Restoring Peaveys lost luster

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December 2, 2010
By: Gregory J. Scott
Gregory J. Scott
// The Plaza’s grandeur has taken a hit.  It’s Tom Oslund’s job to bring it back. //

Like a relief pitcher who had spent the last inning warming up in the bullpen, Tom Oslund was nice and limber when he got the call.

On Nov. 19, the Minneapolis City Council approved Oslund’s landscape architecture firm, Oslund and Associates, to spearhead the $6 million renovation of Peavey Plaza. The project — a coveted, high profile design challenge expected to attract observers on the national stage — had four local firms competing over it. The contest culminated in a four-hour public job interview on Nov. 16, each firm getting grilled by a seven-member review committee fronted by Mayor R.T. Rybak.

Oslund’s team — already responsible for a few gems in Downtown’s newest wave of public space: the Guthrie’s Gold Medal Park, the Twins stadium’s Target Plaza and the forthcoming I-35W Remembrance Garden — won out. And Oslund himself was ready.

“Frankly, I’ve been thinking about this for a while,” he said, two days after getting the news.

In fact, he’s been brainstorming specific design solutions with grad students for years. As a faculty member at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology, Oslund teaches a studio in the school’s College of Architecture. For the last two years, he’s been assigning the same hypothetical project to his students: How would you renovate Minneapolis’ Peavey Plaza? He plans to give the same assignment this spring.

Only now, of course, it’s a lot less hypothetical.

“There’s all kinds of things that get uncovered when you have 20 students looking at the same problem,” he said.

An old face with ‘incredible bone structure’

The biggest, most obvious problem, he said, is “how we actually bring luster and workability back into this iconic space.”

When Peavey originally opened in 1975, wowing Downtowners with M. Paul Friedberg’s modernist design of blocky, concrete terraces cascading into a sunken pool, it was a pedestrian magnet, teeming constantly with people and frequently hosting public events. It also put Minneapolis on the map as a capital for vanguard landscape architecture. But 35 years later, the space is shopworn, visibly showing signs of decay. In 2008, the Plaza made the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s “Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites” list (though Peavey won’t officially qualify for historic designation until 2025).

While Downtown workers who eat their lunch there in the summertime might not notice much ruin, the neighboring Orchestra Hall has — Peavey’s renovation is timed to complement the much larger, $46 million renovation of the concert venue. Both are scheduled to be completed by 2013.

Also, since its M.C. Escher-meets-skate park layout was conceived of in the 1970s, it’s desperately out of compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which dictates that all public spaces be wheelchair-friendly.

During the Nov. 16 public interview, Oslund described the Plaza as “uncomfortable, even threatening.” He reminded the panel that in the first 10 months of 2010, the police had been called to Peavey for 11 different circumstances.

The good news, though, is that Peavey hasn’t fallen out of favor with residents.

Charles Birnbaum, a Washington D.C.-based landscape architect and founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation who has joined the Oslund team as a consultant, pointed out that while in some cities, “people get angry about modernism,” Peavey is still popular, even in its diminished state.

“It’s still a landscape that is beloved,” he said. “It’s got street presence. It’s still a good brand.”

Birnbaum complimented the Plaza’s “incredible bone structure,” saying that keeping its iconic fountains would be “a no brainer.”

In his view, improvements would come through creating design continuity from Orchestra Hall; through Peavey Plaza, Nicollet Mall, and the Loring Green Way; all the way over to Loring Park, the city’s oldest mapped parkland.  

It’s what he calls, “the center bridge between modernism and the picturesque.”

The other good news is that the Oslund crew has a ringer on their team: M. Paul Friedberg himself.

“What’s so lucky is that we actually have the original designer still alive to interpret what conceptually he was after, rather than having preservationists try to interpret that,” said Oslund.

Still, the renovation won’t be a walk through the park.

Small budget, complex collaborations

For one thing, the budget is small. The allotted $6 million, one landscape architecture student at the public interview quipped, was “barely enough to renovate a building, let alone a public park.”

Maintenance alone could pose a big financial problem. During the interview, a cost estimator for a competing firm, Close Architects, presented data showing that, for most new city parks, operating and maintenance costs in the first 10 years usually outpace the original budget.

So enacting the renovations — and making sure they hold up to time and the weather — will have to be done on the cheap. 
A private/public fundraising scheme could become necessary.

Asked about the budget, Oslund said, it’s “not an insignificant budget for that space based on our experience. We should be able to do some very interesting things for that kind of budget.”

The other potential hazard is the extensive public participation inherent in the project. A 12-member “Community Engagement Committee” — comprised of representatives from area businesses, Downtown residents, design world professionals and historic preservationists — has been assembled to evaluate design concepts. Then, the city and Orchestra Hall will have a strong say in the project, too.

“There’s a lot of voices out there,” said Joan MacLeod, Vice President of Damon Farber Associates, one of the firms who had competed for the renovation.

“It’s not [dissimilar] to what we just came off of with Target Plaza,” Oslund said. “We had about eight clients. One of the things that I think I’ve learned over the years is that a really compelling idea really starts bringing people together quickly. That’s our hope and intent for Peavey.”

Then there’s the old-fashioned pressure of making your city proud.

Mayor Rybak has insisted that Peavey Plaza renovation should solidify Minneapolis’ reputation as “the design capital of the U.S.”

Observers will have to wait a year-and-a-half to see what happens. Design concepts will be complete by June 2011, with construction beginning in spring 2012.