New Highland Bridge Parks Offer Open Possibilities

“Is it still the same neighborhood? a small child asked his mother as they wandered down the path along the brand new Highland Bridge parks.

I asked myself that question too when I walked to the now open public space in the center of Highland Bridge, the 130-acre former Ford truck factory in southwest St. Paul. At first glance, the vast estate still looks like a construction site. Bulldozers orbit mountains of gravel and freshly laid sidewalks anticipate what will one day be a neighborhood of 5,000 people.

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

1895 Mississippi River Commission

Prior to Highland’s existence, the creek bed was primarily wetland.

Hidden Falls Creek Revealed

Currently, the only name for the creek in the center of the future Highland Bridge is “central water feature”. But don’t let the boring, classic-style name of St. Paul fool you: it’s an amazing new space that will surely soon be named after a notable.

The wide stream is lovely and reminds me of the Centennial Lakes of Edina, but without the feeling of being trapped in a sci-fi novel. A few different bridges span the water, and there’s a handful of public art to keep people’s senses engaged. Once the nice touch: the sculptural steel beam benches that sway back and forth.

But it’s really it’s the new Usci Makhà Park is the highlight of the experience, the closest thing I’ve seen to hopping along the rocks on the north shore of Lake Superior. (Uŋči Makhà is Dakota for Grandmother Earth.) The impressive rocks mean that the park is a magnet for children, and I assure you that any child who can name more than three dinosaurs will love it.

sam and benjamin

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

Sam and Benjamin Liuzzi enjoying a day at Uŋči Makhà.

Stumbled there just as Sam and Benjamin Liuzzi (accompanied by their dad Tony) were returning for a rock hopping afternoon. Children seem particularly attracted to Usci Makhà’s promise of open adventure that comes from exploring along the creek.

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

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

According to some cyclists who passed by, 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 complex as only geology can be. The exposed surface trellis seemed almost too good to be real to me, like some sort of artificial landscape you’d find at Disneyland.

Ellen Stewart, Senior Landscape Architect for St. Paul Parks and Recreationassured me not.

“It’s true. You can see the water seeping in,” Stewart said, describing the bedrock layers. “What there is 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, which came out of a design charrette involving Barr Engineering, the Capital Region Watershed District and the City’s Parks and Public Works Department. town.

“That aesthetic was something we really enjoyed,” said Stewart, who has walked along the creekside park 100 times over the past year. “There’s a shift as you move away from Ford Parkway, where the functionality is much more architecturally articulated, to Usci Makhà where it is much more natural. We could have done a lot more concrete work, [but we] decided the goal was to naturalize the creek and direct it to our regional park.

Construction crews excavated soil to expose the creek and left bedrock behind, which is found in a complex series of rock layers. Some of the material was even reused for the sculpture and the fittings of the surrounding public space.

The new Uŋči Makhà park which is the highlight of the experience.

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

The new Uŋči Makhà park which is the highlight of the experience.

An additional feature is that the water level of the Usci The Makhà stream rises and falls with the rainfall. During a big rain event – a rarity this summer – the water level can rise up to six feet.

This fact alone is worth noting, a throwback to the days when the area’s rivers and streams were more vibrant. Before it was dredged and dammed, the Mississippi River, too, rose and fell with the seasons. During the dry months, the river that now seems unchanging might have looked a lot more like the exposed creek you’ll find in Uŋči Makha.

Other highlights of the emerging public spaces are a small dog park, which still has that brand new smell of mulch, and will soon be jam-packed with Fidos. The most popular new park feature so far is the narrow skateboard path at 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 constant flow of teenagers in the area.

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Historical panoramas unveiled

At least for now, it’s strange to visit Highland Bridge Parks. Despite building materials piled up in every direction, the area seems almost unstable. The large grounds that will one day house thousands of people are, today, a variety of prairie plants providing habitat for goldfinches and monarch butterflies while blue jays cack incessantly from nearby trees. The end result is a sense of open possibility – and a view that hasn’t been accessible to anyone in St. Paul for a century, not since Henry Ford’s massive Highland factory was first built there. place.

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

MinnPost photo by Bill Lindeke

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

There is more to come. In a few weeks, the extension of Usci Makhà Park leading under Mississippi River Boulevard will be open to the public, and Stewart assures me it will be amazing. Children like Sam and Benjamin will be able to stand right next to the falls and watch the water crumble away. And one day, when St. Paul finds the funding, there will be another park leading along the cliff, connecting Highland Bridge to the great Hidden Falls Park along the Mississippi River.

Check it out if you’re in the area. Bring a child, if you have one. You will not regret it.