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As riverfront project begins, parts of Arch project pushed to 2016

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Beacon | 2013

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Today officials are set to break ground on the Central Riverfront phase of the CityArchRiver project, which brings $23 million worth of improvements to Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and which should be done by October 2015. Among the most visible improvements: Elevating the road out of the Mississippi River floodplain.

Organizers acknowledge that the entire $380 million Arch grounds project won’t be completed by the Arch’s 50th birthday. Several components – the visitors’ entrance to the museum, an overhaul of Kiener Plaza and some tree plantings – won’t be finished until 2016.

CityArchRiver executive director Maggie Hales attributes the delay to the realities of construction.

“It would be easier if there were no people involved,” Hales said. “But that’s not the situation. We have visitors. We have workers. And it has to work for them.”

Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley said 2016 is a “more realistic” end date for a “really complicated project.”

“When you compress a construction schedule, it's riskier and more expensive,” he said. “It’s just the prudent thing to do, I think.”

Meanwhile, the top official Metro said his organization is “very, very close” to finishing a long-term contract to run the Arch’s trams.

“We’re all in this together,” said Susan Trautman, executive director of Great Rivers Greenway. “All of the partners here are working together. And you know, it’s complicated. It’s hard. But the end result is really worth it. And I think St. Louis will be really, really proud. And this is just another hiccup in a project that’s had a lot of hiccups. You know what? We’re all making it work.”

Connecting with the river

The altered timeline for the project comes on the heels of a ground-breaking for roughly $23 million worth of construction along the riverfront. Some key aspects of the project include:

  • Elevating Leonor K. Sullivan Blvd. out of the floodplain to help reduce flooding.
  • Constructing a riverfront promenade.
  • Adding plantings and lightings to enhance the surroundings.
  • Creating a separated bike lane and pedestrian walkway that will connect into Great Rivers Greenway’s system of trails, parks and greenways.

Trautman said an enhanced riverfront would attract boats and barges “that bring recreational experiences that can’t be done today” because of flooding. There could be more opportunities, she said, for special events, festivals, craft fairs, food vendors and relaxation.
“We’ve heard citizens say that they want to relax and have a beer or a glass of wine and sit by the river,” she said. “They want music. They want to be able to come down and have craft fairs or food vendors with the sort of ‘taste of the nation’ type of event.”

Trautman says we're fortunate "that we’ve got this long stretch of promenade and we’ll have more vendor spaces available so we can be really flexible.”

Trautman also said the riverfront project will allow somebody to walk from downtown, through the Arch grounds and down to the river without having to use steps or an elevator. And it will also serve as a “critical connection” on the Great Rivers Greenway system.

“You’ll be able to ride our Chouteau Avenue trailhead all the way north to the Chain of Rocks,” Trautman said. “And in the next five to seven years, you’ll be able to go south. It’s really a keystone project for making the region a better place to be.”

leonor k sullivan boulevard rendering of riverfront improvement
Credit Rendering provided by CityArchRiver

Hales agrees. “It’s always been part of our aspirations to connect the Arch grounds with the river and with the city," she said. “We’ve got this great river floating by that we all feel kind of disconnected from. So by creating this exciting place to gather and have fun and watch the river, people can connect with the river.”

The total project will cost about $33 million, with about $23 million going into construction. In addition to funding from a Great Rivers Greenway sales tax passed in the 2000s, Trautman also said several federal transportation grants – including an $11 million TIGER grant – will go toward the project.

The project will be split up into two construction phases. The first phase will include work from Chouteau Avenue to the Grand Staircase and is scheduled to be complete in fall 2014. The second phase – beginning in fall of 2014 -- will complete the work from the Grand Staircase to Biddle Street. Target date for completion is October 2015.

Both Trautman and Hales emphasized that the project would not completely eliminate flooding. Trautman estimated the project would be “able to buy 60 to 70 percent more days that we would have been inundated by water.

“We’ll be able to keep the businesses open and be able to do more events and festivals and great activities on the riverfront,” Trautman said. “It really does make a difference.”

“This is a powerful, powerful river. This is a flood plain,” Hales added. “But by raising Leonor K. Sullivan by two and a half to three feet, we’re going to reduce the flooding days that occur in a typical flooding season. Not eliminating them, but we’re reducing the number. Which gives you more days to have activity and fun and economic vitality on the riverfront.”

Changing plans

The CityArchRiver project is, of course, a public-private partnership aimed at overhauling the Gateway Arch’s grounds by Oct. 28, 2015 – the monument’s 50th birthday.

In an interview on Tuesday, Hales said that most of the project will be ready by the Oct. 28, 2015, goal – including the I-70 park and renovations to Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard. But a desire to keep the Arch up and running through construction prompted some alterations.

“Most of the park grounds is going to be a construction site. But people still have to get to those trams to get to the Arch and have that Arch experience,” Hales said. “So we’ve been working really, really hard with [construction officials and governmental entities] to make sure we have as good of a visitor experience and as safe as a visitor experience as we can.”

For instance, Hales said the museum visitors’ center is a “very complex project.” Part of that, she said, is renovating the existing building and connecting it with a new underground facility. And, she added, “if you’re going to keep the trams open, it has to be phased and worked out very meticulously.”

“That was one option: Close it down. Really we thought about that and talked to Convention and Visitor Commission, the park service, Great Rivers Greenway, Metro,” Hales said. “Nobody wanted to do that."

Project handlers also will postpone planting London plane trees along processional allees until spring 2016. “The spring is the best time to plant, they’re going to last longer, they’re going to do better and there’s no springtime between now and then to do it,” Hales said.

While she said an overhaul of the western part of Kiener Plaza would be finished by October 2015, construction on the eastern part would begin sometime in the fall of 2015. Hales said she wanted to use that part as an orientation during the summers of 2014 and 2015.

Asked if she were disappointed that the project wouldn't meet its original deadline, Hales said it would be worth it.

“You have to look at advice from the experts who do construction,” Hales said. “Can you do it or not? And what we’re doing is prudent and safe and helps visitors.”

Hales also said breaking the project into components gives the local construction market a better chance to bid on and win work. Had the project  been bid out in larger pieces, Hales said, “You would have great big firms in Chicago and Denver bidding on it.”

“But Great Rivers Greenway when it asked voters to pass this tax, part of their message at the voters was ‘we will do everything we can to keep this local,’” Hales said. “And they’ve done that on the riverfront successfully. We want to do the same thing on the rest of the park grounds.”

In October, St. Louis and St. Louis County started collecting proceeds from a 3/16th of one cent sales tax increase that includes funding for the Arch projects. Hales said CityArchRiver has raised over $105 million to date in private money. Handlers of the projects are angling to raise $221 million for capital costs and $29 million in endowment for a conservancy.

“It’s pledged, in that it’s in hand. So it’s a legal commitment,” Hales said.

Tram jam?

Meanwhile, John Nations, the president and CEO of Metro, says he’s optimistic that the issue of the tram will soon be resolved.

For decades, Metro has operated the trams that take people up to the top of the Arch. But that contract expired in 2012 and the agency has been using short-term extensions to continue the arrangement.

CityArchRiver wanted a long-term contract on the trams to be finalized before it would sign off on agreements with the park service.

That led the National Park Service's development advisory board to hold off its approval for the park service to begin bidding and construction on the CityArchRiver project. (That doesn’t affect the riverfront project, any of Missouri Department of Transportation’s work or Kiener Plaza.)

Nations told the Beacon a long-term agreement is important since short-term extensions don’t allow Metro to enter into any bonding arrangements for longer-term projects.

“The trams are now almost 50 years old and they require some updating, which is also very expensive,” Nations said. “The trams are really a unique system. The Arch itself is a unique structure. It remains the tallest building in the state of Missouri. And getting people to the top is a unique challenge. So we have a motor generators and facilities that need to be updated. And it also pays for the ongoing maintenance and operation of the Arch.”

He emphasized that there’s no disagreement with the park service. “The park service is trying to get the agreement through their bureaucracy,” said Nations.

“The NPS will tell you that the partnership with us is one of the best, if not the best partnership they have in the country,” Nations said. “Both the National Park Service and we would like to see this arrangement renewed and perpetuated long term. Frankly, it works well for all concerned. But in the last 50 years, there have been all kinds of statutes and regulations adopted that are applicable here.

"The ability of the park service and Interior Department to get it done quickly based on a vastly changed regulatory environment in 2013 has proven challenging for the National Park Service,” he added.

Nations said the issue has the attention of Missouri’s congressional delegation – including U.S. Sens. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and U.S. Rep. Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis. 

“I’m optimistic,” Nations said. “I’ve been told over the last few days by the park service that we are ‘very, very close’ to getting the agreement approved. We certainly hope that’s the case.”

“We would agree with John’s assessment that we’re substantively about there, but it may well take a month or two of legal review and Metro’s attorneys doing the same thing,” Bradley said. “And then we’d get it signed.”

The NPS’s development advisory board’s next scheduled meeting is March. Bradley said it’s possible that the board could reconvene earlier, but added the board is “composed of a lot of really busy people.”

“It’s just another reason the 2016 date is more realistic. If it goes to March, that’s four months from now.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.