By Greg Stanley for Star Tribune

Supporters of a plan to turn a decommissioned river lock in downtown Minneapolis into an unusual public space say the project is moving forward.

Leaders of Friends of the Falls, a community group, believe they are close to getting the federal and congressional support they need to transform a bolted-up, out-of-use navigation lock into a riverfront attraction.

“We are in a position to get a good outcome,” said Mark Andrew, president of Friends of the Falls and former Hennepin County Board member.

In the coming weeks, the Army Corps of Engineers, which operated the lock for more than 50 years, will finish up a yearslong review of what to do with the giant concrete slab and river wall now that it is no longer used to help boats and barges traverse St. Anthony Falls.

The Army Corps could keep ownership of the old lock, leaving it as it is, or turn it over to a group like Friends of the Falls that would work with the city to make it publicly accessible. Under either scenario, the Army Corps will likely stay on the site to keep operating the horseshoe dam connected to the navigation lock for flood control.

While the Army Corps has yet to make a decision, supporters of the plan are confident enough that they’ve asked state lawmakers for $2.8 million to help Minneapolis take over the lock and create a new park and visitors’ center.

The lock itself is only about the size of three football fields. But its historic location and its potential to open up access to the river, both above and below the falls, are what make it so attractive, Andrew said.

“This area is the birthplace of Minneapolis,” he said. “We want this to be the gateway to the Mississippi. The Stone Arch Bridge, the lock and the falls are all within just feet of each other.”

The property runs along the western bank from under the Stone Arch Bridge to just above the falls. It is adjacent to the city-owned Water Works land, a $30 million redevelopment project that has been under construction since last year. The Water Works site will include a two-story pavilion, a plaza and a restaurant serving Native American cuisine.

A proposal has also been floated this year to the Hennepin County Board to build a mile-long promenade over the river just above the falls.

Work to open the lock to the public would blend in with the ongoing redevelopment of the riverfront, Andrew said. It would also give visitors a chance to get on the river through a canoe and kayak launch.

Early plans include the small boat launch, fishing pier, green space and a visitors’ center, which would include information on the importance of the falls to the founding of Minneapolis, as well as on American Indian life at the site before European settlement.

Details would be ironed out with the city and the community through a series of public meetings, Andrew said.

The city has not endorsed the Friends of the Falls plan, but officials have been working with the group to find ways to limit the city’s liability if it does take over the property. The City Council as well as the National Park Service have announced support for building a visitors’ center at the site.

The Army Corps closed the lock in 2015 and has been reviewing what to do with it ever since. The major study on whether to keep it in federal hands or turn it over is expected to be finished by the end of June, said Nanette Bischoff, project manager for the Army Corps.

Once it’s done, members of the public will have two months to comment on the plans before they are formally submitted to Congress, which has final say over the property, Bischoff said.

The closure of the lock has given Minneapolis a once-in-a-generation chance to decide exactly what kind of relationship it wants with the Mississippi River, said Colleen O’Connor Toberman, river corridor director for the Friends of the Mississippi River.

Commercial use of the river within the city essentially ended when the lock closed, which has made two similar dams downstream largely obsolete.

Once the Army Corps finishes its review of Upper St. Anthony, it will decide if it wants to keep the other two — Lower St. Anthony Falls Lock & Dam and Lock & Dam No. 1, also known as the Ford Dam.

Those two dams could be demolished if the Army Corps decides it would be best to return the river to a more wild and natural state.

More and more obsolete dams are being removed across Minnesota to improve water quality and bring back native species of mussels and fish, such as ancient sturgeon that have been cut off from their spawning grounds.

The Upper St. Anthony dam is essential to Minneapolis’ water supply, so it would be impossible to remove, Bischoff said. But the other two no longer serve their original purpose. The Army Corps is spending more than $1 million a year maintaining them.

It’s unclear, however, just how much it might cost to remove the dams or how much public interest there is in bringing back rapids to the river after the city has grown up around the calmer water the dams have created over the last century, Toberman said.

Any decision on the downstream dams is likely years away. But it’s time to start planning what Minneapolis wants its riverfront to look like over the next century, she said.

“It’s intriguing,” Toberman said. “We can’t live with the assumption that the way things are is the way they should always be. Now is our chance to take a detailed look at the future and to consider what it is we really want.”

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