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Rethinking Kiener Plaza as a gracious link between Citygarden and Arch

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 8, 2011 - Although no actual shovels have dug into the ground yet, planners and officials are excited that at least one significant element of the overall $578 million Gateway Arch plan has begun to develop. The Gateway Mall Conservancy is taking the lead in the redevelopment of Kiener Plaza -- two crucial downtown blocks between Broadway and Seventh Street and Market and Chestnut streets.

There, the property itself will be radically reconfigured, losing, for example, an amphitheater that becomes an oven in the summertime and a slippery hazard when ice forms on it in winter.

Kiener will be better connected physically, visually and aesthetically to the redeveloped Gateway Arch grounds to the east and the blocks of the Gateway Mall west of Eighth Street that continue on to Union Station. In a way, that reconnecting is a microcosm of the larger plans to connect the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial -- the Arch and its grounds -- with its neighbors on both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the Mississippi River.

Together, Kiener Plaza and Citygarden, if connected by a well-defined passageway along side the south edge of the Gateway One building on the mall between Seventh and Eighth streets, will form one of the nation's most dynamic metropolitan spaces. They'll be separate but intimately related public attractions, featuring sculptures, places to eat and sit, a performance space, water features and amenities for children and adults.

Implementation of the plan would position Citygarden, the nationally acclaimed winner of the Urban Land Institute's coveted Amanda Burden Open Space Award, to be an essential element in a sweeping connection, unencumbered by highway and Memorial Drive traffic, leading to the Arch grounds and into a dramatic new entrance for an expanded museum beneath the Arch.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, which won a competition last year to renovate the Arch and its surroundings, is principal designer of the Kiener Plaza blocks. Working with MVVA is Mack Scogin of Mack Scogin Merrill Elam, Atlanta. He is responsible for designing a dramatic two-building restaurant for the plaza.

The husband and wife team of Scogin and Elam recently won the Arnold W. Brunner Memorial prize in architecture, given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to a "pre-eminent architect from any country who has made a significant contribution to architecture as an art."

Architect-educator Toshiko Mori of Cambridge, Mass., is working with MVVA also. She has conceived a sweeping performance facility whose design harks visually to the work of Eero Saarinen, primarily to his expressionist TWA Terminal Building at JFK airport in New York.

A New Kiener Plaza

If the MVVA plan is implemented, and were you to enter Kiener Plaza heading east from the Seventh Street side, you'd find on your left a beer garden and directly ahead a garden "room" filled with tables and chairs. Just ahead to your right would be a playground.

To your left, directly north of the playground, would be a variation on the "Shake Shack," popular New York restaurants that are the brain children of former St. Louisan Danny Meyer. The kitchen and serving functions of what has been described lovingly as a hamburger joint would be housed in a black box. Indoor dining or snacking would be accommodated in a lofty, light drenched glass structure.

Just beyond the restaurant would be a building with the promise of becoming a landmark -- Mori's performance facility. The building would accommodate performers with a green room and would be the location of bathroom facilities. The audience would be seated on a greensward large enough to accommodate 300.

Across from the performance building, to the south, would be a merry-go-round, built to order for the mall. In addition, the plan would include wicket-like passages created out of arching jets of water -- the shape of the water flow mimicking the shape of the Arch itself.

Van Valkenburgh's Vision

Van Valkenburgh was in town Tuesday on Arch business and made time for an interview. When he was 17, he says, he was let out of school for a month and headed to Europe with his best friend and the friend's mother. First stop: Paris. Once settled in a hotel, the boys announced they were retiring for the night, then promptly sneaked out, bought a bottle of wine, threw back a few slugs and headed out to explore the City of Light in the dark.

At one point he found himself in the Jardin des Tuileries. Once a royal garden and very private indeed, it is now very much a garden of the people and entirely, and most hospitably, public.

Van Valkenburgh says he didn't even know the term landscape architecture when he found the Tuileries. But he did sense the jolt of epiphany: There was something extraordinary about the place, and he derived from it a feeling of rightness and satisfaction.

Kiener Plaza, as redesigned, has Parisian grace notes, a subtle undergirding of formality overlain with a very democratic and, in places, playful foundation. As Van Valkenburgh says, the new Kiener Plaza would be both compositionally compelling and humane on the ground. This condition would be achieved in the artful and sensitive combining of landscape, architecture, vista, shade, sunshine, moving water and a reflecting pond, grass, shrubbery, brick and bluestone pavers -- the latter a reference to Citygarden.

The horticultural program includes boxwood hedges to form subdivisions within Kiener Plaza and a promenade of gingko trees to establish the passage between Citygarden and Kiener Plaza past the Gateway One building. Once this allee reaches Kiener Plaza, the gingkos would go "feral," Van Valkenburgh says, and spread out through the plaza. The arboreal program would consider carefully the various species, the better to plan for the coming and the passing of degrees of shade in the plaza.

Next Steps

The board of the Gateway Mall Conservancyand the mall advisory board have seen the plans and both have indicated approval. The Conservancy, a public-private partnership, was established by St. Louis and is responsible for the land from Union Station east to the Old Courthouse. It has its own board of directors and enjoys a certain autonomy from political and commercial pressures.

The conservancy is prepared to fund early stages of the project, through the design development drawings, says its president, Peter Fischer. No cost estimate is given, but the conservancy is on board to raise money and to pay for this initial part of the project.

Architect Donald Stastny of Portland, Ore., who managed the design competition, still is involved, working with the sponsoring CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.

Stastny said that if the Conservancy goes forward with the Kiener project, it likely would be the first major element completed in the complicated Arch grounds project. He said construction would take about a year to 18 months and could get underway by the middle of next year.

"It will be a very innovative space in the same way as Citygarden," he says, but with different amenities.

Kiener would be "an active civic space and also very flexible in what can happen there," says Stastny, founder of StastnyBrun Architects.

The Rest of the Plan

As for the rest of the overall plan, Stastny and others involved say that much of the work underway now is the nitty gritty, behind-the-scenes tasks that need to get done before the colorful renderings everyone saw in January can become reality.

The gondolas, closing a section of Memorial Drive, improvements to the Arch grounds and other new features for both sides of the river still are in the plan. Some are progressing faster than others, and some are still evolving as the park service, state highway officials, city planners and others get deeper into the details.

"We're dealing with a plethora of details," Stastny says. "It's like getting down in the weeds and getting stuck in the mud. But we are moving forward."

The expectation, he says, is to get Kiener underway up front, along with improvements for Market and Chestnut streets.

"We are also pushing to get the lid (over depressed lanes of highway 70) and Luther Ely Smith Square. We're focusing a lot of work now on that central spine that connects the Arch grounds through Luther Ely Smith" park to the Old Courthouse, Kiener and Citygarden.

Another "strong push," he says, is on expanding the museum beneath the Arch and rejuvenating the Arch grounds.

"We need to be sure to have compliance and permit issues in place early so we don't have to go back later and redesign. We would like to start work on the Arch grounds as early as possible," Stastny says.

Arch superintendent Tom Bradley says that since January, he and his staff have been involved in "lots of meetings with state officials on the (historic) preservation process, for example, and doing research on how to handle parking if the north garage goes down" as planned and where a replacement might be built off the Arch grounds.

"We are also looking into sustainable ways to redo the ponds on the Arch grounds and respect the original (Dan Kiley-designed) landscape."

On the museum front, Bradley says that the park service recently selected Haley Sharpe Designs, based in Leicester, United Kingdom, to design exhibits while Cooper, Robertson & Partners and James Carpenter Design Associates, both from New York, are designing the museum's glassy new entrance to face Memorial Drive.

Don Roe, of the city's Planning and Urban Design Agency, and St. Louis architect Vern Remiger are among others helping to push things along.

One focus at Roe's agency, and for Remiger, is the city-owned riverfront.

"We're doing a lot of refinement in terms of what's on the north end, how do we get people to the river," Remiger said, and "we're trying to make sure we can accommodate the boats."

Keep Them Coming Back

Also at work is Edward Uhlir, executive director of Millennium Park Inc. in Chicago and member of the MVVA team. Uhlir says the 25-acre, $470 million Millennium Park, which opened in 2004, has thrived largely because of free concerts, ice skating in winter, outdoor dining in summer, temporary sculpture exhibits and other activities and events.

"It is the programming that keeps attracting people back and back to see something new," he says.

One popular program at Millennium Park might work well here, says Uhlir. It's a "family fun program for toddlers to 8 years old -- seven days a week," he says. "Our partners from museums and cultural institutions (in Chicago) send reps to do projects with the kids. I can see that for St. Louis."

Another possibility here, he says, is "entertainment tents" as in Chicago.

"The design team is working now on where," he says. "Perhaps in Kiener or the (Gateway) mall, by the Eads Bridge, on the east side of the river."

Attorney Walter Metcalfe Jr. of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, a prime mover of things to date, is still pushing hard on the money end. So far he's gotten about $2 million to pay for the design competition and enough (he won't say how much) to pay for continuing design and consultant work -- all private money.

Still ahead is pulling together public and more private money to cover the still-estimated $578 million project. Metcalfe says that price tag is broad and includes items such as the extension of Route 3 in Illinois, "deferred" maintenance work on the Arch grounds and "a large contingency fund." But he's confident the money can be raised.

"We are still holding to Oct. 28, 2015, for finishing it. We just don't have a start date yet," he says.

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

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.