The original Levee Park was open and relatively flat, with a rock-faced protective layer sloping downward into the river that prevented bank erosion. That rocky beach provided little protection during river flooding, however, and after the great flood of 1965, the Corps of Engineers and the City of Winona decided to build a rather substantial levee around the city to protect it from future floods. In the Levee Park area, that levee consisted of a cement wall with concrete sections that had a much-talked-about decorative facing. While this wall has protected the city well since its installation, it has divided the park essentially into two sections; 1) a park-like area for pedestrians with limited visibility of the river, and 2) a roadway on the river side of the wall that offers a clear view of the river. The river bank itself was designed as a mooring area for larger river boats, including tour boats.
Based upon the media articles that I have read, the current Levee Park re-design proposal seems to be predicated on some flawed assumptions and mindsets that are not realistic or practical and I would like to speak to them.
- The proposal assumes that a major tourist money maker will be from kayak tourists traveling the river. Really? I see many kayaks on Lake Winona and in river backwaters, but few on the fast-flowing main channel of the river. I do, however, see a lot of power boats – both small and large.
- The proposal assumes that we will have – or be able to secure – adequate funding to construct a river interpretive center. This idea has failed at least twice in the past. I suggest that if we hope to construct such a building, that the current proposal reserves a space for it – but only for a few years. The proposal should also include a fallback plan in the event that needed funding cannot be obtained, because the park will not be improved by a big flat empty space that waits indefinitely for funding or until yet another “plan” is proposed.
- The proposal advocates cutting a slit in the levee and installing a costly flood gate that could be closed when necessary. This is an unnecessary and foolish part of the current proposal. The only stated reason for doing so is that people would then be able to see the river and Latch Island from Main Street. Why is that important? People driving north on Main Street certainly have more to be concerned about then the view across the river. Pedestrians can easily walk up the few stairs at the end of Main Street to see the entire panorama of the river. Why risk damage to the flood protection of the city merely to provide an expensive and narrow view of the river that is more akin to a framed painting in an art gallery.
- And finally, the current proposal ignores the elephant in the park – or rather in front of the park – that limits access and fosters disinterest in “crossing over.” The presence of the railroad right-of-way adjacent to Levee Park has forced the park to be a wide and thin entity for years. As I noted above, the addition of the concrete wall has essentially divided the park into two even thinner slices. The city needs to work with the railroad to improve access to Bay State Milling from the east and to eliminate the tracks in front of Levee Park.
Creating a framed image of the river on Main Street by breaching the levee wall will only create distractions for drivers and increase the possibility of flood damage to nearby businesses.
Remember. The City could not maintain the Wilkie Museum. Can it do any better with little-used flood gates? Will they work when we need them to work?
Even if properly maintained, the gates will leak. And frankly, the city does not need a big leaky picture frame.
This commentary was originally published March 11, 2014 in the print edition of the Winona Daily News