A sign of hope? Crystal Court renovations evidence that corporations still believe in downtown Minneapolis

July 28, 2021

By Dan Rafter

For nearly five decades, the Crystal Court in the IDS Center has provided an oasis of trees in the middle of downtown Minneapolis. In November of last year, the Crystal Court was closed for a $5 million renovation, with the urban park inside the 57-story tower reopening in late July.

And less than a full week after the court’s reopening? Those who worked on the project have already seen a difference in how people are interacting with the space.

“Since we’ve taken down the barriers, I’ve been watching how people are using the space,” said Deb Kolar, general manager at Accesso Partners, owner of the IDS Center. “It is so great to see people having a quick cup of coffee, sitting on a Zoom call or having a meeting and using the space the way we had envisioned it. I think the renovation has made Crystal Court more welcoming for everyone.”

Architects Perkins & Will and New History worked together on Crystal Court’s renovation plan. The reopened court features collaborative seating areas with modular furniture, enhanced lighting and a reflection pool.

The trees that provide so much life to the Crystal Court have also seen a big, if subtle, change: Instead of rising from heavy planters, the trees now sprout directly from the Crystal Court’s floor.

The changes were designed to make it easier for everyone visiting the Crystal Court, whether it’s a businessperson rushing through the court on the way to an appointment at the IDS Center or a family stopping in during the middle of a vacation.

“It was a high-wire act,” said Peter Hendee Brown, acting principal with New History. “The changes that we made have been subtle. The challenge was to take something that was so well done, be careful with it and remake it for the 21st Century.”

Hendee Brown pointed to the changes to the Crystal Court’s trees as the most important part of the project. Eliminating the granite planter boxes makes traveling through the court easier and more relaxing, Hendee Brown said. Before, visitors had to weave their way around the boxes.

“Now they are walking through a glade of trees,” Hendee Brown said. “It’s a different experience.”

A key project

The Crystal Court renovation project was a big one for downtown Minneapolis. That’s partly because the IDS Center is an iconic building in the heart of the city. The center contains nearly 2 million square feet of mixed-use space, a two-story retail center, the 19-story Marquette Hotel and, of course, its enclosed urban park.

But the Crystal Court project is also about better times for downtown Minneapolis.

Accesso’s investment in the court could be seen as a sign of hope for downtown, which has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic and as a result of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that sprang from this tragedy.

In a written statement, Steve Cramer, president and chief executive officer of the Minneapolis Downtown Council, said that the commitment of companies such as Accesso to the city’s downtown are a sign that the future will be brighter here.

“It’s a great sign of confidence in downtown, which comes at a time when all signs of confidence are more important than ever,” Cramer said, in his statement

Even before the challenges of 2020, though, the Crystal Court served as an important oasis in downtown.

“It’s important to understand how precious this space is to Minnesota residents,” Hendee Brown said. “It is also nationally and internationally famous. This space is owned by a private company. But it is used by the public. One of the great things about the IDS Center is that the Crystal Court has always felt welcoming as a public space. People don’t even notice that it is a private space.”

Kolar has worked with the IDS Center for the better part of her 28-year career. She said that the Crystal Court has served as a gathering space for the city during this time, whether during the years in which the city hosted the Super Bowl or college basketball’s Final Four or the Minnesota Orchestra celebrating a milestone anniversary.

“The Crystal Court has hosted many celebrations for the city,” Kolar said. “It’s always been one of those places where people gather. We get daily activity here and we celebrate big events. I am very proud of the fact that when Accesso Partners came in here eight years ago, it recognized the court’s importance and made a commitment to improve upon it.”

Working through the pandemic

The renovations to the Crystal Court took place throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. But both Kolar and Hendee Brown said that this didn’t slow work.

The only change? “We didn’t meet in person,” Kolar said. “I did not meet Peter in person until the project was done. We had worked together a year-and-a-half and didn’t meet in person.”

That is a big change from how the project started. During the earliest discussions of the renovations, about two years ago, Accesso officials met with architects from New History and Perkins & Will in a conference room, collaborating in person.

That changed quickly.

“We had to pivot like everyone else,” Kolar said. “We were able to accomplish a successful project largely over Zoom. We met weekly through Zoom and we got through it. There is a lot to be said for rethinking how we do business. With the pandemic, nothing changed except that we didn’t meet in person. Maybe that provides some lessons for how we operate after the pandemic.”

Hendee Brown said that viewing the Crystal Court at nice provided an affirmation of the work that went into the renovation. The lighting of the court was revamped. Now, the lights illuminate the white trusswork at the top of the court, creating an entirely new way to experience the space.

“Now you can perceive the court in a way that you haven’t before,” Hendee Brown said. “The rearrangement of the trees and the up-lighting of the structures make it better. All of this is subtle. It takes a lot of work to make something look easy.”

Kolar points to her own special moment. During a tour with ownership, a mother and her young boy were riding down the escalator into the court. The boy saw the reflecting pool and ran to it immediately. Kolar asked the child what he thought. And the response? It made her day.

“He just said, ‘This is so cool!’” Kolar said. “The young ones are the people who will grow up and work in the IDS Center one day. If they think it is cool today, we want them to think it is cool 10 years from now. I think we achieved that.”

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