Tom Meyer’s Vision for the River

Tom Meyer’s desk has a view of St. Anthony Falls that commands your gaze, that grabs you and makes you pay attention. From eight stories up, above the Mill City Museum, it’s a sprawling look at the entire Central Riverfront, one which Meyer used to have to explore abandoned ruins to see. An architect by trade and founding principal of MSR Design, Meyer has had his eye on the Mississippi River for decades and shared his vision for the riverfront with the Mississippi Riverfront Partnership.

Photo by Drew Carlson

If you think about our metropolitan area and the growth and change that’s happening in various places, the river really still has most of the exciting action, like it did 150 years ago. There’s more growth on the edge of the city, but that’s the conventional universal suburban sprawl. The place it all comes together for the past 50 years or so, particularly the last 30 years, is here, and in St. Paul.

And there’s a future ahead for another 30 years or more.

Going back to early planning here, removing railyards, cleaning up pollution along the riverfront, the city working with the historical society on a project like this was a catalyst. Guthrie didn’t say ‘we have to be at the river’ – this was sort of a Plan B and it came late in the thinking.

There’s been all of these projects, Mill City Museum, Guthrie, all of this housing development, Water Works, RiverFirst project before that. There’s nothing else like that between Chicago and Seattle.

Water Works is teed up, it’s going to happen. The Lock and Dam (visitors center) project might be 10 years out but the wheels are turning but there’s not much doubt that something public and wonderful is going to happen there.

With the lock and dam closed there will be discussion as part of the visitors center plan that perhaps lock and dam No. 1 should come out, down by the Ford plant. That would make that stretch, the 7 miles or so down to the confluence with the Minnesota, a wild river. And there’s enough drop that it would be pretty wild.

I got interested in the river as an architecture student, and my interest was personal and about amusement or wonder. People would come down to the river then, only I think of it as better because I felt like my friends and I discovered it and nobody knew it was there. There were very few people crossing fences or going through abandoned areas to get to the river and when you got there, it was polluted and had a scary reputation.

But it was amazing in all the ways that it is now.

How could this be in the city and nobody talk about it?

My thesis in architecture school was a project on the river, a museum of the history of St. Anthony Falls. That credential got me connected to some of the early planning six or seven years later, between the city and the historical society. I had an opportunity to work with another architect, Peter Hall, who was camping out in a milling complex. We did a commission to study the building next door for a group of people who had seen New York lofts, when this was a new phenomenon. By today’s standard it would have meant a tremendous investment, but they backed away from it.

My involvement kind of grew as I got more and more expertise. And along with that, my vision grew as well.

It wasn’t a singular vision. It was these emerging interests, from the city, the historical society, private influential people in the city. So I was in a role helping shape that vision and learning from these people, what they saw in it from their lens as historians, community development people or philanthropists. It was an evolving thing.

And it continues to evolve.

The visitors center is just an interesting thing to explore. This takes me back to being a college student, where you’re looking out and thinking: ‘if I cross the fence I could get out to that spot. Would anyone care if we went into that ruined building?’

I think the lock and dam has stimulated that kind of interest in a lot of people. It wasn’t on anyone’s long-term planning radar screen, really.

Now the Friends of the Lock and Dam and the National Parks Conservation Association have emerged with influence and advocacy. What we are doing is taking the existing plans that had a void in the middle, because they just assumed that the federal government would own and operate the lock and dam forever.

It’s a cool thing to explore. Wouldn’t we all love to be on those big yellow pylons out there and see the water rush by and go over the falls? Wouldn’t we love to get on the other side of the lock and dam, where there’s a little piece of land that isn’t visible here. You can put your hand in the plume of water going by.

This place is benign part of the year, where there’s just a little bit of water, but it’s pretty crazy when it’s really cold and you see those ice chunks go over, or on a wet spring where there’s a lot of water. This is an opportunity to get engaged, where currently you just sit under a tree or drive down West River Road and have a bucolic kind of relationship with the river.

This will be the place to come for a really dramatic experience.

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