Since October 2020 generations of Wayzata residents have been enjoying a multi-faceted urban and ecological endeavor geared toward celebrating one of Minnesota’s most illustrious natural resources—Lake Minnetonka.

Named for the panoramic vista of Wayzata bay, this project, now known as the “Panoway”, brings together cutting-edge urban design and environmental sensitivity to form a stretch along the bay fit for any modern city, according to those closest to the planning process.

The Panoway Project is grounded in five keystone goals:
1. Improving the lakeside ecosystem
2. Providing greater public access to Lake Minnetonka and creating a living classroom
3. Preserving Wayzata’s history by providing greater public access to Lake Minnetonka
4. Promoting art and urban greenspace
5. Keeping downtown commerce vibrant

The Panoway Project capped off its first phase last fall. Currently in place along the bay is a stretch of urban infrastructure wrought from ecologically conscientious materials and methods that highlights the Lake Minnetonka Lakefront, which would have otherwise been covered in concrete.

Upon completion of phase 2, the project will span 1500 feet along Wayzata Bay and restore some 2,000 feet of coastline by reintroducing several native plant species. Also in the works is what planners are calling an “eco-park”, a marshland and educational space on the easternmost wing of the Panoway Project that will serve the dual purpose of an educational space and as a habitat for local critters and plants. This phase will also include community docks and a depot park on the west side of the bay, a boardwalk spanning the length of the bay, restoration to the coastline, and restoration to the city’s historical section foreman house along the bay.

At the heart of the Panoway Project is the Wayzata Conservancy, a nonprofit formed jointly between private residents and city leaders. The conservancy formed in 2016, about four years after the Panoway Project got off the ground, with a litany of community meetings. In 2012, a concept design was born.

Former seven-year Wayzata city councilman Andrew Mullin now serves as the executive board chair for the Wayzata Conservancy. He noted that residents wanted to see a more pedestrian-friendly bay complete with a safe railroad crossing from the street to the lake, allowing accessibility to people with all levels of mobility. He explains that while those criteria have been met with the current phase of the project, work is far from over when it comes to fully realizing its scope.

“What I would tell people is that it’s been a long journey, but a meaningful one. I think we have a lot of momentum right now,” says Mullin.

Drawing from a list of 11 community values, those involved with the Panoway project feel as though they are acting as “stewards of the lake” and of their community, Mullin says. With about 97 percent of Lake Minnetonka’s shoreline being privately owned, Mullin feels as though there is a tremendous opportunity for citizens to do their part in keeping the waters and its inhabitants healthy. He feels Wayzata’s Panoway Project will light a conservationist fire in all corners of the lake community.

“We’re just trying to lead by example,” he contends.

The project began in earnest when the City of Wayzata launched a design competition that tasked competitors to capture “the lake effect,” derived from project planners’ desire to see Lake Minnetonka highlighted as the city’s most important natural resource.

From the competitors emerged the Colorado-based CIVTAS firm, known for their environmentally-minded urban architecture. Scott Jordan, the lead designer from the firm, says the Panoway Project is part of a growing trend of cities across the globe harkening back to nature and away from Industrial Revolution sensibilities.

He further explains that his team needed to walk a fine line with regards to updating the space in an environmentally conscious way while also capturing the essence of Wayzata and its rich history. So, designers reached for “modern and timeless.”

“It’s a balancing act,” Jordan says.

“If we can do things that are mutually beneficial to those walking, those spaces, and nature, it’s kind of a win-win scenario,” he later adds.

Prior to the Panoway Project, one walking along Wayzata Bay would have seen a parking lot, loads of concrete, and railroad tracks. Phase one of the project removed around an acre of that concrete, replacing it with green space, rain gardens designed to catch runoff into the lake, and a birch grove that houses a 9/11 memorial for a local resident killed in the attacks. Also in the first wave of the project was a public plaza, a recreational fountain, and the reconstruction of Lake Street from Barry Avenue to Broadway Avenue to facilitate smoother pedestrian traffic and increased outdoor seating for businesses along the stretch.

Kim Alan Chapman, the principal ecologist on the project from Applied Ecological Services, says the Panoway Project epitomizes a concept known to those in his line of work as applied ecology. As the name suggests, applied ecology is the practice of bringing scientific findings and ecological concepts into everyday life to solve environmental problems.

While much of the Panoway Project is designed to appear attractive, some of its most important aspects are likely to go completely unnoticed by passersby, according to Chapman. Rain basins not apparent to the naked eye and green infrastructure that appears to be conventional material, but is actually vastly more environmentally friendly, are common throughout the project’s first phase. In the Panoway’s green spaces are several native plant species from which bees and other pollinators are benefitting.

Chapman says that the ecological focus of phase one is attracting pollinators and rainwater management, which has “great implications” for the biota in the lake. Phase two he adds will focus more on the large-scale construction of habitat.

“I think [the Panoway Project] tells other communities that people really want to do their part to make the lake and the lakeshore a more vital place where people and nature can coexist, and that Wayzata has proven that with foresight and dedication and community involvement that they can make that happen,” explains Chapman.

Egrets, herons, other birds, amphibians, dragonflies, and countless pollinators stand to benefit from improved habitats along Lake Minnetonka. As part of the shoreline restoration effort, crews will remove riprap, the broken bits of old buildings, and other rock-like materials that line Wayzata Bay that were placed as a bolster to the shoreline against shocks created by passing trains. In doing so, they will allow for the construction of a boardwalk that will jut out into the lake and the replanting of several aquatic plant species. Soil composition and moisture levels as well as sun conditions will guide ecologists’ choices in selecting palettes of plants suitable for the area.

Along with the added natural habitats, the Wayzata Conservancy will implement educational programs that will help area youth connect with the lake, its ecology, and its history. Much of the STEM learning will take place in what planners are calling a “living classroom” at the to-be-constructed eco-park.

Of historical note in the project’s path is the section foreman’s house. Built in 1902 by Great Northern Railroad and believed to be the last of its kind in Minnesota, the structure was once home to those who oversaw Wayzata’s stretch of railway and their families while rail traffic was still crucial to the lake community’s survival. Now, Wayzata Conservancy hopes to have the structure become the second site in Wayzata to be added to the National Register of Historic Places after the Wayzata Depot, which was added to the register in 1981.

As CIVITAS is delving into their latest design work, they are paying special attention to the historicity of the bay and the section foreman’s house. According to Jordan, everything from material choices to how the joints between them interlock will be considered.

“The key with working around historic buildings is you don’t want to replicate history, but we need to create something that’s complementary to history within that framework,” says Jordan.

With over 75 percent of the $9.5 million price tag for the first phase of the project coming from the City of Wayzata, planners within the city government are looking to partner with the State of Minnesota, Hennepin County, and private enterprise for the remaining phases. City documents list a roughly $13 million mark for the future projects, making their costs sizable, but manageable if taken in waves. At a Feb. 2 work session, city leaders chose to prioritize the boardwalk that will extend along Wayzata’s downtown lakeshore and the restoration of the city’s stretch of Lake Minnetonka shoreline. Large portions of the funding for the next phase will also come from the private philanthropy, according to Mullin.

Newly elected Wayzata Mayor Johanna Mouton says that the Panoway Project has thus far been a boon to Wayzata, even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As the city alongside the conservancy and the State of Minnesota gear up for the second phase of the project, she is hopeful the ethos of the Panoway Project will create a ripple effect in Lake Minnetonka. “It really allows us to protect our biggest asset and leave it for other generations to come. I hope that other communities will consider, if not as big a project, those small steps that we can all take.”

The Panoway Project
1. Phase 1 of the Panoway Project was completed in 2020 and focused on the reduction of surface water runoff and pollution by creating rain gardens, tree trenches, and permeable pavers along the 7 blocks of refurbished streetscape. Storm-water runoff and connections that once dumped pollution into the lake have been treated and redirected for re-use in irrigation.

2. Phase 2 focuses on the lakeside. In phase 2, the shoreline and storm-water detention basins will be restored, improving pollution removal while restoring a species-rich marsh habitat for wildlife. Additionally, a lakeshore marsh and eco-park will be created, both supported by an offshore underwater reef that reduces wave action from boats and storms, allowing sediment to drop out and plant-life to thrive.

3. Phase 3 will focus on creating a Lakeshore Learning Center. This will include creating indoor and outdoor learning environments, restoration of the shoreline, and improvement of the overall water quality. Phase 3 will also include a pier extension of the boardwalk and opportunities to create “Living Eco-Classrooms” along the lakeshore for STEM-based learning.

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