Best of 2011 - December - A Highway Runs Through It

At the end of the year, Alex Ihnen of sparked debate about an urban highway running through St. Louis’ downtown.

A way to rethink I-70 separating the city, river and arch grounds. Vanishing STL

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As the St. Louis Arch itself neared completion in 1964, before the surrounding park became anything more than a parking lot and construction site, the area was amputated from the city by what would come to be referred to as a “crushing maze of infrastructure”. Interstate 70 was being built, resulting in a maze of sunken and elevated lanes that truncate the city’s street grid, and separate its residents from the memorial and the Mississippi River.

This decision was quickly recognized as a mistake and has long been loathed. In 1984 the St. Louis chapter of the American Institute of Architects held a design charrette to explore ways to improve downtown connections across Memorial Drive and I-70. The crushing maze remained. In 2005, the mayor and local philanthropists announced an ambitious plan to revitalize the memorial and riverfront, including the construction of a one block “lid” over I-70. The labyrinth of the US Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service and Missouri Department of Transportation conspired to kill that project.

The ambition remained, and a herculean effort has now brought this incredibly complex stakeholder group together, all dedicated to achieving the long-sought revitalization goal by means of an architectural design competition. But instead of addressing the crushing maze of infrastructure, the project seeks $578M to fix sidewalks, plant trees, expand the existing underground museum, close city streets and rebuild an urban plaza.

While the National Park Service (NPS) and each of the final five design competition teams, including the winning Michael Van Valkenburg & Associates, identified highway-to-boulevard conversion as the preferred outcome of a redesign, the ongoing revitalization effort has failed to integrate this element into its design. Despite support from downtown business and land owners, various organizations and developers and the public, not a single political office, organization or entity capable of getting the issue on the larger agenda, has called for action on redesigning the depressed highway. It would appear that many view the current process as too big, and possibly too fragile, to fail.

The latest public step was a required scoping period for the National Park Service environmental assessment (EA). It represented one of the few opportunities, and the first in many months, for the public to weigh in on the process.

The NPS received 123 pieces of correspondence and parsed them into comments. In total, 119 comments supported the further study of transforming current I-70 from the Poplar Street Bridge to the new Mississippi River Bridge into an urban boulevard. When the public has had a chance to participate, the message has been clear: the boulevard conversion should receive full consideration, it should be studied.

There is still time for discussion about this issue; the question is: will anyone listen?

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Tags: infrastructurest. louis

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