- Associated Press - Saturday, September 24, 2016

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - The Mississippi River has a communication problem, and Mary deLaittre is in charge of keeping its message flowing.

“First and foremost, we have to be clear - the Mississippi is one of the three great rivers of the world,” said deLaittre earlier this month, on her fourth day as manager of the city of St. Paul’s “Great River Passage” initiative.

The initiative is actually a series of initiatives - 250 pages of wide-ranging projects and visions for the 17 miles of river corridor in St. Paul as outlined in the Great River Passage master plan.

St. Paul’s city council adopted the document in 2013.

The plan calls for making the somewhat-industrial river corridor “more natural, more urban and more connected.”

It covers everything from ongoing improvements to Lilydale Regional Park to a proposed “river balcony” along Kellogg Boulevard, as well as a planned environmental learning center at Watergate Marina near Crosby Farm Park. On top of outlining future projects, the document notes that the river could use better marketing to let residents and visitors know how to get to what’s already there.

And the master plan now has a new leader to help do that. She knows none of this will be easy.

“I think St. Paul faces challenges, just like every single city across the country, which is public dollars have diminished for civic projects,” said deLaittre, who was recently a lakefront planning consultant for the city of Wayzata.

Those dollars have dried up a bit “not only for building civic projects, but also for operations and maintenance of civic projects,” she told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/2cQtj7c ) “My job is also creating a leadership structure so we can make sure this initiative goes forward and so we can engage the private sector.”

That means private fundraising for public river programs and facilities. It’s an approach she helped oversee with the city of Minneapolis’ RiverFirst initiative, and one that is gaining ground in Wayzata, where deLaittre helped establish the Wayzata Lake Effect, five strategic steps adopted by the city to boost the lakefront.

The Wayzata plan includes new lakefront amenities such as bike paths and improved connections to existing trails, and transforming a parking lot into an urban park adjoining a parking ramp.

Her projects along the shore of Lake Minnetonka found a private funding partner in the Lake Effect Conservancy. She also served as executive director of the Minneapolis Parks Foundation, where she launched the “Next Generation of Parks” initiative.

Trained in architecture and urban design, deLaittre taught for nine years at the University of Minnesota’s College of Design. She worked for the Metropolitan Design Center and the Design Institute, both within the university.

The stretch of Mississippi in St. Paul isn’t a simple river corridor to plan. It’s not even a simple corridor to describe: downtown bluffs overlooking busy traffic routes; housing, rail yards and natural forest areas that all compete, on some level, for attention. The Watergate marina, a band shell, multiple islands and a science museum all call the river home, as do barges and passenger boats.

Planning will require an almost intimidating four-way balance between recreation, residential real estate development, commercial uses and natural preservation.

“Yes, but that’s complicated in a good way,” deLaittre said. “Particularly downtown, these are the kinds of projects that designers live for. … You’ve got a whole series of obstacles between the river and the rail yards. You’ve got that great tension between the natural environment and industrial archaeology, as I like to call it, and urban living.”

Her next step is to identify four or five priority projects, find funding sources and craft a strategic plan to get them done.

“I don’t want that to sound complicated,” deLaittre said. “For Wayzata, I put together a four-page strategic plan. I should be very clear: Here in St. Paul, you already have projects going under way. It’s a question of how do we pick up those projects and keep them going?”

So far, she’s met with city staff related to the Ford plant in Highland Park, the proposed downtown river balcony and the Watergate marina.

“I am excited to welcome Mary to the team,” said Mike Hahm, director of Parks and Recreation, in a written statement. “The Mississippi River is St. Paul’s greatest environmental and economic asset and I have full confidence that she will be a great leader to continue the work to make the river more accessible for all the city’s residents.”


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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