Can We Hit the Pause Button on the Macy’s Site?

It is easy to look at the former Macy’s store in St. Paul and see an irredeemable wreck. It is large and hostile to pedestrians. Its few windows and huge floorplates were ideal for the retail environment of the 1960’s, but are stubbornly resistant to redevelopment. It is too expensive to tear down, and besides, developers aren’t interested in the site even as a blank slate.

All of this explains the audible sighs of relief last year when the Port Authority cobbled together a proposal to breathe new life into the building. Hockey rink? Kind of a cool concept. A new Walgreens? Solid, if unglamorous. Brewpub? How Millenial! Offices? Those don’t seem to be selling like hotcakes down here, but maybe this time will be different.

An additional 180,000 square feet of parking? SLAMS ON BRAKES! What???

Some readers of this site might not make it down to St. Paul on a regular basis, but I’m there almost every day.  Please trust me, we have plenty of parking.  Actually, this is my first post, so don’t trust me. Trust the city’s own official parking survey, released just last year, which pegged downtown’s  ramps at only 73% full during workdays.

That so much additional parking is proposed indicates to me that the Macy’s building is just too large for a traditional redevelopment effort in a market like downtown St. Paul. I imagine the Port Authority looking in vain for anything to fill the space besides parking, and coming up empty.

This raises the question: what if we looked at the Macy’s building a little differently, less as an economic conundrum, more as an opportunity for civic infrastructure? When I walk around it, I see incredible opportunity, just not of the kind that typically pleases bankers and developers. Here sits 500,000 square feet of publicly-owned building in the heart of a city which banks on its parks, museums, and ballparks (ie, its publicly-owned attractions) to bring workers, visitors, and residents downtowm. We can work with this!

I imagine a place of sunshine in the summer months, and place to see growing things in the winter months. A public square at the crossroads of the skyway system, and a rooftop lawn in the heart of the city. A place for performances and flea markets and protests and celebrations and urban gardeners – a space that could only happen in a great city.  I imagine a combination of the Crystal Court and the Como Park Conservatory- part crossroads, part oasis.

I have spent enough time dreaming about this stuff that I recently took the time to draw these ideas up. It’s fun for me – a creative release –  if sort of fanciful. So here, for, I’m sharing my proposal for transforming Macy’s into a park and conservatory.
Let’s start with subtraction – if the current Macy’s building is just too damned big to reuse, why not eat away at some square footage? We’re still left with a big chunk of building, but now one that surrounds a street-level courtyard, open to the sky.
01-Macy's before
This courtyard can be filled with a variety of space, like an outdoor park in the middle with an indoor connection to Wabasha street and the skyway system under a large skylight. The walls of our courtyard, including one wall facing the existing parking ramp, get planted with climbing plants. Inside, a series of public ramps along 6th Street lead to a rooftop lawn. The remainder of the floor area, including upper-level walkways connecting the wings of the building, are places for urban gardeners to grow whatever they’d like. The existing parking ramp should I think, remain. It generates revenue, it is fully separate from the rest of the structure, and it cuts down on the amount of space that needs to be filled.
The Sixth Street facade is removed in favor of another planted facade, this one facing the street with openings that expose the ramps leading to the roof. I have celebrated many a happy hour across the street at Amsterdam Bar, and I have seen the light hit the Macy’s facade in a way that can be striking, even sort of pretty. Some of the exterior walls should stay, I think, as an homage to the history of the building and its important but unloved architectural style.  The critical thing is to open the building up to the street – allow passers by to see the activity inside, the stairs to the skyway level, and the green space.
Existing 6th Wabasha
Proposed 6th Wabasha
Inside, a drab and unloved skyway connection becomes a hub of light and activity. The stairs to the skyway level should be a focal point so that the rest of the space, both indoor and outdoor, flows around them. They should be large enough to double as seating for people to eat their lunch, chat with friends, or watch a performance. Above the skyway level, St. Paul’s new urban garden hangs over floor edges, visible to all.
Existing WF skyway
Proposed WF Skyway
I don’t know what this proposal would cost, or have any insight into its technical feasibility. Given that a rooftop hockey rink and 180,000 square feet of new parking are both affordable and feasible, I’d venture that something like this proposal could be made to work.
Ultimately, my argument isn’t for my silly sketches to get built (even though they’re awesome!). It’s this: given that there isn’t exactly a clamoring need for any of the program the Port Authority proposes for the Macy’s site, does it really hurt to slow down and evaluate other options, even if, on their face, they seem fanciful? My biggest fear for the site is this: in a few years, the office spaces are mostly vacant, the Walgreens is…uhh….still a Walgreens, the brewpub has moved out, the Wild want a new practice facility…and we’re left with another vacant wreck of a building. This time with twice as much parking as before.
Nathan Roisen

About Nathan Roisen

Nate Roisen is an architect that lives in Midway. When he is not hanging out with his wife and baby son, he enjoys dreaming of ways to make the public realm a little more inviting.