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River Balcony Prototyping Festival, with Craft Beer Overlook, Previews "St. Paul's High Line"

Krantz installing River of Birds

Earlier this month, the St. Paul Riverfront Corporation gave St. Paulites a tantalizing glimpse of the (possible) future for a 1.5-mile stretch of riverfront that has long vexed city leaders and stakeholders.
The first-of-its-kind River Balcony Prototyping Festival, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Green Line Challenge and held September 9-10, went off without major hiccups, despite cloudy skies and cool temperatures. The event stretched along the bluff line from the Science Museum of Minnesota to Union Depot, along which were nearly a dozen locally produced art installations, live music on multiple stages, food trucks galore, and — of course — St. Paul-brewed craft beer.
Participants sipped beer, cider and wine from Tin Whiskers, Flat Earth Brewing and Urban Forage, among others; marveled at “Sunspot,” a river-shaped, solar-powered bench from by Alyssa Baguss and Aaron Dysart, and “River of Birds,” a Kimley-Horn Landscape Architecture installation evoking the ecologically critical Mississippi River Flyway; and jammed out to Ipso Facto, Communist Daughter and Alex Rossi.
“The festival [was] a way to begin to experience the possibilities for the future of the riverfront in St. Paul,” says Darlene Walser, executive director, St. Paul Riverfront Corporation. “It’s amazing that we live in the midst of a national park — and an amazing opportunity.”
Geography is destiny
The River Balcony Prototyping Festival won’t be the one and only. The festival was merely the first concrete step in a long-term effort to “reclaim and beautify the Mississippi River, to turn it into the treasure that it should be for the city of St. Paul,” says St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman.
The River Balcony project is actually the linchpin in the Great River Passage Plan (GRPP), a sprawling and ambitious vision released back in 2013. The GRPP covers the entire 17-mile sweep of the Mississippi within St. Paul’s borders. Much of the plan focuses on improving facilities, services and access along the abundant and largely forested parkland outside downtown St. Paul. But it also outlines three core objectives for the “more urban” stretches of riverfront: “develop a series of gathering places to bring people to the river,” “create an urban promenade to bring the heart of the city to the river,” and “activate existing parks in downtown.”
The River Balcony project satisfies the second objective. Regularly compared by city leaders and boosters to New York City’s wildly successful High Line (the linear park that revitalized a 1.5 mile long stretch of disused elevated track on Manhattan’s lower west side), the River Balcony aims squarely at a perennial complaint about downtown St. Paul: that, beautiful as the city’s historic buildings and intimate parks may be, its back is ever turned to its most important asset: the river.
One look across the river at downtown St. Paul from Harriet Island makes the origins of St. Paul’s arm’s-length relationship with the Mississippi clear. The downtown core sits atop a steep bluff that’s further separated from the river by Shepard Road, a hard-to-cross thoroughfare that complicates direct pedestrian access.
But downtown St. Paul’s lofty perch is also an opportunity. The sweeping views along the future River Balcony are incredible. From certain vantages, observers feel like they’re floating above the water, close enough to touch the bluffs on either side of the valley.
Building a regional gathering place
The gap between the River Balcony’s present state and obvious promise has long occupied city leaders’ and local stakeholders’ minds. “For the 10 or 11 years I’ve had this job, it’s been challenging to get people to gather along the riverfront,” says Joe Spencer, arts and culture director for the City of St. Paul. The success of such events as the St. Paul Jazz Festival demonstrates that people will congregate on the riverfront with appropriate motivation.
But relying on niche festivals to keep the riverfront on MSP’s radar isn’t practical or cost-effective. Truly successful public spaces need to be welcoming for everyone, at all times: for office workers to grab lunch on a sunny Tuesday, for local residents to jog or bike somewhere more inviting than their gym, for tourists to add to itineraries that might otherwise have bypassed downtown St. Paul entirely.
More than anything, the River Balcony Prototyping Festival was an opportunity to throw out ideas for attracting and engaging downtown visitors — an anything-goes approach to building a better riverfront. 
“We saw the festival as a way to get the imagination flowing, to test a variety of ideas and see how people react,” says Walser. “Actual elements and designs will follow how stakeholders want to use the space.”
One idea that’s almost certain to return is the Kellogg Craft Beer Overlook, a temporary beer garden in Kellogg Mall Park. According to Spencer, Kellogg Mall Park sits on the site of an historic beer garden, one of countless vestiges of St. Paul’s German and Irish roots. The Craft Beer Overlook featured craft booze from seven local producers, but Spencer thinks the beer garden has just scratched the surface of its potential. He expects the space to return bigger and better next spring, and to become the River Balcony’s first permanent (or, at least, seasonal) public feature.
See you on the River Balcony?
New York’s High Line took years to plan, build and perfect. So will the River Balcony, a more complex and logistically challenging segment of similar length. But the first-ever prototyping festival made clear that there’s more than enough appetite for an artsy, amenity-rich linear park in the heart of St. Paul, and offered a fleeting glimpse of what’s possible along the Mississippi riverfront.
The first signs of concrete progress are likely to appear in and around Kellogg Mall Park and the Craft Beer Overlook — what Mayor Coleman calls “an area of short-term opportunity” due to its central location and existing infrastructure.
Next up could be the area around Union Depot, where CHS Field and a slew of residential conversions have boosted activity and population. As the Green Line’s terminus and the possible future hub of the East Metro’s planned rail and rapid bus transit network, Union Depot is also the River Balcony’s de facto point of entry for visitors who live outside downtown St. Paul.
“Over the next five to 10 years, as development continues, we’re confident that the public will really see these vital connections coming into place,” says Coleman.
Brian Martucci is The Line’s Innovation and Jobs News Editor.
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