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Public comments favor development on or around Arch grounds, Park Service says

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 26, 2008 - When the National Park Service staff sat down months ago to review stacks of public comments about improving the area around the Gateway Arch, they discovered right away that folks didn't exactly agree on things.

"Maintain park grounds as they are," someone wrote. "Status quo is unacceptable," someone else said. "We need an above-ground national museum," another wrote. "Buildings will clutter the Arch grounds," another said.

After sorting through it all, the Park Service has managed to tabulate results in what it calls a "public scoping comment analysis." And while the results don't conclusively endorse any of the five plans that the Park Service put before the public earlier this year, they reveal preferences for certain improvements. For example:

  • "Overall," said the analysis, "the comments support 'invigorating' the (Jefferson National Expansion) Memorial, improving connections between the park and the surrounding areas, and for improving site accessibility."
  •  The public is "highly supportive" of better connections between the Arch grounds, downtown, the riverfront and Laclede's Landing to the north and Chouteau's Landing to the south.
  • There is "a good deal of support" for including the East St. Louis riverfront in the memorial's boundaries and adding water taxis to connect both sides of the river.
  • There is "broad support for some level of development, though there is not consensus on the amount, location, and type of development." Even so, "the comments generally expressed a preference" for an above-ground museum or other cultural attraction and "strong support" to improve the existing facilities and "maintain the Memorial's green space, while preserving the character of the National Historic Landmark."

Starting this week, you can the entire analysis and a summary in Newsletter No. 2 by going to the General Management Plan link at www.nps.gov/jeff .

Sandra Washington, chief of planning and compliance for the Park Service's Midwest regional office in Omaha, said the results were based on about 2,800 comments from 1,300 or so individuals or organizations. "We had 700 organizations, or individuals, who sent us letters, e-mails or filled out comment forms with multiple comments," she said, "and we had multiple comments from some 600 people who came to the two public hearings" in late June and early July.

Most made general comments instead of stating a preference for one of the plans, she said, so "we decided to group comments more into trends, and go with that."

Frank Mares, deputy superintendent at the Arch grounds, said, "For the most part, people were in agreement about the fundamentals. They looked at planning issues, and that lays the groundwork for us getting the best alternative."

The next step will be to refine the alternatives by incorporating comments and selecting one as a preferred plan -- maybe as early as next month. National Park Service and Department of Interior staffers will select the preferred plan. But in December or early January, Washington said, the Park Service will put out another "draft," including the preferred plan and some alternatives. Then, once again, the Park Service will ask for public comment.

If all this sounds like the never-ending plan, Washington says it is just the Park Service following federal rules and regulations for public involvement. She added that she is trying to speed things up.

"Of course, there could be a snafu at any junction," she said, "but our hope is to get this (draft) out on the street in early winter, get a Record of Decision (a final plan) done by early summer, and after 30 days, we can go forward with implementation of the plan...as funding allows." So far, no cost estimates have been made.

The Park Service's planning got going earlier this year after a mighty shove from former Sen. John Danforth and his family's philanthropic Danforth Foundation and Mayor Francis Slay. Both have long advocated improving the bedraggled riverfront, making the Arch grounds a more bustling attraction, and better connecting the grounds with downtown. The Danforth Foundation, working at the request of the mayor, spent $2 million looking into how to improve things. It finally concluded, with the help of consultants and advisors, that the best way was to put new life and attractions on the Arch grounds -- something that doesn't fit with the existing passive plan. So to get the job done, Danforth and the mayor proposed, somewhat boldly, taking over part of the Arch grounds and moving things along themselves.

The Park Service didn't buy the "take-over" approach. But it did change course and agree to do the planning that's in the works now.

Peter Sortino, president of the Danforth Foundation, said in a statement this week that the foundation is willing to make "a significant financial commitment" for improving the Arch grounds, but only if the Park Service's final plan includes a major above-ground attraction. The financial support "hinges on the creation of the new world-class destination attraction," Sortino said.

"As we have said many times," said the statement, "we believe that the changes ... need to be significant. Specifically, we believe the preferred alternative (plan) should feature a major, above-ground destination attraction, such as a museum, near downtown. We also believe it should feature an improved pedestrian connection between the Arch grounds and riverfront on one side, and downtown and the Old Courthouse on the other. With these key enhancements, along with other amenities, like cafes and restaurants, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial would become a more complete and compelling experience for visitors."

Barbara Geisman, the city's deputy mayor for development, said the mayor also supports a major new museum with a westward expansion theme and a connection between the Arch grounds and the rest of downtown. And getting those things built, she said, "is still a top priority."

What the public said

Plan 1 to keep things as they are: 12 for; 28 opposed.

Plan 2 to connect the Arch grounds with its surroundings: 8 for; 14 opposed (with some opposed because the plan didn't go far enough).

Plan 3 to expand programming on the Arch grounds: 70 for; 2 opposed.

Plan 4 to create entrances on all sides of the Arch grounds: 43 for; none opposed.

Plan 5 to link the Arch grounds into the city with a "lid" over highways separating the Arch grounds and downtown: 22 for; 5 opposed.

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long written about urban redevelopment.