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A simple plan: Why MVVA won the design competition for Arch grounds

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 13, 2010 - It's what you won't find in the Michael Van Valkenburg Associates team's concept for invigorating the Gateway Arch grounds that helped make it a winner.

  • No controversial high-flying gondolas to carry visitors across the river
  • No problematic "peninsulas/islands" floating in the river
  • No complex "urban bluff" or elaborate balconies and terraces overlooking the river
  • No recreated historic village on the Arch grounds.

Rather, the eight-member jurythat pored over concepts from five teams went with MVVA's much different approach:

  • Water taxis, instead of gondolas, to cross the river
  • A simpler, sloping cobblestone levee between the Arch grounds and river's edge, eliminating Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard
  • Landscaping that makes the Arch grounds "a living laboratory of urban ecology and sustainable practices"
  • A 60-acre wetlands restoration on the east bank
  • A plaza with a restaurant next to the historic Old Cathedral and an ice skating rink in winter that becomes a beer garden in the summer at the south edge of the Arch grounds.

Jury members said they chose MVVA's concept largely because they believe it is the "best fit" for the region and best meets the competition's design goals, such as creating an "iconic place" for the Arch without harming the historic design; connecting the grounds with downtown and the east bank of the river; and attracting more visitors.
The jury also wanted to be sure that the winning concept could be finished, or at least mostly finished, by 2015 -- the 50th anniversary of the topping out of the Arch.

"We paid a lot of attention to those goals, including getting it done by 2015," said juror Carol Ross Barney, a principal at Ross Barney Architects in Chicago. "And it was hard because they all had compelling ideas.

"But I think (MVVA's plan) was received so well because it was so well thought out. Everything about it was pretty sensible, exciting and eminently doable. Each of the other plans had a question mark somewhere -- an idea that maybe wouldn't work.

"You could have crazier, wilder plans," Barney said, but if they are not doable, "then you are in trouble."

"The feeling we got from people who live in St. Louis," she said, "is that they didn't want another plan that didn't get done."

Juror Gerald Early, director of African and Afro-American Studies at Washington University, said also that MVVA emerged as the winner because unlike some others, it did meet all the goals. The winning concept also seemed to work with regulations and "constraints" imposed by various stakeholders such as the Coast Guard and the National Park Service, he added.

MVVA's concept "was the best fit," Early said, "and I think the plan on the whole had more good elements that worked together than the other plans did.

"Several other plans had advocates," he said, "but we felt this one had the good elements, a good team, people had confidence the plan could be done and that St. Louisans would feel good about the plan."

Another factor, he said, was that the jury didn't want "the area to become some kind of theme park."

"We shied away from that," he said. "The feedback we got from the public was that the public itself has a real sense of (the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial) as a real memorial and a real serious place. So we didn't want something frivolous" that would "outrage or offend how St. Louisans themselves feel about the place."

The Jury Report

The jury of design-related experts and others from around the country summarized their views and gave pros and cons of all five concepts in a jury report, which ranked the five plans:

1. Michael Van Valkenburg Associates

2. Weiss/Manfredi

3. Peter Walker and Partners.

4. Skidmore, Owings & Merrill

5. Behnisch Architekten

In summaries, the report cited only MVVA and Weiss/Manfredi as meeting all the design goals.

It said the MVVA team is "strong," used "solid methodology," and that team members "convey intelligence and provide clear technical support for their design proposals."

By contrast, while Weiss/Manfredi submitted a "convincing plan" with good elements, the report said "the St. Louis public may find critical elements too bold or too dramatic of a change."

The jury's report commented on the other teams:

  • Behnisch: "The team's capacity and talent is impressive" but its concept "could be controversial." It is "clever and highly detailed, yet simultaneously illusive and vague."
  • SOM: Its concept for building 17 projects is "ambitious and confident" and "the least vague proposal." But the jury panned the concept's "St. Louis Can Soar" theme, saying "the promotion language and the 'soar' branding was not well-received."
  • Peter Walker: It proposed a "superb" park for the memorial with "spectacular vistas and complementary east bank mound form." But "how well it meet(s) the goals of attractors and catalytic vitality (for the whole design area) is questionable."

The report also singles out certain problematic elements in each concept.
Take those gondolas in the Behnisch concept, for example. "It may be a good idea," the jury said, but "for some, it would indicate that the Arch was being trivialized, being made into a theme park."

Weiss/Manfredi's dramatic new entrance facing Memorial Drive for an expanded museum beneath the Arch would be a "grand space," the report said, but some jurors "felt it is too aggressive and distracts from the Arch."

The report said Peter Walker's design for an earthen mound on the Illinois side was "a brilliant move to create an iconic image for the east bank," but the concept generally ignores the St. Louis riverfront and "lacks energy to excite the city."

The report did include some criticism of MVVA's plan.

MVVA proposed, for example, closing Washington Avenue between Memorial Drive and the river and demolishing most if not all of the Arch grounds parking garage. MVVA would make that space, alongside the Eads Bridge, into a civic plaza with an amphitheater, urban ecology center and other features. The idea is to showcase the bridge and open views of the Arch from Laclede's Landing. Parking, along with remote ticketing facilities for tram rides, would be elsewhere, designed to encourage more downtown pedestrian traffic.

The jury applauded dispersing traffic, but said that closing Washington would be a "mistake" and "not a feasible solution."

The jury liked the "restoring the environment" aspect of the 60-acrea wetlands area on the east bank with elevated walkways, an avian center and an amphitheater. But the report said it is "overall too passive" and "does little for East St. Louis."

Individual Jurors' Reactions

On the positive side, individual jurors interviewd by the Beacon had their own favorite aspects of MVVA's concept.

Cara McCarty, curator of the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, singled out the layered landscaping, "a really nice plaza and a very good natural connection" between a redesigned Kiener Plaza and the Arch grounds. The design includes a pedestrian overpass over traffic and redesigned Luther Ely Smith Square with underground parking.

She and Barney also especially liked how MVVA would eliminate the big parking garage on the Arch grounds. It would be replaced with smaller new garages, existing parking downtown and nearby places to buy tram tickets.

"The remote ticketing idea is very smart,' McCarty said. "Now people go to the Arch grounds, get a ticket and wait around there for a tram ride."

"There are a lot of other (underutilized parking) spaces in downtown," Barney said. "If you can direct people to use them" and remote ticketing places, "then they will walk through downtown to get to the Arch."

Other favorites on McCarty's list: MVVA's "simple, elegant" mostly glass entrance on Memorial for the expanded museum beneath the Arch; the rebuilt and expanded cobblestone levee with special lighting to cast shadows on the floodwall and reflections on six tall "river gauges" in the river.

Early singled out the westlands restoration area on the east bank. "It's job possibilities" for people who live nearby, he said, and "for all urban people, (getting back to) nature is good, particularly for poor urban people."

The Arch's Superintendent Tom Bradley said he was impressed with MVVA's "really strong team" and added, "What I like is that they lead with landscape architecture."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown development.

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