Some members of the Levee Park Committee were emotional as they left the Winona City Council meeting Monday night. Floodgates in Levee Park were dead on arrival. Moving forward with other parts of the park project was approved by split votes.
The price tag of the nixed proposal to add floodgates will remain a mystery. Citizen concerns drove the council to reject further study of the Levee Park Vision Plan's proposal to replace a portion of the Levee with floodgates and replace the rest of the Levee in the park with sloping grass berms that would stand taller than the current wall. A 6-1 vote excluded the proposed floodgates from a study of major design ideas. The study would have produced a cost estimate of a cost estimate — an estimated price for conducting an in-depth cost and feasibility analysis for the floodgates — as well as a rough, "ballpark" estimate for construction.
The council did approve the study of the proposed river shelf and of fill to raise the park's elevation, which committee leaders Frank Pomeroy and Eric Sorensen have championed an alternative to the floodgates. The three design ideas had been proposed for study together in a $6,000 package to be completed this summer, but the council took action to specifically exclude the floodgates.
During a pre-meeting, council members Gerry Krage, Michelle Alexander, Allyn Thurley, and George Borzyskowski indicated that they would not support studying the floodgate proposal. There has been a "tremendous amount of pushback" against the floodgates by the public, Krage said. Given that resistance and the fact that the floodgates concept "certainly isn't free," it "may be prudent to decide on that one earlier than everything else, so other ideas [and] plans can move forward," Krage stated.
"I am actually not in favor of the floodgates, and it really is irrelevant to me what it costs," Alexander commented. "I can't imagine it would be affordable. And so, from my perspective, I would actually like to move past that as an option and focus on what we could actually accomplish in a reasonable period of time, so that this year and a half you've spent coming up with this plan will actually show some fruit before this winter. So in my opinion we should take that off the table and focus on things that we actually think are attainable and may garner larger community support." The floodgates, she added, "may be something that is just not worth exploring."
Thurley agreed. "There [are] too many memories in this community of what flooding can do to even think about changing a structure that has some really deep roots," he said. The floodgates' exact cost may be unknown, but "I can't envision a budget [in which] the council would agree to make those changes," he added.
Borzyskowski questioned whether the floodwall changes should be presented to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) before any further consideration. He argued that until the USACE's blessing is secured, any investments in the project might wind up being a waste.
As the council prepared to vote on the committee's recommendations, Mayor Mark Peterson — who has expressed doubts about the practicality of the floodgate concept and urged the Levee Park Committee to carefully consider the feasibility of any recommendations it made — said that at the pre-meeting, there was consensus on the council not to further study the floodgate concept.
"I am not part of the consensus, so I don't think there is a consensus," responded council member Pam Eyden, who is also a member of the Levee Park Committee. "My feeling is that we should go into the workshop and see [whether] all of the different phases of the plan are feasible or if they are costly. We'll discover that soon enough, but I think to pull back now is not the right idea."
Krage's motion passed 6-1, with council members Paul Double, Borzyskowski, Alexander, Thurley, and Peterson supporting it. Eyden dissented.
Split vote supports project; Alexander: excluded
The floodgates may be scrapped, but the Levee Park project is marching on. In a 5-2 vote, the council approved a list of immediate actions to improve the park including replacing the fence between the park and the railroad with a hedge, widening the pedestrian crossing of the railroad tracks at Main Street, researching signage directing visitors to Levee Park, and researching closing Cal Fremling Parkway to vehicle traffic.
Alexander and Borzyskowski voted against the proposed actions. Alexander argued that any action was premature until plans for the park were more well formed. "I don't know how you can plan signage and design when you don't know what the design is going to be," she commented. She advocated for tabling the list of immediate actions until the end of the summer, when the initial study of the river shelf and fill concepts is complete.
"These [immediate steps] are necessary to provide some momentum," argued Eyden.
Alexander responded, saying that she was not comfortable approving the items after only a few days to review the proposal. She said that the public forum on the Vision Plan did not give the public a sufficient opportunity to understand the floodgate proposal, and added that it is premature to begin pursuing the project before the city understands the financial requirements of the full project.
"It's a huge project that I wasn't involved with and I feel separate from it. That's what I missed from this project, and it's a big one," Alexander commented.
Alexander did support a separate, 6-1 vote to fund the $6,000 proposal to study of the river shelf and fill design ideas and to develop an overall strategy for the project. She requested that the City Council be involved in that process. Borzyskowski was the lone council member to vote against that proposal.
Peterson commented after the meeting that the council's support of the immediate steps and study was a major milestone. A majority of the council supports the project, generally — "we haven't known that until now," he said.
The Corps and the Levee
After the floodgate plan was first released, the Winona Post asked USACE officials about the feasibility of the floodgate plan. They noted that a similar removable flood wall was approved and holds back the Red River in East Grand Forks.
The Corps is charged with ensuring that any proposed Levee alterations would not endanger lives or property. USACE officials said that the floodgates, and most significant changes, would constitute "major modifications" of the Levee, requiring final approval by USACE officials in Washington, D.C. Formal approval will require the city to invest in detailed engineering to prove the safety of any proposals. Levee Park Committee members have noted that adding any fill to the park would likely also require extensive engineering and Corps review.
Mayor jettisons doable but divisive floodgates
When asked if the floodgates would have endangered Winona, Peterson responded, "The engineering is doable, but I think that [when] you start talking about tearing into the Levee wall, it causes immediate concerns with people," Peterson commented in an interview. "I think the conversation was distracting from moving forward on the park," Peterson added, calling the floodgates "the most divisive" part of the project. "It was a bold, transformational concept, and it was great to have that discussion, but now it's time to be more practical… it's time to make a decision [on the floodgates]," he continued.
Asked if he believed the floodgates would endanger Winona, Thurley replied, "I'm not an engineer, and I'm sure it can be done, but at what cost?" There are many attractive parts to the park plan, he said, but "in terms of community acceptance, I am not hearing anybody saying [the floodgates] are a cool deal, that it is worth the committee's time."
"I think it was kind of silly not to at least take the opportunity to get some estimate," said committee member Tom Fassbender in an interview. Winona already has floodgates in the Levee at the marina, he pointed out. "If it's that controversial, why aren't we addressing the one we already have?" he asked. "I think a lot of people had made up their minds," he continued.
Committee member Mike Kennedy was matter of fact about the nixing of the floodgates. "It's done. It probably would have been an unfeasible, expensive thing to do that they would have come and rejected anyway."
"I don't have a problem with it because it's a decision the council has a right to make," commented Sorensen when asked about the council's decision to nix the floodgates. Sorensen was a critic of the floodgates concept from the start, commenting when the plans were first released, "I just don't understand why we would waste our time on that."
"I would have loved to have found out what [the floodgates] would have actually cost," said Levee Park Committee member Bernadette Mahfood in an interview after the vote. "There's a preconception that they're going to cost too much," she added.
As previously reported in the Winona Post, a removable flood wall erected over 10 years ago in East Grand Forks cost $1.7 million. Whether that project is comparable to the Levee Park proposal is hard to say. On the one hand, it installed a far longer stretch of removable flood wall, 1,000 feet; on the other, the Levee in East Grand Forks was already being rebuilt when the removable flood wall was installed. Removable flood wall contractors said that the preparation of the site is the greatest expense.
In an interview after the meeting, Peterson was surprised to hear to the $1.7 million figure. He indicated that advisors had given him best guesses for the construction cost of such a project and none of them had been nearly so low.
Major aspect scrapped; price of alternative also unknown
Nearly a year of work by the committee and consultants from University of Minnesota culminated in the Vision Plan. The floodgates are a foundational element of that plan, Pomeroy told the council prior to the vote. "You can't do a lot of things [in the Vision Plan] if you don't do the gate project," he said.
In previous interviews, Peterson, too, has acknowledged that new conceptual designs would likely be needed if the floodgates were scrapped. The committee has not recommended a renewed conceptual design phase, but did propose refining the design in upcoming phases of the project.
As an alternative to the floodgates, committee leaders have advocated using fill to raise the elevation of certain parts of the park. Both concepts are focused on increasing views of the river. Fill would allow park visitors to see the river from more areas within the park.
Pomeroy has argued that fill will be less expensive and less time-intensive than the floodgate concept; however, he and Peterson acknowledged that is still unknown. When asked after the vote if project leaders knew whether fill would be more timely and less costly than the floodgates, Pomeroy said, "That is what the study is for."
Major building still on the table
A proposal to build a 100,000 square foot "river interpretative center" and adjoining parking lot on what is now Severson's Sinclair gas station, AmericInn, and Winona Leasing and Sales is still on the table. The committee has only discussed the concept once, at a meeting for which public notice was not provided. Ubl said the building may be outside of the committee's purview and should not be further discussed until city negotiations with Mn/DOT for that area are complete. City Manager Judy Bodway is currently negotiating cost sharing agreements for proposed aesthetic improvements to the bridge and bridge landing area with Mn/DOT Project Manager Terry Ward. The negotiations, and the willingness of either Mn/DOT or the city to pay for specific improvements, may determine whether the proposals are realized. Neither Bodway nor Ward have described the substance of negotiations in detail. The current owners of the properties west of the new bridge will have the right to repurchase the land first. The city could only obtain the land if the owners opted not to repurchase the land.