Get up close and personal with St. Anthony Falls

This observation deck, overlooking St. anthony Falls, is sure to be a main attraction of the new Water Power Park, which opens on Tuesday, June 12.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Xcel Energy opens Water Power Park to public on Tuesday, June 12 at 2 p.m.

The public will get its closest view of St. Anthony Falls in years beginning June 12 when Xcel Energy opens its new Water Power Park on Southeast Main Street. At the new park, the falls slide and crash only a few feet away from a viewing platform that’s bound to become the park’s main attraction.

It will not be the $2.5 million park’s only attraction, however. A long promenade with skyline views invites visitors across a little footbridge to a spit of scenic parkland at the northern tip of Hennepin Island, which divides the river’s flow like a northern pike’s snout. Picnickers can watch the Mississippi’s main channel flow over the dam on the downtown side, while the mellower east channel enters the old mill pond on the island’s other side, feeding Xcel’s 96-year old Main Street hydropower station. Look down through a ground-level grate and you’ll see intake water rushing to the power plant.

Materials and design of the park’s railings, lamps and walkways honor the area’s industrial heritage. Throughout the park, a series of historical panels will tell the story of water power at St. Anthony Falls, from early gristmills to the world’s greatest-ever direct-drive waterpower complex and the country’s first hydroelectric central station. Electricity from the falls at one time ran the Twin Cities’ vast streetcar system and now generates about 12 megawatts of power.

Just as the drive to tap St. Anthony Falls’ water power built Minneapolis, Xcel’s desire to continue generating power on Hennepin Island built Water Power Park. As a condition of granting Xcel a new 30-year license to use the river, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) required the company to offer mitigation to the public. Xcel opted to turn some of its land into a park.

The park has something in common with the new Gold Medal Park across the river: it is a privately built public park that’s not part of the city park system. However, Xcel Energy has a five-year, $100,000 contract with the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board (MPRB) for garbage pickup, landscape maintenance and security services including two on-site emergency phones and routine park police patrols. MPRB workers will unlock the 9-foot wire mesh gates on Main Street at dawn and lock them at 10 p.m. or 30 minutes past sundown.

According to Project Manager Susan Larson, Xcel will open the park as seasonal conditions permit, probably March through November. The city has already received inquiries about private rentals, she said, but Xcel is only looking into that now. The purpose of the park, she said, is “to provide the community with better access to the river.”

Early plans for a more extensive park had Xcel giving land to the MPRB. In 2000, Xcel commissioned a master plan for a park on both the north and south ends of the island, connected by a riverside path skirting the power plant and the University of Minnesota’s hydrology lab. That design, by landscape architect Roger Martin, included ambitious elements such as a reconstructed east channel falls, but negotiations broke down over funding of construction and maintenance.

Public access to the island’s lower downriver end would have been costly to build and secure, Larson said. “What we spend on the park impacts the ratepayers.”

Development of Water Power Park shouldn’t affect plans for a separate but nearby whitewater kayaking and rafting park, Larson said. But Bill Tilton, chair of the Mississippi Whitewater Development Corporation called it “a disastrous blow” that Xcel isn’t opening access to the island’s south end — just as new state legislation freed up $2 million in planning funds for the project.

Marcy-Holmes resident Dave Polaschek, who tracked Xcel’s relicensing and park planning process closely, said Xcel did “a lot of things right.” He’s looking forward to practicing his hobby — taking photographs of downtown from the riverfront — at the new park, but warns that the first time he’s expelled at sunset, “I’ll have strong words.”

last revised: June 11, 2007