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Arch design teams present their plans to the jury

Walter Metcalfe
St. Louis Public Radio file photo

This time last year revitalizing the Arch grounds seemed to be the impossible dream. An idea put forth by the Danforth Foundation to create a museum above ground on the Arch grounds was nixed by the National Park Service, and with that decision an enormous amount of money and the prestige of the Foundation took a hike.

The impossible dreaming did not take into account the determination of St. Louis lawyer Walter Metcalfe Jr.

From Metcalfe's office in the Met Life Building, he can look out on the grounds and the Arch and take in the fact that its potential has not been realized. It does not attract the number of visitors it might, were there not a complex array of impediments to getting there. It also fails to feed the visitors who do make the Arch a destination go there, then leave.

In the last year a revolution has occurred. Metcalfe summoned his considerable power as a civic leader, and in Luther Ely Smith fashion drove forward a concept of redesign, redevelopment and renaissance. Today the teams present their ideas to the jury, whose job it is to choose one team's ideas and designs as winner, This is the penultimate event in a long series of meetings, discussions, research, planning and exhibitions -- along with arm twistings -- that is bringing the soft focus quality of dream into sharp focus reality.

As this is written, the first of five teams is presenting its proposal. To describe these plans as the Arch Grounds project is to do them an injustice. The Arch is at the center of the considerations, but radiating out from that focus are exciting, problematical and dynamic notions of what should be done.

The five designs proposed for the Arch can be viewed at the Arch. A traveling exhibit of the plans can be seen at the places below:

National Great Rivers Museum, 2 Lock and Dam Way, Alton
9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Aug. 27-29

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Morris Center
8 a.m. - 8 p.m, Aug. 31 - Sept. 2

Maryville University, University Library, Monsanto Room
10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sept. 4 - 6

University of Missouri - St. Louis, J.C. Penney Conference Center
8 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sept. 8-9

Washington University in St. Louis, Givens Hall, Main Floor
Hours to be determined, Sept. 11 - 15

St. Charles Community College, College Center Rotunda
8 a.m.-6 p.m., Sept. 17-20

Missouri History Museum, Forest Park
10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sept. 22-26


First, an explanation about what the Beacon's intention is today. We're not here to do feats of stenography, but rather to try to dig in and reveal the essence of the work of the design teams.

What struck me as most fascinating and commendable about the Weiss/Manfredi plan was its desire not to obliterate all the "problems" that have so long confounded both the National Park Service and St. Louis. The problems are formidable: an ugly parking garage on the north side of the Arch grounds; the majestic but willful Mississippi River on the east; the Poplar Street Bridge on the south; and then, Nemesis No. 1, the depressed lanes of Memorial Drive and the grade-level lanes of it. All these problems segregate the monument and its surroundings, or, in the case of the Mississippi River, deliver the huge and complex problem of flooding.

Rather than going at these problems with a gigantic jackhammer, Weiss/Manfredi involves these structures or natural phenomena in its design. For example, the parking garage would be re-used as a center of cultural and recreational activities -- accommodating an ice-skating rink, various restaurants, art studios and exhibition space. On the south, the tangle of piers and ramps of the Poplar Street bridge are not ignored but become part of a new pedestrian passage to the Illinois side of the river, a structure that the presenter said would be laminated onto the bridge.

That pedestrian path would feed into a fascinating arrangement of waterways and agricultural projects on the East Side. And rather than try to hide the industrial magnificence of the existing grain elevator, it presents it as an example of American commerce and engineering moxie. The Malcolm Martin Park and viewing structure, which is quite attractive but largely ignored, would become a prominent feature of the East Side work, and would be reinvigorated by the addition of an ecology center.

The Memorial Drive mess would be ameliorated by using it. Traffic on the critical block would be diverted to Fourth Street and Broadway, and the underground passage would become a new gateway to the Gateway Arch. It would connect a parking structure proposed for under Luther Ely Smith Park to an expanded museum under the Arch and on to a platform affording views of the river and a place for "train spotting" as railway traffic passes by on the east bank of the river.

What appeared to at least one jury member was the problem of keeping flood waters away from all this. The Weiss/Manfredi solution was to recreate the old bluffs on the Missouri side, and thus ward off or redirect the river. Special floating platforms would be erected above the floodwater line. As much as Memorial Drive gives designers fits, the Mississippi is even more difficult and unpredictable.

Overall, however, the ideas of adaptive reuse and harnessing of resources gets Weiss /Manfredi high marks from this observer. But there is more to come from the five finalists.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates

The Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates team would dramatically change the look of the riverfront, remove Leonor K. Sullivan Drive and have a raised cobblestone levee sloping from the river's edge up to the Arch grounds. Floodlights in the cobblestones would illuminate the flood wall and make it a canvas for shadows. That would be reflected on the surface of six 60-foot water gauges built in the river.

The team also envisions eventually removing the north parking garage and replacing it with underground ones. That area at the north edge of the grounds near the Eads Bridge would be rebuilt with an urban ecology center, amphitheater and other activities linking into Laclede's Landing. At the south end, a park beneath the overpass, ice skating rink in winter and a beer garden in summer atop new underground parking would link with Chouteau's Landing.

The team's concept also includes a lid over the highways, linking the Arch grounds with the Old Courthouse and a new entrance for an expanded museum beneath the Arch. On the east side, the team would build a 60-acre wetlands park around the existing park with the gateway geyser and Mississippi River overlook. An avian center would be built as well, and elevated walkways would wind through the wetlands.

The team emphasized that it would respect Dan Kiley's landscape and ponds beneath the Arch but rebuild it with updated ecology and sustainability features.

The jury wanted to talk more about the removal of the garage on the north edge of the Arch grounds. The team's rep said that it would be removed after new underground parking was built. One reason for removing it, said the rep, was that presently about 80 percent of the 2 million visitors to the Arch each year drive directly into that garage and don't circulate into downtown. A way to change that, said the rep, was to distribute parking in new underground garages and to encourage people to use existing parking downtown. Tied in with that was a plan to have remote Arch tram ticket outlets to "get rid of long lines at the Arch itself." With remote ticket outlets situated by parking downtown, "there would be a lot more bodies downtown."

Another juror said that while the plan envisioned many new activities on the St. Louis side of the river, "I'm not sure it gives enough to East St Louis." The reps said that the team didn't believe that both sides needed to be symmetrical.

A new 60-acre wetlands area on the east side would serve two purposes, said the rep: It would provide pleasant green space, "somthing to improve the quality of life" for residents on both sides of the river. The weltlands area was designed to resolve a collapsed stormwater drainage system for the East St. Louis area. The stormwater runoff would be channeled into the wetlands.

Behnisch Architekten

Behnisch Architekten has a "River Circle" plan to bring the river back to the city as a center for activity, revive the Arch grounds and connect with what's around it. Some of the highlights:

  • a Great River Expo organization, a public-private organization modeled on Forest Park Forever, to take charge of planning exhibits, festivals and other events, starting before 2015 and continuing after that,
  • a lid over the highway to connect the Arch grounds directly with the Gateway Mall, and numerous improvements in and around the mall to make it a more active space,
  • gondolas to carry visitors over the river, a connection between both banks that unlike ferries or water taxies could operate when the river floods,
  • a Music Project building, near the Eads Bridge, featuring performance areas, exhibits and memorabilia of local music icons,
  • a sports and recreational area beneath the highway overpass to connect the south end of the Arch grounds with Chouteau's Landing,
  • on the Arch grounds, new places for food and drink, picnic areas, outdoor exhibits and restored landscaping and ponds with ecology and sustainability features, such as stormwater drainage for irrigation and better soil for the plantings,
  • improvements on Memorial Drive to make it a grand boulevard, with retail, outdoor cafes and other amenities for pedestrians,
  • close Leonor K. Sullivan to through traffic and build river balconies and terraces sloping toward the river with cobblestone and plantings that could withstand ice and floods,
  • close two lanes of traffic on Eads Bridge so they could be used for art exhibits, festivals or other events,
  • on the Illinois bank, a levee esplanade for hiking and biking, a restored Center for the American Bottoms, a research and study center on river ecology, and an amphitheater

One rep explained the rationale for gondolas. One is that they can operate when the river floods. In addition, he said, the gondolas would be "less expensive than a bridge, a moving element -- something that gives people an idea of festivals." The rep said the gondolas would be an attraction similar to the big Ferris wheel overlooking the river in London, "a popular attraction and it will bring in revenue."
One jury member asked if the team's plan had "maybe too many elements," such as the gondolas and the music building, that "would compete wth the Arch as an attraction." The team's rep said no. The area needs more attractions to give Arch visitors more to do to extend their stay and to attract residents as well as downtown workers who don't visit there now. "We need to draw them out and make them more visible."

Another juror asked about the team's stragegy for parking. A team rep said, "The goal should be not to have a drive-in monument," where most people don't get beyond the parking garage on the Arch grounds and the grounds themselves. The team would make street changes to encourage people to drive through downtown and use existing parking garages that the team says are now underused.

They would also make other improvements along the streets -- trees, more activities and the like -- to make walking there more pleasant. -- Charlene Prost


The Behnisch Team, led by Behnisch Architekten, of Stuttgart, Germany, is conceptually fascinating, although, as noted by one member of the jury panel, it is remarkably vague. Firm principal Stefan Behnisch said he did not come to the the design problem or to the presentation with a shopping cart full of attractions. Rather, he said his group, which has a strong representation of local participants, has constructed a very solid framework to be built upon with strong contributions from local stakeholders.

The Behnisch plan actually does call for specific transformations and additions or interventions. Naturally, it would lid over the depressed lanes of Interstate 70 and remove traffic from the three major blocks of Memorial Drive on the east end of Luther Ely Smith Park. It calls for extensive renovation and reconfiguring the riverfront between the Arch grounds and the river; that involves creating breaks in the levee, interspersing the old granite pavers with plantings. Traffic, except for emergency equipment and necessary deliveries, would disappear from Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.

Behnisch envisions creating a design situation in which the Gateway Mall, in one’s imagination anyway, would extend across the river and pick up on the eastern shore. In Illinois, the Behnisch design specifies some some interesting agricultural interventions and a performance space that faces the Arch. It would provide a lovely viewing place to watch the life of the river and to listen to music.

The hitch, however, is this quality of the creative indeterminate -– the come-what-may attitude that obliges the region to establish an organization that would bring this solid framework to life.

John Hoal, a St. Louis planner who is a consultant for Behnisch, was a principal planners of the Forest Park master plan some years ago. He noted that the private Forest Park Forever organization and the city’s department of Parks, Recreation and Forestry worked together to implement the master plan that revived the park. Hoal said such a partnership might work for the redesign of the Arch and its surroundings.

The Behnisch plan calls for the removal of existing trees and a complete replanting of the grounds. The plan shows the building of an aerial gondola between the east and west banks of the river, and floats the idea of a music museum, although Behnisch revealed he had no real serious investment in that plan.

Again, that sort of vagueness was discordant. However, because of the strong, intelligently designed framework and the creativity it could inspire here, the Behnisch plan has attractive possibilities. -- Robert Duffy

SOM, Hargreaves, BIG

The SOM, Hargreaves, BIG presentation exhibits the unmistakable signs of having been done by a committee that never quite got its act together. The presentation was off to a rackety start with a video meant to show the team had done its homework, asking people on the street just what they wanted from a reconfiguring of the Arch grounds. Predictably, the answers had to do with creating better connections with downtown. The team also came up with a corny theme for the project: “St. Louis Can Soar,” which is meant suggest this design will free the buried energy of St. Louis or some such nonsense.

Like other teams presenting Thursday, the project was shown as a lasso-like loop that flows west into downtown and wraps around a large portion of East St. Louis. Nothing wrong with that. Such a geographical stretch -- one that would create synergy between the Arch grounds and its surrounding territories in Missouri and Illinois -- is absolutely necessary for the completed project to be worthwhile. But what does one do inside that loop? In the SOM case, the answer is plenty.

Lots of heavy-duty design is aimed at the north and south ends of the Arch grounds. It would get an undulating roof to shelter a theater, places to eat, a bicycle rental shop, and so forth. There is a heavy whiff of Saarinen inspiration in this design, as well as in its proposal for a new, expanded underground museum. The treatment of the south end of the Arch property suggests a village of crystalline boxes that, in appearance, are very much part of the SOM heritage, one heavily influenced by Mies van der Rohe and other internationalists. One of the jurors described both the north and the south additions and reconfigurations as Potemkin villages.

The team’s proposal for the East Side includes a big performance space and ill-conceived attempts to achieve relevance and make connections with the past. Ersatz Indian mounds represent this effort with large white sculptural heads emerging from them.

Considerable attention was given to novelty in the SOM plan. One element certain to capture the popular imagination is a floating swimming pool in the Mississippi River, to be filled with filtered river water. Now how cool is that! As noted by another team spokesperson, one messes with the river at one’s peril. So put away the bathing suit you save for adventures. That swimming pool is dead in the water.

PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners and Civitas

Unfortunately, the exquisite, dignified plan advanced by PWP Landscape Architecture, Foster + Partners and Civitas has little chance of being implemented as designed. Juror Laurie Olin, after professing his admiration for the proposal, asked PWP principal Peter Walker how he came to have the audacity to challenge 50 years of historic preservation history and to present a plan that is “so European.”

As others have found, the National Park Service is loath to make changes in its parks. Sometimes that resistance is of benefit to the integrity of the parks and is in the people’s interest; sometimes it seems simply a manifestation of rigidity and bureaucratic stubborness.

Walker’s answer to Olin was frank and revealing. His team’s plan, he said, “is trying to change this little area by a small amount.” He said he would be willing to fight for the plan, because the fight is worthwhile -– and willingness to have fights might get you somewhere.

“Reason,” he said, “does have a place in this discussion.”

The PWP plan is extraordinary in its elegance and grace, and, despite a few missteps (such as a proposed duplication of what already exists so splendidly in the Danforth Plant Science Center), it is free of ostentatious, or silly, program proposals and exhibits a rare less-is-more quality of intelligence.

The ambition is a personal one of Walker’s: to complete the plan intended for the Arch grounds, the creation of the late Dan Kiley, who worked closely with Eero Saarinen. Walker was a friend of Kiley, and this proposal is Walker’s homage to him.

It is indeed European, with its formal system of allees reaching from the Arch grounds all the way to Kiener Plaza, as well as in its approach to the river, which proposes reconfiguring the monumental staircase as a real amphitheater, with broad seating risers flowing gently down to the river. If implemented, it would bring to life the forests Kiley envisioned to the south and north of the allees, and would create intimate spaces for recreation and reflection that provide a rich contrast to the formality of the allee systems.

The ponds, in the PWP plan, are carefully integrated with the forest. The controlled wildness of the forested area is a dynamic contrast to the formality of the allees. A proposal for the underground museum includes slicing the ground to accommodate skylights -- a radical intervention perhaps, but one that could be felicitous.

PWP’s being last in a long day of presentations on Thursday was by no means an indication of quality. While its plan is probably doomed, it was nevertheless the most satisfying presentation of the day. It stands apart from even the best of the rest, simply because it is not only very, very good, but because it is also genuinely, thoroughly poetic.

Read more from the Beacon

Arch visitors praise designs to improve Arch grounds

Interior secretary Salazar confident that Arch improvements will be funded

Visions of the Arch: Five finalists present designs for the future

Don't miss this chance to make the Arch better

What to do about the Arch? Beacon readers offer their suggestions

The Arch and downtown: A sense of the possible

Arch grounds design competition narrows; 5 teams picked from 49 vying

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown development. Robert Duffy is the Beacon associate editor. 

Note: The slide shows that appeared in the Beacon did not transfer. This article originally ran in the St. Louis Beacon.