Rice Park may be the crown jewel of downtown St. Paul, but community leaders say the crown is picking up some tarnish and the jewel is looking pretty cloudy.
So the St. Paul Garden Club decided it was time to do something about it.
On Monday, the club gave the city $46,000 to launch a planning process it hopes will lead to a makeover for the popular green square, set aside as a public commons and grazing pasture when St. Paul was still an infant in 1849.
“It looks so worn. We just want it to be welcoming and fresh,” said Colleen FitzPatrick, a garden club member helping to lead the redesign campaign.
“This is truly our front yard and these are our neighbors,” said David Miller, general manager of the St. Paul Hotel. “Visitors regularly say that Rice Park gives St. Paul a very European feel.”
The leafy park last underwent a major renovation in 2000, when the city rebuilt the fountain area and added new benches and landscaping at a cost of $700,000.
But community leaders say that more events and visitors are taking a toll, making it time to reconsider the park’s physical space and programming.
The fact that two park neighbors — Ordway Center and Landmark Center — are putting millions into construction and renovation is another reason to take a new look at Rice Park, said Amy Mino, president of the Rice Park Association, a group of area businesses and nonprofits dedicated to maintaining and enhancing the park.
The garden club began raising the money in March after the city’s Parks and Recreation Department — which said it didn’t have the funds — estimated that $46,000 would be needed to develop a conceptual plan for the park, based in part on public input.
By May 31, the money was well in hand; the donor list shows more than 100 contributors.
What the plan will be remains to be seen. Paths could be changed or added, lighting could be redone, benches could be moved and tables installed, and the large circular plaza could be reconfigured.
“Right now it’s a blank slate,” FitzPatrick said.
She said that advocates want to have a plan in place by the turn of the year. Then a big fundraising drive will begin, she said, in hopes that ground can be broken sometime in 2015.
The cost is unknown, although it will likely top $1 million.
Rice Park long has been recognized as one of the most attractive and successful urban squares in the United States. In 2011 it was named one of the country’s top 10 public spaces by the American Planning Association, along with places such as Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado Springs, Colo., and Milwaukee’s RiverWalk.
The garden club planted 1,700 tulips in Rice Park in 1927, and ever since has helped maintain the park. This year, it purchased and installed 140 yew shrubs in the park.