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A Grand idea: Public forum kicks off Grand Center's master plan

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 22, 2011 - With more than 30 arts organizations, 12 galleries and museums and 12,000 theater seats, Grand Center is St. Louis' major arts and entertainment district, hosting more than 1,500 cultural events and 1.5 million visitors a year.

Over the last 20 years, Grand Center has seen new structures, businesses and organizations move in, rejuvenating the district. Now Grand Center is preparing for the next phase of revitalization to take shape.

How to bring the district together to develop a communal vision for the future is the goal of a planning process for a district master plan that kicks off at a public forum at 5:30 p.m., Thurs., June 23 at Powell Hall, 718 N Grand Blvd.

"We have to determine how we are going to configure our future development with the institutions we have here," said Vincent C. Schoemehl, president and CEO of Grand Center Inc. "We have the developmental tools in place. Now it is all going to be about how we work together as one community to develop a communal vision."

Grand Center Inc., which worked to bring some of these institutions to the area, is now focusing on bringing them together to improve the area. At the request of Grand Center Inc. and several of the district's institutions, St. Louis Mayor Francis G. Slay invited 30 institutional, business and community leaders to the forum. After gathering feedback from the public in this open forum, the Planning Committee will break off into smaller task forces to look at parking, zoning, facilities and design guidelines.

The goal is to help better organize a district that already hosts millions of visitors into a more pedestrian-friendly neighborhood where people will want to linger beyond seeing a show, according to a release from Grand Center.

Architect Donald Stastny, an award-winning architect and urban designer and founder and CEO of StastnyBrun Architects, Inc., is leading the creation of a master plan for the district.

"I have never seen a collection of arts and institutions like the area we have at Grand Center. It is something truly unique that I have not found in another American city," Stastny said. "Our first goal is working to build a community that can work toward a common goal and introduce plans that will give this area more life."

Stastny brings 35 years of experience to the table and was approached about the Grand Center project after overseeing the design competition for the Gateway Arch grounds. Over the next six months, Stastny and his design team will be collecting direct input from the community. The second public forum is scheduled for September.

"These open forums are a good way for community members to voice what improvements they would like to see," Stastny said. "We don't want to develop a plan to put on the self; we want to develop a plan that can push this community into the future."

Besides Stastny's team, committee members and local politicians, a Technical Advisory Group has been organized as a part of the planning process. This group has representatives from area businesses, such as Ameren, AT&T and Laclede Gas, and government agencies to help provide a reality check -- preventing too expensive approaches from becoming incorporated into the plan.

Clayton resident Adrian Aquilino comes to Grand Center about every two months for art openings.

"The Grand Center area provides a wide variety of art and culture in one centralized location," Aquilino said. "One thing that I would like to see is more public art in the area."

The planning process will wrap up for the summer with a presentation of the final master plan in September after feedback from community members like Aquilino is gathered.

"The Grand Center District has made significant progress over the past two decades including the addition of new cultural institutions, public media institutions, education facilities, performance venues and commercial and residential development," Slay said in a press release. "Working with Stastny and the planning committee will shape a cohesive plan for the next phase of Grand Center's growth.

"I believe we are on the cusp of creating a dynamic urban community that will not only be a positive asset for St. Louis but will have a significant impact on the entire region for years to come."

Jonathan Ernst, a student at Saint Louis University, is a summer intern at the Beacon.