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National Park Service signs off on design competition plan for the Gateway Arch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 23, 2009 - It's official. The National Park Service today announced the signing of the record of decision for the master plan for the Arch, or the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. The final version of the management plan had been released a month ago for final public review before signing the document.

"We've had tremendous public interest throughout the planning process," Superintendent Tom Bradley said, "and this record of decision reflects that."

Added Sandra Washington, chief of planning for the National Park Service Midwest Region, "This is the culmination of a job well done, thanks to the Memorial staff and the engaged citizens of the St. Louis region."

The document finalizes "Alternative 3" as the selection, with some changes to the East St. Louis boundary to include part of Malcolm Martin Memorial Park. The selected alternative includes a design competition sponsored by the National Park Service. The money for the competition is expected to come from federal and nongovernment sources.

"The NPS will use the design competition to seek opportunities to enhance existing entrances to the Memorial and capitalize on the primary axis between the Old Courthouse and the Gateway Arch with new entrances on the west and east and by establishing a new east portal linking East St. Louis to the Gateway Arch grounds by water taxi," said Washington.

Read the Beacon's earlier story detailing the final plan below. 

Today, what's expected to be the final preferred plan for the Gateway Arch grounds goes public. And unless someone finds a fatal flaw, the National Park Service could move forward as early as next month with a major element -- an international design competition as big if not bigger than the one held in 1947 that brought St. Louis the Gateway Arch. The design competition will include improving the city-owned riverfront and resolving the traffic barrier problem over the highways, something that Mayor Francis Slay has long supported. 

"My assumption is that if we sign a record of decision" next month making the plan official, "we'd begin work immediately on the design competition," said Sandra Washington, chief for planning and compliance at the park service's Midwest regional office in Omaha.

"I am confident," she added, "that the design competition will move forward and be fully funded" with at least some local private money. The estimated cost: $2 million.

Many projects in the $305.4 million plan (the design competition could add more to the cost) have evolved since early last year. That's when the park service began updating the Arch's original 1962 general management plan and seeking the public's suggestions for improvements. The only caveat: Improvements could not harm the original character of Eero Saarinen's Arch or the surrounding landscape designed by Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley.

Five alternative plans emerged. The latest version of the park service's preferred one is Preferred Alternative 3 in the 298-page document being made public today. (Click here to read the plan.)

Along with the design competition, the preferred plan includes numerous projects to enliven the Arch grounds and better connect the area with its surroundings. A sampling:

  • Expanding and improving the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch and improving exhibits at the Old Courthouse.
  • Allowing more programs and activities on the Arch grounds.
  • Introducing a water taxi between the Arch grounds and Illinois, a new visitor transportation system and perhaps a multi-modal transit station.
  • Expanding the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial boundary to include as much as 100 acres on the Illinois riverfront and working with East St. Louis and others to develop a riverfront promenade there.
  • Building new and improved entrances to the Arch grounds and perhaps a "lid" and/or closing part of Memorial Drive to make a plaza connecting the Arch grounds and downtown.

The design for some of these projects and others in the plan would be included in the competition.
When park service officials talked earlier this year about a design competition, the focus was the Arch grounds and part of the Illinois riverfront the park service wants eventually to include in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. But then Mayor Slay, Walter Metcalfe, one of Slay's advisors and general counsel for Civic Progress, and others, began nudging the park service to include the St. Louis riverfront.

Even U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, during a visit here in July, chimed in to say he'd like the Illinois side of the river to be part of a design competition. Rejuvenating the Arch grounds by 2015, the 50th anniversary of the Arch, would a priority, added Salazar.

The park service apparently got the message.

Washington said the boundaries for the design competition would go beyond the Arch grounds and Illinois riverfront to include the St. Louis riverfront, at least between the Eads and Poplar Street bridges. Also included in the competition would be designing better connections into Laclede's Landing north of the Arch grounds; Chouteau's Landing to the south; and the Memorial Drive area alongside the Arch grounds.

The park service didn't include the riverfront or other city-owned land earlier, she said, "because the park service cannot just include land outside the boundaries of the memorial." But after Slay essentially contributed city-owned land for the competition, she said, the problem was resolved.

Other details in the Plan

* The park service would work with the city and state "to enhance the pedestrian environment around the memorial" with unifying streetscapes along the Gateway Mall and adjacent streets, including Leonor K. Sullivan boulevard and the levee.

* Luther Ely Smith Square would have visitor services, perhaps including a station for water taxis.

* The Arch museum would include improved exhibits; more food service, programs and activities for visitors; a new pedestrian entrance near Memorial Drive; and climate-controlled storage and research area for archives now stored at the Old Courthouse.

* A shuttle service would take visitors around the memorial, to the riverfront and other areas.

* A more direct path for pedestrians using MetroLink would be built from the the Eads Bridges to the memorial.

On the Illinois side, Congress has authorized the park service to acquire land for expanding the memorial's boundaries. So far, no land has been acquired. Even so, Washington said, the park service can include it in a design competition. "We would establish boundaries for about 100 acres and then open it up for the design competition," she said.

The latest preferred plan also expands the design competition to include the existing highway and Memorial Drive barriers separating the Arch from the Gateway Mall and the rest of downtown.

In January, in an earlier version, the park service endorsed the idea of a "lid" or bridge over traffic -- but not closing Memorial to make to make that area safer for pedestrians. In the latest version, the park service leaves the option of closing part of Memorial. The design competition would resolve the traffic barrier problem.

Washington said the change came after a transportation study showing that parts of Memorial near Market, Chestnut, Walnut and Pine streets could be closed and traffic rerouted without causing gridlock. "It is physically possible to move traffic to other places by using nearby streets," she said.

The design competition also would include most of the Arch grounds, except for the Arch itself, the area around the base of the Arch, the underground museum and the Old Courthouse. But the park service also has mapped out certain zones for certain things, such as parking, new structures and areas for visitor orientation and education.

Washington said a museum similar to one proposed by the Danforth Foundation "maybe" would fit into certain areas on the grounds but not where it was originally proposed.

Once the park service signs off on the preferred plan, a design competition advisor -- likely a non-federal employee, Washington said -- would be hired to develop the rules to get the competition off the ground.

Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley said he expects 2010 to be "the year of the competition" when winners would be selected. Then, he said, the park service would have a more accurate idea of costs and could begin seeking money from Congress, local government entities and private sources. "Private money will be a big part of this," Bradley said.

And the 2015 deadline?

"I think it is a realistic goal, a good goal, and very helpful because people see an end for this. I think it is more reasonable to expect to get the Missouri side finished by then. I think that the Illinois side could take longer," he said.

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about development.