While door-knocking for his Wayzata City Council run in 2004, Ken Willcox met a resident who asked, “Is a parking lot the best we can do?”
He was referring to several blocks in the city’s downtown overlooking Lake Minnetonka, a stretch occupied for decades by a parking lot. Willcox, who won that council seat and has served as Wayzata’s mayor for the past 12 years, set a goal of developing a more attractive setting around what he considers the city’s greatest asset, the lake.
Now, as construction crews put finishing touches on the downtown plaza where that parking lot once stood, people are already gathering at the tables and benches, walking and biking along an adjacent sidewalk and trail, or gazing out at the newly expansive view of the water.
“There it is!” Willcox said, raising his arms toward the lake. “You never saw that before. You were looking over cars.”
The $10 million plaza is the first phase of a larger project called Panoway on Wayzata Bay, planned to beautify the area between the plaza and the shore with parks and a boardwalk. If city officials can get state funding and raise enough private money, they hope to continue with the project next year.
The plaza features a sleek modern design with tables, chairs and wooden benches, grassy areas and beds of decorative plants. Among the features still being added are strings of lights, a public restroom and a fountain-like area where children (or adults, for that matter) can play on hot days. A 9/11 memorial will be installed at one end of the plaza next year.
Construction work included improvements between the plaza and Marquee Place, the building across Lake Street that features a row of shops and restaurants with office space on the upper floors. Lake Street was narrowed from three lanes to two to make it more pedestrian friendly, and the sidewalk on the Marquee side has been widened to allow restaurants more space for outdoor tables.
The project also extended the Dakota Rail Regional Trail into downtown, where it runs along the plaza, bordered by plantings and the sidewalk.
“You actually get to enjoy the lake in a way you weren’t able to before,” said Willcox, who is stepping down as mayor this year after three terms in office.
Visitors on Thursday seemed mostly pleased with the development.
“It’s beautiful — very modern,” said Erin Lammers, a stylist at a nearby salon, as she took a coffee break on the plaza.
Carol and Michael Allen of Plymouth, who have long enjoyed walking in Wayzata, paid a visit to celebrate Carol’s 72nd birthday. They liked the plaza, though they thought its modern design changes the look of downtown.
“What is lost is the old attractive small-town beauty,” Michael said. But, he added, “there are more pluses than minuses here.”
Heidi and Max Windmiller were enthusiastic supporters. Someday, Heidi said, “We’re going to wonder, where did everyone hang out before?”
Not everybody was entirely pleased with the new development. Stacy Carisch, whose family owns Marquee Place, was blunt: “I’m not loving it,” she said.
Carisch, a longtime critic of the development, said the narrower street and sidewalk features like light poles will complicate snow removal. The truck loading zone is too narrow, she said, and the raised planters will be used like trash cans. She thinks the curbside gardens will prove an obstacle for people stepping out of their parked cars.
She also believes the project is extravagant in a struggling economy. “I would have scaled this back for multiple reasons,” she said.
Dan Gustafson, a local real estate agent, said he has been hearing mixed reviews. Most residents like the green space and benches, he said. But then there’s the restroom building.
“People have serious questions about the placement of the bathrooms on some of the most expensive real estate in the state of Minnesota,” he said. The restroom building, which is still unfinished, partly blocks views of the lake in that area, he said.
Gustafson said he also dislikes the name Panoway, a blending of the words panorama and Wayzata. “Almost universally, no one understands the name,” he said, “and the city does not have the budget to educate the public on this branding.”
But Judd Frost, who owns the eponymous men’s clothing store across Lake Street from the plaza, is a fan. He said the plaza will draw him more customers; over the past week, he said, his business was triple what it usually is this time of year.
“I think it came out nice,” he said. “It really shows off the lake better now.”