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Commentary: Celebrate the Arch decision and continue to look ahead

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - The announcement that Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates of Brooklyn has been chosen winner of the competition to reconfigure the grounds of the Gateway Arch is at once momentous and cause both for cheering and for reflection.

All the plans by teams that reached the Final Five had elements to recommend them, some more than others. Hard work was evident throughout both by the competitors and the competition organizers, in the deliberations of the jury, and in the presentations of all the firms that entered the contest.

The reconfiguration-reintegration plan will cost plenty. For one thing, it calls for moving a highway and a major city street. Despite some yapping about how much this is going to cost "us," the reconfiguration program means revenue and jobs for the region in abundance. When completed, the Arch grounds, the riverfront and the city of St. Louis will be unified rather than elements separated from one another. Importantly, the Illinois shore figures into all this, and is brought together with St. Louis with a commitment based both on a philosophy of civic inclusion and financial potential.

So the next few days should be set aside for cheering and for looking ahead with, pardon the expression, a can-do attitude about addressing this monument with mighty improvements. While we are celebrating this potential, let's not forget the artistic magnificence that is Eero Saarinen's incomparable monument and the civic moxie that made it happen.

The competition does not represent, however, the end of the road in a process that actually began way back in the 1930s. It is one that continues to unfold as the city, the region, the nation and American culture change and grow and become ever more complex, and will continue to change as all dynamic systems do. It certainly bears watching by the local "client," the group that should be chosen to shepherd the program through to completion. That group should share a commitment to quality and an unbending opposition to gimmicks and theme parkery; likewise it should keep the value engineers at bay with vigor.

As originally conceived, the Arch was to make manifest the majesty of Westward expansion, the passing of a mass of humanity from East to West, and to celebrate our Manifest Destiny, a propulsive 19th century idea that would expand the country to the Pacific and, in the later rhetoric of President Wilson, to bring democracy to all the world. While those messages are not lost entirely, what is articulated symbolically nowadays are more contemporary ideas, ideas that have more to do with urban vitality and American ingenuity than expansion.

There is plenty of room for all sorts of interpretations in the broad and complex shadows of the Arch. The idea, or need, expressed most emphatically in the competition is for reconnection, for marrying the grounds of the Arch and the life of the city into what should become a seamless, symbiotic whole.

The benefits are considered mutual. The Arch will benefit from a flow of visitors who find themselves in the city, attending baseball games or the Zoo, and taking delight in the nearby Citygarden, itself a new and extraordinarily dynamic urban amenity. The city of St. Louis and the region, in turn, will benefit by allowing their citizens and visitors easy access from the Arch grounds to its considerable resources.

This transformation is due to be complete by 2015, the golden jubilee of the topping off of the Arch on a particularly golden autumn morning in St. Louis. That moment was cause for exuberant celebration for a feat well finished. But reflected also in the shimmering surface was not only the ambient light of the city but a sense of possibility, that the St. Louis that electrified the world in 1904 might indeed assert such influence again.

That statement provides an opening to anyone convinced of or comfortable with the conviction that the region is doomed to desuetude. Such attitudes haven't gotten us far, and one can say, given the chances afforded by this new plan, now is not the time to indulge in that kind of thinking or such posturing about what may have been an impediment to renaissance. As one observer said recently, too many people treat St. Louis as a spectator sport, and choose to comment rather than to contribute. He's right.

What can we expect in the months to come? First, the local sponsors will take suggestions from competition manager Donald Stastny and the jury into consideration. Inevitably, budgets will be drawn up and redrawn; the public has a right to know how much money is involved, where it is going and from whence it is coming. Any multi-hundred-million-dollar public works budget is cobbled together from numerous sources, and the sources and the amounts of contributions should be detailed.

In August, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar came to town to look at the work of the five design finalists. He described all of them as "truly exciting for me and for the nation." While he was in St. Louis, he pledged support for the project and for getting it done on time.

"No effort will be spared to get it done," the Beacon reported his saying. "I'm looking forward to continuing to work with community leaders" in Missouri and Illinois "to make sure we can make this vision a reality."

Local leaders and politicians have made similar commitments from the sectors they represent. Attorney Walter Metcalfe Jr., who has driven the effort to mount and to run the competition, along with St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley are strong supporters of the effort and of finding funds to implement it.

It is not a process to be hastened along, but especially in these early days, a process to be considered as thoughtfully as the jury considered the selection of the winner.

We are fortunate that the jury selected a presentation as refined and feasible as MVVA's. A couple of the other finalists presented plans that played to gimmicks and, as far as I am concerned, that sunk them. Besides MVVA, the submission by Peter Walker and Associates was deeply affecting, brushed as it was with a patina of visual poetry.

But MVVA's statement about its work here is affecting, too. It promises "a powerfully connective landscape that operates simultaneously in several ways -- a landscape that will not only draw visitors from around the world but serve as a new locus of civic energy in the daily lives of the citizens of St. Louis.

"The redesigned Memorial will be a centerpiece of civic culture, an engine of regional economic growth, a showcase for sustainable ecological restoration, and a celebration of the national significance of this historic place."

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.