Through Water Works, the Park Board will uncover ruins from the Mill District’s industrial history
Since Claudia Kittock moved to the Mill District a decade ago she’s had to look at a boarded-up building eating up the neighborhood’s prime riverfront real estate.
It’s not lost on her that the building in question, the former Fuji Ya restaurant, was pivotal in the history of the neighborhood, an area in downtown Minneapolis that draws people like her not for its “glitzy” appeal, she said, but for its “clear connection to the past.” After sitting vacant for decades, much of the building has come down and will become a new destination honoring the neighborhood’s buried industrial legacy.
“Oh, thank God. It’s time,” she said. “The idea that it’s happening I find terribly exciting.”
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board broke ground last fall on Water Works, an overhaul of the riverfront that park leaders have been planning for the better part of a decade.
So far, the board has demolished much of the Fuji Ya building, a former Japanese restaurant that was built atop what was left of several mills from the area’s industrial heyday. This spring and summer, the work will focus on what’s underground as the Park Board begins an archaeological excavation to map out what remains of these mill ruins.
Park officials say the project will add much-needed visitor amenities, concessions and bathrooms to the area around Mill Ruins Park, which, as part of the Central Mississippi Riverfront Regional Park, has quickly become one of the top park destinations in the metro thanks in part to the mills. For visitors flocking to the riverfront’s popular sites, officials say the experience can be disjointed.
“Everybody loves to walk the Stone Arch Bridge and look at Mill Ruins Park, and then you get to the end and what do you do? There’s one picnic table in the glaring sun, a parking lot and a falling-down building,” said Kate Lamers, a project manager and landscape architect with the board.
The building exists as a patchwork of new cinderblocks, pieces of the restaurant and mill masonry. Beneath the surrounding parking lot and hills are ruins. Rather than a full rehabilitation, it’s the Park Board’s plan to create a glass pavilion within the structures to house a restaurant lead by chef Sean Sherman.
“We’re not going to try to make it look like a perfect wall again. It will read as a ruin,” Lamers said.
The work is part of the first phase of Water Works, which is on track for completion next year barring any rare surprises found underground. Lamers said they already have a good idea of what they’ll unearth.
“I think at this point the only bad thing would be three-quarters buried and sticking up through our floor,” she said.
A second phase will focus on the surrounding area closer to the Mississippi River. That work, which will uncover additional ruins and add a walking bridge at the end of the Stone Arch Bridge, is tentatively planned to begin in 2021 if the Legislature approves the board’s $5 million bonding request.
While Pillsbury and General Mills remain household names today, their factories were part of a larger network of nearly 30 mills, once one of the densest concentrations of industry in the world.
David Stevens, a public programs specialist at Mill City Museum, said these mills were so significant because they revolutionized flour production and changed the ways Americans ate. They put Minneapolis on the map more than a century ago.
“The flour mills are what built Minneapolis. These were big, regional and international systems that these millers built. They scaled up flour milling in a way that was unprecedented,” he said.
Despite their historical significance, many mills didn’t survive the industrial revolution that took place in the Twin Cities. Many were shut down and demolished due to changes in the industry, which peaked in the early 1900s. Fires and explosions took out several. Only a few intact flour mills remain.
The project will preserve pieces of three mills representing some of the last remaining untouched relics of the city’s milling industry. The Occidental Mill was a two-story feed mill built in 1883 that was damaged in a fire a century ago. The Columbia Mill, a five-story flour mill, became the B mill of Northwestern Consolidated Milling a decade later after it was built in 1883. The oldest and most publicly visible of the buildings is the Bassett Sawmill, whose turbines supplied hydropower to the other two mills. A fire in 1897 destroyed much of the building, though it continued to house tenants until the restaurant took over in 1968. It wasn’t until 1990 that the Park Board bought it.
Back in the 1960s, Stevens said, the riverfront was still raw and industrial.
“Nobody was building anything new for 50 years, and it was really on hard times,” he said. “Then Fuji Ya comes in and builds something new and gives a reason for somebody to come down to the riverfront.”
Lamers said Fuji Ya’s founder, Reiko Westin, and her family were “pioneers of the riverfront,” who came years before elected officials would make the area a campaign talking point.
“(The Westins) saw potential for people here where nobody else saw it as people space,” she said.
Risk on the riverfront
Overhauling the riverfront and running a downtown restaurant are major feats for two organizations that have gotten more adept in partnerships and raising private money in recent years.
Leading the charge has been the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, the Park Board’s philanthropic partner. The organization is $4.5 million away from hitting its $18 million fundraising goal for Water Works, which will need $2.9 million of that to begin construction early this fall.
Executive Director Tom Evers said the project wouldn’t be possible without the nonprofit’s initial fundraising to get designs in order to bring in donations. It’s a big step for the 15-year-old nonprofit, which is supporting several landmark improvements along the Mississippi River under the board’s RiverFirst initiative.
“(The Park Board) didn’t have the private philanthropy to take a couple risks and figure it out,” Evers said.
Lamers said historic reuse projects like this are big risks for traditionally risk-averse public agencies.
“Otherwise I think the Park Board would easily own these ruins until they crumble,” she said.
Once the building is complete, the restaurant will be a unique expansion of the board’s business enterprises. The new Water Works restaurant, tentatively named Owamni: An Indigenous Kitchen — meaning “Place of Whirlpools” in Dakota, referring to St. Anthony Falls — will be the city’s first year-round park concessionaire.
It also brings a partnership with Sherman, a restaurateur who broke a crowdfunding record in his campaign to turn his Sioux Chef catering operation into his own restaurant. Owamni will join several other park restaurants, including Lake Harriet’s Bread and Pickle, Lake Nokomis’ Sandcastle, Minnehaha Park’s Sea Salt Eatery and Bde Maka Ska’s upcoming Lola’s on the Lake.
Evers said some of those agreements have been controversial, but overall the board and the public have been more open to partnerships.
“Over the last 15 years, that definitely has changed. Not just the Park Board, I think the community has been more willing to … try it more than before. Now there’s an understanding that there are ways to activate public land through public-private partnerships,” he said.
Booming once again
Water Works comes at a time when the Mill District and the east side of downtown are attracting attention from developers, residents and visitors.
Stevens said he’s hopeful the project can create a “critical mass” of visitor amenities in the neighborhood and attract even more interest. Rather than compete, he said historic destinations like the Mill City Museum and Water Works will complement each other.
“The more of the historic resources that are revealed, folks are going to better understand the scale of the operations that happened here that you can’t right now,” he said.
That history will be on display at Water Works. Unlike another ruins park, Stevens said the pavilion will invite guests in to connect to the architectural history.
“On one hand, putting a building inside it seems like an intrusion. But I think that, in the end, that’s going to be a better stewardship of the building, because rather than opening up these ruins and exposing them to air and activity, they’re going to do a new, sensitive building that engages those ruins and allows us to experience them,” he said.
Evers said it’s this engagement that’s at the heart of Water Works, which he said is about “making a space for new stories to unfold and past stories to be told.”
“This is finally a place that no matter where you live in the region, if you come here you’ll be protected from the cold, you’ll get a bite to eat and you’ll get to be on the riverfront,” he said.