Protecting current accessibility while creating more and better connections is the challenge currently faced by the winning design team of Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (MVVA). A primary mission of the effort to re-imagine the Arch grounds, and its surroundings, is to better connect the city to the Arch and riverfront. This is best accomplished by keeping the downtown street grid intact, and reconnecting it where connections have been broken.
The barrier presented to the downtown St. Louis pedestrian, driver, or bicyclist is the unpredictability of the current street grid. One-way streets, interruptions by I-70 (and other interstates,) and closed streets all create a less predictable, less inviting experience. City streets serve to connect. Storefronts, cafes, sidewalks and trees serve as attractors of pedestrian activity. Every change from a basic grid makes it less functional, and more of an impediment to those who use it.
Now, it appears possible that the new design for the Arch grounds may remove no less than three current downtown streets, further severing connections between the City, Arch, and River. It has yet to be explained how fewer, less-predictable connections effectively weave these three elements together.
MVVA’s winning design proposes closing Lenor K. Sullivan Boulevard along the levee for the length of the Arch grounds. It also proposes closing Washington Avenue adjacent to the Eads Bridge, and now competition organizers are suggesting that Memorial Drive may be closed, an idea that MVVA did not propose.
The removal of three downtown streets represents a significant step backwards in the development of downtown. The solution to connectivity, additional real-estate development, and a more livable, attractive, and sustainable city is the introduction of more connections, more connected downtown streets, and a return to a connected street grid.
Currently, Lenor K. Sullivan Boulevard provides a north-south connection that allows visitors to avoid the unfriendly and confusing tangle of Memorial Drive and I-70. Its closure would place additional traffic on Memorial Drive. The closure of Washington Avenue would remove the last east-west connection that reaches our river for miles to the north and south. It would truncate the heart of downtown’s most vibrant district, introducing a new and unexpected barrier. Finally, it would sever the historic, and spiritual link from east to west. While the Arch symbolizes the gateway to the West, the Eads Bridge and Washington Avenue served, and continue to serve, as the physical manifestation of that gateway.
The closure of Memorial Drive at the Gateway Mall would introduce the most significant, disruptive and negative result of the three. A traffic-free connection between Luther Ely Smith Square and the Arch grounds provides a dubious benefit to pedestrians while introducing a major barrier to vehicles. Urban spaces with equal access for all forms of traffic, vehicular, bicycle, and pedestrian, are the most healthy, organic, and vibrant. Experience has shown that segregating these forms of traffic into their own spheres promotes decay, and ultimately provides a disincentive for investment and development.
Closing Memorial Drive has been studied, and its impact is generally understood. However, alternatives have not been studied. The impact of returning downtown streets to two-way traffic, the potential to reconnect streets, the reorganization of confusing intersections, and the removal of the I-70 trench and elevated lanes have not been considered. Only a comprehensive understanding of all issues and options at hand should inform decisions. To this end, City to River continues to advocate for a comprehensive transportation study of downtown and the I-70 corridor, before any binding decisions are made regarding street closures.
Predictability and accommodation are the best attributes for encouraging pedestrian activity. The closure of Memorial Drive may provide a dedicated pedestrian space, but it introduces other problems. To encourage visitors to explore the Arch grounds and downtown St. Louis, connections should be many and similar. The removal of I-70 and its replacement with an urban boulevard accomplishes this by providing predictable, accommodating pedestrian and vehicle access throughout the entire length of the Arch grounds and further north.
The closure of Memorial Drive creates barriers. Drivers must negotiate four 90-degree turns, additional stop lights, and several blocks to simply drive north-south. All traffic wishing to use Memorial Drive is diverted onto Market, 4th and Chestnut streets. Severely disrupting vehicular connectivity to allow pedestrians to cross one street makes little sense when any pedestrian visiting the Arch will have to cross one or more of these other streets in any event. A visitor walking the Gateway Mall from Union Station to the Arch will cross 14 city streets. Will the prospect of crossing a 15th prevent visitors from reaching the Arch?
One MVVA idea lauded by the competition jury was the placing of remote ticketing kiosks around downtown. This would allow visitors to purchase a tram ticket and spend any time waiting to explore downtown, get a bite to eat and do some shopping. Obviously, this would require crossing many downtown streets. Crossing streets is not something that can, or should, be avoided in downtown St. Louis, or any urban environment. While City to River advocates for a better pedestrian experience, the elimination of downtown streets is an old and failed idea. The introduction of new barriers can and should be avoided in downtown St. Louis.
In many respects, MVVA has created an exciting and compelling vision for the future of the Arch grounds and downtown St. Louis. In our view, though, refining of the team’s plan for street connections is necessary. In fewer than 90 days, the MVVA winning design plan will be converted into a more final construction plan. City to River continues to focus on creating more and better connections between our City, Arch, and River. We look forward to working with those considering how best to accomplish those connections.