Archive for the ‘history’ Category

City to River 2011

Tuesday, January 25th, 2011

In February of 2009, City to River was created with a mission to advocate for improved connections between the neighborhoods of the Central Riverfront and the Mississippi River. Since that time, City to River has advanced a vision for better connectivity through the restoration of the downtown street grid, with the long range vision of replacing the downtown lanes of the soon-to-be-former Interstate 70 with a new at-grade boulevard.

Two events led to the formation of the City to River organization. The first was the announcement that I-70 would be rerouted away from downtown over the new I-70 bridge. The second was the announcement by the National Park Service that it would begin a process to update the General Management Plan (GMP) for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM). This would mark the first time in the history of the Arch that the GMP had been updated.

It’s long been recognized that downtown is cut off from the Arch grounds and its riverfront. Since its construction, the Arch has stood alone on an island, surrounded by a moat of infrastructure barriers. Indeed, in the GMP process, improving connections between downtown, the Arch grounds, and the riverfront was a recurring theme heard from the public and the many planners involved.

Improving physical connections is a strategy, but ultimately, connections are about people. A downtown with more people will naturally bring more people to the riverfront and Arch grounds. A downtown with more businesses, residences, and events brings more people to the riverfront. The vision of City to River is that better connections between the City and the Arch and riverfront means more people embracing the core of the region, the Metro East, the Mississippi River and the Arch grounds.

The preferred alternative of the GMP was to hold an international design competition to establish the plans to improve and manage the 20-30 years of the JNEM. Ultimately, the Michael Van Valkenberg’s MVVA team’s design was chosen as the winner. Since that announcement, there has been a continuing process carried out by various interested parties to finalize a design plan. That design will be presented to the public for the first time January 26, 2011.

This will be the first opportunity for the public to see the final plan for how the various consultants, government agencies, design team members and others propose to improve the JNEM and its connections to downtown and the riverfront. According to the invitation to the January 26 event, there will then be further opportunities for the public to comment on the plan.

The goal of the City + Arch  + River Foundation, sponsors of the design competition, is to have improvements to the Arch and its surroundings completed by October, 2015, the 50th Anniversary of the completion of the Arch. At the January 26 event, proponents are supposed to be announcing a preliminary budget for the total project. Then the challenge is placed back on the people of St. Louis to raise the necessary funds to build the project.

The remaking of the Arch grounds is the most ambitious planning and development effort in the St. Louis region since the revitalization of Forest Park. The results of the Forest Park master planning and redevelopment effort have been nothing short of outstanding. The park is a huge draw for people and is the most beautifully polished jewel in our region. City to River is eager to see the final plans for the future of the Arch and its surroundings and looks forward to participating in the community effort to restore the connections between downtown St. Louis and its riverfront.

Why sever connections?

Friday, October 8th, 2010

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.

Freeways in Cities: An Uneasy Connection

Wednesday, July 7th, 2010

In the half-century plus since Congress authorized its legislation, the impact of the Interstate Highway System on American transportation has been nothing short of transformative.  America’s freeway system created a more accessible nation, allowed us to more easily reach our distant family and friends, and revealed the promise of the open road.  But, like so many large-scale government programs, it is not without its share of problems.  One fateful component of the plan has had particularly damaging effects on American cities – the decision to allow freeways to directly enter our urban cityscapes.

Norman Bel Geddes, considered by many the conceptual father of the Interstate Freeway System, first proposed the idea of an interstate highway system to President Franklin Roosevelt just prior to WWII.  Bel Geddes had been impressed with the development of limited access roads in Europe, particularly the German autobahn.  However, he warned explicitly that this new system should not interfere with existing street networks, arguing that it would disrupt the efficient distribution of traffic.  In fact, Bel Geddes concluded:  “the interests of local traffic are exactly opposite to those of through traffic… Of all the vehicles on the road, only those shall enter the community which actually have business there.”  This view was not lost on the Eisenhower administration, as the President agreed that interstates should “contain only roads that carry intercity traffic around and into cities” and advocated that urban highways not be part of the plan.

Unfortunately, state and municipal policy-makers saw what they believed to be a unique opportunity to employ highway engineering as a means to help remediate some of the perceived major issues (urban divestment, social demographic shifts, etc.) that were facing American cities at the time.  Mayors and municipal associations testified strongly in favor of the Interstate System because of the benefits the cities expected to receive from urban highways.  Despite last-minute actions by the Eisenhower Administration to have them removed from the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956, urban Interstates played a large role in Congress’ decision to pass this transformative legislation and thus were included. So, with heavy municipal support, the Federal Government steamrolled its way through the heart of many of America’s great cities.

I-70 construction

Construction of I-70, 1964

The new interstate highways, mostly completed from the 1950s to the early 1970s, had enormous consequences. In large metropolitan areas, interstates linked central cities with emerging postwar suburbs, issuing in the age of automobile commuting while undermining what was left of inner-city mass transit.  The effect of the urban interstates was profound.  Predicated on the slum clearance policies of the past, urban expressways were built directly through long-established inner-city residential communities, destroying low-income housing on a vast and unprecedented scale.  While some new development was stimulated in downtown areas as a result, the lion’s share was pushed out to suburban areas and took shape into the shopping malls, office parks, and subdivisions so familiar today.

San Francisco Embarcadero, photo by vision63

As the deleterious effects of the urban interstates began to mount, a movement began to build, calling for certain urban expressways to be removed in favor of the traditional urban street grid that once helped make American cities the most vibrant and prosperous in the world.   Cities such as New York, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Portland, removed entire urban sections of the interstate with little or no lasting disruption to traffic conditions.  In these cases, the existing roadways were more than adequate to support the additional traffic.  Each of these cities also saw significant and measurable economic and civic progress predicated on highway removal.

It is time for St. Louis to take a closer look at what these cities were able to accomplish and start taking the right steps to ensure that the divisive stretch of Interstate 70 cutting through downtown be removed.  Only then will our city recapture its true essence as a livable, walkable community.  After all, that’s what the founders of the freeway system and President Eisenhower had in mind all along.


Bel Geddes, Norman. Magic Motorways. New York: Random House, 1940.

Removing Freeways – Restoring Cities. Siegel, Charles.  2007. The Preservation Institute. 21 June 2010.

Eisenhower Interstate Highway System Web site. 2009. 18 June 2010.