Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ten Great Things about the Plans for the Arch Grounds

On Wednesday night, St. Louis finally got a look at the refined design plans for the proposed improvements to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and surrounding areas.  The improvements envisioned by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates are ambitious and exciting, and will involve an enormous investment in the city and region over the next five years.  Here are the aspects of the plans that I like the best:

1.  Gateway MallPerhaps my favorite aspect of the plan is not on the Arch grounds at all, but rather in downtown's Gateway Mall that extends westward from the Memorial.  The presenters repeatedly pointed to Citygarden as an inspiration for the type of improvements and programming that should be located on the Gateway Mall.  Michael Van Valkenburgh called Citygarden's success "extremely encouraging" and a sign that "something is happening to the cultural values" of St. Louis.  

Kiener Plaza as envisioned by MVVA
Drawing from the 2009 Gateway Mall Master Plan, MVVA plans to build on Citygarden's success by extending the "urban hallway" eastward, through Kiener Plaza, around the Old Courthouse, and to the Arch grounds.  I love that the plan reaches this far into the city, directly addressing the design competition's mandate to reconnect the city to the Arch.

Current plans for the Gateway Mall include "major water play areas" and an old-time carousel in Kiener Plaza; a restaurant similar to New York's Shake Shack (with one suggestion for a Ted Drewes instead); a beer garden/patio area (replacing the original plan for a beer garden/ice rink on the southern end of the Memorial); and other family activities and amenities.  Coupled with the great idea of letting visitors buy Arch tickets at remote kiosks, tourists and residents will have many fun reasons to explore downtown before and after visiting the Arch. 

2.  Museum ImprovementsThe west-facing glass entrance to the Museum of Western Expansion will change not only the way visitors enter the museum, but the entire way it is perceived and enjoyed.  The current below-the-Arch entrance is hidden from view and uninviting, with long outdoor queues and a somewhat unpleasant feeling of descending below the ground (which will be mitigated by a ground-level, light-admitting entrance). 

The glass facade will welcome visitors arriving from the Gateway Mall directly into the museum's new front door, creating (in the words of museum architect Scott Newman) an "iconic identity."  The city-facing entrance will engage pedestrians in a way that the current museum (and, unfortunately, buildings on the west side of Memorial Drive) currently does not.  Inside the museum, visitors will find a new lobby; two stories of both new and renovated gallery, event, and educational space; upgraded retail amenities and restrooms; and rotating exhibits to encourage repeat visits.

Gateway Geyser Pavilion, as envisioned by MVVA
3.  East Side ImprovementsMVVA anticipates expanding the Memorial footprint on the east side of the river by fifty to sixty acres.  A 100,000 square foot pavilion will be constructed around the existing Gateway Geyser, with the elevated walkway shown in MVVA's original plan to be completed after Illinois Route 3 is completed in 2016. 

Although relatively understated, these improvementscoupled with new ways to get across the Mississippi (gondolas!)will begin activing the Illinois side of the river in entirely new ways.  I love the idea of people enjoying the city from across the river, and hope that it will help catalyze improved relations with Illinois and a better future for the city of East St. Louis.

4.  C2R-CompatibilityIn its original design narrative, MVVA said that "the benefits of removing the [downtown] highway altogether are clear, and we have purposely created a proposal that is compatible with" highway removal.  The updated design does not include immediate highway removal (not surprisingly), but City to River has shown how the proposed boulevard could work with the proposed pedestrian "lid" that will extend from Luther Ely Smith Square to the Arch grounds. 

MVVA's proposed closure of Memorial Drive makes the boulevard even more critical in order to faciliate circulation throughout downtown via a connected street grid.  City to River will continue to work toward the longer-term goal of removing the downtown highway, and believes that this can be accomplished in the years shortly following completion of the initial improvements.

Improved Memorial landscaping as envisioned by MVVA
5.  Landscaping.  Although it's not the kind of improvement that is likely to get a lot of "buzz" (particularly compared to the gondolas!), I really like the plans for updating the landscaping throughout the Memorial and the Gateway Mall.  Approximately 12,000 trees will be planted, including those that will replace ashes currently threatened by the emerald ash borer beetle.  The trees on the Gateway Mall will be "shade trees"large, fast-growing, and deciduous.  Both the respite from the summer sun and the views of the tree allees along the Mall and in Luther Ely Smith Square will be welcome additions.

Inside the Memorial, the areas around the north and south ponds will be turned into lush meadows with denser tree plantings.  As described by Michael Van Valkenburgh, denser landscaping will result in more wildlife and a richer experience for visitors, consistent with the never-implemented visions of Dan Kiley and Eero Saarinen.
 
6.  Eads Bridge.  This point falls more in the category of things that I hope to love about an even further revised design.  On a disappointing note, MVVA's plan currently does not call for dedicated pedestrian/bicycling lanes over the Eads, but hopefully that will get worked out over time.  And although the closure of Washington Avenue east of Memorial Drive seems unnecessary and contrary to the goal of increased connectivity, its removaltogether with the welcomed demolition of the behemoth parking garagewill make pedestrian access to the northern end of the park through the bridge's portals much more inviting.   

Visitors will enter the northern end of the Memorial
through the Eads Bridge portals, as envisioned
by MVVA
The Eads Bridge is absolutely breathtaking, and provides great city views from the existing walkway.  My hope is that, in the end, the improvements will result in more people (particularly bicyclists and pedestrians) being on and around the bridge, and that it will be widely recognized as being as important to the city's riverfront as is the Arch itself.

7. Old Courthouse. Van Valkenburgh stressed that, in MVVA's view, the Old Courthouse is to be as revered as the Arch, and that together the two icons create a great "urban moment." The courthouse will be updated with 13,000 square feet of renovated gallery and exhibit space, and made ADA-compliant. 

Coupled with the re-energized areas around the courthouse (the improved east-west hallway, and landscaped slope from Luther Ely Smith Square to the new pedestrian lid), these improvements should result in many more visits to the courthouse itself, and a greater appreciation for its importance to the history of St. Louis.

8.  TimingOne of the most exciting aspects of this enormous project is that it's not something that's going to happen much later in St. Louisans' lives, or in our children's lifetimesit is going to be completed within five years.  This is a hugely ambitious deadline given the current economic situation, and some design features (gondolas??) will surely be dropped and deadlines missed.  Nonetheless, given the high level of support for the project in the private sector and at all levels of government, it is hard to imagine that the bulk of MVVA's vision won't be realized over the course of just the next few years.

9.  "Co-Promotion"St. Louis may not fall in the category of what some refer to as a "world-class" city (think: NYC), but it unquestionably has numerous world-class features.  Besides the Arch, the St. Louis region includes parks and attractions that could compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world:  to name only a few, the spectacular Missouri Botanical Gardens, the beautiful and diverse Forest Park, and the archaeological treasure of Cahokia Mounds.  Walter Metcalfe (whose efforts were vital in organizing the competition and securing key political support) raised the notion of the Arch grounds improvements as being a jumping-off point for co-promoting all of St. Louis' other great assets to the rest of the world, which would be a great result.

The purpose of this particular competition was to connect the City to the Arch to the River.  My hope is that the rest of St. Louisparticularly the beautiful, diverse neighborhoods of the urban coresimilarly becomes better connected in the not-too-distant future.  As St. Louis continues to invest in its key assets, and to better connect those assets through public transit, trolley lines, and/or walkable communities, the rest of the world (including desperately-needed employers and employees) will better be able to see the beauty and potential of our home.  Can this competition jump-start other efforts at connectivity and regional cohesion?  I hope so.

10.  Gondolas!  OK, so I was wrong.  In a post last fall, I predicted that none of the "big-ticket, eye candy items" from other teamsspecifically, the gondolaswould be included in MVVA's final design.  And when Behnisch Architekten first proposed gondolas in its losing design entry, my first thought was "Hey, this ain't Disneyland."  To me, the concept seemed gimmicky, an unwise use of funds, and inconsistent with the idea of respecting the Arch as the unquestioned centerpiece of the Memorial.  The futuristic, fanciful depictions included in Behnisch's renderings didn't help.

The gondola(!) route envisioned by MVVA

My initial reactions have been tempered a bit by MVVA's design, and I'm starting to come around to the view held by those who find the gondolas to be one of the most compelling aspects of the updated design. The one-mile gondola line will cross the river along the Poplar Street Bridge, before turning east and leading to the center of the east side improvements. This location and height should minimize interference with views of the Arch. The gondolas are expected to be separately funded through the sale of bonds, supported by revenues from its operations (at least I assume that general obligation bonds would be off the table).

Assuming that the gondolas are appropriately deferential of the Arch and aren't a money-loser for local or state government . . . well, then, I suppose I'm on board (collective sighs-of-relief from MVVA, the National Park Service, and Mayor Slay's office).  Without a doubt, gondolas (including some glass-bottomed ones) crossing the Mississippi River will be a major tourist draw, provide excellent new views of the St. Louis region, and be a LOT of fun. 
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October 28, 2015, can't come quickly enough.  As emcee Carol Buck said, the Arch grounds project will add to downtown's existing renaissance, and as brother Joe said (via video), now is the time for the Show-Me State to "show them" that we can get it done.  I believe that we can get it done, and will get it done.  As I have said many times before, it is a truly exciting time for St. Louis.  Indeed, only one word comes close to capturing the enthusiasm and wonder felt by most St. Louisans as we embark on this historic endeavor . . . . . GONDOLAS!?!

For more detailed information on the MVVA design plan, take a look at the website of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, coverage from the Post-Dispatch and Beacon, and ongoing comprehensive analsyis from UrbanSTL.

3 comments:

  1. Very good summary of the high points!

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  2. I think this whole plan is excellent in that it focuses attention on the riverfront while St. Louis is losing population, McKee is perceived as some sort of fix, Ballpark Village is proven another empty promise, the Soulard Mardi Gras drunk is seen as a positive event, etc., etc., etc. Focus on real problems and try - for God's sake - try to unearth and remedy real problems.

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