Monthly Archives: March 2012

Reviving the Riverfront

The following article by Nick Halter was published in the March 12, 2012 issue of the Downtown Journal:


New vision for old Fuji Ya site calls for new restaurant, access to mill ruins.

An illustration of a new park planned for the central riverfront near St. Anthony Falls (Image courtesy MS&R architects).

There may not be a more historically significant stretch of land in Minneapolis. A few blocks of riverfront on the west bank of the Mississippi near Downtown sit atop the infrastructure that made the city what it is today.

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board is moving forward with a vision for that land that will reconnect residents with the mills that powered the city 150 years ago.

Most residents know the area as Mill Ruins or the old Fuji Ya site. The Park Board hopes to open a new restaurant at the site similar to the popular Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Falls and open up below-ground tunnels and rooms that are the remnants from old flour mills build in the 19th century. The Park Board is branding the project “Water Works.”

MS&R Architects, funded by the Minneapolis Park Foundation, presented concepts for the Works project to neighbors and stakeholders on Feb. 28.

The Water Works site is roughly bounded by the Mill City Museum to the south, the 3rd Avenue Bridge to the north, 1st Street to the west and the river to the east.

“This is a really special site, and it’s a really special site not only because of its location in downtown, but because of its ability to be a hub within what is to be considered the next Chain of Lakes,” said Danny Fuchs of HR&A Advisors, the company hired to look into the feasibility of the project.

The project’s lynchpin would be a new restaurant at the site of the old Fuji Ya building.

The foundation of that building is over 100 years old. In 1968, Reiko Weston moved her popular Fuji Ya restaurant to the site after building on the old foundation.

The Park Board paid $3.5 million for the building in 1990, and it has sat vacant ever since. Tom Meyer, an MS&R architect, said the building would have to be torn down and replaced. A rendering shows a building with glass façade that provides a top level for beautiful river views.

“We concluded it was not practical to re-use it,” Meyer said of the building.

In 2011, Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Park paid the Park Board $240,000 in a revenue sharing agreement. Fuchs said a similar restaurant at Water Works would provide revenue that would pay for the park’s operations.

The building would also serve as a warming house in the winter and house restrooms.

South of the Fuji Ya building, the vision calls for the opening to the public of the mill tunnels, which sit about 25-feet below ground at the site. The tunnels are the remnants of the roughly 150-year-old mills that operated on the western riverfront. They run all the way from the Stone Arch Bridge to the Fuji Ya site, and it might be possible to connect the tunnels to the restaurant building.

The plan also calls for a new West River Parkway that might use a shared street model, meaning planters would replace curbs and traffic would be slowed to 15 miles per hour.

The plan also calls for a fountain area and a skating area in the winter.

It also calls for the opening up underground mill ruins that would act as history rooms. One of those rooms would be dedicated the history of Native Americans and Spirit Island.

Of course, the big question is money. Bruce Chamberlain, the Park Board’s assistant superintendent of planning, said the Board has set aside $7 to $8 million over the next five years for capital improvements to the central riverfront district. He said that pot of money would likely act as seed money, encouraging private investment.

“In some ways, this is really seed money to try and leverage those dollars for private investment, for grants and for other funders that are out there,” he said.

Asked by the audience how long until the project might be completed, Chamberlain said it could be done in less than 10 years, with smaller changes happening soon followed by major projects starting in a few years.

The Park Board is collecting public input on the project through March 31. To view the project and post comments, visit

Worthy Attention to North River Corridor

The following editorial was published in the March 19, 2012 issue of the Star Tribune:


From the late 1800s into the early 20th century, a group of visionaries laid the foundation for one of Minneapolis’ greatest assets — an extraordinary system of parks and lakes. Horace Cleveland, Charles Loring, William Folwell and Theodore Wirth understood the importance of acquiring land for public spaces.

Their work evolved into a park system that now covers more than 6,700 acres in parkland and water, or about 16 percent of the city. It includes 17 lakes and ponds; many of the Mississippi River banks; recreation centers, and gardens and pools. It’s now connected by 51 miles of “Grand Rounds” walking paths and biking paths.

Now the Minneapolis Park Board, the city and its partners have a similar long-term vision for bringing the neglected five-mile northern section of the river into that system. Last week, the board gave the green light to a plan that promises a more visually pleasing, interactive and prosperous future for the city’s northern riverfront.

Called RiverFirst, the first phase would develop five new green and public spaces by 2016. Among them are: trails connecting north and northeast neighborhoods to the Grand Rounds and the river, including green walkways and bikeways across Interstate 94; biohaven river islands to improve water quality and provide habitat for plants and birds, and a North Side wetlands park.

The development plan wisely envisions mixed uses for land along the river — some would remain natural and untouched; some could be used for housing and commercial or industrial purposes. But much of it would be dedicated to publicly accessible spaces with the potential to become a magnet for commercial, recreational and residential activity.

The new design would give residents in north and northeast neighborhoods more recreational amenities in their own back yards. And it would attract people from all over the region, similar to the south and southeast Minneapolis lakes. The Park Board has adopted an ambitious vision that could improve the city’s livability and economy.

In cities around the country and in Minneapolis, riverfront development has proven its worth. Right here in the city, a $300 million public investment in the central riverfront area leveraged $1.75 billion in private investment and created 1,200 housing units and 2,000 permanent jobs over three decades. Market values of the properties involved rose from $25 million in 1994 to $440 million in 2009, according to city figures.

Phase one of RiverFirst would cost an estimated $174 million over five years; those dollars would come from a mix of public and private sources, including park, city, county, state and federal funds, as well as business and other private contributions.

About $1 million in Minnesota Legacy funds, for example, is slated to clean up the Scherer Brothers site near Boom Island. One of the priority projects, that area will be developed into a park with some business, retail and perhaps light industrial uses.

The “City of Lakes” also has a river running through it, and the mighty Mississippi gave birth to the Twin Cities. Just as the city’s early fathers and mothers of the city treasured public, natural, waterside spaces, today’s Park Board is rightly working to expand and continue that legacy.

Tin Fish Reaches Deal with Minneapolis Park Board to Stay at Lake Calhoun


The following is the link to the March 21, 2012 KARE 11 TV coverage of the Park Board’s newly minted lease agreement with the Tin Fish at Lake Calhoun:

Without Lease, Tin Fish's Future at Lake Calhoun in Jeopardy

The following article by Nick Halter was published March 19, 2012 in the Southwest Journal’s online edition:


Patrons who enjoy eating fish tacos while sitting out over Lake Calhoun in the summer may be in for a surprise if the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and eatery Tin Fish can’t come to a new lease agreement soon.

Tin Fish would normally be eligible to open for business on April 15, but the Park Board and the eatery’s owners have not reached a deal as the Park Board is proposing changes to the restaurant’s rent and responsibilities toward improvements to the facility.

Owners Athena and Sheffield Priest say they want desperately to re-open this spring because they love operating at the location, but say the Park Board has prolonged the process by constantly changing its offer.

Tin Fish won the Park Board’s contract for Lake Calhoun in 2004, when it beat out three other food vendors. Over the past eight years, Tin Fish has paid nearly $900,000 to the Park Board on $6.1 million in sales, or about 14.5 percent of its revenue.

Tin Fish’s annual payment to the Park Board has increased since 2004 as the eatery has grown more popular and its contract escalated rent payments to the Board. Last year it paid $169,000, compared to $62,000 in 2004.

At least three Park Board commissioners — Brad Bourn, Bob Fine and Scott Vreeland — want the Priests to pay 15 percent of their gross revenues to the Park Board and reinvest another 5 percent into the building. Plus, those members want the Priests to pay another $68,000 up front for improvements.

That means that if Tin Fish’s revenues remain flat over the 3-year contract, the Priests would pay $243,000 annually through 2015, or $74,000 more than last year.

But the most recent contract required the Priests to pay for $313,000 in upgrades to the building at the northwest corner of the lake, where Lake Street intersects with Knox Avenue. Since they didn’t make the upgrades, the contract does not automatically renew.

Athena Priest, in an interview, said she and her husband have tried to work with the Park Board to spend that money, but the Park Board has dragged its feet.

The Priests have already invested $131,000 in the building, adding a walk-in cooler, installing new patio furniture, building the bar rail that overlooks the lake in addition to several other upgrades.

Ideally, the couple would like to expand the kitchen so that staff can better serve the long lines that stack up at Tin Fish in the summer. But Athena Priest said the Park Board has never applied for planning applications to add onto the building.

The Priests, on their Facebook page, said the most recent proposal could be too costly for them to stay in business.

“If this higher rent passes the full Board next week, it would reach a level which would make it difficult for us to continue our business. This breaks our hearts. We love working the Tin Fish,” they wrote.

In an interview with the Southwest Journal, Sheffield Priest said he would not say whether or not the couple would accept the Park Board’s latest offer because it has changed so frequently.

“The look of the thing has changed several times,” Sheffield Priest said. “We’re not committing one way or another on (if the current contract passes the Board), because that’s when it’s gut check time for us and that’s a private decision that the two of us make.”

Fine, an at-large commissioner, says the most recent contract proposal represents a rent reduction for the Priests. The previous contract called for an additional 10% of rent to go toward capital improvements — or the $313,000 that the Priests never invested.

“The question is, why should we reduce the rent?” Fine asked at a March 14 Park Board meeting.

He says Tin Fish enjoys one the best locations in the city: On Lake Calhoun and in Uptown, one of the highest rent areas in the Twin Cities.

Fine said the Park Board obtained a profit and loss statement from the Priests. He said he did his own calculations, and, at the meeting, guessed that the Priests were pocketing over $250,000 a year from the venture.

Fine’s statements upset the Priests. They said that the Park Board attorney told their attorney that if the couple didn’t hand over the financial statements, the Park Board would not negotiate the contract. Sheffield Priest said all that paperwork was marked confidential, and did not expect Fine to announce assumptions in public.

“That is 100% conjecture on his part,” Sheffield Priest said. “He is not in the restaurant business. He does not understand restaurant dynamics or financials. He is being inflammatory. He is absolutely making up that number, and we’re not going to comment in any form as to what our salary is, because it’s not material to this negotiation.”

Currently, Bread and Pickle at Lake Harriet pays 12 percent of its gross sales to the Park Board. Sea Salt Eatery at Minnehaha Park pays 12 percent. Neither have requirements for capital improvements, but Park Board consultant Don Siggelkow says both will have to negotiate capital improvement requirements when their current contracts end in 2015 and 2013, respectively.

The Park Board will discuss the contract at 5 p.m. Wednesday night.

A group of neighbors rallied for Tin Fish on Saturday at Lake Calhoun. Neighbor Sarah Sponheim said the group has colleted over 350 names for a petition it will submit to the Park Board on Wednesday.

Heads-Up for the March 21, 2012 Park Board Meeting


5:00 P.M. REGULAR BOARD MEETING. The meeting will be held in the boardroom at Park Board headquarters, 2117 West River Road, just north of Broadway Pizza.

5:30 P.M. OPEN TIME. Speakers need to sign up before 3:00 p.m. the day of the meeting.

Some items of interest are:

–Three-year Docking Permit for Paradise Cruises

–Donation Boxes in the Parks

–Approval of the Brownie Lake Area Plan

–Northern Spark Festival

–Renewal of the Amended Tin Fish Lease

–Food Trucks in the Parks

–Community Engagement Plans for 2012 Planning and Capital Projects

The complete agenda, with staff reports, for the MPRB Board of Commissioners’ meeting on Wednesday, March 21, 2012 is at

Also of interest and now available to the commissioners and the public are the monthly reports that Superintendent Miller has initiated for construction permits and for Planning Department projects. The availability of these reports is one of the important changes instituted by Superintendent Miller. Look for the links to these reports under Petitions and Communications in the agenda for the first Regular Meeting of the month.

MPRB meetings are telecast live from 5-9 p.m. on the City of Minneapolis Government Meeting Channel 79 on Comcast cable and online at

The regular meetings are retelecast on Channel 79 at 1 p.m. Saturdays and 5 p.m. on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month. Webcasts for the recent two months are posted two to five business days after the meeting and are available for viewing under “Webcast Archives” at

The Park Board’s website is The phone number is 612-230-6400.

Arlene Fried

Co-founder of Park Watch

Penalizing Tin Fish


Tin Fish has been a successful and popular Park Board vendor at Lake Calhoun since 2004. The owners of the Tin Fish, in spite of an antiquated facility and no on-site parking, have overcome these limitations and created a thriving business for the Park Board. Starting from scratch, they built the previously unsuccessful Lake Calhoun concession into a money-making concession.

At last Wednesday’s Park Board meeting, the renewal for the Tin Fish lease was before the Administration and Finance Committee. However, instead of thanking the Tin Fish for its success in overcoming the limitations it’s been working with, Commissioner Bob Fine derailed the committee’s vote for the negotiated lease agreement before the Board by advocating for financial changes to the lease that are unfavorable to the Tin Fish.

In the corporate world, when benchmarks are met, CEOs are rewarded. But essentially what Commissioner Fine is doing is penalizing the owners of Tin Fish for their success. Why is he attempting to drive them out?

In 2004 the Park Board’s percentage of sales was $61,966. In 2011, that percentage had grown to $168,629. And that is all in a seasonal six-month period. The Tin Fish, out of the gross, has to pay property taxes. It also has to make out-of-pocket improvements.

Tin Fish is an asset to the Park Board and should be regarded as an asset. It should not be penalized because it is successful.

The amended resolution will be voted on before the full Park Board this Wednesday on March 21, 2012.

For questions or comments, contact your commissioners:

Open Time is at 5:30.

Arlene Fried

Co-founder of Park Watch

Minneapolis Upgrades Will Make " Forgotten " Brownie More Accessible

At last night’s Park Board meeting, the Planning Committee–which is chaired by 4th District Commissioner Anita Tabb–voted to accept the Brownie Lake Area Plan as presented by the Citizens’ Advisory Committee. At the next Park Board meeting, the full Board will vote on the Plan. The following article about Brownie Lake by Karen Boros was published on March 15, 2012 in MinnPost:


MinnPost photo by Karen Boros. While change is on the way at Brownie Lake, don’t expect concession stands and band shells.

As a boy, Bob Fine remembers paddling his boat into what looked to him like a giant sewer tunnel at the north end of Cedar Lake and coming out on the other side into tiny Brownie Lake. That was a long time ago.

A lot has changed in Minneapolis since then.

Bob Fine is now Commissioner Fine, a member of the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, but the Brownie Lake of his boyhood is basically unchanged.

He calls Brownie Lake the forgotten lake in the City of Lakes.

That is about to change.

There are plans for walking and biking paths — and a bridge that would cross the channel that links Brownie Lake to Cedar Lake and allow people to practice the Minneapolis exercise known as “walking around a lake.”

Brownie Lake sits between Interstate 394 and Cedar Lake. The lake was part of a 100-acre purchase by Theodore Wirth in 1908 that was acquired to expand Glenwood Park, which later was re-named for Wirth.

The lake apparently was named for the daughter of William McNair, who owned much of the land around the lake. Wirth attempted to change the name from Brownie to Hillside Harbor, but there is no record that the Park Board ever went along with the name change.

While change is on the way at Brownie Lake, don’t expect concession stands and band shells.

“The goal was to preserve the natural intrigue of the lake,” said Marty Broan, who chairs the Citizens’ Advisory Committee for the project and calls Brownie “the wildest lake” in Minneapolis.

Plans call for soft surface trails, perhaps wood chips, expanded canoe and kayak racks and a fishing pier on the west side of the lake.
“It has not been a popular fishing lake,” said Broan, who thinks the lack of popularity has more to do with access to the lake than the possibility of catching a fish.

Brownie Lake, which is just less than 10 acres, sits on a plot of land that is just less than 28 acres. At one time, the lake and park-owned land were both larger.

The lake was reduced by about one-third in 1867, when the railroad tracks were built between Brownie and Cedar.

MinnPost photo by Karen Boros. Design of a bridge that would cross the channel that links Brownie Lake to Cedar Lake

Brownie got smaller again in 1917, when the Park Board opened the channel linking the two lakes. At that time, the lake level at Brownie dropped by 10 feet, which perhaps accounts for the steep slope abutting the east side of the lake.

The former park land west of Brownie is the largest park area ever sold by the Minneapolis Park Board. In 1952, the Park Board sold 32 acres of land to the Prudential Insurance Company for $200,000. Target Corp. now owns the building the company occupied.

“Brownie Lake is pretty rough right now,” said Fine, adding, “I believe this cleans it up,” referring to the plans for upgrades.

The proposal calls for new hard-surface bike paths to replace those that run at street level along Cedar Lake Parkway and are part of the Grand Rounds Regional Trail system, which serves 370,000 visitors a year.

Broan says those trails, built in 1976, are currently dangerous because of the poor quality of the asphalt. He says if money becomes a problem for the Brownie Lake Project, the bike lanes will be the No. 1 priority.

There are also plans for mountain-bike trails in the area west of the lake building on a system of what Broan calls rogue trails cut by cyclists who rode in the area without permission.

The Citizens’ Advisory Committee worked with the Minneapolis Off-Road Cycling Advocates to create a system of what Broan says will be “premier mountain-bike trails” adjacent to the lake.

The Minneapolis Department of Public Works maintains a pumping station on the east side of the lake that will be replaced by the City of Minneapolis. The current station, built in 1931, serves Target Corp. and 130 homes to the east of the lake. The design for the new pumping station remains undecided.

Funding for the park improvements will come from a $600,000 grant from the Park and Trails Fund of the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment. That will be supplemented by $550,000 from the Federal Transportation Enhancement Fund.

“This might turn the lake into something special,” said Fine of the plans to keep Brownie Lake wild but more accessible. “One more lake for the citizens to enjoy.”

What Water Works Park Could Look Like

The following article by Nicole Norfleet was published in the March 14, 2012 issue of the Star Tribune:


Imagine being able to explore the tunnels of mills long buried along the Minneapolis riverfront, enjoy live entertainment and grab a bite to eat while overlooking St. Anthony Falls all on the same afternoon. Welcome to the future Water Works Park:

The Minneapolis Parks Foundation and the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board presented conceptual designs last week for a park on the city’s central riverfront where the original Minneapolis municipal Water Works, several mills and the former Fuji-Ya restaurant all once operated along the Mississippi River. The public has through the end of the month to comment on the design:

“The Water Works study area is only three blocks long and one block wide, but its concentration of exciting features make it ideal for a four-season destination park,” said Mary deLaittre, president of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, in a press release.

The area being studied for a potential new park is between Portland Avenue S. and the 3rd Avenue Bridge, and between 1st Street S. and the Mississippi. The area already is a convergence of several riverfront destinations such as the Mill City Museum, the Stone Arch Bridge and the lock and dam.

The conceptual plans show that the park would be comprised of three experimental zones. The south zone, where some ruins are currently exposed, would feature the further excavation of mill ruins so that the public can explore the channels and tunnels that still exist on the riverfront. There’s also an idea to create rooms with the exposed walls and incorporate native gardens, children’s play areas or other experiential spaces. The center zone could be used for programming opportunities such as water-based activities, an entertainment venue and a plaza street. The north section of the park would possibly feature a interpretive or cultural center and a year-round restaurant at the location of the former Fuji-Ya restaurant.

The site’s three-month design process began in December, more than 20 years since the park board purchased the property where the Fuji-Ya sits boarded up. Plans for the tract of land have come and gone: The last developer to try its hand at the site wanted to build a luxury condo tower there, but it didn’t get the required permits so the park board terminated the deal. In 2009, the developer sued the park board for breach of contract, but last year litigation finally ended when the Supreme Court declined to hear the developer’s appeal.

In terms of feasibility, it’s not known yet if the potential park would be built in its entirety or phased by zone. Funding has also not been ironed out, but public-private partnerships are considered possibilities. A food venue is looked at as a way of bringing in a significant amount of revenue to the site similar to how the Sea Salt restaurant operates at Minnehaha Falls. The eatery brought in $2 million in revenues last year; 12 percent of that went to the parks.