On Tuesday, St. Paul’s oldest public space became its newest public park.
Rice Park, set aside as a public square in 1849, was rededicated as a newer, more open and more accessible version of itself — thanks to a $2.3 million reconstruction.
“I like it,” said John Casserly, who works downtown. “We’ve already got Mears Park, which is cozy and covered. We need more of a plaza.”
Home to the St. Paul Winter Carnival and a hub at the center of St. Paul culture and entertainment, Rice Park was remade from the underground up with a new power grid and stormwater collection and irrigation system. Surrounded by Landmark Center, the St. Paul Hotel, the Ordway Center and the George Latimer Central Library, Rice Park was starting to look a little ragged by comparison, said Amy Mino, chairwoman of the Rice Park Association.
“It was time,” she said of the update to the city’s signature plaza, which was a space where sheep once grazed.
Mino, who watched the reconstruction over the past year from her office on the fourth floor of Landmark Center, said of the changes: “I love it.”
The Rice Park Association, St. Paul Garden Club and St. Paul Parks Conservancy raised $1.35 million for the remake starting back in 2014. The Garden Club got the ball rolling, raising $48,000 for the master plan. The city of St. Paul put in another $1 million.
Parks and Recreation Director Mike Hahm said he couldn’t be happier with the result.
“I’m thrilled. Look at the place,” he said. “It looks like a downtown park should.”
Royae Bennett held her 5-month-old daughter, Brooke, and admired the changes, which include wider pathways, new benches and cafe tables, and room to stage the many events the park hosts.
“Compared to what it was, this is a big upgrade,” she said.
In four years living downtown, she mostly avoided Rice Park. While it had more shade trees, the park just looked tired, she said, adding, “Now, I’ll come down here a lot more.”
About $250,000 of the money raised will be used as an endowment for maintenance and upkeep, said Garth Morrisette, president of the St. Paul Parks Conservancy. The idea is to keep the park looking fresh and new for years to come, he said. Construction took about a year.
Liz Hixson and Bridget Morales, members of the St. Paul Run Club founded by Morales a year ago, said they’ve been running past the park every Wednesday for months, eager for the construction fencing to come down and the park to reopen. And?
“It’s really impressive,” Morales said.
Annie Huidekoper, secretary of the St. Paul Parks Conservancy, said the goal was to transform Rice Park into a gathering place that is safer and more welcoming than what it was. She said that goal has been achieved.
“It’s completely transformed without feeling like it’s a different place,” she said.