Threescore and 10: the biblical allotment of years a person might reasonably expect to live. It’s also the number of days we can have lunch outside. Each spring, the food trucks line up downtown like circus elephants; people queue up for their favorite and then ask the same question: Where to go to eat it? Take it upstairs to the desk and eat like a drone in a beige cage, or find a place outside and enjoy the noontime sun?
It’s often the former. Say what you will about your cubicle, at least you know you’ll find a space. And that’s not always the case when looking for a spot in the sun.
Downtown Minneapolis doesn’t abound with great places to have your lunch. St. Paul likewise, although it does have two fine big parks. Does it matter? Well, once upon a time, Star Tribune columnist Barbara Flanagan, indefatigable champion of al fresco dining, pushed for sidewalk seating as an important component of summertime street life, and she was right: When you walk past a cafe with patrons sipping and chatting, servers darting here and there with trays and dishes, the city feels more alive, more interesting.
But there aren’t many great options if you have a box or a bag, and it’s almost impossible to change that.
Consider what we have. There’s Government Center on the edge of the core. It offers two choices: the barren arid plaza on the east, with its clunky square slabs that give you a great view of the perpetually broken fountain, and the verdant west side, which has a limited number of benches where you can try to balance your food on your lap. The former is charmless — no one ever says “Meet me at the statue of melted guns, we’ll do lunch!” — and the latter hasn’t much space, seeing as how the center of the park is a big mound of grass whose swell discourages sitting.
Across the street is the inviting greensward of the Turf Club, a park for the 333 South 7th building. It has chairs. It has sofas. And it’s PRIVATE.
It’s for the building’s tenants and their guests. They probably won’t run you off if you’re just sitting there, unless you bring a party of 20 and set up card tables. It’s a model for what a city should have in abundance, except it’s hard to convince landowners to devote their property to something that requires a lot of maintenance and generates zero revenue.
The anti-grass approach
Perhaps you head toward the Nicollet Mall. There’s seating there. But the street is all ripped up now, and you’d feel like you’re having lunch alongside a sewer-line repair project. (Because you are.) The Xcel building — the old NSP building, for some — has a sunken plaza with chairs and tables. Or, if you’re in the mood for another Modernist plaza with a cold hard heart, there’s the steps by the Canadian Pacific Plaza, aka the old First Bank skyscraper. A triangular riser has five levels of seating, arrayed like spectator bleachers. You feel like you’re waiting for a play that never starts.
It’s different down at Peavey Plaza, a perfect place to sun yourself, eat, watch the passing parade. The concrete decor isn’t everyone’s idea of beauty; some prefer lunch seating that doesn’t draw blood if you brush against it with a bare leg. The empty dry lake makes you feel as if you’re sitting by the banks of a resort that went bust. But it’s big, and the street life gives it a festive air. Heck of a hike if your office isn’t nearby, though.
St. Paul is different, but it has the same challenges. What about Cleveland Circle, you ask? Hmm: You must work for the city or a mapmaker. No one calls it Cleveland Circle. It’s the intersection by Xcel Energy Center — three semicircular slices with trees and planters. It’s a place to pass through, not linger. You’d have a better lunch at Rice Park and the adjacent Landmark Plaza, where old and new buildings make you feel “I am having an authentic urban experience.”
The same thought might apply to the Ecolab Plaza, where the modernist plaza is duly punctuated with trees and scattered with benches. You could go to Mears Park to enjoy a view from the early days of the previous century, as long as you turn your back to the Cray towers (formerly Galtier Plaza). But downtown St. Paul has rather easy access to river views; once you make it over Kellogg, there is open space with views of water, bridges and trains.
Is it too late?
What we need is something it’s too late to make. You can’t retrofit a city to make pocket parks. If you had blocks and blocks of old individual small-lot buildings, now and then you’d lose one to fire or age and the space could be used for a small green space. But most of those blocks were knocked down long ago; downtown is full of Goliaths, and you can’t carve a little park out of their facade.
You can’t ask building owners to put tables and chairs outside their property for the lunch crowd, because, well, why would they? You know someone would lean back and fall over and sue.
If there were only a big green space that would be perfect for a quick lunch on a brilliant June day. Downtown would be so much better.
But there will be. The park by U.S. Bank Stadium. In a perfect world, the city would run a shuttle bus from the core to the park, paid for by golden eggs produced by magic geese, and you could get to the park while your lunch is still warm. In this fallen world, we’ll have to walk, but it’ll be worth it. In the olden days your lunch was a ham sandwich from a paper bag consumed in a break room; now we have food-truck vindaloo and the promise of a great green lawn on which to enjoy it.
People will still eat at their desks because things are piling up, but it’s nice to know that there are options.