Sculpture Garden restoration hits Capitol hiccup

Project backers want $8.5 million to reverse the popular park’s aging

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty this month deleted about $300 million from the state’s bonding bill, one of many projects that got the axe was the restoration of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

The park’s longtime partners, the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board and the Walker Art Center, had shared a lengthy bated breath as they first waited for action from the governor, then from the House of Representatives, then from the Senate and then again from the governor. As recently as mid-March, they hoped they’d be walking away with $2 million the Senate and House voted to give them.

They originally had been hoping for more — $6 million more, to be exact. That’s what they need to make all of a number of upgrades they’ve said are essential to keeping the garden around another two decades.

“It’s definitely degrading,” Park Board Commissioner Anita Tabb said of the park’s condition. “If you look at some of the infrastructure, you can tell walls are moving, trees are dying.”

Soil compression has become a major issue and has led to drainage and irrigation problems. Touch-ups made two years ago for the garden’s 20th anniversary already are fading away.

Part of the blame for the issues lies with the garden’s popularity. It’s seen about 7.2 million visitors, a number that has taken a physical toll, said Phillip Bahar, the Walker’s chief of operations and administration. But time also has played a role, notably so with the garden’s vegetation.

The arborvitae trees that line much of the park, “they normally live 20 to 25 years,” Bahar said. “We’re at 22 years.”

To bring the park back to its original state, the groups brought in noted landscape architects Oslund and Associates, the firm behind such projects as Gold Medal Park. This would be its first modern renovation.

Principal Tom Oslund said his goal for the project is to have the final results be ultimately unnoticeable. While people should be able to tell the park is in great condition, it still should look like the Sculpture Garden it is today.

“It takes a lot of work and a lot of complexity to make something simple,” Oslund said.

Project plans include improving plant selection and irrigation throughout the garden. Light fixtures would get sustainable touches, and the Cowles Conservatory would get an updated heating and air-conditioning system, part of a longer-term plan to bring new programming to that building.

Overall, the park should be able to last longer in better condition than it has so far, Oslund said.

“It is a great sculpture garden,” he said. “It just needs a little renovation.”

Of course, “need” means something different to different people, especially in this economy. The Walker and the Park Board went the public funding route because they see the garden as a state resource, Bahar said. (Almost half of its annual visitors come from outside of the Twin Cities.)

But Gov. Tim Pawlenty had said repeatedly that he wanted this year’s bonding bill to focus on projects that drive economic growth. Whittling down $2.7 billion in bonding requests, Pawlenty proposed a $685 million package in January that did not include any money for the Sculpture Garden.

At the Legislature, meanwhile, the House of Representatives originally passed a bonding bill that allotted $200,000 for the garden. The Senate bumped that up to $2 million, the amount that was sent to the governor’s desk.

That number didn’t last long.

On March 15, Pawlenty cut more than $300 million in projects from what had become a $1 billion bill.

“Like any family or business, state government needs to live within its means and follow a budget,” Pawlenty said.

The Sculpture Garden was grouped with projects such as a $2 million appropriation for Fridley’s Springbrook Nature Center and $1 million for the Park Board’s Theodore Wirth winter recreation center that the governor said are either too local, outside of the metropolitan regional park system or should be or already are being funded by the regional park capital improvement program.

“We certainly were in a lot of good company,” said Tabb, the parks commissioner.

She said the condition of the economy made it no big surprise that the Sculpture Garden didn’t survive a veto. That doesn’t change the project’s urgency, though, she said.

“Will the [garden] fall apart tomorrow? No,” Tabb said. “But will it fall apart soon? Yeah.”

Bahar said the focus will now turn to a more piecemeal approach. The groups might apply for energy efficiency credits, for example, to improve the Cowles Conservatory.

“There might be some other federal or state resources that we can tap into for elements of the project,” he said, “but not the entire project.

“Most likely, we’ll be back at the Capitol for the next round of bonding,” he said.