A new future for Peavey Plaza

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November 7, 2011
By: Jeremy Zoss
Jeremy Zoss
// The city unveils a new vision for the space, but not everyone is happy //

Peavey Plaza, the public space at 11th and Nicollet, is many things. It’s a landmark of modernist design and the gateway to Orchestra Hall. It’s a beloved public space and a magnet for unsavory activities.

It’s also a space that could not be built today, as it doesn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. For this reason and others, Peavey Plaza is due for a renovation. The city has unveiled a plan for the future of the space that is designed to be more accessible.

“[It] honors the past, while equipping the plaza with features it needs to accommodate the uses of the 21st century,” said City Council Member Lisa Goodman (7th Ward).

Originally built in 1974 based on a design by M. Paul Friedberg, Peavey Plaza is best known for its sunken plaza with built-in terraced seating and an elaborate cascading fountain. The fountain is generally dry these days, and many of the materials used in the plaza’s construction are starting to break down. Its deteriorating condition landed it on the Preservation Alliance of Minnesota’s list of the most endangered historical places in 2008. In order to save Peavey, something needed to be done. But many preservationists are saying that the city’s plan for Peavey goes too far and eliminates too much of the plaza’s original design.

A new look for Peavey

The new design from landscape architecture firm oslund.and.associates reimagines Peavey Plaza as a more functional space that can be programmed with more events. While the new vision pays homage to the original design, it would also radically change it and remove some of its iconic elements.

In the new plan, gone are the water sculpture at the corner of 12th and Nicollet and many of the plaza’s more private corners. The depth of the recessed area would be reduced. A “sound garden” leading to the entrance of Orchestra Hall would respond to movements through it with lights and sound based on the performance inside the building. A permanent stage and green wall would be built into the southern end, and amenities like bathrooms, a concession stand and power hookups are also included. Of course, as per the public’s input, water features remain a key component.

“The design takes its cues from what is here, but it actually organizes it into three specific rooms,” says lead designer Tom Oslund. “One, the street room. The second, the performance room, which has the water basin and a series of seating areas and the third the garden or game room, which is on the lower level.”

The new design features a lower basin with a reflecting pool filled with a quarter inch of water and animated water jets. The system is designed so that the water can be quickly and sustainably drained for events, unlike the current fountain, which flushes 112,000 gallons of water into the sewers every time it is drained.

Community feedback

At the public unveiling of the redesign plan on Oct. 19, the new water features were singled out as the element people liked best.

However, many aspects have drawn criticism. A group calling itself the Supporters of Peavey Plaza, which includes members of preservation organizations such as Preserve Minneapolis and The Cultural Landscape Foundation, released a statement expressing their disappointment with both the plan and the process through which it was developed.

Several members of the group attended the Oct. 19 open house to restate their issues with the design.

“I am not happy with the plan just from a design standpoint,” said Meg Arnosti, a landscape architect and Supporter of Peavey Plaza member who spoke out against the redesign at the public unveiling. “But also I’m not happy with the fact that a lot of a lot of us never got to see the plan until right now, and all of a sudden it’s being presented as a fait accompli, which I think is poor considering that it’s public money and I think there should have been more input or request for all sorts of ideas, rather than just giving it one designer and having a small group control the process.”

Charles Birnbaum, founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation and member of the original team selected to develop proposals for the Peavey Plaza, wrote an editorial for The Huffington Post slamming the design process and accused Orchestra Hall’s management of hijacking the development process.

Both the city and Orchestra Hall disagree.

“This process has been as transparent as any process that I’ve been involved in, starting with the very public selection of the landscape architect last November,” said CPED director Chuck Lutz. “Two hundred people at the convention center listened in as our city review committee decided that it was Oslund that would be the one to move forward. It’s one thing not to like the design, but it’s another thing not to like the process. I’ve seen these issues co-mingled, so I’m not sure which is the issue.”

While the Minnesota Orchestra did organize a group of representatives from businesses, neighbors and community organizations to provide input on the redesign, its management also cites the transparency of the process and denies it had undue influence on the design process.

“The group was never intended to be a decision-making body,” said Gwen Pappas, public relations director for the Minnesota Orchestra. “They were there to offer input but it would be the city’s review panel that would make the final decision. Which I think is appropriate, because it is city property.”

The Peavey Plaza redesign has plenty of vocal supporters as well.

“From what I’ve seen, I think they have incorporated all the things I’m interested in. Definitely the accessibility for the disabled,” said Sydna Cheever, who attended the public unveiling. “It looks very nice. The water fountains are very important. I see where the stage is going to be and I think that might work too. They’ve put a lot of thought it. I’m for it.”

Two City Council committees have approved the design and voted to send the redesign plan to the full council on Nov. 4. The plan is estimated to cost between $8–$10 million, $2 million of which has been obtained through state bonding funds. The rest of the funds are expected to come from private donors. Once approved, the redesign is expected to be complete by late 2013.

Reach Jeremy Zoss at jzoss@mnpubs.com.