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To connect the Arch to the city (and the river), find the middle

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 20, 2008 - Making a connection between downtown St. Louis, the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi riverfront has been on the region's letter to the Santa Claus for decades. Saturday afternoon, a small but well-connected and well-informed group of citizens came together in the hope of doing something about the situation -- and doing it pronto.

The situation is this: The largest portion of the real estate occupied by the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the Gateway Arch or simply the Arch, is divided by what St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer/blogger Eddie Roth describes as scars. Those scars are Memorial Drive and the depressed (and depressing) section of Interstate 70 that slithers along the fringe of downtown and, down by the river, Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.

Together, these vehicle-bearing scars serve effectively to section off the Arch grounds from its urban environs to the west, north and south, and from the river. There is general agreement nowadays that were those scars to be bandaged or healed, the now-separated elements would benefit.

All three geographical areas offer enormous cultural benefits. Downtown is a rich, diverse urban habitat; the Arch is a modern marvel of art and engineering, and its grounds are the picture of serenity. The river is a monument -- a churning, majestic American waterway and a timeless metaphor. Each has its discrete value to the region. Were all three joined in ways that would make them not only contiguous but also a vast, various and dynamic unit, the whole would be enormously greater than the sum of its parts.

A desire for such an aggregation was the final product of Saturday afternoon's meeting at the Landmark's Association's new headquarters in the Lammert Building downtown. As might be expected, when a group consisting of planners, architects, preservationists, conservationists, interested private citizens and the superintendent of a National Park find themselves together in the same meeting room, individual agendas would be articulated, come what may.

Nevertheless, an apparent consensus came rather easily. Although the Danforth Foundation (which had taken a prominent leadership position in advocating substantial improvements to the Arch grounds) has taken itself out of the picture, at least for the moment, credit was given to the foundation, and to former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth, for sparking serious interest in making positive steps to invigorate downtown, the Arch grounds and the riverfront.

Frederick Bonasch, who moderates the St. Louis Rising blog convened the group. As a starting place, he drew on the names of those who attended an exhibition of plans developed at a charrette that explored possible solutions for the problems of the Arch grounds.

Students representing five colleges and universities participated in the charrette, which was conducted over a long weekend in early November, and the results of their efforts are on show at the Landmarks office. "After the Arch charrette," Bonasch said, "all kinds of people came together." He thought such a response created an opportunity to create a coalition of ordinary people, one that would work to choose the best possible way to achieve connectivity.

Bonasch provided this caveat, however: "The purpose of this group is to think in terms of improving connections and that is it. We are not in opposition. The hope is to focus on connectivity."

He said also, "If we could create an organization to build consensus, we can create a strong voice and create a positive outcome."

Kathleen Logan Smith, executive director of the Coalition for the Environment, said, "I have thought from the beginning there is lots of room for agreement if we can identify the problem." She noted there is divergence of opinion on changes that might be made to the Arch grounds, but there is a core issue – connectivity – on which most can agree and can come together to work to ameliorate.

In the course of discussing connectivity, the issues that swirl around Eero Saarinen's soaring minimalist monument flickered into view from time to time. There was discussion of the National Park Service's process to create an Arch master plan, and whether an international competition – similar to the competition that brought Saarinen's Arch to be constructed – is a good idea.

The issue of polarization was discussed – the tendency on the one hand to stake out positions advocating radical changes to the Arch grounds and on the other to do nothing, refusing to change anything, ever.

Arch superintendent Tom Bradley said that, in polarization, the middle ground is lost. "We're losing all the stuff in the middle," he said. The discussion Saturday and its intentions represented being "on the verge of doing something good," by reclaiming the middle, he said.

The group also seemed in agreement on another front: Connectivity does not mean bridging only the scar formed by Memorial Drive and the depressed lanes of I-70. Connections need to be made not only there and to the river but to the neighborhoods north and south of the Arch grounds. And there was recognition, at a minimum, of another point of view, that big problems can be addressed by committee only up to a point, and after that, strong, visionary leadership is required.

There was agreement also to move forward, and to build a grassroots organization of individuals and organizations around the issue of connectivity. Good ideas, Bonasch said, are too often talked and planned to death in St. Louis. "This needs to be about making things happen, about results and action."

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.