New consultants helped refocus the Levee Park project last Thursday, listening to project leaders' evolving design ideas and giving advice for shepherding the project to completion. Two things are clear after the daylong planning session with consultants and city leaders: the Levee Park project is moving forward, and the basic design of the park remains to be determined.
Consultants and Levee Park Committee members noted that the current conceptual plan is predicated upon two major design ideas that have been or may be nixed: the floodgate concept, which the City Council vetoed in June, and the 'river shelf' or kayak ramp concept, which some have suggested be replaced with a more simple riverfront plaza. Committee members advocated for reconsidering the floodgate concept, and Council Member Paul Double suggested building a parking ramp over the top of the rail yard that separates the park and downtown.
The Levee Park Committee is undecided on whether to pursue the 'river shelf' concept, which is essentially an artificial eddy bordered by a floating dock where Cal Fremling Parkway is today, leave Cal Fremling Parkway as a through street, or convert it into a plaza blocked off to normal traffic.
Peterson: floodgate decision final
Levee Park Committee members Bernadette Mahfood, Tina Anderson, and Tom Fassbender advocated for further consideration of the proposal to replace a section of the Levee wall with removable floodgates. Citing concerns that the floodgates would not hold back the river or that they would be prohibitively expensive, the City Council voted 6-1 to stop further study of the concept in June, including studying how much the floodgates might cost.
Landscape architect Jason Stangland, of Madison, Wis.-based SmithGroup JJR, noted that the current conceptual design for the park is predicated on the nixed floodgates, and asked, "How does that influence the vision that was established?"
"In my mind that's unresolved, despite the fact that the City Council voted to take it off the table for discussion," Mahfood responded.
"The opportunity was taken out of the equation without studying it further to make a decision based on what is best versus what some people perceive as being a danger to downtown," Anderson added.
Mahfood said that if the floodgates are eliminated, the city will need a new conceptual design. Mahfood and Fassbender noted that many citizens liked the idea and even skeptics were won over when they learned more. "So are you telling me that there's an opportunity for better education," interpreted landscape architect Eduard Freer of SmithGroup JJR.
In a nonpublic meeting following that discussion, Mayor Mark Peterson ruled out attempts to resurrect the floodgate concept. Levee Park Committee Chair Frank Pomeroy summarized Peterson's comments during that meeting by saying, "The bottom line is that the council decided. The mayor said we need to follow the council's direction." In a subsequent interview, Peterson said of the floodgate concept, "We'll make it clear here. That has been dealt with."
The city is moving ahead with consideration of using fill to raise the elevation of Levee Park, which committee leaders Pomeroy and Eric Sorensen have pitched as a more realistic way to provide river views from the park. SmithGroup JRR is expected to submit a rough cost estimate for fill and a cost estimate for completing an in-depth feasibility study of the concept. According to the consultants, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) representatives stated that fill would be a minor alteration of the Levee, requiring less stringent review than major alterations such as installing floodgates or relocating the flood wall, as proposed in the current conceptual plan for the park.
Double: what about a parking ramp?
Council member Paul Double suggested installing an elevated parking ramp over the rail yard, a concept that echoes 2008 plans for a $30 million parking ramp/performing arts center/convention center/basketball arena that would extended from the adjacent city parking lot, over the tracks, and into the park. That plan was one of several locations studied during the 2008 convention center plans, which were later abandoned.
Double stated that if the park will host thousands for events, additional parking is needed. He also said the parking ramp could double as a pedestrian overpass of the rail yard and that it could be capped with a sloped, lawn-like "green roof" that could serve as a type of stadium seating for a performance pavilion in the park.
The city received $250,000 in state funding for planning the 2008 parking ramp/performing arts center/convention center/basketball arena, but plans fizzled and the city returned the money, citing the economic downturn.
Role for chamber, manufacturers?
Many of Winona's major employers are interested in the Levee Park project because of its potential to improve quality of life and boost employee recruitment and retention, said Winona Area Chamber of Commerce President Della Schmidt. "I think there are funding partners as long as the conversation is collaborative," she said. "I think we have an opportunity to engage them at a higher level and a more inclusive level there than has been to this point." Schmidt suggested strengthening the relationship between the Chamber-run, partly city-funded Main Street Program and the Levee Park project. Main Street Coordinator David Bittner sits on the Levee Park Committee. Asked in an interview how the relationship could be strengthened, Schmidt explained that the Levee Park Committee could have joint planning sessions with Main Street committees and that there might be aspects of the project that Main Street could oversee.
"It's a simple reality that this town could not function without a partnership between industry and tourism," said Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Managing Director Lee Gundersheimer. He and City Council member and Levee Park Committee member Pam Eyden suggested including tributes to Winona's manufacturing community through the physical materials used in the park, such as composites and stained glass.
Consultants: politics is part of process
"One of the obstacles is how do we get the council to understand and vote for this," Freer said. "It's not just technical; it's political," he added.
Freer said that getting help from federal and state legislators would be crucial, as well, and the city should start lobbying for the project. Red Wing's riverfront park project won support among Minnesota senators and received state bond funds this year.
Winona still has many decisions to make about how it wants to change Levee Park. Those decisions are complicated by the fact that changes to the park require negotiating with the Union Pacific Railroad, on one side, and seeking approval from the USACE on the other.
"I think we all agree that things are a little tired, but the bones are strong," said Freer of the Levee Park project at a public section of the park planning session. "This isn't an ugly marathon, but it isn't a sprint," He continued. "These are races requiring perseverance and endurance and commitment to each other…. After hearing what I heard today, I'm not saying the vision is wrong, I'm not saying the plan is wrong, but one of the steps is to refine this a little further."
Despite the challenges, there were several positive developments. Consultants pressed Levee Park Committee members to go beyond discussing vague goals for the park like "creating connections" and "access" and outline specific design ideas and action items.
Several city leaders agreed that establishing a performance space in the park was a top priority because it could serve as a catalyst for activity in the park. Many committee members agreed that negotiating with the railroad was a crucial next step, because it will set the stage for what sort of entrances to the park it will be possible to create. Consultants said the USACE did not have any problems with the construction of a performance pavilion at the former Wilkie site — as has been suggested by Live@ the Levee — as long as the structure is outside of the 15-foot levee setback.
Consultants warned the committee that railroad attorneys will want to minimize the number of pedestrian and vehicular crossings and that prioritizing which rail yard crossings are most important is crucial. City leaders agreed that Main, Walnut, and Johnson streets are the most important crossings, though everyone would like to see additional places to enter the park.
SmithGroup JJR is expected to prepare recommendations and advice, cost estimates for feasibility studies of the river shelf, plaza, and fill concepts, as well as ballpark cost estimates for those design ideas, and present them to the City Council next month.
Mayor Mark Peterson reminded everyone of the goal behind the whole project: reviving Winona's connection to the beautiful Mississippi River. "It's a challenging project, but I don't think it's that complicated. What could we do to make it better down there?" Peterson said. While people love to run, walk, and bike around Lake Park, Levee Park provides a place for Winonans of all sorts to come together and interact, Peterson stated. "Tourism is part of it, but I think what we're really trying to do is bring people together," he said.