Sculpture Garden awaits fate of bonding bill

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March 15, 2010
By: Cristof Traudes
Cristof Traudes
// Project backers want $8.5 million to reverse the popular park’s aging//

The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Walker Art Center are sharing a bated breath as they wait for Gov. Tim Pawlenty to decide what he’ll do with the state’s 2010 bonding bill.

The two groups, partners since 1988 on the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden, are hoping $2 million approved by the Legislature will still be theirs when Pawlenty completes what is expected to be a series of line-item vetoes.

They really had been hoping for more from the state — $6 million more, to be exact. That’s what they need to make all of a number of upgrades they’ve said are essential to keeping the garden around another two decades.

“It’s definitely degrading,” Park Board Commissioner Anita Tabb said of the park’s condition. “If you look at some of the infrastructure, you can tell walls are moving, trees are dying.”

Soil compression has become a major issue and has led to drainage and irrigation problems. Touch-ups made two years ago for the garden’s 20th anniversary already are fading away.

Part of the blame for the issues lies with the garden’s popularity. It’s seen about 7.2 million visitors, a number that has taken a physical toll, said Phillip Bahar, the Walker’s chief of operations and administration. But time also has played a role, notably so with the garden’s vegetation.

The arborvitae trees that line much of the park, “they normally live 20 to 25 years,” Bahar said. “We’re at 22 years.”

To bring the park back to its original state, the groups brought in noted landscape architects Oslund and Associates, the firm behind such projects as Gold Medal Park. This is its first modern renovation.

Principal Tom Oslund said his goal for the project is to have the final results be ultimately unnoticeable. While people should be able to tell the park is in great condition, it still should look like the Sculpture Garden it is today.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of complexity to make something simple,” Oslund said.

Project plans include improving plant selection and irrigation throughout the garden. Light fixtures would get sustainable touches, and the Cowles Conservatory would get an updated heating and air-conditioning system, part of a longer-term plan to bring new programming to that building.

Overall, the park should be able to last longer in better condition than it has so far, Oslund said.

“It is a great sculpture garden,” he said. “It just needs a little renovation.”

Of course, “need” means something different to different people, especially in this economy. The Walker and the Park Board went the public funding route because they see the garden as a state resource, Bahar said. (Almost half of its annual visitors come from outside of the Twin Cities.) But Gov. Tim Pawlenty has said repeatedly that he wants this year’s bonding bill to focus on projects that drive economic growth. Whittling down $2.7 billion in bonding requests, Pawlenty proposed a $685 million package in January that did not include any money for the Sculpture Garden.

At the Legislature, meanwhile, the House of Representatives originally passed a bonding bill that allotted $200,000 for the garden. The Senate bumped that up to $2 million, the amount that was sent to the governor’s desk as this edition of the Downtown Journal went to press.

But Pawlenty has said he doesn’t want a bill much larger than the one he proposed. The Legislature’s version is about $1 billion, an amount the governor is expected to whittle down.

Bahar and Tabb said they have no idea where the Sculpture Garden project will end up.

“We’re always hopeful,” Bahar said, but he doesn’t know the status of even the $2 million. He said that amount, although relatively small, now seems like a fine number. A lot of work could still be started this year, he said, particularly in the arborvitae-lined portions of the garden and in the conservatory.

“We’re going to have to see how the process works out,” Bahar said. “There are certain parts of the project that can get funded in other ways.”

Timing remains important.

“Will the [garden] fall apart tomorrow? No,” said Tabb, the parks commissioner. “But will it fall apart soon? Yeah.”