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Arch master plan nears completion; city officials still pushing to include riverfront

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon Sept. 2, 2009 - If you've not heard much lately about plans to rejuvenate the Arch grounds, that's about to change.

The National Park Service hopes to have its master plan ready to go by late next month.

Right now, the Park Service is still tinkering with the "preferred plan" everyone saw early this year. That's the one -- of five alternatives -- that calls for a design competition for the Arch grounds. Other important elements included: an elevated "lid" or bridge over Memorial Drive and Interstate 70 to connect the grounds with the rest of downtown; expanding the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial boundaries to include the Illinois side of the river; and activities and improvements to make the Arch grounds livelier and more attractive.

At this point, Park Service planners aren't commenting on what will be in the final version.

But that hasn't stopped people from continuing to lobby for a focus that would go beyond the Arch grounds. Mayor Francis Slay and others would like to see a design competition that includes the city-owned riverfront and the connector "lid" over the highways. 

Whatever the scope of any design competition, said Park Superintendent Tom Bradley, "We need to build into it something that is achievable, not a grandiose scheme that sits on the shelf."

On his visit in July, U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, who oversees the Park Service, vowed to do all he can to make the plan a reality. He said that finishing the Arch grounds project would be a priority and that he'd work hard to help get the job done.

"That really got things jump-started," said Jeff Rainford, the mayor's chief of staff. "I think things were floundering before. But now people are energized and working together. The project is real again and has energy behind it -- and leadership."

At least some of that leadership has been working together in recent months. One of the civic figures at the center of things has been Walter Metcalfe, senior counsel at the Bryan Cave law firm. Metcalfe is also one of Slay's advisers on the riverfront and Arch grounds as well as general counsel for Civic Progress, an organization of business executives that has made rejuvenating the Arch grounds a priority and invested money to help with the planning.

In March, Slay sent a letter to Park Service officials backing up Metcalfe's suggestion for broadening the scope of a design competition. Rainford said the city is willing "to partner" with the Park Service to help make it happen.

"We all agree that the riverfront, the Arch grounds and the connector need to be viewed as one project area," Rainford said.

That's also the view at HOK's Planning Group, where some ground work already been done. You'll find sketches of a cleaned-up, pedestrian-friendly riverfront with a ribbon-like promenade, landscaping and other improvements designed to survive even if the river floods.

Cafes, pavilions, a fishing pier and other features float atop barges where entertainment boats such as the Goldenrod and Robert E. Lee once were moored.

The riverfront rendering shows a cleaned-up pedestrian-friendly riverfront with a ribbon-like promenade near water’s edge, and walkways leading to attractions such as cafes, pavilions, even landscaping and trees for shade that would be atop barges floating on the river. The improvements are designed to survive even if the river floods.

"There's a lot you can do to recycle a barge," said Chip Crawford, a senior vice president and director at HOK's Planning Group. "You can even fill them with soil and grow trees to create shade.

"And if you hook them together, it's a way to create more land," he said. "They float up if the river rises. If things get really bad, you could always move the barges downstream until the flooding subsides."

Crawford and Tyler Meyr, a senior associate at the Planning Group, said the sketches are still conceptual, but they believe workable. They came about after HOK planners and architects helped draft more elaborate riverfront plans more than four years ago for the Danforth Foundation. Those elaborate plans came to naught. 

Meyr said that what's on HOK's drawing boards is a simpler, less expensive version of what was done for the Danforth Foundation. "We're trying to keep the idea alive," he said, "to show that it is possible to do something."

The idea of a new attraction on the Arch grounds might also live on as part of a design competition.

"Many of the CEOs think the notion of having a destination something on the Arch grounds is very important," said Tom Irwin, executive director at Civic Progress. If a competition is held, he said, "the experts could decide" what it should be.

Another idea the Park Service is considering as it drafts its final plan is removing and rerouting a section of Memorial Drive. The vacated area would become a series of plazas to connect the Arch grounds and downtown.

"There was a lot of support from the public about rerouting Memorial, so we decided we needed to do a study to determine how that might impact traffic," said Sandra Washington, chief for planning and compliance at the park service's Midwest regional office in Omaha. "We didn't want to make a decision about that until we understood what the impact would be and how to mitigate it."

Salazar made his comments when he stopped in St. Louis in July, in part to tour the Arch grounds at the invitation of Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a staunch supporter of the Arch grounds project.

Salazar said something needs to be done to connect the Arch grounds with the Old Courthouse and the rest of downtown, and that he hoped "one thing that comes out of a design competition" is a connection with the Illinois side of the river. "East St. Louis is a very important part of the picture," he said.

The secretary also spoke forcefully about wanting to get the Arch grounds project finished at least by the year 2015, the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Arch. Getting that done by then, or even sooner, he said, "will be a priority of the Obama administration, and of mine." And, he said, "we will work hard to figure out a way" to get the money for the project. 

Washington said that after the plan is finished in late October, federal regulations require another 30-day public review. Then, she said, "unless we hear, 'oh gosh, something is terribly wrong,' we will issue a record of decision" that makes it absolutely final.

"And on a personal note," she added, "I want it finished before I sit down to Thanksgiving dinner."

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, writes frequently about development, especially downtown.