When MVVA’s winning design for the City + Arch + River Design Competition was announced, there were many elements to look forward to at the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Gateway Arch. While City to River was disappointed that an urban boulevard would not replace the soon-to be duplicated section of Interstate 70 by the end of 2015, there were many elements of MVVA’s plan that we believed would bring substantial improvement to the park. These included among other features; drawing visitors to the South end of the Arch Grounds by displacing an existing maintenance building with a new beer garden and skating rink, Extending the parks green space into the wasteland under the Poplar Street Bridge to better connect with Chouteau’s Landing, and substantially increasing park land and activity areas around the Malcolm Martin Memorial Park on the east riverfront.
Since the completion of the design competition it has become increasingly apparent that the private interests in charge of implementing the results have pushed their own agenda, distorting portions of the design to the detriment of other elements and to the project as a whole. Last October it was announced that Memorial Drive might be closed so that visitors coming to the Arch Grounds from the west would not need to traverse two cross-walks at signalled intersections. The plan to close and remove several blocks of Memorial was confirmed in the single public event since the announcement of the competition winner. That plan, unveiled on January 26th of this year was said to cost around $578,000,000.00
On top of the costs of the one block lid over the depressed lanes (The Danforth Foundation estimated between $34-37 Million in 2006), the closure of Memorial Drive resulted in a need to spend disproportionally more more money on new highway infrastructure to accommodate changed traffic patterns. The existing ramps on and off the highway north of the depressed lanes will now have to be demolished and rebuilt, reversing the direction of traffic flow on each so that southbound traffic Memorial traffic is diverted onto the highway and northbound traffic diverted from Memorial can exit the highway to access destinations north of Washington Avenue.
The introduction of new highway ramps only exacerbates the myriad urban design problems presented by the existence of the highway separating the Arch Grounds from Downtown St. Louis. Based on current regulations, the ramps will have to be considerably longer and will be at least 1,000 feet in length. This means that newly expanded highway infrastructure will now irrevocably wall off the four city blocks between Pine and Washington from the arch grounds in order to “Weave connections and transitions from the City and the Arch grounds to the River” and “Mitigate the impact of transportation systems”.
The removal of several blocks of north bound Memorial Drive along the west edge of the park may have been done with the intentions to increase parkland and bring the park closer to Downtown. The actual result however will be a very uneasy feeling along the western boundary of the park which will no longer be fronted by a street, but will now be fronted by the chasm of the depressed lanes of the highway. There will have to be tall fencing to keep people from falling into the chasm as well as some kind of landscape buffer which will only increase the feeling of isolation from the adjacent urban core of the City.
The most-recent public plan including the new highway ramp infrastructure has also been revised with the removal of the beer garden and skating rink at the south end of the park as well as monumental river gauges. Additionally many of the slides from the January presentation are ambiguous about what will be accomplished by October 2015 deadline. Slide 4 of the presentation below shows both the “underpass park” under the Poplar Street Bridge and the expansion of parkland on the east riverfront as light green hatched areas instead of fully rendered parts of the overall design. Does this mean that these areas might be phased-in after 2015? It is instructive to remember that the highway removal was discouraged in the initial design concepts specifically because it would be impossible by the 2015 deadline. Now that many more pieces of the MVVA plan have been cast into doubt, it is arguably unclear that enough of the the project itself is attainable within four years to justify the deadline. Should the City to River boulevard concept be reconsidered in light of a protracted implementation? The lack of any public communication about the project from the CityArch River 2015 Foundation for almost seven months has not helped with the ambiguity.
The events that have unfolded in Washington DC around the debt crisis in the last several weeks have brought us to realize the reality of our nation’s financial situation. It is a safe bet that the federal government will not be able to finance huge portions of the improvements in and around the Arch Grounds. The leadership behind the current plan will need to figure out where the money is going to come from and whether it will come at all. If belt tightening comes to the budget for the plan, the St. Louis must voice our opinions about where our priorities are.
Do we want to spend our limited dollars on park improvements and park expansion or highway infrastructure and unnecessary street removal?