The current circumstances of the Arch Grounds competition are causing some observers to draw comparisons to events that took place two blocks west and three decades ago. In that instance, the eight decade old process to create the Gateway Mall was redirected by the Pride of St. Louis Corporation. In the end, after several generations of effort and the demolition of several nationally-recognized works of architecture to open a view to the arch, Pride succeeded in quickly blotting half of the view with Gateway One in 1986.
City to River believes that such comparisons do a disservice to City Arch River, but the current City Arch River process is surprisingly deficient when compared to the best examples of large-scale public planning and design projects in St. Louis. An instructive example is the nationally-lauded process that resulted in the Forest Park Forever master plan and renovation. Beginning with 125 public meetings, Forest Park Forever turned itself into a collective ambition of the entire region by involving thousands of residents, professionals, and advocates in every stage of the project. Far from obstructing the process, this engagement turned out to be crucial to the successful reconstruction of one of America’s great parks.
The conspicuous contrast between the open and public effort to restore Forest Park and the City Arch River effort leads us to increasing concern at many deficient elements in the current process.
1. Difficult Deadlines
A continual undercurrent throughout the the City Arch River process has been the tension between ambition and an imminent deadline. 2015 should rightfully be celebrated as the 50th anniversary of the completion of the arch, however projects at the scale and complexity of City Arch River are not realized in half a decade. It is instructive to remember that, although the arch was completed in 1965, the arch grounds themselves weren’t completed until 1980 — 33 years after the Eero Saarinen and Dan Kiley won the competition. We must prioritize achieving a project as transformational as the arch — even if it cannot be finished until the fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the grounds in 2030 — not a pared down and superficial imitation of a first rate design by MVVA in order to meet an arbitrary political deadline.
2. Shifting Goalposts
First, there have been a surprising number of extensive and substantiative changes to the initial design concept. Design competition concepts, such as those exhibited at the Arch last fall, usually undergo a meticulous process of adjustment and tweaking.
Visitors examine design concepts at the arch, September 2010
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that what is emerging from the other end of this process is a completely different thing.
The majority of popular design features including the sculptural river gauges, floating swimming pool, beer garden, underpass park and the entire East [side] Wetland Reserve appear to have been eliminated or indefinitely delayed. Additionally, recent renderings indicate that northbound Memorial Drive will be removed north of Walnut, severing connections to Laclede’s Landing.
These features have been removed in direct disregard to goals of the City Arch River project which prioritize elements that:
4. Weave connections and transitions from the City to the Arch Grounds to the River
5. Embrace the Mississippi River and the east bank in Illinois as an integral part of the National Park
7. Create attractions to promote extended visitation to the Arch, the City, and the River
8. Mitigate the impact of transportation systems
10. Enhance the visitor experience and create a welcoming and accessible environment
3. Lack of Public Involvement
City to River understands that a proposal of this scale immediately runs into problems of complexity and some features may prove infeasible. This exposes another problem with the current process: we have no idea why popular elements were eliminated. Aside from a press release promoting the insubstantial Report to the Community on January 26th, and a smattering of tweets, City Arch River’s public engagement essentially ended 10 months ago.
4. Waiting for Buy-in
The City Arch River implementation faces severe challenges: despite the wide-ranging value engineering evidently already taking place, the budget almost doubled in a climate unfavorable to governmental earmarks. At the January 26th meeting, Walter Metcalf announced that the budget for implementing MVVA’s City Arch River proposal was $578.5 million. This is considerably larger than the widely-reported $300 million National Parks Service estimate from 2008. Given the magnitude of this expense, it will be a tragic mistake for the project to continue to ignore any role for the public in the process.
If Pride of St. Louis and the Gateway Mall should be an example of what not to do, Forest Park Forever is a precedent that City Arch River should take to heart. Although the compressed timeframe of the process precludes the 125 public meetings used to establish a region-wide shared vision, it is not too late to begin to diligently inform the public of the process, and how we as a region can contribute to the realization of the MVVA plan. After all, the public process for Forest Park led to a 400% increase in funding; that funding began with coins from schoolchildren and private donations, but shared responsibility became a resource to successfully leverage corporate and foundation funding.
Implementing the MVVA plan as presented would improve the Arch grounds. But would it accomplish the most important goals of The City + The Arch + The River Competition? Would it really promote extended visitation, honor the memorial and weave together the fabric of the city with the Arch and the river? Without the public confidence that can come from a better plan, only those parts of the plan that are easy, inexpensive or have a funding source are likely to be built.
If City Arch River can live up to its transformative potential, it must do so by realizing “this vision will once again require a commitment from the entire community…” and by having “the courage to think big and the wisdom to recognize that what has been so carefully restored must never again be left to chance” (Forest Park Forever 2009 Strategic Plan)