The following article by Bill McAuliffe was published in the January 14, 2014 issue of the Star Tribune:
Former Fuji-Ya will yield its riverfront spot to even older landmarks
The remains of the long-abandoned Fuji-Ya restaurant will be torn down and the slope beneath it peeled away to make way for a new park featuring unearthed ruins beneath them as part of the latest Mississippi River redevelopment plan.
The Water Works Park project will transform an inaccessible hill between West River Parkway and First Street S. — where Fuji-Ya has sat vacant since 1991 — into a park whose centerpiece will be the ruins of a former grain mill and the gate house of the original Minneapolis city water works.
It’s just one part of a long-term overhaul to the Central Riverfront Regional Park that runs along the riverbanks from the 35W bridge upstream to Plymouth Av., and includes or abuts the St. Anthony Main, Guthrie Theater and Mill City Museum areas where numerous apartments and condos have sprung up.
“Now that we have all these new residents down there, people are loving the park to death,” said Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board president Liz Wielinski. “We need to give it a face lift.”
Design for the Water Works project is being paid for and managed by the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, which will partner with the city’s Park Board to raise private funds for Central Riverfront projects, said executive director Mary deLaittre. That group is conducting an online survey through Thursday gauging how people use the area and want to see in a park there.
With funding still in the future, there’s no firm timetable for Fuji-Ya’s dismantling, said park board spokeswoman Dawn Sommers.
Makeovers in the central riverfront area are only part of a much grander undertaking known as River First, which envisions replacing the riverbanks’ industrial roots with parks, trails and residential development from downtown to the city’s northern border.
The stretch beyond the central riverfront, from Plymouth Av. to the city limits, is known among planners as Above the Falls. Already underway there is the conversion of the former Scherer Bros. lumber yard, essentially across Plymouth Av. from Boom Island Park, into a park and residential area. The Park Board also is continuing to purchase land from private owners along that part of the river corridor.
In 2012, the Central Riverfront Regional Park attracted 1.8 million visitors, fourth most among the metro area’s regional parks. (The Minneapolis Chain of Lakes led the way with 5.4 million.)
But it’s been only 20 years since the cyclone fences and barbed wire were removed to open the Stone Arch Bridge to pedestrians. And a decade before that, Nicollet Island housed an automotive parts manufacturer and a rock-crushing operation.
Wielinski noted that the transformation of the central riverfront from an industrial zone to a recreational, cultural and residential magnet has come about through $340 million in public investment, and $1.9 billion of private investment between 1977 and 2012. It’s also taken a lot of brainstorming, which is continuing. The current master plan for the area was approved in 1989. The update now underway will be finished by spring, then must be approved by the Park Board and the Met Council, which funds regional parks.
“When this originally started, it came out of urban renewal,” Wielinski said. “There were railroad yards, and vagrants on the island. But it was the historic center of Minneapolis. As most people can see, it’s been very successful.”
“I don’t think anything’s ever really done,” Wielinski added. “By the time you get it there it’s time to redo it.”
Other plans for the Central Riverfront park, some closer to reality than others, include better continuity for bike and pedestrian trails; a redevelopment, perhaps including a plaza and restaurant, of the intersection of Portland Avenue and West River Parkway; improved access to the riverbank areas below the Mill City Museum and a reconstruction of Main Street in the St. Anthony Main area.
Controversial piece of land
Some of the grain mill ruins under the Fuji Ya site are also under the parking lot at the north end of the Stone Arch Bridge, along West River Parkway, Wielinski said.
DeLaittre said the Water Works site is a complex one geologically, historically and culturally, with layers of use going back to the Dakota, who regarded an island in what is now the central riverfront Spirit Island. The island was removed during construction of the Upper St. Anthony Lock and Dam, which itself could be closed by Congress due to declining use and because leaving it open could allow destructive species of carp to advance upriver.
The Park Board condemned the Fuji-Ya parking lot in 1987 to make room for West River Parkway and has long been blamed for causing the restaurant to close in 1990.
Reiko Weston bought the land in 1961 for $20,000 and moved what had been a popular downtown restaurant — the first Japanese restaurant in the city — to what was then a dim and lonely stretch of riverfront. She hired a Japanese architect to design the distinctive, two-story restaurant, and brought a chef from Tokyo to run the city’s first sushi bar. Weston died in 1988 and, after extensive litigation, the Minneapolis Park Board bought out the Weston family for $3.5 million in an out-of-court settlement.
Despite its downtown riverfront location, prominent views and historical significance, the property hasn’t been used for much more than parking in the past few years.
Efforts to build a low-rise condo on the site were embroiled in legal controversy.
Bruce Chamberlain, assistant parks superintendent for planning, said last week that the distinctive, two-story Japanese-style building where Fuji-Ya operated for 22 years, has been deemed historically significant.
A consultant will examine it so its “architectural integrity isn’t lost to history,” he said. “Unfortunately the building is in such disrepair it’s not salvageable.”