Battle of ‘Nicolette Island Pier’ Replaces Minneapolis Water Taxi

For decades, ships have been anchored at a discreet pier in Minneapolis that stretches from the west shore of Nicolette Island to the Mississippi River, where they can be seen from the Hennepin Avenue Bridge.

Earlier this month, the Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Commission ordered them to leave, removing the electrical wiring that served the houseboat at the site. Park staff also banned the stairs leading to the platform from W. Island Avenue, citing their “extremely poor condition” and lack of disabled access, and they are considering whether to remove the river entrance entirely.

The crackdown on illegal moorings also prematurely ended the Minneapolis water taxi season.

Taxis offer cruises north of St. Petersburg. Down by the hour, Anthony has been moored at the so-called “Nicolette Island Pier” for years. Two houseboats are also docked there. One of them is the home of taxi owner Capt. Corey Park.

Pacos moved his three taxis into the warehouse as instructed. But in defiance, he’s now parked his houseboat directly in the river, and it continues to sit in the same spot — only technically outside the purview of the Park Commission.

“We lost about 150 cruises that were booked, not counting how many we might have booked by the time we close by the end of next month [for the year]” He says.

Park and Recreation spokesman Dawn Sommers said the crux of the dispute around the pier was “who controls MPRB property”. “The MPRB has an ordinance that prohibits anyone from docking a vessel on MPRB property without a permit,” she said. “The city charter clearly states that the park is under the exclusive control of the MPRB.”

Nicolette Island Power Struggle

Nicollet Island Quay was built by John Kerwin, the developer of Nicollet Restoration Inc., who has repeatedly violated the Park Commission’s efforts to take sole control of its land over the past 40 years.

On the island, Kerwin is known for saving the historic Grove Street Flats townhouse from demolition in the early 1980s. He also built an adjoining townhouse at 45 W. Island Av. and felled 93 trees without asking, which angered the Parks and Recreation Commission at the time.

In 1982, three years before the land was handed over to the Parks Commission, Kerwin received permission from the Minneapolis City Council to build a public riverbank platform across from Grove Street Flats. His permit allows him to build terraces on the river bank and install passages, stairs and underground electrical services. It requires him to keep the house clean and safe.

Kerwin said he spent $30,000 to build the pier in 1982, and his maintenance costs were similar in subsequent years. He argues that his license still applies because the city never terminated it.

“I maintained the space and opened it to the public,” he said. “It’s a scenic river, and it should be kept open and used. … We’ve been delivering it for 40 years.”

Things started to change in 2020.

In January of that year, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled that the city lacked jurisdiction over park property. In a case related to the new Commons Park in downtown Minneapolis, the court held that the city charter reserved that power only for the Parks Commission.

Shortly after, a Nicolette Island resident reported that a truckload of rocks had scattered along the river bank. An investigation by Park and Recreation attorney Brian Rice found rocks dumped without permission from the Park Commission and two houseboats associated with park property without permission.

Kerwin said he spread rocks around the pier to keep it from eroding. He noted that a 1983 bank stabilization license from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources gave him “responsibility for maintaining any structure or pathway below the ordinary high water mark.”

In citing the illegal mooring of houseboats, the park board also found that Kerwin charged boat owners $200 a month and kayak and canoe owners $100 a year to store their boats at the landing.

“Mr Kerwin has been charging boat owners a monthly fee to dock their boats on MPRB land,” Sommers said. “Mr Cowan has no right to do that.”

Fight for the right of passage for the river

Kerwin said he charges regular users of the terminal to help offset maintenance and power costs.

Zachary Norman, owner of the second houseboat moored at the marina on Nicolette Island, said he was happy to be a part of it. For decades, he credits Kerwin for keeping the island’s only jet ski docking facility available to the public.

“John couldn’t make any money there,” Norman said. “We love the river. We want more people to use the river. … I think a lot of things can be fixed — accessibility, safety, they can all be fixed.”

A district court in June found Norman guilty of illegal mooring and fined him $128. However, he continued to kill on Nicolette Island, insisting to see if an agreement could be reached with the Park Commission to protect the landing.

Jolly Roger (the pirate flag) flew over Pacos’s houseboat on Tuesday night as Pacos took one of his water taxis to the Nicolette Island pier. Colvin climbed down the street, wearing a Chinese Cultural Revolution hat, and boarded a boat to visit. Scott Olson, inventor of the inline skate and part-owner of the Parkos houseboat, came for a swim.

These days, the only remaining part of Parkos’ Minneapolis water taxi business is his partnership with Nicollet Island Inn, which offers evening river cruises and dinner packages.

“From last year to this year, what we’ve been able to do with water taxis is [take] Nearly 600 people were on the river. …Many of the people we talked to never did,” said Larry Abdul, owner of the Nicolette Island Inn. “We had to find a way to … get the cooperation of the park council to get them to do this. Activity.

Parkos is currently negotiating with Park and Recreation staff to become an approved water taxi provider. Summers said staff were excited about the opportunity to work with him through a formal agreement approved by the board.

In this case, Parkos would be allowed to park his cab at the nearby Boom Island Pier, but he would have to pay the Park Board 12 percent of his gross income and install his own electricity and security cameras.

He said Parkos was making $70,000 in a good year, and he was concerned that infrastructure improvements alone would be too costly.

The future of Nicollet Island Quay is also up in the air.

Included in the 1993 Nicolette Island Regional Park Master Plan, Landing was excluded from the more recent 2016 Central Mississippi Riverside Regional Park Master Plan. The plan includes only the jet ski jetty at Boom Island and calls for “shoreline restoration” where Nicollet Island Quay is located.

“With the evictions, it’s a bit difficult to get a deal,” Pacos said.

Parks and Recreation Commissioner Billy Menz, who campaigned to increase access to the Mississippi River, wants to see Minneapolis water taxis stick around because he believes providing recreation on the river will make people more care about its quality.

However, the aging pier poses a risk, and if someone is injured trying to dock or climb the stairs, the park board will be held liable, he said.

“The Park Board is enforcing the rules that we have on the books and whether those rules have been properly enforced in the past,” he said. “The Park Board is committed to working with any type of water taxi provider if people are going into the same room. We want to have fun along the river, but we want to make sure it’s done in a safe manner.”

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