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Visions of the Arch: Five finalists present designs for the future

Photo by Rachel Heidenry | Beacon intern

Donald Stastny said designs must work with the power and unpredictability of the river.

Want to swim in a pool in a floating pavilion in the Mississippi River near the Gateway Arch? Or ride high above the river in a gondola taking in panoramic views?

How about an attractive, safe way to stroll across traffic from Citygarden and the Gateway Mall onto the Arch grounds -- or pass a beer garden or ice skating rink to get to Chouteau's Landing south of the Arch?

On the Illinois side, what about kayaking through lush native plantings and mounds, visiting a Mississippi River Cultural Ecological Center or attending a concert at a new amphitheater or performing arts center?

And what if all that new life and activity flowed all the way to water's edge -- on both sides of the river?

All of that -- and much, much more -- are incorporated in five competing designs for the Gateway Arch grounds on public display starting today. (See below for a list of times and venues.)

The concepts were put together by five separate teams with members from around the world and here. The five teams, selected in April, were finalists in a design competition launched in December by the City Arch River 2015 Foundation. It includes Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, community leaders from Missouri and Illinois and others. A jury will announce a winning concept on Sept. 24, and the construction work is to be finished by Oct. 28, 2015 -- the 50th anniversary of the Arch.

Although all the designs might seem very grand, and certainly unlike anything else ever proposed here, competition manager Donald Stastny and superintendent Bradley say they are doable. They would be paid for with a combination of public and private money -- yet to be raised.

One big issue, Stastny said, was designing a plan to work with the "mean" Mississippi here that floods, has swift currents, and in the past, has been a reason for not going forward with development along water's edge, or in the river. The teams consulted with their own and other technical experts to make sure their plans would work. 

"Some of the ideas might have to be mitigated, but others have been specifically designed" to work with the power and unpredictability of the river, said Stastny, chief executive officer of StastnyBrun Architects in Portland, Ore.

Bradley, superintendent of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which includes the Arch, said the five concepts all seem "responsive" to the competition's goals. Among them: enliven the Arch grounds without harming the historic character of the Arch and Dan Kiley's landscaping beneath it; connect the grounds with downtown, areas to the north and south and Illinois; and make it all sustainable for the future.

"I think we got complex, comprehensive solutions," Bradley said.

The teams present their designs

In some general ways, the designs are similar. All the teams, for example, came up with designs for expanding the museum beneath the Arch and giving it a dramatic new entrance facing Memorial Drive. Some even added skylights to create new ways of seeing the Arch.

They all proposed new safe, easy ways to cross traffic from downtown to the Arch.

But each team had different approaches and different attractions. Following, in alphabetical order, are highlights from each team's concept designs and renderings offered by the groups.

* Behnisch Architekten. Its RiverCircle design stresses that "the river runs through it all" and shows gondolas crossing the water. It includes a cafe overlooking the ponds on the Arch grounds, new pedestrian and retail areas between downtown and the Arch grounds, a plaza to the north for markets and other events to connect with Laclede's Landing, and next to the Eads Bridge, a Music Project building, focusing on the history of local music icons.

The design for the Illinois side includes an amphitheater, a levee esplanade for hiking, biking or just sitting and a Resource Center for the American Bottoms, including a modern urban ecology park.

* Michael Van Valkenburgh Associateswould dramatically rebuild the area between the base of the Arch grounds and the river for pedestrian traffic, markets and art installations instead of cars. Visitors could walk directly to the water's edge, and the area would be lighted for night events. Floodlights in the cobblestone would illuminate the flood wall and "turn it into a canvas animated by the shadows of trees and passersby." That would be reflected in the river, and on the surface of six 60-foot river gauges that would be built out into the river.

The team's design includes a beer garden in summer and ice skating rink in winter above parking at the south end of the Arch grounds near Chouteau's Landing, a park beneath the highway overpass there, and replacing the existing garage on the north end of the Arch grounds with an amphitheater and an urban ecology center to connect with the Eads Bridge and Laclede's Landing.

Water taxis would connect both sides of the river, and the design for Illinois includes an amphitheater, avian research center, restored wetlands and elevated walking trails.

* Peter Walker and Partners would rebuild Kiley's ponds and landscaping using his original design, rather than a simplified version that's there now. It would add kiosks with food service, exhibits and a Plains Indian village on the Arch grounds.

To connect with the river, "a great grassy bluff" would extend down to the river, covering a tunnel for the railroad and a rebuilt stairway with a "graceful catenary curve" that the team said architect Eero Saarinen originally intended.

The team envisions that "riverboats will line the waterfront and provide food and entertainment" and that Kiener Plaza would become an extension of Citygarden.

The team's design for the East bank includes a "monumental earthen mound in visual dialogue with the Arch," experimental fields and greenhouses, restored native woodlands, a Center for Agriculture and Well-Being, and water taxis between both banks.

* Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. Its "Relaunch St. Louis Can Soar" includes the clean water swimming pool, along with a riverfront promenade; a North Pavilion with a visitors and performance center near the Eads Bridge; and a South Pavilion with a teacher resource center and classroom space near Chouteau's Landing.

The team also would dramatically invigorate the Old Courthouse as a museum with new exhibits, a cafe and bookstore; add sculptural falling leaves, seating terraces and other improvements to Luther Ely Smith Square; and redo Kiener Plaza with a cafe pavilion and more sculptural leaves.

Visitors would walk on a "magic carpet" above traffic onto the Arch grounds, and from there, down to a raised promenade along the riverfront with shade trees, landscaping, and seating terraces along river's edge.

A ferry would connect with Illinois where the design includes an amphitheater, a mounded landscape with wetlands, boardwalks, art installations and farmers' market. The team also envisions someday redoing the Cargill silos, now in use, as a center for sustainable cities and rivers with ecology study and an aquarium.

* Weiss/Manfredi. Its "Full Circle" concept includes building two terraced "land enbankments" onto the levee at the base of the Arch as year-round boat docks, even when the river rises, and as a place where visitors can come up to the edge of the river even during floods. The team also would  construct bridges over Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard to get visitors across traffic, and at the west end of the Arch grounds, build a "bridging platform" to extend Luther Ely Smith Plaza over the highway.

Other features include a cultural canopy at the north end of the riverfront with a farmers' market, winter ice skating, performances and other activities, and "Chouteau's Crossing" at the south end with an outdoor amphitheater, mini golf course and skateboard park.

Ferries would take visitors to the Illinois side where they could kayak, bike or walk to explore "an educational and recreational landscape" with ponds, earthen mounds, nurseries, agricultural fields and a Mississippi River cultural and ecological center.

Turning plans into reality

None of the teams attached price tags to their designs. But after the winner is selected, that team will begin more detailed design work and do the cost estimate.

Walter Metcalfe Jr., a member of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, helped raised nearly $2 million in private money for the competition, including $100,000 for each of the final five teams.

Some groundwork for raising money for the construction work is underway. But Metcalfe said that effort will intensify after the cost estimate comes in.

"We will sort through how to pull together the money hoping to use a combination of federal, state and local government funding, bond issues against revenue-producing activity, and private philanthropy," he said.

The foundation has already received a letter of support signed by all nine Missouri and Illinois members of the St. Louis area congressional delegation. The lawmakers promise in the letter to work with the foundation and others to "achieve our common goal of erecting the winning design."

Another boost on the fundraising front came last summer when U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that rejuvenating the Arch grounds and its surroundings by 2015 would be one of his priorities. Metcalf said project supporters are keeping Salazar informed of progress and he is still enthusiastic and willing to help.

Metcalfe said that completing the project is critically important to the region's future "in term of connecting the region together, in terms of stimulating additional investment, in terms of bringing visitors and people to St. Louis, in terms of making the region a more informed and fun place to be."

See the design concepts and share your views

Arch Lobby: 8 a.m.-10 p.m., Aug. 17 - Sept. 24
Public comments welcomed through Aug. 23. Click here to make comments online.

Missouri Botanical Garden, Orthwein Hall,
9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Aug. 17-19

Southwestern Illinois College, Main Complex, 2nd Floor Hallway
8 a.m. - 6 p.m., Aug. 21-22
8-10 p.m., Aug. 23-24

National Great Rivers Museum, 2 Lock and Dam Way, Alton
9 a.m. - 5 p.m., Aug. 27-29

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Morris Center
8 a.m. - 8 p.m, Aug. 31 - Sept. 2

Maryville University, University Library, Monsanto Room
10 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sept. 4 - 6

University of Missouri - St. Louis, J.C. Penney Conference Center
8 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sept. 8-9

Washington University in St. Louis, Givens Hall, Main Floor
Hours to be determined, Sept. 11 - 15

St. Charles Community College, College Center Rotunda
8 a.m.-6 p.m., Sept. 17-20

Missouri History Museum, Forest Park
10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sept. 22-26

Read more from the Beacon

Don't miss this chance to make the Arch better

What to do about the Arch? Beacon readers offer their suggestions

The Arch and downtown: A sense of the possible

Arch grounds design competition narrows; 5 teams picked from 49 vying

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown redevelopment. This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.