Design can offer an antidote to polarization, and no better example of that exists than the current plans for redoing Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis.
The 2-acre sunken plaza, located between the soon-to-be completed Nicollet Mall and the recently expanded Orchestra Hall, was designed by noted landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg and dedicated in 1975.
Called one of the most important works of landscape architecture in the 20th century, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.
With its terraced terrain and water features, it was wildly successful for many years as the site of the Minnesota Orchestra’s Sommerfest. But the plaza became too much for the city to maintain. It eventually shut down the fountain at the corner of 12th and Nicollet and drained the 28,000-square-foot pool at the center of the plaza.
Because the Mall and the hall were going to be revitalized, the city knew that it had to revamp Peavey Plaza, as well. It hired the local landscape architecture firm Oslund and Associates to lead the redesign effort in 2010.
Which is when the polarization began.
For all of its merits, Peavey presents real obstacles in terms of accessibility. Because of its myriad steps down to the reflecting pool, which is 10 feet below street level, it’s almost impossible for a person with physical disabilities to use the plaza. Oslund and Associates proposed raising the plaza to street grade, something the city wanted. But that would require filling in most of the existing plaza, largely obliterating the original design.
As a result of the legal settlement, the city agreed to preserve the plaza. After a nearly four-year hiatus, it hired another local landscape architecture firm, Coen and Partners, and local consultants Preservation Design Works to come up with a plan that would revamp the plaza, but keep its design elements intact.
Their recently released plan shows how good design can overcome many divides.
The new design retains the most important features of the original plaza — restoring the fountain, repairing the cracked concrete and replanting trees.
It also introduces new elements that will make the plaza much more accessible, including a ramp that will give access to the plaza directly from Nicollet Mall and a redesigned pool. The inventive pool will have just ¼-inch of water over dark paving, which will recreate the appearance of the original, deeper pool while allowing people to walk or roll across the water.
The design respects Friedberg’s vision, while differentiating the new from the old.
The walls of the new ramps, for example, will match the concrete material of the adjacent retaining walls and echo the horizontal lines of the adjoining steps. The walls will be made of contemporary hollow, precast concrete units that let light filter through.
Likewise, the few remaining wood cube seats will be restored and new seating cubes will be made that recall the original design, but have greater durability and integrate electrical power and lighting to make them more visible.
Peavey Plaza will also undergo a lot of less visible change, as well.
The Coen and Partners design calls for capturing stormwater below the surface of the plaza to keep trees watered and prevent runoff from entering the pool or fountain. (That is what’s partly to blame for the deterioration of the original water features.) A new ramp tucked behind Orchestra Hall along S. 12th Street will allow wheelchair access from that direction, and will make it easier to move equipment into the plaza for events.
At the same time, the wood planters, inappropriate paving and temporary fixes will be removed and replaced with more durable materials that are easier to maintain and more sympathetic to the original design.
Because this is a city project, you can check it out. Drawings of the design are available on the city’s public works website, www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/publicworks/PeaveyPlaza/index.htm.
The redesign already has $2 million from the state and another $2 million from private donors, and additional fundraising is underway. Construction is expected to start soon.
The new, improved plan shows how design can help resolve the battles that too often polarize public life.
Shane Coen’s team has demonstrated that we can restore a landmark while making it more accessible, that we can respect an original design while making it more functional for today’s needs, and that we can satisfy legal requirements and find win-win solutions to public problems.
So the next time you’re peeved by our current political pandemonium, just remember Peavey Plaza.
Thomas Fisher directs the Minnesota Design Center at the University of Minnesota.