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'Mind the gaps': Design charrette seeks to connect the Arch with downtown

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 10, 2008 - Plenty of politicians and urban planners have had their say about how to better connect the St. Louis riverfront, Arch grounds and downtown St. Louis. It's been a long-running and quite controversial dialogue -- one continued by a panel of design experts and other stakeholders Friday at Washington University (more on that later).

Now students are entering the conversation. Dozens of them from colleges across the region took part over the weekend in an architectural design charrette that focused on reviving the city's downtown. After spending weeks -- and intense days Saturday and Sunday -- considering the myriad problems facing St. Louis, student teams presented their design concepts at the Mansion House Apartments complex.

The event, organized by the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Transportation Engineering Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, was intended to get the participants thinking about a planning project able to reshape the way visitors see St. Louis and city residents view their downtown.

"This is a unique chance for students to engage in a civic dialogue about one of the most important issues in our region," said Fred Powers, a principal with Powers Bowersox Associates, who initiated the charrette.

While the students weren't asked to make policy recommendations or lobby for their design projects, Powers said he expected their ideas to reinvigorate a discussion among the regular players in the downtown planning project.

"As students we can throw out crazy ideas, and they may not seem like options, but we can explore things and hopefully watch them happen," said Mike Garrett, who's studying landscape architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Added Jaipal Singh, a Washington University architecture student: "That's what's nice about this weekend -- it's not an academic exercise. We have city officials in the room who are listening to us and coming to us for ideas. We're trying to get people to rethink everything."

Over the weekend, students learned about the history of riverfront projects throughout the world. They also heard a lecture on the history of St. Louis and its specific challenges -- decades of decreasing urban population and a variety of property owners and agencies whose interests don't always overlap.

Panelists Set the Stage

On Friday, the panel of design experts and other project stakeholders took the students through Arch/riverfront 101.

Eric Mumford, an associate professor of architecture and art history at Washington University, said he would like to see new plans recognize the historical importance of the Arch site, which once was a grid of industrial buildings before being cleared as part of a downtown renewal decades ago.

Several students echoed Mumford's sentiments, saying that they wanted new additions to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the Arch's formal name, to highlight important moments in St. Louis history, including the Dred Scott hearing that took place in the Old Courthouse. (The planning efforts also involve making a better physical connection between the Arch and the historic courthouse.)

Peter Sortino, president of the Danforth Foundation, which in recent years has led the campaign to reinvigorate the Arch grounds and riverfront, urged the students to "look at the problem in a comprehensive way." That means not only considering the state of the Arch grounds, but also paying attention to what's happening in the streets leading into St. Louis, the areas north and south of the landmark, and on the waterfront, he said.

Among the problems with the layout of the Arch grounds, Sortino cited the isolation of the parking garage from downtown, inducing people to visit the Arch without thinking about seeing other parts of the city.

Central to the Danforth proposal is the creation of an iconic, above-ground structure that would serve as another focal point downtown.

"We feel that what's needed on the Arch grounds is a destination attraction that's compatible with the magnificence of the Arch," Sortino said. "It doesn't make sense to invest millions of dollars if there isn't a catalyst, if people don't see downtown as a destination. A new cultural facility (a museum, perhaps) could help form that destination."

The foundation has raised the idea of holding an international competition to find a design for the proposed new structure. A bill introduced recently by Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-Mo., authorizes (but doesn't direct) the U.S. Secretary of the Interior to transfer the administrative jurisdiction of a portion of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial to a trust created by supporters of the Danforth efforts. This would give potential private sector supporters who want to support such a competition a say in how their money is used, Sortino said.

Tom Bradley, superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, said planners should keep in mind that the open space around the Arch is under historic landmark protection, which puts constraints on how the grounds are developed.

Questioned whether he accepts the status quo of the national park, Bradley said: "My job is to protect the park. That's not to say we can't have more activity there, can't have more going on, more exhibits that are relevant to the population, that we can't market it better or make parking a lot better. We can do all that, but I think this is an area down there that the American public wants to preserve."

(Some groups, like the National Parks Conservation Association and the Coalition of National Park Service Employees, have expressed opposition to any new, large building on the Arch grounds, which would, they say, alter Eero Saarinen's iconic design.)

The National Park Service, which owns and operates the grounds, has not ruled out a design competition, similar to the 1947 competition that led to the Arch design from Saarinen, to revitalize the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

Several speakers noted the success of Chicago's Millennium Park in connecting downtown Chicago to the shores of Lake Michigan. But Mumford, the Washington U. professor, noted a key difference between the two projects: Whereas Chicago's downtown was already inundated with tourists and daily commuters before the park's opening, St. Louis doesn't have that luxury.

Mumford said also that those involved in the revitalization project need to look at a series of issues -- parking and pedestrian activity among them -- rather than thinking that a single design is the answer.

Added Bradley: "I'm not opposed to a Millennium Park, but you wouldn't plop it down in an area the American people have already set aside for a purpose."

Students Present their Ideas

Garrett, from Illinois, said Sunday that he had gained a better appreciation for the complexities of the downtown project. There's the question of how to preserve the Gateway Arch while making it connect better to parts of downtown. There's the issue of planning a more pedestrian-friendly city without introducing new traffic problems. And there's the dilemma of how to spruce up the riverfront while guarding against major flood damage.

The student groups, representing Washington University, St. Louis University, University of Illinois, Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Drury University and the Missouri University of Science and Technology, each sketched out their designs and presented their ideas on Sunday.

Among the students' suggestions:

  • Re-route Interstate 70 exit ramps and the traffic on Memorial Drive to ease pedestrian movement toward the Arch. (Some have noted that the depressed lanes of I-70 are both a physical and psychological barrier separating the Arch from downtown.)
  • Cap a portion of I-70 and use the land to connect the Arch with downtown.
  • Add new bikeways on the riverfront and remake a section of it into an interactive tourist destination.
  • Create retail space on Eads Bridge and shut down one lane in each direction to make room for pedestrians.
  • Add an ice skating rink under the Arch in the winter.
  • Convert the 300 block of North 4th Street (where the unoccupied, three-story Mansion House commercial space is) into a cultural center.

Singh said during his group's final presentation that "there's a phrase we keep using this weekend, and it's 'mind the gaps','' he said, referring to the elements that planners and politicians alike agree disrupt the flow of downtown. "The theme here is connectivity."
Standing moments later in a room overlooking the Arch, Singh said wanted a second pass on creating a design. He thought the students had only begun their work.

Michelle Swatek, executive director of St. Louis AIA, said their work would already make an impact. "We hope St. Louisans will be inspired by them," she said. 

More about the Arch

The Park Service releases its preferred plan, the outcome of a series of public meetings

The Park Service holds public meetings to discuss futureof the Arch. 

Danforth Foundation holds out hope for an improved Arch.

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

Elia Powers
Elia Powers is a Freelance Writer in St. Louis. He worked on several stories for the STL Beacon.