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Does Heart of the City upgrade meet community needs? DMC EDA is preparing to ask

Months-long assessment will gauge whether work being completed at Peace Plaza and along First Avenue Southwest meets expectations established during planning process.

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The Peace Fountain sculpture by Charles E. Gagnon is unveiled after being cleaned, refurbished and placed on a new pedestal, on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, at Peace Plaza in downtown Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Traci Westcott
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A nearly yearlong effort to assess the success of reconstruction in Rochester’s Heart of the City subdistrict is gearing up as construction winds down.

“The construction will be largely completed by the end of November, but a project really isn’t done until you’ve done the post-occupancy analysis,” said Patrick Seeb, executive director of the Destination Medical Center Economic Development Agency.

He told the state DMC Corp. board Thursday that the $17 million in renovations surrounding the eastern portion of Peace Plaza are intended to provide a signature public space that will connect other sub-districts throughout downtown.

RELATED: Peace Fountain takes its place in plaza Work of Rochester sculptor Charles Gagnon returns with new pedestal and purpose as work on Heart of the City redesign continues.
The goal is to address a concern that was heard as the DMC vision was being created seven years ago.

“We learned early on in the development plan process that people were dissatisfied with the type of public space in the downtown,” Seeb said.

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As final touches are being put on Peace Plaza, he said the analysis will be used to determine whether the project goals were met.

Jamie Rothe, the DMC EDA director of community engagement and experience, said work is starting to define the study, which will lead to final results in a year.

She said the work will include a variety of observations throughout different seasons, as well as interviews with people who use the space, which includes First Avenue Southwest between West Center and Second streets.

“We need to know if we have improved the space,” she said, adding that insights will help determine what could be done for future DMC projects.

Board Chairman R.T. Rybak said insights from residents and visitors will be key to determining the project’s success, since hard numbers aren’t always available to gauge individual experiences.

“There may not be an indicator where we can see it move from 27% to 32%, but there is an importance to take anecdotal interviews and use them as part of the metrics,” he said.

Some residents, as well as Rochester City Council members, have already voiced doubts, citing concerns about pavers used on the sidewalk, the reduction in on-street parking and the design and placement of benches amid added trees on the two blocks of First Avenue.

“There are accessibility problems for certain at DMC’s Heart of the City,” Rochester resident Paula Hardin told the Rochester City Council Monday, citing barriers and lack of ability to reach some spaces.

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“Though some slope and cross-slope issues were not as bad as I thought when I brought my digital level down to check it, when I checked in August they were not optimal,” she added.

Rochester Mayor Kim Norton, who serves as vice chairwoman of the DMCC board, said it’s too early to judge the project and whether it meets the community’s needs.

“Heart of the City is not yet complete,” she said. “We are entering a time as we reach that completion date where we can’t really make it look like it’s going to look a year from now, because it means warm weather with water and benches and activation. That’s going to have to wait until the spring.”

With the next DMC public realm project, Discovery Walk, set to start construction early next year, City Council President Brooke Carlson said what is being learned with the Heart of the City effort will benefit the changes along Second Avenue.

“I think there are going to be some important learnings fairly early on in the discussions,” said Carlson, who also sits on the DMCC board.

Rothe said while a final Heart of the City assessment won’t be completed until near the end of 2022, updates and insights will be shared as they emerge.

In other business, the DMCC board:

  • Heard an update on efforts to develop an application process for grants using $3.12 million from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to support projects by small businesses in the downtown core. No date for starting the local application process was announced.

  • Commended board members Jim Bier and Michael Dougherty, who are leaving the board. Former DMC EDA board member Jeff Bolton was also commended for his efforts.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or rpetersen@postbulletin.com.
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