A year after the city of Minneapolis decided to consolidate some far-flung city workers into a new building, it made a decision that could have far-reaching implications for a key downtown block.
Rather than build on a lot that currently features a city-owned parking ramp, at S. 5th Street and 5th Avenue S., the city made a swap with the neighboring ramp. The new city office building will no longer face the Armory but instead move a block to the west and face Government Plaza and the light rail station in front of city hall.
The purpose is to consolidate city workers who now work out several different city owned and leased spaces throughout downtown. The end of lease payments and the sale of two buildings are part of the financing plan for the new building.
A new signature building will replace a 1991 ramp built of reddish steel tubes. While it could make city services more efficient, the project comes with another opportunity: to make what is a disappointing grouping of civic buildings into a true center of government, something not lost on the international and local architects designing the building.
“Because we’re sited as we are, we have the possibility to create kind of a civic center around the Government Plaza,” said Copenhagen-based architect Michael Sørensen of Henning Larsen. “You can see the structure is made as a very open gesture toward the plaza. The plaza is almost allowed to go and grow into the building.”
That isn’t the case with the buildings that frame the other three edges of the plaza. “When you stand on this square today and you look around, nothing actually opens up and invites you inside,” Sørensen told those attending a media briefing last week. “Everything is closed. So you can argue, then what’s the point of having a square like that?”
Openness to the plaza contributed to the design of the building, from its transparent skin to its two-story ground-level. “Let’s try to celebrate that and open up,” he said.
Architects asked about the possibility of closing South Fourth Avenue to extend the plaza to the door of the city office building. When assured that such a closure was not possible, the design did what it could “to make this more of a celebration than a dead space today.”
Other than that, how does Sørensen like Government Plaza? “I won’t comment on that,” he said.
During a presentation to the Minneapolis Planning Commission, Henning Larsen’s North American managing director Mike McElderry also spoke of the building’s relationship to the plaza. “We’ve lifted the tower off the street to create an engaging public atmosphere to bring the plaza into the building and create a space where people can be within the urban environment, rather than going into a building, disappearing and then coming out after hours,” McElderry said. “The primary gesture toward Minneapolis is giving these two floors back to the city. We want to make this as transparent as possible.”
MSR Design of Minneapolis is the architect of record on the project while Henning Larsen of Copenhagen and New York City is the design architect. The city will serve as the general contractor and Mortenson Construction will be the construction manager.
Ramp teardown begins in June. Construction is set to begin this summer with move in in the fall of 2020. While the building is designed to hold up to 1,300 employees, the move-in number will be close to 1,000.
The parking ramp exchange was not exactly a swap. What is known as City Garage is larger than the InterPark Ramp the city will acquire — 1,303 spaces vs. 974 spaces. According to terms presented to the city council last February, Urban Growth Properties will pay the city $6.5 million on top of the exchange of real estate. The city also agreed to limit paid public parking in whatever it would build on its new parcel — something it was inclined to do anyway.
The budget for the construction project is $210 million but some of that will be spent to renovate and remodel city-used spaces in the historic municipal building. City Chief Financial Officer Mark Ruff estimates that about three-quarters of the budget will be spent on the new building. Of that, about $2 million will be for public art that could range from stand-alone pieces to elements such as handrails and patterns on the glass to make it bird safe, said city arts administrator Mary Altman.
The new building will share Government Plaza with the 1889 Romanesque City Hall and Courthouse, the 1977 Hennepin County Government Center and the 1981 U.S. Bank Plaza.
The open plaza also helps bring light into the proposed building. And daylight, Sørensen said, is “part of our DNA. Coming from Scandinavia it is a scarcity for us. We know it enhances the well-being of the people who occupy those spaces.”
My way or the skyway?
The existing parking ramp connects to the skyway at the southern edge of the lot, just before crossing a skybridge into Government Center. There is also a skyway connection between the two parking ramps that crosses into Hennepin County Public Safety building and to the skyway system to the north and east.
The new building will maintain skyway connections at both locations but also bring the skyway into the heart of the two-story ground floor via a suspended bridge.
Ruff said staff and the designers “had lots of animated discussions about relationships of skyway and ground level. We are balancing both.”
The ground floor will hold a conference center where staff and the public can hold meetings and conferences. “We see the conference center on the first floor as a critical space which will be very accessible, heavily used —not just for people in the new building but for (city hall) and for the public as well,” Ruff said.
The “social stair” will connect the ground level with a mezzanine that will house a new public service center where residents can interact with city staff over issues ranging from building permits to utility bills.
“You’re really inviting people from the skyway system into this space and being part of this generous public area in the building,” Sørensen said. “This is the one space where the public meets the city. The staff is trained to meet you here and service you so you have a quick and one-point of entry into the building. Everything converges at this one point.”
McElderry seemed resigned to the fact that designing in downtown Minneapolis requires coming to terms with the skyway. “Fundamentally we understand that we are in a skyway city. We know this is something that is part of your arterial network,” he said. “But also we believe very deeply that the street, the streetscape, is coming into a Minneapolis prime at this moment where it is our duty to activate the street.
“So the city made an early decision to flip this inside out and bring the skyway inside the building in a very extroverted way — bringing life to the city, bringing life to the street, seeing people walk through the building, seeing this people come alive during the day,” McElderry said.
That aspect of the design received push back from some on the planning commission. “There’s a growing acknowledgment that the skyways have kind of ruined downtown,” said Commissioner Nick Magrino. “I’m sure it was decided early on to include the skyway connection. I know you’re not going to start over and take the skyways out. It’s just in this downtown east area … it’s unfortunate to keep expanding the skyway system…”
“Obviously, the building looks very cool but especially in this part of downtown there aren’t going to be a lot of people on the street because they’re all going to be up in the tubes,” Magrino said.
Commissioner Sam Rockwell called the decision to push the skyway into the building “an unbelievable shame.”
“I think it goes against everything the city is talking about doing. It goes against the future of our city,” Rockwell said.
But Rockwell said at least the city could swap the conference center with the public services area. “We’re not only adding a skyway but we’re doubling down on skyway activity rather than bringing activity to the ground floor,” Rockwell said. “This is a mistake of Minneapolis’ past and we shouldn’t further it. This is an opportunity to break part of the spine here and start to make it a little less convenient, to pull some of the induced demand to the skyway level and start bringing that to the ground floor.”
Commissioner Ryan Kronzer said he has come to terms with the skyways but agreed with putting the services center on floor one. “I think it’s fantastic. It’s a great piece of architecture for Minneapolis.,” Kronzer said of the overall design. “I do want to echo the lack of activity on the ground floor. What better way to activate the ground floor than a bunch of architects and developers congregating waiting to talk (to planning staffers)?”