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New Highland Bridge Parks offer open possibilities

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“Is this still the same neighborhood?” one little kid asked his mom as they wandered down the path along the brand-new Highland Bridge parks

I asked myself that question, too, when I headed over to the now-open public space at the center of Highland Bridge, the former 130-acre Ford truck plant in Southwest St. Paul. At first glance, the vast area still seems like a construction site. Bulldozers orbit the mountains of gravel, and the freshly-laid sidewalks anticipate what will someday be a neighborhood of 5,000 people.

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But for now, visitors wandering through half-formed streets will have the parks mostly to themselves. The centerpiece of it all is a “daylit” stream, part of Hidden Falls creek, buried underground in a pipe over a century ago for Henry Ford’s factory. If you love water, geology, vistas or imagining the future, the nascent park space is worth your time.

Before Highland existed, the creek bed was mostly wetland.

1895 Mississippi River Commission

Before Highland existed, the creek bed was mostly wetland.

Hidden Falls Creek revealed

Right now, the only name for the creek at the center of the future Highland Bridge is “central water feature.” But don’t let the classically St. Paul-style boring name fool you:  It’s an amazing new space and surely soon will be named after some notable. 

The wide creek is lovely, and reminds me of Edina’s Centennial Lakes, only without the feeling of being trapped in a science fiction novel. A couple different bridges stretch over the water, and there’s a smattering of public art to keep people’s senses engaged. Once nice touch: the steel beam sculptural benches that swing back and forth.

But it’s really it’s the new Uŋči Makhà park that’s the highlight of the experience, the closest thing I’ve seen to hopping along the rocks on Lake Superior’s North Shore. (Uŋči Makhà is Dakota for Grandmother Earth.) The awesome rocks mean that the park is a kid magnet, and I assure you that any tyke who can name more than three dinosaurs is going to love it.

Sam and Benjamin

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Sam and Benjamin Liuzzi enjoying a day at Uŋči Makhà.

I happened down there right when Sam and Benjamin Liuzzi (accompanied by their father Tony) were returning for some afternoon rock hopping. Kids especially seem drawn to Uŋči Makhà’s promise of open-ended adventure that comes from exploring along the creek.

“You don’t walk on the water, you jump over the water,” explained six-year-old Sam, pointing to the expanse of rock spread out before him

“We like where you can hike from rock to rock,” agreed his father, Tony, who moved to Highland earlier this summer.

According to some cyclists that were passing through, you can also see fossils in the stone. (Alas, neither Sam nor Benjamin could verify this for me.)

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It doesn’t hurt that the pale yellow bedrock is gorgeous. The rocks are multi-layered and intricate in the way that only geology can be. The lattice of exposed surface seemed to me almost  too beautiful to be real, like some sort of artificial landscape you’d find at Disneyland.  

Ellen Stewart, senior landscape architect for St. Paul Parks and Recreation, assured me it’s not.

“It’s real. You can see the water seeping through,” Stewart said, describing the bedrock layers. “What’s there is basically native rock, different layers. One of them was shale.”

According to Stewart, the final design is meant to reflect the dynamism of the creek, something  that came out of a design charrette involving Barr Engineering, the Capital Region Watershed District, and the city’s Parks and Public Works departments. 

“That aesthetic was something we really appreciated,” said Stewart, who has walked along the creek-side park a hundred times over the last year. “There’s a  change as you move away from Ford Parkway, where the feature is much more architecturally articulated, to Uŋči Makhà where it’s a lot more natural. We could have done a lot more concrete work, [but we] decided the whole point is to naturalize the stream and head it to our regional park.”

The construction crews quarried out the soil to expose the creek, and left the bedrock behind, which lays in a complex series of rock layers. Some of the material was even re-used for sculpture and amenities in the surrounding public space.

The new Uŋči Makhà park that’s the highlight of the experience.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The new Uŋči Makhà park that’s the highlight of the experience.

An extra feature is that the water level of the Uŋči Makhà creek rises and falls along with the rainfall. During a big rain event — a rarity this summer — the water level might increase as much as six  feet. 

That fact alone is worth noting, a throwback to when the area’s rivers and creeks were more dynamic. Before it was dredged and dammed, the Mississippi River, too, rose and fell along with the seasons. During dry months, the river that today looks unchanging might have felt a lot more like the exposed creek you’ll find at Uŋči Makhà.

The other highlights of the emerging public spaces are a small dogpark, which still has that brand-new mulch smell, and is soon to be chock full of Fidos. So far, the most popular new park feature is the narrow skateboard trail on the other end of the Highland Bridge site, closer to Ford Parkway. It immediately becomes the best skatepark in St. Paul — a low bar — and guarantees a steady stream of teenagers through the area. 

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Historic vistas unveiled 

At least for now, it’s uncanny to visit the parks at Highland Bridge. Despite the construction material piled up in all directions, the area feels almost unsettled. The large lots that will one day be home to thousands are, today, a variety of prairie plants offering habitat to goldfinches and monarchs while blue jays endlessly cackle from the nearby trees. The end result is a sense of open possibility — and a vista that hasn’t been available to anyone in St. Paul for a century, not since Henry Ford’s massive Highland factory was first built on this spot.

If you love water, geology, vistas or imagining the future, the nascent park space is worth your time.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

If you love water, geology, vistas or imagining the future, the nascent park space is worth your time.

There’s more to come. Within a few weeks, the extension of Uŋči Makhà Park leading underneath Mississippi River Boulevard will open to the public, and Stewart assures me it’ll be amazing. Kids like Sam and Benjamin will be able to stand right next to the falls and watch the water plummet. And someday, when St. Paul finds the funding, there will be another park leading down the bluff, connecting Highland Bridge with the large Hidden Falls park along the Mississippi River.

Check it out if you’re in the area. Bring a kid, if you have one. You won’t regret it.

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