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Commentary: The Arch and downtown: A sense of the possible

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2010 - The Arch grounds competition begins its third phase today with the announcement of five finalists, and that is good news indeed for the region. After watching the Arch and its environs for almost a half a century as a citizen and a reporter, I feel confident saying that this process, which appears to be firmly on track, has enormous potential for lasting good. This is not simply a redesign of the Arch grounds or a new scheme of plantings and promenades. It is a bold effort to pull together and propel forth a broken element of the St. Louis cityscape, one that has been, throughout its history, an island of monument and green set apart either by design or by accident from the city and from the river over which it looks.

Given the credentials of the teams and the fact that an experienced planner, Donald J. Stastny, is guiding the process, there is strong reason to believe the potential exists for the results to be brilliant and enduring. However, it is the obligation of those of us looking in on this process not only to support the work but to insist the result be not merely adequate -- and not value-engineered into mediocrity – but of genuine and enduring consequence.

St. Louis, the region and the Arch itself deserve nothing less.

Why do this work? While Eero Saarinen’s magnificent Gateway Arch soars ethereally into the sky and captivates our imaginations, the neighborhood from which it rises provides a distinctly discordant note. The grounds of the Arch, designed originally by the late Dan Kiley, are quite lovely. But if, for example, you look down on this area from the Arch itself or from a tall downtown building, you see the fragmentation and confusion that swirls around the grounds; you see a startling contrast to the serenity, unity and clarity of the Arch itself.

This fragmentation has defined us since the Arch was born. If you think of it as metaphor, in its broken state it’s easy to consider this neighborhood a paradigm of our regional political fragmentation itself. While the parts, most of them anyway, have aspects that recommend them, and while the resources are manifest, the whole is a like a broken mirror, flashy but dangerous, and infected with a brand of bad luck that always seems to follow haphazard and indifferent design and development.

The river, the omnipresent writhing brown serpent we have forever fled, is separated from the city not by the romance of its granite-paved levee but by the riverfront boulevard, a strip of street bare of distinction, and a thoroughfare disreputable enough to reinforce our tradition-bound aversion to this magnificent waterway. A resource such as the Mississippi is, in other places, elevated to a status resembling that which we assign to the Arch, and possibly to the game of baseball.

Streets to the north and the south of the Arch feed into this barren boulevard and form barriers to the neighborhoods. To the north, Laclede’s Landing is home to a wealth of 19th century commercial buildings and contemporary enterprise; to the south, there is such potential for development so ripe any other city would embrace it exuberantly, if not greedily.

To the west of the Arch grounds exist the depressed lanes of Highway 70 and the lanes of Memorial Drive at grade. These roadways form even more formidable barriers, real and psychological. These roadways have effectively separated the Arch from its most significant and, in some ways, most needy neighbor, downtown St. Louis’ central business district.

But last year, in a burst of civic gumption and foresight, led by civic leader Walter Metcalfe Jr. and others, efforts to redesign the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is the proper name of the Arch, its grounds and the Old Courthouse, were announced.

The fact that a competition was mounted ranks high on the local achievement scale. Even confronted with the fact the Arch itself emerged from an international search, architectural competitions have been regarded warily, as if they were large brown snakes. So, the fact that this search for a reconfiguration of the Arch grounds and its integration with the neighborhoods around it would be open to individuals and firms not only in this country but from all around the world is stunning – and enormously important.

It is perhaps impolitic to mention this, but designing this competition as open and international serves effectively to bypass and neutralize the old boys network here, vis a vis this project anyway. This network traditionally has handed out large public and private plums to well-connected local firms.

New ideas spring from aggressive contact with ideas learned both at home and abroad -- even if abroad is only as far away as Chicago, or Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where Saarinen worked. Furthermore, by casting the net wide, the promoters of the reconfiguration of the grounds have been helpful in beginning to correct an unfair and undeserved reputation. That bad rap is that St. Louis is hopelessly parochial, a conservative backwater, a has-been rather than the resource-rich and potential-filled place that, simply by looking around, we know it to be.

This competition follows on the heels of the opening of the celebrated and magical Citygarden, an urban oasis of art and design that has captured the imagination of the region and the nation. With every splash of its fountains, every glimmer of light on sculptures, it offers occasions for urban rejoicing. Citygarden demonstrates that good urban design has the power not only to bring order and regularity to a city but to invigorate its spirit.

The groups chosen for the Arch-grounds work all have creditable track records. It’s a reasonably good bet any one of them would do a respectable job. The judges' task, however, is to make certain that whichever group is chosen will do not simply a respectable job but an exemplary job, one that pushes aside boundaries established by time, material and prejudice, one that graciously addresses the future with optimism, one that accommodates and exults the Arch itself compatibly but also brings it, with confidence, authority and brilliance, it into full participation the rest of the region.

The winning team has the grave and serious responsibility to a region and to history to address its work to the Arch’s immediate surroundings and to the Gateway Mall. In reality, this is not another project fenced off by boundaries but one that should spill out into the river, onto the north and south sides of the Arch and reach into the city, beyond the Old Courthouse and on to west. In this competition and the work that follows, we have the rare opportunity to literally put a new face on the region, one not only beautiful but one solid enough, substantial and well conceived enough, to bring stability and order to a place that has existed in isolation for far too long.

Recall John Donne: No man is an island entire of the main. No monument should be either.