A Master Plan to Remake Rochester, MN, Comes to Life

Halfway through Perkins Eastman’s 20-year plan, the city is transforming apace along with its biggest industry, The Mayo Clinic.

By their very scope and scale, urban master planning and infrastructure projects involve long-term vision—and lots of patience—because they can take decades to realize. But over the last 10 years, Perkins Eastman Principal Peter Cavaluzzi has watched the firm’s designs slowly take shape across Minneapolis—first with the widely lauded Target Field light-rail station in 2014, followed by the innovative Lake Street rapid-transit bus station on Interstate 35 outside of the city in 2021. Now, two hours south in Rochester, a placemaking-focused development plan has reached the halfway point of its 20-year horizon—designed to knit the renowned Mayo Clinic’s 40-building footprint more holistically with the city, its residents, and its millions of yearly visitors.

The Destination Medical Center (DMC) is a public-private partnership that was formed in 2013 to execute a $5.6 billion economic development initiative, the largest in Minnesota’s history. It funds public infrastructure to attract private development in support of Mayo’s continued expansion, and it hired Perkins Eastman in 2015 to create the master plan that would guide that growth across downtown Rochester. “We focused on integrating new facilities and new uses with new public spaces, streetscapes, and squares that provide a strong identity and sense of place,” says Cavaluzzi, a leader of the firm’s large-scale mixed-use practice. “The goal is to build the city and Mayo Clinic together so there’s a shared urban fabric between the community and the institution.”

Mayo Clinic Destination Medical Center development plan nighttime aerial rendering

With light shows on the waterfront in the foreground, this bustling nighttime vision of downtown Rochester once the development plan is complete will stand in stark contrast to the situation prior to 2015, which would have shown dark expanses of surface parking lots among buildings that close up at the end of the work day.
Copyright Perkins Eastman

Already, a vibrant, walkable public realm has arisen as an interface between Mayo Clinic-owned medical buildings, new life-sciences development, hospitality, and city attractions such as restaurants and retail establishments—with much more to come.

A Master Plan to Remake Rochester, MN, Comes to Life A Master Plan to Remake Rochester, MN, Comes to Life 1

The prominent Minneapolis landscape architecture firm Coen + Partners brought to life the Perkins Eastman plan for the public realm at Rochester’s Heart of the City, with features such as accessible, variable-height seating and tree-lined promenades. Photographs Copyright AB Photography/Courtesy Destination Medical Center


The Perkins Eastman master plan addresses the nagging problem that city and Mayo Clinic officials had identified in 2011 – “that community members were willing to venture downtown for activities and events, although they viewed downtown primarily as a work and medical environment that shut down at night. Additionally, research revealed that community members were traveling just as often to the Twin Cities for activities and entertainment,” according to the DMC.

The plan named six districts in Rochester’s square-mile core that were ripe for improvements to their development profile and the public realm surrounding them. “The city outside [Mayo’s] walls is poised to experience a radical overhaul that, if all comes together as planned, will create a healthier, more holistically designed built environment,” Thomas Fisher wrote in an article for the Minnesota AIA when the plan was adopted. “The Perkins Eastman document sets out a vision for how to heal a city that has suffered from the urban illnesses of the late 20th century, such as too many cars and surface parking lots, too little density and diversity, and too few gathering places.”

Rochester, MN, development plan map that lists the city's six sub-districts targeted for upgrades.
Rochester’s six districts, as outlined in the Perkins Eastman master plan, illustrate newly activated green space that unites them. Map Copyright Perkins Eastman.

In the words of DMC Executive Director Patrick Seeb, Rochester’s new parks, promenades, plazas, and waterfronts will “hardwire” the city, blurring the boundaries between each of its elements. Perkins Eastman “really helped the community think about how we develop the city as Mayo continues to grow,” he says. He points to evidence of the plan’s success thus far in Mayo Clinic’s November announcement that the institution is planning a $5 billion expansion. “The expansion fulfills Mayo’s commitment to the Destination Medical Center plan hatched a decade ago to maintain Rochester as a global healthcare destination,” the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported. “We are seeing, today, the reality of that,” Rochester Mayor Kim Norton told the newspaper. “We are seeing the manifestation of that commitment that we all made together.”

Heart of the City

The first district addressed in the DMC initiative—The Heart of the City—has completed its first phase. Centered on the Gonda Building, Mayo’s formidable outpatient clinic, a new, pedestrian-focused plaza features curbless streets that slow traffic because they become a shared plane between people and cars; sculpture and other large-scale art installations; wide, shaded promenades; accessible seating; and a water feature surrounding the city’s beloved Peace Fountain. This T-shaped public space forms a cohesive link between the clinic and the area’s existing hotels, shops, and restaurants, forming a more appealing destination for residents as well as Mayo patients and their families who visit from all over the world. “It becomes a place where people want to be, regardless of whether they’re going to Mayo Clinic. That was the key,” Cavaluzzi says.

The Heart of the City in Rochester, MN, features large public-art installations such as “A Not So Private Sky” by sculptor Inigo Manglano-Ovali A child plays in the water feature at Peace Plaza in the Heart of the City, Rochester, MN

Left: “A Not So Private Sky” by sculptor Inigo Manglano-Ovali centers the new, thriving pedestrian plaza at the Heart of the City. Right: A linear installation at Heart of the City invites people to walk on water—a huge hit with children. Photographs Copyright AB Photography/Courtesy Destination Medical Center


Local residents expressed delight with the new surroundings when the Heart of the City opened last year. Novalee Tollefson told the Star Tribune that she and her sister stopped by the water feature to cool down on a warm day, and said the redesigned area seemed more expansive and welcoming. In the same report, Emma Miller said the plaza seemed empty in its previous life, “and then they make this,” she told the paper. “I love seeing the place so lively.”

Discovery Square

Next in line for completion is Discovery Square a few blocks to the south, which the DMC has identified as a “life-science innovation district,” Seeb says, “where non-Mayo businesses would locate to connect to and relate to Mayo scientists and Mayo physicians for commercialization, product development, manufacturing, and distribution of medical technology.” Two new buildings to support these businesses are already complete. One Discovery Square, with 50,000 square feet, opened in 2019 and is fully occupied, Seeb says, and Two Discovery Square, at 121,000 square feet, opened in late 2021 is 50-percent leased. Just as intended, “We pretty much have a relationship with every company that’s in One Discovery Square, and we anticipate that we’ll have relationships with pretty much every company in Two Discovery Square,” Dr. Clark Otley, the chief medical officer for Mayo Clinic Platform, told the Star Tribune. “Those relationships are mostly focused on science and innovation. Mayo Clinic has a lot of great scientists and laboratories, but we don’t have all the technology in the world.”

A rendering of the new Discovery Square in Rochester, MN. It will provide a home for the life-sciences industry to work and collaborate with their peers at Mayo Clinic.

Discovery Square encourages scientists, physicians, entrepreneurs, and students to congregate—and innovate. An adjoining promenade called Discovery Walk forms a direct connection to the Mayo Clinic
at Heart of the City. Rendering Copyright Perkins Eastman

Adjacent to the square is Discovery Walk, a wide, tree-lined parkway that forms a physical connection between it and Heart of the City to the north, and Soldier’s Field Memorial Park and the University of Minnesota-Rochester to the south. Discovery Walk is nearly complete, and although it permits vehicles, the focus is on the pedestrian experience; it’s designed as a linear public park, with community gathering spots up and down the promenade—a setting that’s also likely to attract further business and residential development.

Downtown Waterfront

Next on the horizon are major upgrades to the city’s waterfront along the Zumbro River where it curves around the city and county government center. The newly activated public space, much of which replaces parking lots, is expected to attract more than $300 million in new development, according to city officials. The plan also calls for widening the river, freeing it from its restrictive flood-control channels, and creating plazas on either side to link the government center with the city’s civic and art center.

A rendering features improvements to the Downtown Waterfront in Rochester, MN, with more development and improved public plazas, parks, and gardens

A widened Zumbro river will feature more activated green space across 5.5 acres along its banks, including large plazas and bridges that connect the city and county government center, bottom foreground, and the city’s arts and civic center, above it and to the right. Rendering Copyright Perkins Eastman

Education + Recreation

This district includes Soldiers Memorial Field Park, a 150-acre park that’s getting major upgrades to its fields, trail connections, aquatic center, and golf course—all bordering land owned by the University of Minnesota at Rochester, whose main campus lies a few blocks to the north. The renovations aren’t expected to be complete until late 2024 or early 2025, Seeb says, but since this district was first identified for enhancement, the university has expanded its campus there to accommodate 400 new students.

This diagram and map show how newly designed green space will form solid connections between the university and Soldier's Field Memorial Park. The plan includes a Pedestrian Main Street, connecting the university to the city.

This diagram and map show how newly designed green space will form solid connections between future university development and Soldiers Memorial Field Park. The plan includes a Pedestrian Main Street, which creates a central spine that leads toward the main university campus three blocks to the north. Copyright Perkins Eastman

St. Mary’s Place

St. Mary’s Place, described as an outdoor “great room,” is planned to kick off this year surrounding Mayo Clinic’s St. Mary’s Hospital. “Perkins Eastman imagined a very dramatic kind of new presence and a new entrance to St. Mary’s with a new public space associated with it,” Seeb says, calling it “a new gateway into the community.” Mayo’s $5 billion expansion, he further explains, will make St. Mary’s Place even more significant, as it would embrace an additional patient-care complex and four other new buildings to come up between St. Mary’s Hospital and the outpatient Gonda building. This new public realm will make the half-mile walk between each end much more enjoyable.

A rendering for St. Mary's Place at St. Mary's Hospital, as envisioned by Perkins Eastman's development plan for Rochester, MN, and The Mayo Clinic.

On Rochester’s west side, St. Mary’s Place is envisioned as a gateway to the rest of the city, both for pedestrians and transit. Rendering Copyright Perkins Eastman

Central Station

Also expected in the coming years is a large “Central Park” to the north of Heart of the City, which is intended to anchor as a mixed-use, intermodal transit hub where a future high-speed-rail line would connect to Minneapolis, St. Paul, and the Twin Cities’ airport—a boon to people arriving for care at Mayo Clinic who now must drive more than 80 miles to get there.

A rendering for the future Central Station district in Rochester, MN, as envisioned by Perkins Eastman's development plan for Destination Medical Center. It includes a large public park outside its doors.

Central Park will greet commuters at a large new “transport terrace,” a multimodal transit hub for Rochester. Rendering Copyright Perkins Eastman

The first half of Destination Medical Center’s initiative has already been a success. In its first progress report issued in 2020, the DMC said private investment thus far had exceeded its goals, and forecasted buildouts in all sectors besides hotels had exceeded its square-footage targets. Tax revenue from these investments also surpassed projections, while nearly 8,000 new jobs were added, and the number of downtown residents has already doubled, Seeb says, and many new apartment buildings are there to house them, “which creates its own energy” in the city. New restaurants and retail locations have followed, he adds: “There is an emerging, new level of vitality and new character to our downtown.”

“It’s extremely exciting and gratifying to see the progress that’s been made. The new vigor that’s come into the city since this plan was adopted is just phenomenal,” Cavaluzzi says. And though it’s taking a generation to fully realize, he adds, it’s a “nano second,” relatively speaking, in the overall history of the city, and its impact will last far longer: “It’s kind of amazing, the power of a master plan.”