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Improving traffic flow around Arch improves downtown's circulatory system

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2011 - Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh was in Forest Park Tuesday to give his peers a rundown on plans for the redesign of another grand civic park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, better known as the Gateway Arch, and its surroundings.

Rumblings of discontent preceded his appearance. In the public discussion, however, the tone was civil and professional. Questions ranged from the botanical to the aesthetic -- what varieties of plants and trees would be selected (not there yet) to what might people see if they went to the redesigned grounds on a winter's day ("beauty") to a question perpetually on the mind of regional motorists: "What about parking?"

In answering the question of "what will be done" by the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Arch, consulting architect Vern Remiger said, "The major projects."

The essence of Van Valkenburgh's talk, however, and the fundamental issues being addressed in his office in Brooklyn, have to do with circulation.

Many of these issues are well known to Arch ground watchers and even to casual visitors to the Arch. The circulatory bete noire is where Chestnut and Market streets intersect with Memorial Drive. For decades, this junction has been designated perilous, either physically or psychologically or both, and complaints about it have been persistent.

Planners and critics regard this circulatory impediment as a problem begging for correction, an impediment that is far from dismissible. Along with safety is the matter of money. When visitors come to visit the Arch, then leave, their money leaves with them. Were the passage from Arch to downtown more felicitous, the money itself would circulate in the central city, rather than outside it.

That Memorial Drive problem appears to be on the road to correction. In August, Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, announced the U.S. Department of Transportation had awarded a $2 million grant for the first stage of work to build the long-put-off pedestrian connector to the rest of downtown. When completed, it will form a land bridge spanning the chasm of the depressed lanes and removing traffic from a section of Memorial Drive.

The Memorial Drive situation, however, is only one of the big problems in a dysfunctional circulatory system in need of drastic treatment.

Another obstacle to free and easy circulation is at the north end of the Arch grounds, and it is perhaps even more intractable than Memorial Drive. It is a hulking, bunker-like parking garage -- a crummy place, Van Valkenburgh called it -- ugly at a distance and Stygian up close.

The designers recognize that this section of the grounds, like the Memorial Drive intersection, needs fixing. The solution is demolition of that garage and replacement with a passive-recreation park that would be attractive to children and a way to create a rather seamless connection to Laclede's Landing.

In these cases, and in other situations such as the five-way intersection on the northwest edge of the Arch grounds, the team is working to find ways to reintegrate or to reinstate circulation patterns for vehicles and pedestrians and to take advantage of what Van Valkenburgh calls downtown's generous grid of broad streets, avenues and boulevards.

For example, by plugging into this generous grid in critical places, traffic can be rerouted to solve problems such as the Chestnut-Market-Memorial Drive situation. This, in turn, can stimulate a dramatic increase in pedestrian circulation, in Van Valkenburgh's view.

A questioner asked, "Where will people park?" if the Arch garage were demolished. The answer, again, has to do with unimpeded circulation. Losses of parking spaces in that garage, Van Valkenburgh said, would be replaced by an effort to change the habits of visitors by redirecting their attention to downtown and encouraging them to take advantage of ample parking spaces in existing garages near the Arch.

Van Valkenburgh says these garages are as convenient for an Arch visitor as the existing northern edge garage. All that's required, he said, is a "five-minute walk."

Other less visible circulatory issues are being addressed in the planning, Van Valkenburgh said. Passages in and out of the park and through it are being planned to adhere to ADA regulations, for example. Poor circulation in and around the reflecting ponds is being studied to clean them up and to make strolls along side the ponds more pleasant and appealing.

He said because nothing much is going on now south of the Arch grounds, that area is not a top priority. However, Van Valkenburgh said the tramway connecting the east and west banks of the river would be boarded at the south end of the Arch grounds, and that could be a first step toward eventual redevelopment of that now-neglected but fascinating part of the larger downtown picture.

What is a top priority, however, is encouraging pedestrian circulatory flow, in particular, from Citygarden (which Van Valkenburgh mentioned as a reason for his entering the competition for the Arch grounds commission) through the redesigned Kiener Plaza, beside the Old Courthouse, through Luther Ely Smith Park, across the land bridge into the Arch grounds, into the Arch museum or on down to Eero Saarinen's magnificent Arch itself, then down to another monument of sorts, the Mississippi River.

Such an experience, Van Valkenburgh believes, can ignite the fire to forge a dynamic, integrated urban space, one providing visual and atmospheric pleasures attending one as he or she moves through space and time, through an environment rich in incident and ever changing vistas.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates was selected on Sept. 22 -- almost exactly a year ago -- as lead designer on the Arch grounds project. The competition was mounted by The City The Arch+ The River organization.

That organization, in collaborations with St. Louis, the Missouri and Illinois Departments of Transportation, Great Rivers Greenway, Gateway Mall Conservancy, Metro East Parks and Recreation District, the National Park Service and other groups in the bi-state area, is supporting efforts to promote the project and to attract funding for it.

Van Valkenburgh's talk and the question and answer period following it, was moderated by Michael R. Allen, an architectural historian and director of the Preservation Research Office.

The St. Louis Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects in association with the local chapters of the American Institute of Architects and the American Planning Association sponsored the event.

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.

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