New look for Hennepin County Government Center plaza?

It's not the pavers this time, but the pool and waterfall that are prompting Hennepin County to weigh changes in the north plaza.

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Rather than continuing to pour maintenance money into the problem-plagued plaza, the county may spend $2 million to renovate it.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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Hennepin County commissioners may pour $2 million into renovating the Government Center's aging north plaza, and this time it has nothing to do with once-slippery red pavers.

The focus now is on the plaza's circular pool and waterfall fountain, which has been draining thousands of county dollars for years in endless patchwork and repairs.

Rather than simply fix it again, commissioners are weighing whether to overhaul the plaza itself and turn it into a greener and livelier place to meet and visit.

A task force of county officials, planners and assorted experts briefed commissioners last week on four options that promise new landscaping, more space for performances and expanded seating areas.

Though undecided on a solution, commissioners are intrigued by the notion of leveraging the pool's problems into a rebirth of sorts for the large but uninviting plaza, which has had a checkered history as a people magnet.

The County Board recently agreed to license four vendors to run food carts on the north and south plazas this summer in hopes of drumming up activity.

"The thing that we need to continue to look at is activation of the plaza," Commissioner Peter McLaughlin said.

The estimated costs of the task force's proposals range from $2.2 million to $3.7 million. Its preferred choice would cost about $2.6 million.

The cost of permanent fixes for the pool and waterfall would be about $1.8 million. Another alternative -- turning the pool into a planter -- would cost $500,000 but might not end the trouble with water leaking into offices below.

"There's no such thing as a do-nothing option here. ... We have infrastructure issues," said Judy Hollander, the county's property services director.

Another 1970s downtown plaza with a broken fountain is scheduled for a $10 million overhaul, after the Minneapolis City Council voted to renovate Peavey Plaza on Nicollet Mall.

'Win-win opportunity'

Hollander said the Government Center, which opened to acclaim in the mid-1970s as something of an architectural gem, is now feeling its age, with features and mechanics starting to fail.

"It is definitely a landmark building, but a lot of the attributes for which it was lauded in the 1970s have turned out to be practical problems 40 years later," said Commissioner Randy Johnson, who joined the County Board in 1979.

Nothing about the building has drawn more attention than the county's maddening trouble with paver tiles on the north plaza. The first set of tiles, imported from Switzerland, chipped badly and made the plaza practically impassable in the winter.

They were replaced in 1992 with Ohio-made pavers, but those had to be replaced after 11 years with more durable tiles with an anti-slip surface. These days, most pedestrians seem to keep their footing on the plaza.

The plaza has been the backdrop for a number of events, including a packed 9/11 memorial and Aquatennial programs. For several weeks last fall Occupy Minnesota turned it into the "People's Plaza," leading to confrontations with the county over tents and signs.

Much of the plaza's troubles stem from the fact that it's built on a thin soil base atop an underground parking garage and county offices. That has made the pavers tough to stabilize, limited plantings and made fountain leakage an issue for offices below.

The circular glass "curtain wall" around the oculus, which receives the waterfall, also leaks. It costs the county about $35,000 a year to maintain and operate the pool, Hollander said.

The task force's four proposed options share several features, including tall lighting sculptures, granite paving over the pool area and a performance area with electrical boxes. The county could also install planters and seating around the pool area, a rock garden in the oculus on the concourse level that's open to the elements, and a skylight built over the oculus.

The task force also proposed adding more ramps for people with disabilities, and movable tables and chairs that can be put out in good weather.

Many of the ideas were inspired by people-friendly spaces such as Bryant Park in New York City and Pioneer Square in Portland, Ore.

Task force member John Carmody, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for Sustainable Building Research, said the plaza remodel was "a win-win opportunity." Replacing the pool, he said, would solve maintenance problems and "create a great civic space at the same time."

Randy Johnson said the proposals would be "a definite improvement" on what the plaza offers now.

"I would still like to soften that space with more greenery. That can be done under any of the options because it's a big plaza," he said. "If we somehow painted it dark gray, it would be an architectural movement of the Soviets meeting East Germany."

Hollander said the task force will seek direction from commissioners that can lead to a recommended plan.

Kevin Duchschere • 612-673-4455

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