Demand Better Urbanism Today! Stop the New Senate Office Building

We don’t get it.

The new State of Minnesota Senate Office Building is proof: we have an incoherent approach to urban development and continually fail at creating vibrant spaces.


May I please have my $90 million back?

The architecture. The urban design. The lack of planning. The parking garages. The midnight financing. The confusing lease agreement. It is hard to imagine a scenario playing out that would result in a worse outcome.

Does Anyone Understand Planning and Urban Design?

The Senate building is next to a transit station, but it does not have an active streetscape. Even worse, the accessory parking structure takes up prime, developable land near the station that could be used for hundreds of better uses. In other words, we have spent $1.1 billion on a light rail line that aims to promote transit ridership, walkability, density and urbanism; yet the same people who helped approved the line have also decided to build a parking garage that doesn’t acknowledge the transit station’s existence.

The City of St. Paul and Metropolitan Council have been good at standing up for urbanism along University Avenue. However, this being a State project, exempted from most zoning and building code, the designers of this building have opted to ignore the context of the code’s intention [UrbanMSP].

This is bad planning. No. Correction: this is embarrassing planning.


Undergraduate urban studies students have more sense than to ignore the streetscape at an important transit node.

The building ignores the people who will be walking along side it. Nothing active is at the street level along any side of the building. Along University Avenue – one of the most important aerials in the Twin Cities – is a blank wall.

To top it off, the public green space has been elevated outside of the public sphere. It is not welcoming to any passerby and gives off the appearance of a private park; no different than what one is likely to find at a suburban corporate campus. These types of green spaces are often left empty. Don’t believe me? Check out every single corporate “green space” in either downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul.


In all fairness, this drab blank wall appropriately echos my attitude towards the Senate.

The Poster Child for Parking Subsidies Gone Mad?

Everything written above goes without mentioning the poor design of the $27 million six story parking garage. Of which is required by legislation to have “on-site parking facilities for ALL members [of the Senate] and staff and disabled visitors” [bold emphasis mine].



The legislation was written with the pretext that literally everyone using the building will drive.

38 percent of the $90 million price tag is going to subsidize parking.

The parking element of the project will include a $27 million, 730 stall parking garage, with approximately $37,000 per space. But, this isn’t the best way to look at it: there are currently 188 open surface spaces, a net gain of 542 parking spaces. Or, approximately $50,000 per additional space created.


Need. More. Parking. Rawwwrrrr!

Saying that $27 million is dedicated to parking is being kind. It’s likely much more. The $27 million for this parking garage does not include the 265 spaces of underground parking. I do not have numbers on the total cost, but suffice it to say that underground parking is expensive. It costs approximately $27,000 per underground space (source, PDF), bringing the total to around $7,155,000. The real number is likely higher.

  • $27,000,000 garage + $7,155,000 underground = $34,155,000 million (That is 38% of $90 million).

This is how places decline. We spend tremendous amounts of money on structures near transit investments that will give us a poor return. In this case, our poor return in not just financial, but a genuine assault on our neighborhood, historic building stock and culture. This is the type of investment that will continue to keep our Capital Region lifeless from May through December.

The Wrong Type of Architecture?

Democracy is not an architectural style. But, if it had to be, it’d be neoclassical Beaux Arts. It’s a building vernacular that compliments the awe of civic and democratic aspirations. It’s a typology where you look at and instantaneously know, “This is a place of importance“. Historically, this has held precedence. The proposed architecture all but softly mutters: “I am an office building for a tech firm.”


This building would fit in nicely in an Eagan office park off 35E.

Many of our State Buildings pay homage to the Beaux Arts – some better than others – but they intentionally express this purpose of democracy and are welcome additions to the public realm. While bland and lacking in LEED point generating gizmos, these buildings are handsome and orderly.

Monument buildings have an obligation to present themselves as consistent with our expectations of democracy. In the words of James Howard Kunstler;

“[Monument buildings must] present a sense of decorum to the city. The city can be an intimidating place for the person who lives there. It’s a place where you’re meeting a lot of strangers constantly, you’re around people you don’t know. There are a lot of exciting, stimulating, but also kind of intimidating things that happen to you in the city. So one of the purposes of architecture for a few thousand years has been to reassure us that when we’re in the city, we’re in a place that is safe, in which transactions occur that we can understand. We’re in surroundings that are coherent, that the outsides of the buildings embellish the public realm and honor the public realm.”

The architecture of the new Senate building fails to do this. It’s a design fit for an office park in Eagan, not St. Paul’s Capital Region.

We Need to Demand Better

We want good urbanism and we want it now. St. Paul is a city. Emphasis on city. It’s about time we started acting like it. What does this mean? For starters, we need to stop being obsessed with parking. It means that we need to create streetscapes worth walking past and we need to build parks and green spaces that are accessible to more than just legislative staff. We need to construct buildings that respectful to their context and that will stand the test of time.

We know how to do this, now we just need to act on it!


40 thoughts on “Demand Better Urbanism Today! Stop the New Senate Office Building

  1. Matt SteeleMatt

    Right on. I find it most appalling that we’re building structured parking and subsidizing the users (they will pay below-market-rate prices) next to a light rail line. The legislature needs to strike the parking minimum language in state law and then institute a car storage buyback for legislators and staff. If they want to spend their $5 (or whatever it would be) a day on parking, that’s fine. If urban legislators want to use it for his bus commute, that’s fine as well (well, awesome rather than fine). It’s disgusting to think how much we distort preferences. Social engineering for car-dependency… its days are numbered.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      Matt – It’s hard to imagine the parking requirements being lifting. Changing the legislation probably wouldn’t be politically feasible (unfortunately). But, I do agree with you that instead of subsidizing parking, they should consider some transit discount, etc. My thought is the parking garage will be 25 percent empty during the session and (maybe) 50 percent empty during May through December.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      Yes! It’s clear that this “public space” here is being intentionally designed to not be public. I guess nothing says “public” like elevating a park above street level and limiting access to it.

      1. sw

        I wonder who said “an architect is only as good as their client.” my understanding of architecture becoming a professionally licensed discipline is that architects are taking responsibility to uphold the safety, well-being, etc of the public. Once architects sell-out to just contracting their client’s desires ~ and not educating or advocating for good design ~ their license should be suspect.

  2. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Well done! I’d like to hear what St. Paul PED thinks of the overall design – I can’t believe this would sail through the city process (I hope this post gets noticed)

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      St. Paul PED has been good along University Avenue and has attempted to really boost urbanism around transit stops. The State Senate really came in and overruled a lot of good code; probably in an effort to get it done quickly before the GOP had a chance to pull out funding.

    2. Lucy Thompson

      The City doesn’t have any design or zoning jurisdiction on this site; it’s under the jurisdiction of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board (CAAPB). We can only comment on the site plan and its impact on City infrastructure and systems. We have repeatedly expressed our opinion to the Department of Administration that continuing to build parking (especially structured parking) is inconsistent with the Rice Station Area Plan (adopted by both the City and CAAPB). We have not been successful in changing their minds. It’s really up the CAAPB and its staff.

      1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

        Thanks for clarifying Lucy. Appreciated. I had more written about how CAAPB is ignoring the Rice Station Area Plan, but for brevity sake, I decided to cut it out. Thanks for bringing it up because I think it’s an important point.

  3. Michael RodenMichael

    You’ve hit it on the head with neoclassical. The Senate building needs to have a big wide staircase of exactly the type you think of when you think of government. A place for protests and rallies and civic engagement. They can put up some concrete bollards if the like.

  4. John Bailey

    While I’m sure you are right that the City and Met Council are exempted from any review requirements, doesn’t the Capital Area Architectural Planning Commission have jurisdiction? My understanding is that they have quite a bit of say about what/where/how/ gets built. I don’t know much about them, and I believe they were not too friendly towards LRT “disturbing the vista” too close capital. But perhaps there is a friendly person there that could be of help?

  5. Bill LindekeBill Lindeke

    This is all in the Capital Area Planning Jurisdiction, which means that St Paul Planning Commission and Zoning rules don’t apply. In fact, there’s very little public input or process whatsoever. (Is there any?…)


    1. Nathaniel Hood

      I believe there was a committee / commission at the State level tasked with selecting the building design. I do not believe there was any public input, at least none that I was aware of.

      It’d be very interested to see how public input would change the design. Also, if we kept it to St. Paul code, there would likely be retail at ground level. Not sure what else would change.

      1. Jim

        I don’t understand the strong desire for retail here. It’s a government office building. I find the idea of a coffee shop or restaurant sort of tacky. Most of the other government buildings around the capital evoke a nice serene dignified look. Sticking a Starbucks here just doesn’t sit right with me. Nor any other use.

        Exactly what retail uses would people prefer???

        1. Nathaniel

          I think you’re right in saying that the Senate office building doesn’t need retail at ground level. What they need to do there is drop the park down to street level and active the frontage that way. It’s easy and simple and will do wonders. Retail on ground level could possibly look tacky at ground level on what should be a stately office office, but there are ways around making it just retail, or the proverbial urbanist “coffee shop”.

          If they are going to build the six story parking garage – which I hope they don’t but if they do – that should be lined at street level with retail or office space. The last thing St. Paul needs is another block-in-length, blank, lifeless parking deck.

  6. Nathaniel

    This is how oversized the parking structures will be:

    730 Structured + 265 Underground = 995 Parking Spaces

    We have 67 Senators. Say, each and every Senator has a legislative and support staff of 4 people (268) and 2 unpaid interns (134). Now, let’s assume there are 100 additional new administration, janitorial and maintenance staff. Let’s say, for the sake of being fair, there are another 250 people just working at the building for some other reason I can’t make up. If everyone listed here drove, it’d look a little like this:

    67 Senators + 268 Legislative and Support Staff + 134 Unpaid Interns + 350 Misc. Workers = 819 parking spaces.

    That leaves us with 176 unused parking spaces. Oh, it should be noted that the new building will only house the offices of 44 Senators, not all 67.

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      Were most of the recent reports of the parking incorrect? I thought the $27m structured parking was 210 spaces and 3 levels? I never found a project document confirming (or denying) this, but it was widely reported. Can you clarify?

      Also, it seems like the second parking structure is also “public,” most likely intended to be used for visitors (both the John Q and on official gov’t business). Of course, I doubt they have real numbers showing the need, how much people would be willing to pay, or evaluated the on-street capacity (what’s metered today vs not within a 1/2 mile walk shed).

      1. Adam MillerAdam

        The Sears parking lot usually works pretty well for visitors, and is huge and free (and apparently now at least tacitly condoned by Sears).

      2. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

        Alex – It’s hard to get good information. There are a few options, 730 one of them, and approximately 650 +/- is another one being floated. The 210 came from an Arch Digest article, but I think that number is wrong. If it’s not wrong, we’re looking at 210 for $27m.

        1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

          That was my thought as well. A bunch of TC publications used the 210/$27m figure, but that came to over $128k per parking space, well above average for above-ground structured parking. Thanks for the clarification, and great post!

  7. Michael RodenMichael Roden

    I know that there are some forces in the congress trying to scuttle the whole project. Would public input or lobbying to the CAPJ help to force changes in the current design? Maybe scrapping the whole thing wouldn’t be a bad outcome – unfortunately the land is unlikely to be developed by a more enlightened private company any time soon. The best we can hope for is changes to the current design or waiting for the state gov to try to build on it again in the future. I don’t see any need for retail spots, but the design should acknowledge the street and be built in a way that encourages citizen participation in government. The current design throws a condescending bone to public space while insulating any actual workings from the public. As an architect myself, I have to reiterate the statement above that an architect is only as good as his client – and this one’s a doozy.

  8. John Bailey

    I knew this project was not within the City’s planning jurisdiction, and the Capital Planning Commission is rather opaque, but they do have public meetings. There next one is in February ( Of the 12 members, three are appointed by Coleman and the others are legislators. For what it’s worth, one of them is Raymond Dehn from north Minneapolis who is a practicing architect and very friendly to new urbanist principles.

    Others of you probably have more experience than me worthing with the Planning Commission. Sometimes through if an entity is used to zero spotlight suddenly gets some it can have some affect.

    Not suggesting unicorn chasing, just a thought.

  9. Adam MillerAdam

    You’ve convinced me, but you’re missing something. What’s the call to action? To whom should we be writing and calling?

    While I agree with the rest of it, it’s the parking structure that makes me depressed. Is it really hard to understand how a big concrete stack of empty cars is a dead space taking up a city block?

        1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

          The lieutenant governor is chair of the committee. Send to her as well.

          I think attendance at the next meeting is a good idea.

  10. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    This was just posted at MinnPost –
    The building could be delayed because it is too “palatial.” No mention of terrible urbanism, but perhaps Nate’s post is timely, if it’s brought to the attention of the right people.
    Contact Senator David Hann here – and forward this post to him. His Twitter handle is @DavidHann

  11. AnArchitectsPerspective

    Nathan, a lot of what you said is very valid, but you should be careful to attach so much emotion and accusation to your writing; especially when you lack so much information into the project.

    1) I agree that the parking structure is quite unnecessary given the light rail expansions and takes up valuable real estate. I too would rather see construction to reinforce urban development go there.

    2) I also agree that the plaza would be much more effective at ground level, it would engage and connect the building with the public. However, that would force the parking, currently under the elevated plaza, down another 12 feet causing issues with the water table and costing crazy money.

    You clearly have a good urban design sense, but I think your architectural perspective isn’t as acute.
    3) You can’t complain about the cost of this building and then propose that it should be neoclassical beaux arts. I agree this style is perfect for government buildings, but can you give me a legitimate example, comparable in size, that has been constructed since 1940? The tax payers are complaining enough about the building’s current design. I’d imagine the architect had much more tasteful and/or elaborate design ideas that immediately got reduced due to cost. As a tax payer, I’m MUCH more against my tax dollars going to the new Vikings stadium – I’ve never been to a game and never plan to, yet I am paying for this monster almost 15X the cost of the LOB?

    I appreciate your perspective and think you have some great points; I just wanted to throw out a more balanced perspective for everyone to ponder.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      Anonymous Architect – Thank you for jumping in. It’s also good to have an alternative perspective. I think we need more architects on Streets.MN.

      I wanted to comment quickly on two of your points. Regarding the plaza, I understand the cost associated with digging into the water table. My suggestion would be to scrap that parking. Having a public green space and park at ground level should take priority over underground parking.

      Also, I didn’t mean to complain about cost. I wanted to concentrate more on design. I feel that the GOP is wrong in this particular case. However, it is always shocking to me how expensive parking is. I mean, it’s Really expensive (almost 40% of the cost in this particular case is parking). Our desire for an automobile-convenience-oriented lifestyle is detrimental to our collective pocketbook. Also – I can’t cite off-hand any neoclassical building post-1940. You got me there.

      Last comment is that, if we were to dedicate not 40% of the cost, but only 20% to parking, we’d have 20% more of $90 million to concentrate on a better, more urban compatible design.

      Anyway – Thanks for commenting. Feel free to swing by Streets.MN and drop in your two cents more often. It’s appreciated. Best _Nate

  12. Brad

    Thank you for writing this article. I am a state employee and was appalled when I heard that the state is building a parking garage right next to the LRT station. It should also be known that the state is building TWO other parking garages (880 spaces total) to replace Sears parking that has not yet been taken away. Also, because of the renovation, there are two “temporary” parking lots in the capitol mall right now. They will be there for at least two years. Parking is driving every decision at the capitol.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      It’s unfortunate that our design is driven by automobile storage. What makes this matter exponentially more frustrating is that legislative offices are nearly empty for a majority of the year.

  13. John Lilja

    I like your blog, but I find that I disagree with you some on the design issues.

    First, the location. Your overhead pictures of the parking lots are the wrong block. Go one block east as noted in the BizJournals article. The chosen block is one big parking lot with a lot of trees. It will be replaced by an OK looking building with a lot of trees.

    Second, University Avenue. Their design for University Avenue is actually more of a reflection of what is already in that area around the Capitol which is lots of boring blank walls. Is that good? No. But does the city and the Capitol area need another “attraction” park for people around there? Also no. The Capitol grounds already have several acres of pretty green spaces, and people should go there, not to the Senate office building. And the Capitol properties are not going to be used for commercial space, so that’s out, too. What next? Housing? Nope. So in the end we’ll get what is already there, which is a line of trees in the grass. Also, you called University Avenue “one of the most important aerials in the Twin Cities.” I completely agree that University is important, though I’m not sure why you called it an aerial. Except that this is end of University. Keep driving east and University is characterless crap. By Design.

    Third, the building. This is not a horrific building. I could show you 25 other buildings within 10 blocks that are horrific. Its not awe-inspiring, but then neither are politicians. Instead of a great big beautiful building that competes visually with the Capitol’s back side, I’m glad they focused on one of the fundamental problems with American construction and that is energy efficiency (if it truly is LEED focused). I haven’t seen any building details, but I would like to believe that since it is gov’t funding, it will be very energy conscious. And regarding the non-public plaza, I’m glad its there because without it where would the staffers go outside to have lunch and play with their Iphones?

    Lastly, I completely agree on the finance side, and on the number of parking spots. That is a waste.

    And all that said, I’m glad you wrote this piece. More people need to know about issues like this. Keep up the great blog!

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      John – There is a lot we probably agree on. I think you’re right in saying there isn’t much great stuff in the surrounding blocks, but I don’t think that gives us a free pass to create sub-par work in the present or future. I think we need to buck the trend of building bad stuff. The public green space should be there to accommodate the transit station.

      Thanks for commenting.

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