LORING PARK — Patios are a common sight on Nicollet Avenue, but a new patio area next to Westminster Presbyterian Church is reinventing the idea of the public space.
The Musicant Group, a local organization that helps property owners and groups make the most of public and shared spaces, recently took a vacant space owned by the church and created an outdoor gathering place complete with free public activities and amenities called the Piazza on the Mall.
“It’s beautiful,” Kim Wingo, a frequent visitor to the piazza said. “It’s nice that they made it look inviting to people.”
The piazza offers several sets of moveable tables and chairs, a pingpong table, bocce ball, a beanbag toss, a free little library, a bike pump and outdoor outlets to charge phones and laptops.
Wingo works in the business center next door to the piazza, and said she enjoys coming to the space during the day.
“The games that they came up with are great. I see all ages of life playing games and just having a really good time,” Wingo said. “It’s nice to just come out and sit and relax on your breaks.”
When Westminster bought the space from Presbyterian Homes last summer, the outdoor plot was purely concrete. Max Musicant, founder of the Musicant Group, said there were broken fountains and “leakage issues” when the revamp first started in spring 2013.
Westminster Senior Pastor Tim Hart-Andersen said making a community-oriented place out of the unused land was the ultimate goal when he contacted Musicant for the project near the end of 2012.
“The church very much wants to engage the city,” Hart-Andersen said. “We’ve done that for our 150-plus years, and we’re trying to do it in a new way in the 21st century, which means inviting the city into open spaces and to create community — to enjoy being there.”
The Musicant Group worked on the space all summer, bringing in a ping-pong table made out a road sign by Public Design Exchange in June, and in July building a 3,000-square-foot wooden deck complete with a bocce ball court and a beanbag toss.
“We came up with creating a really cool, inviting patio deck, kind of like a restaurant would have, only this would be for public use,” Musicant said. “On top of that, you need to give people a variety of things to do, see and experience.”
The space has not just been used for leisurely gathering. The Musicant Group kicked off the completion of the patio and the grand opening of the piazza on Aug. 1 with a “Social Jam Session,” when the public was invited to come together to play a variety of instruments provided on the piazza. The space has also been home to several different food trucks during recent lunch hours.
Come September, there will be even more to look forward to at the piazza, including weekly concerts by local bands each Thursday at 5:30 p.m. and square dancing on Sept. 28. Musicant said he has no intention of stopping the fun when snow falls.
“Our goal is to have it active, with things for people to do year-round,” Musicant said. “We’re going to try to show downtown Minneapolis and the Twin Cities there’s lots of fun things to do in the wintertime.”
So far, Hart-Andersen said the space has done exactly what the church had hoped it would.
“The animation factor has worked. It’s flexible space, people can move the furnishings around, and they are,” Hart-Andersen said. “They’re playing the games. Almost every other day they’re out there playing pingpong or throwing the bocce balls. So it’s working.”
Based on data he has collected, Musicant is also pleased with the success of the piazza so far.
“Even though it’s only just opened, I have confidence it’s the most active public space in downtown,” Musicant said. “We do track data, and the usage has exploded.”
Musicant said his group is busy thinking of ideas to further develop the space in coming months but, for now, he wants to keep them under wrap.
“The whole process is very experimental. We’re trying out new concepts and getting feedback from users,” he said. “We’re always evolving.”