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Arch visitors praise designs to improve Arch grounds

You can talk for hours with St. Louis area residents, visitors, architects and others to get their take on the five competing final design concepts for the Gateway Arch grounds and its surroundings. But you likely won't find another viewer like Brendan Lehand.

Lehand, a 26-year-old university graduate who lives in Soulard, was among those doing a lot of oohing and ahhing and pointing to what they liked as they ambled through a display of elaborate drawing boards in the museum beneath the Arch on Saturday. Everyone, or so it seemed, found favorite elements in each of the designs but had difficulty deciding which one should be the winner. Not Lehand.

"This is my favorite," he said decisively, pointing to the one done by the SOM (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) team.

"And my favorite part is the amphitheater (on the Illinois river bank) and the way it overlooks the river. That's a perfect backdrop for concerts."

Lehand's next favorite part was a wide bike and pedestrian path on a bridge spanning the river. "It would be so cool to be able to walk from Soulard to a concert on the east bank," he said.

Almost as decisive was Chris Coldren, of Denver, who was there with his family. They didn't come to see the exhibit, but while standing in line for a tram ride, they wound up alongside SOM's boards. A sketch of a clean-water swimming pool floating in the Mississippi River near the Arch caught their attention.

"We came here after sticking our feet into the (river) and saying, hmmmm, wonder if it's clean. Having a swimming pool there would be awesome, especially when it's so hot," he said.

Coldren had another suggestion: shade trees and more food service on the riverfront. "We did find one food vendor, so we got lunch," he said.

Others had made a special trip to see the various plans. The exhibit at the Arch, and a traveling one circulating in Missouri and Illinois, opened last week after five teams of architects, landscape architects, planners and other design-related experts from around the world and here submitted final design concepts. The five were selected after 49 teams entered the competition.

A jury will review the designs with team members on Thursday, and a winner is to be announced Sept. 24. The goal of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, which includes Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and community leaders from Missouri and Illinois, is to raise public and private money to construct the winning design by Oct. 28, 2015 -- the 50th anniversary of the topping out of the Arch.

All the designs had to address the competition's goals. Among them: rejuvenating the Arch grounds and connecting the grounds with downtown, the river, the Illinois side of the river and with Laclede's Landing north and Chouteau's Landing south of the grounds. The designers also were to come up with new attractions on both sides of the river.

For the most part, viewers on Saturday liked what they saw.

Don and Lisa Wendel of O'Fallon, Mo. were particularly enthusiastic about the different versions of a "lid" over the highways separating the Arch grounds and downtown. They zeroed in on a promenade on the Eads Bridge for walking or biking, and sketches of gondolas carrying people above the river between both banks.

"We would come just to ride in that," said Don Wendel, a therapist at St. John's Mercy Medical Center. "I think it would become a draw in and of itself."

He also liked a monumental earthen mound in a park on the Illinois bank "that brings in the history of Cahokia." Lisa Wendel, a speech and language pathologist for the Special School District, liked the way a wetlands park on the Illinois bank was designed "so if the river floods, it would not be destroyed."


Both were emphatic about going forward with the big ideas. Don Wendel put it this way: "If we are going to do this, let's do it big -- not just halfway.

Lyla and Byron Michelson, a retired couple from Creve Coeur, had a similar thought.

"I don't care which one of them they do," said Lyla Michelson. "I say, do any of them as long as they can find the funds. And they should really do it -- with no shortcuts. "

The Michelsons liked, in particular, the focus on connecting both banks of the river, the evocation of the Cahokia Mounds and Indian culture in some designs for the Illinois side, and the "lid" over the highways that Byron Michelson said "would draw people into downtown."

He said he might ride a ferry to the Illinois bank if it had more attractions, but probably only in daytime. "If it's night time, I would rather drive. And it would have to be accessible, with good roads."

Like the Michelsons, Bill Carrier, an engineer at Boeing Co., made a special trip to see the exhibit along with his wife, Kathy, and her sister, Ricki Neubecker, visiting from Cleveland.

For the most part, Carrier liked what he saw and said that while it all looks very expensive, "I think it is something this community could rally around."

"I like the idea of connecting the two banks of the river," he said, "and the idea of connecting a natural landscape on the east side with the urban on the west side, and the combination of the old and the new -- the very futuristic-looking structures and elements with the more traditional riverfront."

He wasn't wild about the sculpted heads atop mounds he saw in one of the concepts for the Illinois side. "Maybe too much in-your-face kind of art," he said.

He did like the idea of eliminating traffic on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, and thought water taxies probably would be better than gondolas. He said his sister-in-law had posed a valid question about those gondolas.

"She asked, 'Would they interfere visually with the Arch?' I don't know," he said.

Carrier had a question of his own. He liked the Behnisch Architekten team's approach for the St. Louis side of the river, but the Weiss/Manfredi team's approach for the Illinois side. His question: Can the best parts from each design be part of the winning one?

Competition manager Donald Stastny, CEO of StastnyBrun Architects in Portland, Or., said that won't happen.

Each design concept, he said "has a very strong conceptual structure and structural base, and whoever is selected, its strong conceptual base is the way we will proceed.

"But as we go through this, some elements or ideas in some of the concepts may be suggested to the selected designers that they might consider incorporating into their concepts." 

Other views of the Arch grounds designs

The Beacon also asked some St. Louisans with a special expertist -- in architecture, the riverfront or downtown -- for their views.


Andrew Trivers, a principal at Trivers Associates architects, a firm not associated with the competing teams.

Trivers singled out much about the plans that he liked: the way all the designs connect downtown and an expanded museum beneath the Gateway Arch. A new museum entrance facing Memorial Drive "in effect brings the front door of the Arch right to Memorial Drive" and into downtown, he said.

He also liked how all the concepts respect the historic significance of the Arch and "are well-executed in terms of just landscape and environmental design."

Another important feature, he said, are various versions of a lid over the highways separating downtown and the Arch grounds, especially ones that give the nearby Old Courthouse "a new prominence."

"But what they did not do," he said, "was make a connection from the (new) museum entrance back to the river."

Also missing, he said, are "exciting connections to the river from the Arch grounds" and "animation and activation" on the riverfront itself.

"There's still nothing happening on the riverfront," Trivers said. "Some create additional steps into the water, and great beautiful landscapes and promenades. But there are no activities there, which is really nothing going on."

Something else that bothers him: "Everything from gondolas to ferries" to cross the river. "I think that is a little bizarre."

"A much more practical solution," he said, are various ways the designers put pedestrian and bike paths on the bridges crossing the river. "These bridges are great pieces of architecture and should be used," he said.

He's concerned also about parking. Some designs "got rid of a major amount of parking" he said, "and I'm not sure they dealt with the issue of this being a car-oriented city."

Trivers also would like to see something besides entertainment on the Illinois bank.

"I'd rather see them do something to redevelop the east side with housing that would have fabulous views," and perhaps "a planned community maybe with a park, gardens, a farmers' market," he said. "I'd rather see a redevelopment effort than try to build an entertainment island in the middle of East St. Louis."

J. Thomas Dunn is director of operations at Gateway Arch Riverboats that manages the only two excursion boats on the riverfront: the Tom Sawyer and the Becky Thatcher. He's worked in various jobs on the riverfront for 38 years.

"It's really great to see attention brought back to the riverfront and the Arch, and each design concept has some really spectacular ideas," says Dunn.

The lid over the highways would be a "great enhancement' he said, and "I'm happy to see that they included more boats on the riverfront. That's an important part of our history."

More riverboats also will help activate the riverfront, he said. And he'd like to see a return to the days, years ago, when vessels such as the Admiral, the Goldenrod Showboat, Robert E. Lee and others lined the levee and "made the riverfront a destination, and made it worth climbing down the 63 steps to get there from the Arch grounds."

But Dunn also has concerns.

One is nearby parking. "There has to be parking in close proximity to the Arch so people don't have to walk so far. And that's especially important today," he said, "with our aging population."

He's leery as well about eliminating or limiting traffic on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard. He said boats need access on Sullivan for food service trucks and other maintenance vehicles. Keeping Sullivan open is important as well, he said, for tour buses, especially those carrying visitors unable to walk long distances. "We need access from Leonor K. Sullivan because there is no back door for the riverfront," Dunn said.

Another concern is that river mud, silt and debris could pile up in indentations or cuts in the river shoreline he sees in some concepts.

"But in the real world, one question is, 'Will it function?' Another is, 'What will the cost be and can they get it done by 2015?'"

Craig Heller owns Loft Works, a company involved in renovating historic downtown buildings for roughly a dozen years.

"It's wonderful that everyone is focusing on the riverfront and Arch grounds, and that we have these teams from around the world" doing design concepts.

"I just hope that what gets done really allows for removal of the highways (separating downtown and the Arch grounds) in the future. I think that's the most important thing to be done for opening up the riverfront and Laclede's Landing, even though it won't be done by 2015."

Heller hopes, as well, "that the final plan really does activate the spaces and give people reasons to go to both sides of the river," and doesn't wind up being "just more landscaping and trees."

"We need things there that you can go and see, things kids can play with, like at Citygarden, where they took a piece of grass and did it so well."

The design concepts "do have things here and there" by way of attractions, he said, "but is it really something that will draw people to the river? It's got to be more than just an attractive green space."

Read more from the Beacon

Interior secretary Salazar confident that Arch improvements will be funded

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

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 development. The article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.