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'A communal vision' for Grand Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 18, 2011 - A 17-year resident of Grand Center, David Burnett has witnessed many changes in the district such as the imploding of the Beaumont Medical Building for the Contemporary Art Museum to the renovation of the old Woolworth's building to Big Brothers Big Sisters and, most recently, the opening of the new Grand Center Arts Academy.

The district may have even bigger changes coming as architect Donald Stastny works to incorporate the idea of community into St. Louis' major arts and entertainment district to set the stage for new development. On Thursday, Nov. 17, Stastny unveiled the Grand Center Framework Plan, a communal vision for the future development of Grand Center, at the Scottish Rite Auditorium.

The plan centered on using the area in new "innovative" ways by incorporating urban agriculture, expanding sidewalks and centralizing parking. The goal is to create a Grand Center community where people can live, work and be entertained.

"I have been at this business a long time and I have never been faced with a situation that I find so unique, so challenging and I think the ideas that are coming out are very innovative," Stastny said. "This has an opportunity to become not only a unique place in St. Louis, but a unique place in the country. If we can move the paradigm from a place that you come to and leave to a place that you hang out in, it is going to be a different type of community."

Stastny, who was approached about leading the creation of a district master plan for Grand Center after overseeing the design competition for the Gateway Arch grounds, met with more than 40 people who are involved in the area in the spring and presented his suggestions for the district in the first public forum on June 23.

Over the summer, Stastny set up task forces made up of area leaders to explore such issues as Grand Boulevard and public transit, community building, urban agriculture, parking and housing. The Framework Plan that Stastny presented from these task-force findings, organizes the district by increasing connectivity among the institutions.

Stastney said that one of the keys to this plan to enhance the visitor experience is access, circulation and parking in the area. The plan included narrowing stretches of Grand Boulevard, Washington Avenue, Spring Street and Theresa Street and widening sidewalks along these roads by as much as 8-feet.

"I did like the fact that there is an emphasis on making it more pedestrian friendly," Burnett said. "Making it more feasible for people to walk to one place or another will help increase the sense of community."

One theme focused on shifting the way space is viewed by the community, as Stastney said roads should to be seen as areas rather than just streets. The idea includes blocking off intersections during events, which would increase the number of festivals in the area.

Blocking off the streets and expanding the sidewalks are Stastney's way of shifting the habits of those coming into the community and making this area more of a "campus."

"People form habits to the way that they do things and this is especially true in St. Louis where there is a car-oriented culture. To me, this plan is kind of a series of actions that make it maybe not as easy to use a car that might change those types of habits," Stastney said.

The Framework Plan also emphasized increasing the amount of green in the area by adding more trees along sidewalks and parking lots and incorporating urban gardens.

More than 50 community members heard the presentation; and during the question and answer session, gave Stastny feedback. One area resident felt that blocking off the end of streets, as is proposed for Grandel near Cardinal Ritter High School, would only create more traffic problems for an area that is "flooded" with traffic during the working days.

Stastny said they have some work to do in that particular area and that this is not a finalized framework, so those concerns will be brought into the discussions.

In January, Stastny and the task forces will finalize the overall framework plan and the design guidelines for new development for the area.

"There is probably never going to be an end game situation," Stastny said. "The ongoing planning work will continue for a number of years as different opportunities display themselves. The idea is to not stick anything in stone that might need to change or be modified down the road.

"Our goal is to put enough of a framework in place where the decisions can be made, but not top stifle potential opportunities or innovations that come in."

Jonathan Ernst, a senior at Saint Louis University, is a Beacon intern.

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