Redesigning the State Capitol Mall in 10 ‘Bold Moves’

Take a gander at the Minnesota State Capitol Mall and you’ll find a lot of greenery, scattered statues and memorials, and a whole lot of quiet, but not much indication that its open space is actually open to the public.

Now imagine a reworked common area along the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd., with gardens and symbolic plantings reflective of the state’s flora surrounding added tree canopy and more benches and picnic tables, the kind of gathering spot where a civic group might host a tour or gather for a demonstration. On the other side of the State Capitol building, a new pedestrian bridge could take visitors across University Avenue.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. “Community Commons” could be the first phase of what’s being advertised as “10 Bold Moves” at the Capitol Mall under the supervision of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board, which has zoning and planning control over the area around the State Capitol.

With $5 million already in hand, the board is working with some 18 partners, including the governor’s office, the city of St. Paul, the Capitol Region Watershed District, the Minnesota Historical Society and private planners.

‘Bold moves’

Those “bold moves” — which include both aesthetic and traffic changes to Rice Street, University Avenue and John Ireland Boulevard — build off a survey that drew some 1,400 responses, as well as pop-up presentations that took place from mid-January through mid-February.

The responses have been incorporated into a 179-page “Capitol Mall Design Framework” fashioned by the design firm of Sasaki Associates, Inc., available online at A “virtual town hall” on the framework took place last Thursday, and a second online survey closes April 5.

“We’re really looking for people to give us feedback on that phase one and the overall Capitol Mall Design Framework,” said Erik Dahl, executive secretary of the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board. “This is the people of Minnesota’s front lawn. What do people want to see?”

After that, the design could be ready for public showcase and final comments this June, and then rolled out at the end of the year. The installation of the Community Commons and tree additions in the Upper Mall would cost $4.5 million to $6.5 million, not including major utility changes or storm water improvements under Rev. MLK Jr. Blvd.

The state appropriated $5 million toward the project last year when it approved the $450 million renovation to the Minnesota House office building, and partners like the Capitol Regional Watershed could provide additional funds.

The goal, according to planners, is to make the Capitol Mall more inviting. In surveys, many respondents said they didn’t think they were welcome on the mall if they weren’t there for official business.

A year ago, the urban planner behind the YouTube show “CityNerd” listed the Minnesota State Capitol’s low-rise, “extremely low density” campus as one of the nation’s 10 worst state capitol layouts, given how little vitality it contributes to the area.

The 12-member Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board is seeking feedback on a proposed “Community Commons” that could sit in front of the Minnesota State Capitol Mall along the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. in St. Paul. (Courtesy of the CAAPB)

History, gathering spaces above quiet reflection

Changing that perception likely would entail creating a space that’s more comfortable and fully accessible, according to planners, with the MLK “Community Commons” serving as its “nexus.” The mall also could be a model for Minnesota, showcasing best practices in environmentally-conscious design, while boosting the local economy by offering better connections to the surrounding area. More than a third of survey respondents listed adding food and beverage options as a priority.

For inspiration, designers with Sasaki looked to Boston City Hall Plaza and Boston’s Copley Plaza, Moore Square in Raleigh, North Carolina, the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, Colorado, the Chicago Riverwalk and the Texas State Capitol.

Most survey respondents scored priorities like having a place to learn about government and history or exercise first amendment rights to civic expression above maintaining the Capitol Mall as a place for quiet reflection or to honor the past. To that end, a cultural walk installed in the existing horseshoe-shaped path around the Capitol building itself could highlight the branches of government and the history of the people that have shaped Minnesota.

Planners noted that the Upper Mall and Lower Mall have notably different topography, with slopes along the Upper Mall exceeding a 5% incline and some exceeding 10%, a challenge for wheelchair users. They suggested “strategically sculpting” the Upper Mall to create new pedestrian routes, which would be accessible to the disabled and flow into the topography of the Lower Mall.

Survey respondents were fairly torn on how well-connected the existing Capitol Mall is to the surrounding city, with a fair number of respondents neutral on the subject. They had stronger feelings about the streetside perimeter on all sides of the State Capitol area, which many said felt unsafe due in part to cars and traffic.

Street improvements, connections to the neighborhoods

Planners noted that on the street surrounding the Capitol Mall, 77% of the public right-of-way is dedicated to cars. More than 80% of the Capitol grounds is covered in lawn, and tree loss has created less shade. More than a fourth of respondents urged designers to integrate dedicated spaces for security, as well as public safety enhancements such as lighting.

Reducing John Ireland Boulevard to two lanes and creating wider pedestrian pathways could be one improvement, and adding more of a plaza-like feel around the transit stops at Rice and University could be another.

A pedestrian bridge over University Avenue could serve as a link between the State Capitol campus and the neighborhood to the north. Between University and Charles avenues, northeast of the State Capitol building, the underused Cass Gilbert Memorial Park could be transformed into more of a destination, featuring a children’s play area, tree groves and perhaps even a coffee shop and restroom.

Chaired by Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan, the 12-member Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board has zoning and planning control over the 60-block area surrounding the State Capitol. The “Capitol Mall Design Framework” process grew out of both the 2040 Comprehensive Plan for the Capitol area, as well as a public engagement task force, which convened in 2021.

Other major projects

Other changes to the State Capitol campus in the works include $20 million in upgrades to upwards of seven state buildings, readying them for a hybrid workforce. Planning is currently focused on four buildings on the Capitol campus. The former Ford Motor Co. building at Rice Street and University Avenue was demolished in early February to make room for new landscaping.

Directly to the west of the Capitol complex, the State Office Building that hosts the offices of the Minnesota House of Representatives is undergoing a $450 million renovation.

The legislation that made that renovation possible opened the door to the Capitol Mall Design Framework, among other community benefits. Working with the city of St. Paul, the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board plans to administer a $5 million “Capitol Area Community Vitality Account” to back a range of projects over time.

In the area of the Capitol building, “we have a lot of vulnerable renters, commercial and residential,” said Peter Musty, principal planner with the Capitol Area Architectural and Planning Board.

Also in the early planning stages, the redesign of Rice Street from Pennsylvania Avenue to John Ireland Boulevard would cost another $25 million, which has already been appropriated by the Minnesota Department of Transportation. “That’s exciting because it impacts so many things, including the (G Line/Robert Street Corridor) Bus Rapid Transit planned there and the Sears site development,” Musty said.

More information is online at

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