By Jeff Feulner Senior Landscape Architect, WSB
Originally published in the Minnesota Recreation & Parks Magazine Summer 2022 issue
Design work is taking place this year on an exciting project that aims to help people connect with the Mississippi River and nature.
Mississippi Gateway Regional Park, operated by Three Rivers Park District, includes 160 acres of parkland on the western shore of the Mississippi River in the City of Brooklyn Park. Coon Rapids Dam has spanned the river at the location for more than a century; in 1969, Northern States Power Co. gave the dam and 225 acres of surrounding land to what became Three Rivers Park District to establish a regional park on the Mississippi. Three Rivers operates the park on the west side of the river; Anoka County Parks and Recreation owns and operates Coon Rapids Dam Regional Park on the eastern side of the river in the City of Coon Rapids.
For five decades, the park has been a staple in the community, attracting visitors from across the Twin Cities region. Although the park is one of the most unique in the Three Rivers Park District system, it had not undergone significant investment in several years. To revitalize the park and to build better connections with the surrounding communities, in 2017 Three Rivers Park District embarked on developing a new vision for the park.
Nestled just across the road from the park is the city of Brooklyn Park’s Environmental Nature Area, a space full of opportunities to connect with nature. With the parks located adjacent to each other and only separated by West River Road, Brooklyn Park and Three Rivers Park District realized that they could provide better service to residents and park guests by working together.
The agencies developed a joint park master plan to avoid duplication and to provide a greater array of offerings for the public. Combining the park with the nature area would allow for a broader recreational experience for users. The planning process purposefully targeted equity markets that have historically been underrepresented in the visitor base for nature-based parks: minorities, non-English speaking households, new immigrants, low-income households, and people ages 45+. Throughout the master planning process, the project team engaged community residents in many ways – at community events, cultural gatherings and through user groups. The public identified features and amenities that became the basis of the vision for the park. This process made it possible for the park to truly reflect the priorities and values of the people who use it, and the resulting master plan described how together the two parks could be combined to create Mississippi Gateway Regional Park. In December 2020, Three Rivers and the City of Brooklyn Park formalized their partnership by approving a cooperative agreement to design, construct and operate Mississippi Gateway Regional Park.
“This project is the most significant capital investment in a park in the Park District’s history, and it fits perfectly with Three Rivers Park District’s vision that every person can connect with nature every day,” said Three Rivers Park District Commissioner Jennifer DeJournett, whose district includes the park. “Mississippi Gateway will welcome all individuals, whether they’re new to Minnesota or have been here for generations and will offer free and affordable programs to encourage everyone to explore the outdoors.”
With a comprehensive redesign of both areas, and a number of planned new features, the new park was born. Mississippi Gateway Regional Park will bring the vision to life: to connect the community, families, and residents to nature. To develop a strong vision that would cement this iconic park’s legacy, Three Rivers Park District and the city of Brooklyn Park consulted with WSB, a Twin-Cities headquartered design and consulting firm. Through a robust public engagement plan, master planning and design services, a vision and strategy to update the park for current and future generations to enjoy was created.
Connecting New Audiences with Nature
At the heart of this project are people. The goal is that people of all abilities and cultures have access to a fun, welcoming park where they can connect with and explore nature and the river in many ways. The location of Mississippi Gateway Regional Park provides a unique natural environment within the diverse, urban area where it lies. For children and adults alike, parks are a place to learn, exercise, grow and celebrate all Minnesota has to offer.
A major natural feature of the park is the Mississippi River and the unique landscape and habitats that surround it. People may come to the park for a variety of reasons, but all are drawn to the beauty and power of the mighty Mississippi that forms the natural eastern border of the park.
The park means something different to every user, and it will remain a significant landmark that is safe, accessible, convenient, unique and fun for those looking to experience the beauty and wonder of nature and the Mississippi close to where they live.
Commissioner DeJournett added, “We anticipate that the new Mississippi Gateway Regional Park will be a jewel of both the Three Rivers and Brooklyn Park systems and will be a favorite place for residents of the Twin Cities Metro Area as well as visitors from Greater Minnesota and around the country to connect with the Mighty Mississippi and enjoy the outdoors.”
What’s Coming to Mississippi Gateway Regional Park
Meaningful updates and one-of-a-kind experiences will attract visitors and provide significant benefit to the community and region. A new Gateway Center building will offer exhibit areas with learning opportunities focused on the Mississippi River and the park, classroom areas for school groups and park programming, and a space for equipment rentals, allowing further exploration of the park through the use of snowshoes, skis or bikes. A treetop trail, which will be an elevated walkway through the canopies of existing mature trees, will be developed near the Gateway Center. In addition, a nature-themed play tower and nature play nodes will connect to the treetop trail to create exciting play opportunities for all abilities. During the design process, staff from Three Rivers and WSB are engaging with students from Champlin-Brooklyn Park Academy for Math and Environmental Sciences to garner students’ input on the design of the nature play features. A “Mini-Mississippi” interactive water feature will provide a unique opportunity for users to access a stream channel, get their feet wet and manipulate the flow of water to further understand the dynamics of a river. These elements will provide unique perspectives, hands-on experiences, and exciting play opportunities for everyone to explore nature.
Beyond the core development area, Mississippi Gateway Regional Park will provide enhanced trails, gathering places and shelters, nature connection nodes and additional accessible fishing opportunities along the edge of the river. The western part of the park will also include a reservable shelter, playground, off-leash dog area, and an enhanced archery range.
Even with all the planned renovations, keeping a natural feeling in the park is still an achievable goal. The focus will remain on creating accessible opportunities to connect with the natural environment. Native plantings will be included with the restoration efforts throughout the park, while other proposed elements will be nestled within the existing vegetation and terrain.
Throughout the master planning, schematic design and design development phases of the project, the design team was careful to provide solutions that are equally engaging in all seasons of the year. The treetop trail and other trails are designed for year-round use, while cross-country ski and snowshoe trails also weave throughout the landscape.
This is an exciting project that will continue to connect the community with nature. The project is currently transitioning into the construction document phase of design, with a grand opening targeted for 2026. Mississippi Gateway Regional Park will be an inviting, welcoming and vibrant place for everyone to discover nature and the Mississippi River.
Jeff is a landscape architect with over 21 years of professional experience. He has worked on projects of various scales and scope both in private and public sectors. He has significant experience as a project manager directing installations and overseeing project implementation. His experience has led to creative design solutions which acknowledge varied user perspectives by collaborating with private developers, landowners, and business owners, as well as municipal staff. He embraces collaboration to ultimately bring the original vision into functional reality.