The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022


The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022

The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022

Architects: W Architecture and Landscape Architecture LLC.
Lead Architect: Barbara Wilks
Associate Architects: 4RM+ULA
Client: City of Saint Paul, Parks and Recreation Department
Images: W Architecture and Landscape Architecture, LLC. and Full Circle Indigenous Planning LLC.


The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022
The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022
The Mississippi River Learning Center | St. Paul - Minnesota | 2022

Project Description

The Mississippi River Learning Center, located in Saint Paul, Minnesota, is a new national gateway to the Mississippi River, combining a mixed-use, river focused campus, strengthened connections to nearby neighborhoods, a regional trailhead, and a universally accessible canopy walk connecting the bluff to the river. Throughout the design process, the design was tested against four key considerations: the Dakota Perspective, Community Feedback, Partner Needs, and Site Conditions. These four factors helped guide the design process from several site design alternatives towards a single design scheme. The site is a sacred site within the Dakota Homelands.

Situated at the confluence of the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, the Bdote is the site of the Dakota Creation story. Respecting the sacred nature of this landscape and including space for Dakota-led activities and ceremonies were integral to developing the design. Collecting community feedback took many forms throughout the design process including targeted Black, Latinx, and Dakota focus groups, in person outreach at local events and on-site stakeholder tours. Reporting back to the community what the design team heard from them and how it informed the design were important steps in building support for the design. Numerous public and private groups will provide year-round on-site programming and meeting their needs was critical.

The historic flow of the river has carved a nearly 75-foot bluff face into the site. This natural topography creates two very different conditions to understand a riverine ecology: The Bluff and the Floodplain. The balance of these four considerations and extensive community engagement led the design team to develop five over-arching themes for site strategy and design. In addition to creating a public identity for the project, the Bluff Campus increases pedestrian accessibility from nearby neighborhoods with a new traffic light and entry into the site and improved crosswalks at existing intersections. The Bluff Campus is also home to the Sam Morgan Trailhead, which in addition to providing a sense of identity to the site, offers wayfinding and public restrooms. The second-floor house offices for park management partners. Descending 75 feet, the Canopy Walk creates a new, universally accessible pedestrian and bike route between the Bluff Campus and Floodplain Campus and is sited on already disturbed land to preserve healthy trees.

The Canopy Walk lands on the River Learning Center roof before descending fully to the floodplain. This publicly available accessible green roof serves as an overlook to the campus and river and as a living, outdoor classroom. Spanning from the bluff face to the water’s edge and built on the site of the former Marina, the Floodplain Campus houses the River Learning Center building and provides educational opportunities about the river and its dynamic ecology. New, permeable parking and a bus drop off at a storm water management entry garden allow for field trips and neighborhood residents alike to learn from the river and its hydrology. Over 70% of residents surveyed found touching the water a crucial aspiration of the project. There are multiples way to approach and the engage with the river: two existing inlets were repurposed. Canoe-cove for human-powered craft and the Marina for motorized craft. A new channel is cut to connect them and bring a safe, accessible river environment up closer to the River Learning Center.

The Mississippi River water elevation fluctuates regularly throughout the year, and careful planning makes these changes visible yet ensures the River Learning Center campus would be operational in various ways regardless of water level. Nestled between the two disconnected arms of a regional park, the River Learning Center Campus is both an ecological restoration and a weaving together of the regional park system. A regional trail will be regraded to connect through the heart of the park, and in front of the River Learning Center, to establish this stretch of the Mississippi River as a unified regional park.