Main Street Square, Rapid City: A Catalyst for Downtown Revitalization

The IMCL Healthy Communities Urban Plazas Award was presented to landscape architect, Deane Rundell[i] at a ceremony on Main Street Square, Rapid City, SD on Saturday, August 25, in the midst of a festive program of events. The day started with a market in the alley, guitar concert, children’s dance group, and after lunch came a Western music band, a Celebrity Cook-out Competition, beer and wine stalls, and another band that played into the evening. Around the edges of the main events were opportunities for kids to learn to lasso a steer, and farm animals to pet.

Main Street Square has truly become the heart of Rapid City, SD. This is where local residents come to meet and participate in celebratory events. The square has become a special attraction for children, whose parents and grandparents bring them up to 40 miles to play in the fountains in the summer, or to skate in the winter.  It provides a hospitable, expense-free setting in the evening for tourists back from visiting Mt Rushmore, the Badlands, Deadwood City and the National Parks, and a great amenity for local citizens all day.

Design of the square

Main Street Square is highly programmed. Equipped with an elaborate stage, sound system and lighting, the square is the setting for musical and dance events with visiting celebrity musicians, local bands, and children’s groups to reflect every taste. Several days a week throughout the summer events such as the art and wine festival, microbrewery tastings, and a full music program take place.

The unpredictable water fountain is a huge attraction for children: toddlers run around and splash, girls dance and cavort, and boys find a way to play among the spouts that keeps them giggling hilariously. Every hour the fountain “dances” to one of 11 songs. In the evening it is illuminated by colored lights. Between the fountain and the sidewalks are protected niches furnished with tables and chairs and backed by granite boulders and planters where parents can relax and talk, watch the children, or set up a picnic.

The program is equally full in the winter, when festive skating events take the place of the water fountain. A huge brazier provides a warm gathering point, and hot drinks are served along with music, dance, choral and Christmas events. In the Spring, the ice rink is transformed back into a new grassy lawn.

The eastern side of the square provides essential support for unprogrammed activities: the Alternative Fuel coffee house provides energy in the form of espressos, brownies, panini, and quiche. Next door, the ‘50s style Dakota Soda Company offers hamburger and frozen custard, attracting a younger crowd. Both support extended sojourns on the square by providing a place to work, do homework, read, meet friends and hang out.

In the same building are more attractions, including a gourmet breakfast and lunch restaurant; a book store; a games shop where patrons can sit and play games; and a Mexican restaurant. The whole square and adjacent buildings have been supplied with free wifi.

While the existing 3-story parking structure on the north side is not an ideal boundary to the square, it did offer the possibility for installing public restrooms and a tourist information office.

Unique to the square are the 19 cut granite blocks placed along two edges facing Main Street and 6th Street, and two granite pylons at the corner of these streets. The pylons are placed a little beyond the building line, creating a distinct goal as one approaches down the street. Between the pylons is a 4-tier waterfall down rough granite boulders. The passer-by can lean on a wall overlooking the waterfall and enjoy the square oblivious to the sound of passing traffic.

Each granite block is a single piece finished with varying degrees of polish so it almost appears to be made of different slabs. Each block is shaped with higher and lower sections so that, while they visibly mark the edge of the square, they never create an impermeable wall

A competition was mounted to select an artist to sculpt the blocks to reflect the culture, flora and fauna of the area. From 88 applicants from around the world, five finalists were invited to visit Rapid City and to prepare detailed proposals. The winning sculptor will sculpt the blocks in situ, involving children in the process.

Despite official notices asking children not to climb the granite, of course the blocks are an irresistible challenge. Hopefully, the selected artist will carve with children’s continued play in mind, and the city will continue to look the other way, at least as long as there are no serious accidents.

The sidewalks around the square have been significantly widened to accommodate new trees and swales. Textured brick paving accommodates engraved plaques naming the square’s sponsors.

From all reports, the new square has already exerted a positive influence on downtown businesses. Sales have increased as both tourists and locals now spend more time downtown. The center of town has a surprisingly large number of very handsome finely restored buildings dating from 1905 to 1920. Together with the almost life size bronze statues of all the past presidents at every corner, the extensive traffic calming and tree planting, and the new square, downtown has become a hospitable destination.

Like many Western cities, Rapid City was platted with streets wide enough to turn a 6-horse wagon. Before traffic calming the streets carried 6 wide lanes of traffic. After traffic calming and sidewalk widening the one way streets in the historic center now carry three lanes of traffic, with diagonal parking each side and bulbs to enhance pedestrian crossings. The sidewalks accommodate numerous outdoor restaurants and cafes, street trees and swales.

For the future

Rapid City will need to ensure that the square remains primarily a civic resource, owned and enjoyed by the community, rather than primarily an attraction for tourists. If the square is a lively center for the local community, tourists will also find it and enjoy being accepted into the community’s heart. If it were to become primarily a tourist attraction, local residents would find less pleasure in using the square.

The square can be a major catalyst for the continued revitalization of downtown Rapid City. Here, as in cities around the US, it will gradually be recognized that the most attractive place to live, the place that offers the highest quality of life is the city center. Dan Senftner, CEO and president of Destination Rapid City, responsible for managing the square, can attest to this, since he lives in one of the downtown historic buildings himself. But as yet, little housing is available downtown.

Programmed squares require continuous funding. Rapid City is fortunate in having funding (from city taxes and generous sponsors) that paid for the square’s construction, a full time Manager, equipment, maintenance and services, and the additional costs of the sculpture program. There may come a time when these funds run out, or are redirected to other worthy programs. If funds are reduced, the square will need to become more self-programming to be sustainable.

The coffee house and soda fountain are valuable attractions, as are other shops and restaurants in the same building. The square would be more sustainable if small shops serving local needs were added to the ground floor of the parking garage, with an additional two floors of apartments above, providing windows and balconies looking onto the square. This would bring “eyes on the square” (instead of car headlights), a residential population to frequent the square, and more reasons for local residents to visit the square.

Facing the square, on the south side of Main Street, there is currently a handsome four story building at the corner, and a row of one story shops and restaurants. The dynamics of Main Street Square would be greatly enhanced if three stories of handsome apartments or condos were added above the existing single story buildings. This would generate more business and activity at street level and increase everyday activity and supervision of the square.

There has been discussion in recent years to develop a large parking lot one block south of the square. Construction on this site of mixed income housing to accommodate downtown workforce employees, with shops at street level serving local residents will now be more attractive for potential residents, thanks to the existence of the square, and will help to ensure the square’s long term sustainability. IMCL wishes the city success in achieving these long term goals for sustainable revitalization of downtown Rapid City.

[i]  Deane Rundell RLA, ASLA, Principal, Rundell Ernstberger Associates, LLC.   This firm also designed Detroit’s new square, Campus Martius.