This piece originally ran on nextSTL.
A foundation aiming to revamp the grounds near the famed Gateway Arch in St. Louis presented its second update to the city Wednesday night, its first in 12 months. There wasn’t a lot of news, nor the typical enthusiasm this time. There were no specifics offered regarding design, no mention of Cathedral Square, or the south end. Final design for a new Kiener Plaza is reported to have been completed, but was not revealed. What was heard was an overt scaling back of the ambitious rhetoric we have come to expect. A scaled-down “lid”, covered previously on nextSTL, was shown, but changes were not explained. If you want to know where the process stands, this January 2011 story still works. Except for the revelation that one of only four pedestrian crossings to the central Arch grounds, Pine Street over I-70, will be eliminated. Yes, another city street will be closed, and an existing connection between downtown and the park will be removed.
Not a single local media story included the detail that if the presented plan comes to fruition that Pine Street will no longer connect the city with the Arch grounds. Don’t worry, I’m sure we will be told, little exists on this block of Pine Street, businesses have turned their back on it. The traffic counts likely don’t dictate that it has to stay open. With Pine Street gone, visitors will find yet another dead end as they attempt to navigate their way to the Arch. The distance between accessible crossings (Washington Avenue to Chestnut Street) will reach more than 1,500 feet. The superblock of the Crowne Plaza, Gentry’s Landing and Mansion House will be expanded another block to a total of five.
Over the past two years, river water gauges, a beer garden and ice rink, Cathedral Square restaurant, Eads Bridge enhancements and more have disappeared from the plan without so much as a mention from the foundation, CityArchRiver, or local media. Adding a tree-top walk on the east side, by far the least ambitious east side plan by any of the final design teams has been scrapped. The gondola is on hold and will only happen when and if it can be bonded independently. The museum entrance continues to shrink.
The doomed walkway. (Credit: nextSTL)
In Februrary 2010, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch had this to say:“ [I-70] forms a forbidding and confusing barrier along the park’s western boundary…preserving options to remove Interstate 70 — even if it can’t be accomplished by 2015 — should be on the table.”
How a shrinking one-block lid, and the removal of an existing connection to downtown suddenly erases the barrier of I-70 is nonsensical and the Post-Dispatch should reconsider its statement.
The “lid,” a legacy of decades-old planning, is the most significant design element for which funding has been announced. The preoccupation with the removal of Memorial Drive for a land bridge across I-70, instead of the current sidewalks, is baffling. Again and again we hear that pedestrians will have an unobstructed stroll from Luther Ely Smith Square to the Arch, unencumbered by having to cross Memorial Drive. Closing the street will force traffic onto Market and Chestnut to 4th Street. And how will pedestrians get to Smith Square? They’ll cross 4th Street…where all the traffic from Memorial Drive will be diverted. The change will not decrease a visitors interaction with traffic by a single vehicle.
During the update, Memorial Drive was referred to as “dangerous” on numerous occasions. A vehicle count of 2,000 per hour at peak was stated. That number is a small fraction of what is found on Kingshighway at Lindell Avenue (and many other St. Louis streets), the crossing from the city’s most vibrant, dense neighborhood to it’s most visited park. The idea that the Arch grounds redevelopment will encourage people to explore downtown, but they won’t visit the Arch if they have to walk across Memorial Drive is irreconcilable. A visitor is to wander downtown, cross literally dozens of streets, but then require an oasis of pedestrian bliss at Luther Ely Smith Square?
The expense of building this lid — of seeking to enhance an existing pedestrian crossing by eliminating downtown streets — appears to be the removal of the pedestrian crossing at Pine Street. If there were an urban planning version of The Onion, this proposal could produce a suitable headline. No explanation was given, but one can only conclude that rebuilding the Pine Street I-70 overpass isn’t in the budget. That money has to go to rebuilding Interstate ramps. The design goal to “mitigate the impact of transportation systems” has been co-opted to mean removing city streets.
To be sure, there are smart design elements to be found when one looks deep into the details of the re-envisioned Arch grounds. Raising Lenor K. Sullivan Boulevard a nearly imperceptible 2.5 feet will keep it out of the river for at least half of current flood events. This makes the riverfront a more viable, predictable place for events and businesses to operate. Great Rivers Greenway has pledged $15 million, or about half the cost of the change. New ramps winding down to the riverfront will provide accessibility and offer new views and offer a comfortable walk compared to the awkward stairs that exist today. A re-programmed Courthouse and shiny Keiner Plaza can be presumed to be positives. Each improvement will have a positive impact on the visitor experience.
The removal of the north parking garage, Washington Avenue and portions of Memorial Drive, the 91-acre park, routinely criticized for its lack of activity, will be adding 11 acres. Why? How much more vacant, deactivated land does downtown need? It’s apparent that adding green space is easier than truly mitigating traffic infrastructure. Speaking of which, it was stated that not only is CityArchRiver mitigating said infrastructure (one of its 10 stated design goals), it’s also maximizing traffic infrastructure. It takes a twist of the tongue and mind to believe such a claim. The language, the justification and the premise of the project seem to be off-track. What was once billed as an effort to “weave connections and transitions from the City and the Arch grounds to the River” is now something else entirely.
Traffic will be forced onto a single street. (Credit: nextSTL)
The era of silver bullet, top-down civic planning is having one last hurrah (one hopes). The most expensive single element of the plan, the “lid” at $57 million, is going to happen. Our civic leaders have willed it so. Each decade in the decline of St. Louis has its monument: The Arch, highways, Scottrade, Edward Jones Dome and now back to the Arch. Mapping Decline author Colin Gordon highlights the absurdity when he states, “St. Louis lost 50,000 people in the 1980s and the city’s solution was to build a new hockey arena.” And so it is that St. Louis lost 30,000 people in the 2000s and our civic energy went into a $500 million Arch grounds project.
As reiterated by CityArchRiver Wednesday night, this effort, the hundreds of millions of dollars, is predicated on attracting additional tourists and hoping that some percentage of them spend the night in a downtown hotel. If all goes according to plan, more tourists mean more money in the local economy, equals a more prosperous city. It’s trickle-down urbanism.
What continues to happen is dictatorial civic planning in the absence of community leadership. The public waits around for a year to be presented with an update that isn’t much of an update, save the removal of a connection to the Arch. Any critique or feedback is ignored. Engagement isn’t sought. Institutional constituencies are stand-ins for public input. The process is being dictated by a nervous desire to do something, anything. Not a single interest group or constituency is allowed to question the fragile plan (save City to River). Apparently, numerous feasibility studies, comprehensive traffic counts and design iterations have been completed, all out of public view. We’re told to accept the plans. After all, they’re on a deadline and they’re raising money. We should remain seated quietly and be grateful.