Archive for April, 2010

Interstate 70 Through Downtown St. Louis: The Product of Abstract Modern Planning

Friday, April 30th, 2010

Interstate 70 as it rips through Downtown St. Louis was the product of the Modern Age of planning which looked at cities not as living breathing organisms, but as geometric abstractions. The St. Louis Post Dispatch illustrates this in Mondays editorial “Downtown St. Louis’ future now focuses on people”. The editorial, which covers Downtown’s latest blueprint for the future, first looks back at 1964 with a description of the new Downtown of that time taken from a special section published by the Post for St. Louis’ bicentennial:

The Gateway Arch and Busch Stadium II barely had started to rise from the ground. Aerial photographs of downtown revealed clusters of low, industrial-age buildings, many seemingly darkened by coal dust. The central business district was pocked with open lots — evidence of urban renewal’s destructive beginnings.

The artists’ conceptions of downtown’s future, meanwhile, consisted of a cool sweep of modern, unadorned buildings filling the voids, creating a new order around the eagerly anticipated Arch.

You don’t see many people in these pictures. You don’t get any sense of how people would move from place to place or why they would want to. Downtown St. Louis had been reduced in our civic consciousness to geometric abstractions. We seemed fixated on creating structures and spaces.

One of the godfathers of modern planning, Le Corbusier, saw ordinary city life including crowded streets full of people and shops as clutter – something to be eliminated. His famous Radiant City was envisioned as a machine full of identical towers connected by nothing but highways amidst a pervasive sea of green.

Unfortunately, Le Corbusier had a lot of influence on designers, with an entire generation of architects and planners churning out city plans based on this model. These plans were largely out of scale abstractions completely disconnected from the life of cities and how they function. If you look at an aerial view of Downtown St. Louis west of the Arch you can see this influence with the interstate slipping past the large green space with an anonymous faceless row of towers rising in the background.

This is the City that we have inherited from the Modern Era of planning. Today, nearly 50 years later, we have a rare opportunity to re-establish the connections lost during the era of abstraction and re-build an environment based on how people live and use the City. It is now our responsibility to correct the planning mistakes of the past.

Link to Post editorial:

One of the godfathers of modern planning, Le Corbusier, saw ordinary city life including crowded streets full of people and shops as clutter – something to be eliminated.  His famous Radiant City was envisioned as a machine full of identical towers connected by nothing but highways amidst a pervasive sea of green.

The New Memorial Drive: The Affordable Solution to Reconnecting City to River

Tuesday, April 13th, 2010

Removing the depressed and elevated lanes of the former Interstate 70 through downtown and replacing them with an at-grade boulevard would be a less costly alternative to other proposed solutions, both in the long and short terms.

Walnut Bridge

Photo by Paul Hohmann

The route for the New Memorial Drive runs 1.4 miles along the existing I-70 right of way from the Poplar Street Bridge to Cass Avenue. Construction of the boulevard involves mostly demolition, fill and paving at grade, plus minor costs for cosmetic improvements and safety equipment. Another recent local roadway project provides an easy means of estimating an approximate cost for the project. Final costs for the new Highway 40/64 were $524 million for 10.5 miles of work, including more than 25 new bridge structures and the 170/64 interchange–an average cost of about $50 million per mile. Assuming similar pricing for the New Memorial Drive, the 1.4 mile boulevard will cost about $70 million. This estimate is probably high because there will be no new bridge structures included in the project. Maintenance of the boulevard will cost no more than any other prominent City street.

In the 2007 Danforth Foundation report, the cost of the previously proposed “Lid” concept–which is functionally a tunnel–was estimated at $87 million. This design only spans three blocks of the 20 block problem, leaving the elevated lanes to the north and flyover ramps to the south in place and doing nothing to connect those areas, including the Washington Avenue corridor, with the river. The tunnel presents security issues, not only in crime, but increased opportunity for terrorist activity; as a result, current guidelines require a subgrade surveillance area adjacent to the tunnel that would require tearing apart the western side of the existing Arch Grounds for its construction. In addition, the proposed tunnel would require $900,000 annually for maintenance, staffing, and operation, meaning an $18 million dollar endowment will need to be raised to finance the first 20 years alone. Compared to these figures, $70 million for a 1.4 mile New Memorial Drive that solves all the connection problems and provides an opportunity to return land currently used as roadway to the tax rolls is a much better value.

Doing nothing also has an economic cost. The depressed and elevated lanes of former Interstate 70 were constructed in the early 1960s. As this infrastructure ages, the maintenance expenses rise. In February 2010, KSDK ran a series of reports about the physical condition of the aging interstate bridges Downtown, including the Walnut Street bridge, the ramps to the Poplar Street Bridge, and the Broadway bridge over I-70. The series also covered concrete crumbling from the Highway 40/64 viaduct which is a few years younger than the I-70 structures. These problems will continue to escalate in frequency, severity and cost as time passes. We are at a historic junction of need, civic desire, and opportunity. The time to address all of these issues with a unified solution is now.

The Great Reconnection

Friday, April 2nd, 2010

Author: Nate Forst of EcoUrban

The key is that the city must find an inspirational vision for itself rooted in what it is and its own essential character. A great city, like a great wine, has to express its terroir.
–Aaron Renn, The Urbanophile

Perhaps the Hardest Part Has Been Accomplished

Old Post Office Plaza

It is a tired story most of us would prefer not to hear again: Over the past half-century plus, the city of St. Louis has literally lost significantly more population than currently resides within city limits. From a peak of nearly 860,000 residents in 1950, the city shrunk to a low of roughly 350,000 in 2000. During this period the city systematically attempted to destroy its past. Through large scale demolition of historic structures, construction of roads and highways specifically engineered to divide communities, and damaging urban renewal policies, the region was nearly successful in doing so.

Fast-forward to 2010 and much has changed. As many of the remaining commercial buildings from St. Louis’ gilded age were converted into lofts, a once-dead downtown core has been revitalized, drawing many back to the city. As of last summer, downtown now has an excellent grocery and world-class public art. And, for the first time in 60 years, St. Louis saw its first growth, estimated in 2008.

There is now significant energy being devoted towards reconnecting downtown to our region’s most impressive natural amenity, via out area’s most iconic monument. The City+Arch+River 2015 design competition comes at a pivotal time. If the reconnection between downtown and the riverfront is properly completed, there is every reason to believe the positive results could be even more profound than the project’s most ardent supporters realize.

Currently, a group of concerned citizens, calling themselves City to River, is committed to realizing that the dream of a reconnected St. Louis be achieved to the highest capacity. Their main goal is to see the disruptive section of highway 70 that severs our community from its original settlement be removed. When citizens’ initiatives engage the public process in a focused way like this, great things happen. City to River deserves your most ardent support to achieve this Great Reconnection.

With the larger machinations heading in a positive direction, what else can we do to aid the momentum and foster the Great Reconnection?  One thing is clear: after years of removal, neglect and whitewashing, downtown currently lacks an identity.  And as the city will be reconnected to the river, the city must also be reconnected to its origins as a confluence of ideas, culture and civilization. Simply put, we must spotlight the heritage of this grand old Mississippi River Town while moving downtown forward as a unique, walkable, city village –a place with a distinct character like nowhere else in the area. Of course, we can be content to leave it to the region’s elites and entrenched developers. They will be more than happy to create a stale collage of chain restaurants and soulless redevelopment characteristic of Anytown, USA.

The past is not dead.  In fact, it’s not even past.
– William Faulkner

St. Louis, because of its rich history and dense, old world-esque street grid, deserves much more. We believe this can be accomplished by developing a mix of heritage destinations supported by urban village amenities. Here are some ideas to get the ball rolling: (more…)