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Land Matters: Preservation, Plus and Minus

When you work in the public realm, you’ve got to have a thick hide. If you don’t, the public will give you one.

M. Paul Friedberg, FASLA, and Tom Oslund, FASLA, have each run into this reality over the past year and a half. The two were teammates in 2010, until they weren’t, for a competition project to renovate Peavey Plaza next to Orchestra Hall, the home of the Minnesota Orchestra, in downtown Minneapolis.

Friedberg designed the plaza in the early 1970s. You see his signature written in concrete all over its long amphitheater stair seats, floating terraces, groves of shade, plus, when the plumbing worked, in the cubic fountain that shed solid sheets of water and the big pool that stared up from the center of it all. 

The pictures of the plaza are gorgeous. The plumbing hasn’t worked for some time. A couple of pumps that supply the 120,000 gallons of water it needs are on the fritz and can’t be fixed. The plaza is crumbling in places. It suffers from a chronic lack of love, not least from the city, which wants to replace it.

Replacement is not what Friedberg and his biggest advocate, Charles Birnbaum, FASLA, the founder of the Cultural Landscape Foundation, had in mind when they both joined Oslund’s design team, one of four that competed for the project. Things soured between Friedberg and Oslund after Oslund won the competition and Friedberg realized a new design would not keep his old one intact.

Otherwise this is pretty much a standard preservation dispute, including complaints of competition irregularities, of civic bigfooting (in this case, by the orchestra, which wants a new place to perform outside), and of opacity on the city government’s part, which is said to be very un-Minnesotan. Besides Birnbaum, Friedberg’s plaza has a cast of partisans who are fighting to save the original design for its singularity as one of the early park plazas that combine hardscape with soft green space. It’s a decent argument.

The city is largely ignoring the procedural complaints and doesn’t seem the least bit moved by the case for preserving Peavey Plaza’s form. The problem is that the form is not working in the ways the mayor, R. T. Ryback, or the city council wants it to work. The mayor says the plaza is unsafe, inaccessible to some, a waste of water, and a mechanical failure. Also, it has no bathrooms.

To a trained eye, Peavey Plaza stands for a particular place in design time. But in the belly button of a major downtown these days, connoisseurship alone is unlikely to save much. In cities where land is valuable, everything has to pay its own way. Arguments about design and history have to be woven with economy and culture to make them work among the more careful alderpersons. You have to show that preservation benefits a district, which it usually does. This is especially true now that cities, more spontaneously than not, are getting the upper hand in their struggles with the suburbs.

It looks as if a permit to demolish Peavey Plaza will be approved imminently. This is harsh news, but it is unsurprising when you consider the many ways cities are rewriting the action at their centers. Oslund himself may someday see another reincarnation of Peavey Plaza. As a landscape architect he designs and builds and turns his work over to the public for its pleasure for however long it lasts.

Bradford McKee

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