A Park Where Fuji-Ya Once Stood?

The following article by Nicole Norfleet was published in the December 14, 2011 issue of the Star Tribune:


For more than two decades, failed developments and legal squabbles have left a key tract overlooking St. Anthony Falls in downtown Minneapolis in limbo.

But now, after the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board beat back a developer’s lawsuit earlier this year, park enthusiasts have focused on turning the site of the former Fuji-Ya restaurant into a public space.

On Thursday, December 14, the public is invited to a community meeting that will be the first step of a project to identify program ideas, produce design concepts and study the feasibility of a park in the area between Portland Avenue S. and the 3rd Avenue Bridge, and between 1st Street S. and the Mississippi River.

Despite its downtown riverfront location, prominent views and historical significance, the Water Works property — named for one of its historic uses — hasn’t been used for much more than parking in the past few years.

The Park Board bought the land in 1990 to make way for the construction of West River Parkway. The restaurant closed. The building remains, empty and boarded.

Brian Rice, the attorney for the park board, said he began calling the delay “the curse of Reiko Weston,” referring to the Fuji-Ya owner.

In 2002, the board obtained legislative approval to try to develop a new restaurant, but no proposals came forward, Rice said. In 2007, the park board accepted a proposal from a developer to build low-rise luxury townhouses, but those plans changed three times in the ensuing years.

The last development bid, called the Wave, would have created a luxury condo tower, but some City Council members and residents said it would obstruct views of the river and historic structures.

When the developer, Columbia Development LP, didn’t get required permits, the park board terminated the deal. In 2009, the developer sued the park board for breach of contract. A judge ruled in favor of the park board and the litigation finally ended earlier this year when the Supreme Court declined to hear the developer’s appeal, Rice said.

“Now that it is settled, it provides a great opportunity for the Park Board to settle on its future,” said Bruce Chamberlain, assistant superintendent for planning at the Park Board. The property could still include a restaurant or some other revenue generator, Chamberlain said.

With so many riverfront destinations nearby, such as the Mill City Museum, the Stone Arch Bridge and the lock and dam, the property could become an integral part of the network, said Mary deLaittre, president of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which is leading the study project in partnership with the park board.

“It’s just begging to have all the pieces tied in, in this very unique way,” DeLaittre said.

Mill ruins, some exposed and some buried, still exist on the property. “There’s certainly a lot of historical archaeological resources above and below ground,” said Laura Salveson, director of the Mill City Museum.

Scott Vreeland, one of the park board commissioners for downtown Minneapolis, said he’s excited to start the feasibility study. “As incredible as the transformation has been there, there is so much more that can be done,” Vreeland said.

The study is expected to be completed at the end of February.