For several years, via social media and in the pages of this newspaper, I have been advocating a wrecking-ball approach to Peavey Plaza in downtown Minneapolis. I even volunteered to take the first swing.
Civic movers and shakers were on the same wavelength, and offered up a $10 million remake by Minneapolis landscape architect Thomas Oslund. The proposal (I liked it) triggered a lawsuit from Preservation Alliance of Minnesota and Washington, D.C.-based Cultural Landscape Foundation.
The preservationists prevailed, meaning 39-year-old Peavey Plaza won’t become the next episode in the long-running miniseries that is Teardownapolis.
The wisdom of this October 2013 agreement was lost on me. Save Peavey? Why? Reversing the example set by our democracy’s poisonous climate, I decided to stop talking and listen, enlisting my own personal preservationist shaman: Jean Garbarini, a Minneapolis landscape architect and longtime Peavey enthusiast.
Over a recent brown-bag lunch — first at a rickety table overlooking the plaza’s waterless pool, then on a walking tour — Garbarini adjusted my vision and showed me how I could — correction, would — learn to love Peavey once again.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “Well, it’s not beautiful right now, but it could be beautiful again. It’s an iconic space that says ‘Minneapolis.’ You’ll never find another space like this anywhere else.”
Garbarini and I instantly agreed on one thing: Peavey, a career high point for landscape architect M. Paul Friedberg, is a sorry shadow of its original, enthralling self.
The dramatic water features have been dry for several summers, the victim of antiquated, expensive-to-repair equipment (it’s the homeowner’s dilemma, writ large: the decidedly unsexy investment in a new water heater vs. splurging on a five-burner Lacanche range).
An accumulation of patchwork repairs has muted the integrity and dignity of Friedberg’s highly detailed design. Oh, and the place is crying out for a skilled gardener: Trees are overgrown, turf has disappeared and plantings appear to have been selected willy-nilly.
But underneath it all, I could feel my affection for that old Peavey magic — its deft multifunctional mix of quiet respites and open-air theater, its quirky terraced terrain, its sensitive and enduring poured-concrete craftsmanship, its proudly Modernist DNA — coming back. “If it felt like a place that someone cared about, then people would come here more,” said Garbarini.
Unfortunately, the issues are more than skin-deep. A major obstacle is the psychological barrier fomented by the plaza’s sunken format.
Let’s face it: For some people, there’s something slightly creepy about descending below the security of the sidewalk’s sightlines. And its pre-Americans With Disabilities Act-design means that large portions of the plaza are not accessible to all.
No wonder Peavey’s fallback position is ghost town, and that’s a shame; downtown’s de facto front yard should be crawling with people. But it isn’t. Garbarini doesn’t believe it needs to be this way.
“This is all fixable,” she said. “No one is asking for a complete preservation. It’s about renovation, and restoration. It doesn’t have to be an exact duplication of what’s here. But some of the character-defining features of the space should remain, because once they’re gone, they’re never coming back.”
In other words, compromise. Raise the floor of that soothing 140- by 200-foot pool a few feet, leaving a thin layer of easily drained water. Re-establish the connection to the street by trimming or replanting trees. Take a sensitive approach to creating access points.
Then pile on the programming. Turning over Peavey to the upcoming Minneapolis Holiday Market is a fantastic step in the right direction (and a huge improvement over Peavey’s former relationship with Holidazzle, when parade-watching bleachers blocked the plaza from Nicollet Mall for a month).
Other fixes could be as quick as restoring the summer after-work concert series that once drew crowds, or parking food trucks on Peavey’s outer edges. After all, roughly six thousand presumably hungry people work across the street at Target’s headquarters.
“If you want to seed a place with activity, the first thing to do is to put out food,” wrote William Whyte, author of “The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces.”
In the thinking-big department, how about using Minnesota craft brews as a lure, and converting the plaza’s cobwebbed lower depths into a crowd-pleasing beer garden? Or a third-wave indoor/outdoor coffeehouse? Whatever the solution, let’s fill Peavey’s underutilized acreage, year-round.
Fortunately, city hall is finally coming out of its yearlong, post-lawsuit slumber.
“We’re starting over,” said Steve Kotke, director of the city’s public-works department, which oversees Peavey. “We’re obviously not rebuilding the plaza as we intended, but we’re working closely with the Downtown Council, looking at the settlement agreement and figuring out the next steps.”
In the encouraging-sign department, Kotke said that the city has re-secured Peavey’s $2 million bonding appropriation from the Legislature, which was awarded a few years ago with a time stamp. As for Peavey’s long-term future, a private conservancy overseeing the plaza’s fortunes might be the way to go.
“I’m very much open to that,” said Kotke. “We’re not territorial about this. Our goal is to have a welcoming space that works for the public. I’m also working on the improvements to Nicollet Mall, and I’d very much like to see something at Peavey that complements the great work that we’ll be seeing on the Nicollet Mall.”
Follow Rick Nelson on Twitter: @RickNelsonStrib