensive each design idea would be.

3. The design development phase would develop a more detailed design of the park and plan for Army Corps of Engineers permitting and fundraising.

4. After a final master plan is approved by the City Council, the city could hire engineers to prepare construction documents and final fundraising could begin, followed, of course, by construction.

‘I thought we already paid for this?’

Funding strategies, a “road map” to implementation, design revisions — “I could see where somebody would say, ‘I thought we already paid for this,’” commented committee member and Winona National Bank CEO Jack Richter, referring to the plan prepared by the U of M consultants.

All of those items were included in consultants’ descriptions of the services they would provide and the plans they would deliver. When they first approached the city, designers Matt Tucker and Mary Vogel offered to provide a “Riverfront Vision and Implementation Plan” with “successful design proposals and a roadmap for implementation” that “articulates a clear, phased approach” with multiple design alternatives followed by design revisions.

The committee only received one design and zero significant revisions from the U of M consultants, however, and committee members called their plans for funding and implementation sparse. Prior to a public open house, committee members felt they needed to prepare a slide on a general spectrum of funding options in order to convey basic information on the funding possibilities to the public.

Consultants, city leaders, and the committee leaders had a falling out last fall after the consultants spent much of their time preparing information on “what if” scenarios that centered on a postindustrial future for Winona. Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt critiqued consultants’ suggestions that Winona’s industrial base would be eclipsed by the tourism industry, suggestions that led Winona City Manager Judy Bodway to ask Peterson if it was time for her “to remove myself from local leadership.” Later, Peterson, Pomeroy, Sorensen, and Ubl held a conference call with Tucker in which they told him to drop the “what ifs” and design the park. Contract negotiations ensued and ultimately Tucker agreed to provide a design for the park, but he did not provide multiple design alternatives and there was no opportunity for the committee or the public to vet the designs and recommend revisions. Now, the committee is recommending various revisions to the design.

Tucker was frustrated because he and his team had invested hundreds of hours, a significant amount of their time on the project, in developing the “what if” scenarios. Tucker and Vogel were also affected by unfortunate family emergencies that delayed their work on the project.

Tucker was also frustrated with what he described as the committee’s lack of engagement in and work on the project. The committee needs to take more ownership to be “walking on its own with clear direction and focus” when the consultants are done, Tucker wrote in a letter to the committee.

Siderius was one of the only committee members to challenge the premise of the designers’ “what if” scenarios, pointing out at a fall 2013 meeting that state experts actually predict that local manufacturing will rise.

In a previous interview, Gilman said he was never under the impression that Tucker’s work was a full-blown design development.

At last week’s meeting, Siderius responded to Richter’s comment, saying that the city got far more out of the U of M consultants than the $15,000 they charged. Private firms might have charged four times as much for that work, she said.

Only $5,000 of public funds were used for the consultants. Anonymous donors contributed $10,000.

Will a different group continue project?

“Once these recommendations are made, then the committee has done what the mayor has asked us to do,” said Levee Park Committee Chair Frank Pomeroy at the group’s last meeting. From there, committee members might choose to resign — as a few have or effectively have already — and whether the current committee or a new committee continues work on the project will be up to the City Council, he said.

The Levee Park Committee was appointed by Mayor Peterson. Pomeroy suggested that for the work ahead, a more formal committee formed by the council would be more appropriate and noted that typically the council members take turns appointing members to such committees.

Meanwhile, the committee recommended that the city should not wait to make comparatively easy improvements to the park, including installing signage directing visitors to downtown and Levee Park, removing the fence between the park and the railroad tracks and replacing it with a hedge, widening the pedestrian crossing of the the tracks at Main Street, installing a temporary performance shelter, and other minor aesthetic improvements.

The Levee Park Committee will present its recommendations to the City Council at 5 p.m. on Monday in the council chambers at city hall. Following that presentation, the council will consider taking action on the committee’s recommendations during its regular meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m. 

 

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