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Citygarden wins prestigious Amanda Burden award

This article first appeared in a St. Louis Beacon, May 10, 2011 - Anyone who's been downtown to frolic in the fountains of Citygarden, or to look at its sculptures or to dine in the Terrace View restaurant, knows that this urban park is a colossal winner. Not only is it fun, but equally important, it provides 24 hours a day, seven days a week, positive shots in the arms of the region and a magnet for visitors from here and from far away.

Today, however, a message of victory goes out to the nation and the world: This oasis is winner of the Urban Land Institute's Amanda Burden Urban Open Space Award for 2011. The Burden award "recognizes an outstanding example of a public open space that has enriched and revitalized its surrounding community."

"Citygarden is a stunning example of what great public open space design can do for an urban area. The garden's design succeeds in attracting users of every background. The interplay between art, landscape, imaginative seating and water features has a universal appeal and creates a new focal point for St. Louis' downtown," said New York City Planning Commissioner Amanda M. Burden, who created the award, which the institute administers.  "It exemplifies why public space is integral to the health of cities and epitomizes the best of what the Urban Open Space award seeks to foster."

Burden was in St. Louis recently to see Citygarden at first hand and to talk to local officials and commentators on its impact on the city aesthetically and economically. She was accompanied by another jury member, Mark Johnson, a Denver-based planner.

The prize is prestigious, coveted by any number of cities, and especially by the five finalists announced earlier this spring. Besides Citygarden, the four other contenders were: Director Park and Jamison Square, both in Portland, Ore; Discovery Green and the Raymond and Susan Brochstein Pavilion, both also in Houston.

"This is a really wonderful honor for St. Louis and for the Gateway Foundation," Mayor Francis G. Slay commented.  The institute "chose Citygarden from among 48 applicants across the country.  The decision will bring flattering and well-deserved national attention both to the garden and to St. Louis. 

"We are very grateful both to the Urban Land Institute and to the Gateway Foundation," Slay added.  "Gateway has been an extraordinary private partner to the city in this project."

The Gateway Foundation, headed by Peter Fischer, planned and funded Citygarden, working with planner Nelson Byrd Wolz, of Charlottesville, Va., and a young local architectural firm, Studio Durham Architects. The cost was more than $25 million (not including the sculptures or the land itself, which still belongs to the city.)

Citygarden, located between Eighth and 10th streets on the Gateway Mall, opened in early summer 2009. St. Louis owns the land on which Citygarden is located and pays for the cost of water and electricity.  Gateway spearheaded and financed the attraction and pays for its maintenance and other costs. The garden is free and open to the public 365 days a year.

In announcing Citygarden's finalist status, the institute said, "With a design that draws on St. Louis' chief natural feature -- its rivers -- the 2.9-acre Citygarden has attracted diverse users, catalyzed nearby development and changed perceptions of downtown. Situated on two blocks of the underutilized Gateway Mall, the active sculpture garden has drawn an estimated 1 million visitors since its opening."

Citygarden's location has added importance as the project to reconnect the Gateway Arch grounds to the city progresses, and as attention is focused, as well, on improvements to other blocks of the Gateway Mall.

Michael Van Valkenburgh is principal of the Brooklyn-based firm that bears his name. The firm was chosen last year to create a plan to re-invigorate the grounds of the Arch and to erase the boundaries between the Arch and its urban environs, including the East St. Louis riverfront.

Van Valkenburgh told mayoral adviser Jeff Rainford that the opportunity to work on a project with the Arch as its focus was irresistible. But something else was also magnetic: Citygarden. The designer was blown away by it, Rainford said. Plus, it occurred to Van Valkenburgh's that the multifaceted success of Citygarden provided proof that great things were happening in St. Louis.

Rodney Crim, St. Louis Development Corp.'s executive director, is scheduled to accept the prize for Citygarden in Phoenix later today.

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.