Can we have democratic design, please?

You want to know the problem with civic centers, more than the fact that they’re becoming largely unnecessary? The problem is that we get no vetting process in the design. We get whatever we’re handed and pretty much told to deal with it.

Enter sparkle panels (yes, I couldn’t believe it either)

Here you go folks, this is the design of the $30 some million expansion to the civic center in Mankato.


chex out mah bling

The “sparkle panels” I mentioned above are actually color changing LEDs (cool in theory) that will be programmable so it can light your way in purple and yellow (or whatever MSU’s colors are.)

Here’s the rub, there was an “open house” for the design where we were basically allowed to say “Do you like boxes? Good. Because you’re getting boxes.”

I was there and I even spoke to the news that I was optimistic that they would design something that plays to the historic nature of downtown. My actual quote to the architect right before I left was “don’t screw it up.” And now, since the renderings came out, I wrote a letter to the editor expressing my disappointment with the building.

If you’ve never seen picture of old Mankato, it’s pretty fantastic. This building, in what we’ve seen so far, really doesn’t offer much in homage to it.

It also has terrible urban form. According to this rendering, 2nd street (a main thoroughfare) will be fronted by a giant blank wall, much like Hy-Vee on Riverfront.

But this all raises a bigger issue, shouldn’t the taxpayer get a choice? We’re bankrolling the whole thing, so why don’t we get more of a say in what happens?

Much like the awful new senate building, the design is out of control of the public.


Less flavor than Lutefisk

Yes, I realize there would be some logistical hurdles in putting design to a vote, but it would be worth a shot. We should be presented with options that fall into broad ranging categories that are easy for the general public to understand: i.e. Classical, modern, mix, etc…  and examples to go along with the categories.

If you put out an online poll, you could more accurately gauge the public’s response.

The Senate building, I realize, is a different situation, but it’s definitely not ok for a city the size of Mankato to say “just trust us.” We lobbied for the money, we passed the referendum, we should get a say in how it looks.

Arguably, this one architect has more power over the public space than any other person in the city. He should be accountable directly to the citizens.

The stupid irony of all this is that we’ll forbid density and mixed use, we’ll regulate what your signs have to look like and make sure you have enough parking, but we, as a government entity, can build whatever.

If it were a private business, financing private construction, sure, go ahead, do what you want, there’s not much we can legally do to stop you, but it’s not, it’s a publicly funded building.

And I get that we’re trying to maximize use before we maximize beauty, but then that should be written into the appropriations. Maybe we can’t facade it in brick now, but in 3 years we will.

Remember, an ugly building built for use will soon find itself useless because no one wants to be in an ugly building.

Though it’s not set in stone yet, I doubt anyone will demand back to the drawing board. So, for the foreseeable future, sparkle panels are here to stay.


About Matthias Leyrer

Matthias Leyrer is a resident of Mankato looking to restore a fraction of its old glory. He writes about the economic, aesthetic, practical and financial issues facing the city of Mankato going forward.