Thursday, May 03, 2007

Saint Paul Is Moving Ahead With Its Plan To Bring Water Taxis To The Riverfront

All the great waterfront cities have them. Venice, Sydney, Vancouver ... and soon St. Paul Minnesota? The old water-taxi idea - bandied about in St. Paul for years - is as close as it's ever been to docking on downtown's riverfront. By late spring, the city will begin building a landing on the Mississippi River to accommodate the leisurely boats. The project should be finished by fall, but no one knows when anyone would be able to hail the first cab. Preliminary plans call for the city to hire a private contractor to run the service. The $1.25 million landing will be built near an old grain elevator, the site of a planned restaurant. The way civic boosters see it, folks could stroll past the Upper Landing housing development, dine on the river and then catch a ride to Harriet Island for live music and a pint at the Irish Fair. "It's like when you go to Duluth and take a carriage ride," said Don Varney, a landscape architect with the city's parks and recreation division. Riverfront boosters and city leaders have talked about water taxis for years. Former Mayor Randy Kelly championed the idea on his first day in office in 2002. But many wrote off the notion as just another pipe dream for the river, like other visions of sky gondolas and a submarine.
New landing at Chestnut Plaza that the city of St. Paul is building to one day accommodate water taxi service along the Mississippi. Construction will begin this spring and could wrap up by late summer.
Over the past few years, though, the city's parks and recreation staff has been moving forward on plans with Chestnut Plaza, a new gathering space by the Upper Landing. The plaza at the foot of Chestnut Street will include water features and sitting steps where coffee-drinkers can relax as they watch the barges go by. The plan has always been to incorporate a water taxi-friendly landing into the plaza, Varney said. No one is suggesting that the boats would become a primary form of transportation. In the initial stages of the service, boosters expect the taxis to be a novelty available in warm-weather months, especially on weekends tied to special events. Whether there is enough activity near the landing to draw people in for a river ride is an open question. The final block of Upper Landing will bring in a new Caribou Coffee and an Anytime Fitness club. It will be at least another year before the grain-elevator restaurant is completed. "Right now, the demand would be questionable," said Vince Gillespie, special services manager for parks and recreation. "Ten years from now, when more people move into the area, and there's more retail and entertainment venues, the demand will pick up." Patrick Seeb, who heads the St. Paul Riverfront Corp., called the taxis "another way to experience the river. It's one of those things that tourists like to do. Who knows, maybe during the (2008) Republican National Convention, it could shuttle people from downtown to Harriet Island." The city would need to contract the taxi service with licensed boat operators, and there are no plans in place to start the bidding. The city has received clearance to build the landing with the Coast Guard, Varney said. Steve Bowell, who co-owns the Padelford Packet Boat Co. on Harriet Island, wanted to launch a river taxi service for years until he realized how much it would cost to get one started. Now that the St. Paul landing will soon take shape, "I think it's a sign of hope for us and the city," Bowell said. "The concept can work, but it would need a lot of partnerships. We're curious to see what happens."

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