I’ve been to enough conferences to know that convention centers can be insular. Spending 10 hours a day shuffling on an endless carpet, surrounded by hundreds of networking colleagues, eager salespeople, or potential clients, it’s easy to forget the city outside. Much of the time, the specific location of a convention hardly matters as long as there are big hotels and an airport nearby.
Ideally, though, a convention center is seamlessly integrated into a thriving and diverse downtown. At the best conferences I’ve attended, the city itself becomes part of the experience as groups of schmoozers wander from a meeting and straight onto a compelling sidewalk.
That’s easier said than done on the barren streets of downtown Minneapolis, but that might be changing. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Minneapolis Convention Center unveiled a new plaza that is a great step toward a more integrated city.
From ‘X Files’ vibe to connection with city
To my eyes, the Minneapolis Convention Center always had the vibe of an old “X Files” episode, as if an alien craft were unearthed on the edge of downtown. The four weird domes, along with the “artistic” 3rd Avenue bridge (theoretically based on designs by Frank Lloyd Wright) over the I-94 freeway, seem straight out of 1990s sci-fi.
These days, the convention center offers a palimpsest of design trends from many different eras of events-based remodeling. The skyways are from the original building in 1989, the wayfinding signage and sculptures date to a 2008 refresh, and the massive stone panels on display were saved from the 1927 Minneapolis Auditorium.
The new plaza, along with some other modifications to lighting and street infrastructure, simplifies the look. Designed by Damon Farber, a local landscape architecture firm, the plaza is intended to better integrate with the surrounding city.
“The old plaza had a look similar look and feel as the 1989 skyways, [with] the green and the mauve, so we wanted to jazz it up a little bit,” admitted Jeff Johnson, describing the new plaza. Johnson has served as the executive director of the Minneapolis Convention Center for over 10 years.
When COVID-19 swept through like a tsunami in March 2020, the convention business came to an instant halt. The convention center budget, which depends on a hotel and hospitality tax, was reduced to almost nothing. Luckily for Johnson, the plans and contracts for the new plaza had already been signed.
History of the plaza
Most people don’t realize that the convention center plaza is actually the roof of a 900-stall parking ramp, buried underground. The previous plaza had been sort of a grassy field ringed by spruce and maple trees, with a few sculptures arranged throughout the courtyard. The basic design was inward facing, a circular space intended for tents or tables, basically a theoretical extension of the convention hall.
The new plaza, on the other hand, seems more fit for a stroll, with walking paths lacing through large gardens of wildflowers. The result refresh is far more inviting than its predecessor.
“We’re calling it a pollinator meadow,” Johnson explained. “It’s just growing in with native wildflowers. It’s really cool when you look out from inside the center and see the colors.”
Today, walking out the convention center doors, you’ll find rows of butterfly milkweed, pale purple coneflower, anise hyssop, Eastern bee balm, California poppy, and wild lupine. At first glance, native prairie flowers seem out of place in a downtown where you’re hard-pressed to find a thriving street tree. But they offer a welcome change of pace from the concrete and asphalt landscape that predominates.
More important, the plaza invites people through the space with strong lines and visual cues, encouraging trips to and from Nicollet Avenue and the larger downtown. As it turns out, Nicollet is actually not that far from the convention center doors. The stroll by Westminster Church is quite pleasant, running down Alice Rainville Way, downtown’s shortest street.
“We wanted to make sure that we had a good experience for people that stay at the hotels that are on Nicollet,” explained Johnson. “As they come and approach the convention center, they have this bright new plaza to walk through, similar to what’s been done through the rest of downtown.”
The future of conventions
For the time being, the only thing missing from the equation is conference-goers. Because most large-scale events made cancellation decisions long before widespread vaccination, these days the convention center remains a ghost town. But eventually, the lanyards will return.
“We’re really excited about 2022,” said Jeff Johnson. “This year it really will be September before we get back to a normal schedule [with] more up and down and random events happening through the rest of the summer.”
The convention center, which underwent an ill-timed expansion back in 2009, has long been a risky use for public dollars. It will likely take years before the convention center returns to its pre-pandemic levels, if that ever happens. Similar to how COVID-19 changed offices and commuting, with the increasing use of virtual meetings, nobody knows whether the convention industry will return to its prior pace and scale.
On the other hand, a work-from-home culture could mean that conventions or annual events become more important, a rare time for dispersed colleagues to meet in person. Perhaps conventions could become a key component of a future “asynchronous” workplace.
Either way, the wildflowers will only grow more rooted in their new plaza, linking the once-aloof massive building to the rest of downtown. Particularly since the addition of the network of protected bike lanes ringing the facility, the center feels less like a barrier. Along with the gradual development of the once-ubiquitous surface parking lots, downtown’s southern edge feels more like a walkable, contiguous city, both for tourists and year-round residents.
“We’re really happy with how it’s turned out,” said Johnson, who is optimistic that next year will be better than the last. “I can tell that a lot of our neighbors are walking their dogs though it. We’re excited to get back to hosting events.”