Archive for February, 2011

City to River Celebrates Arch Grounds Plans, Continues Push for Improved Connectivity

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
The long-awaited revision of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates’ (MVVA) winning design for the Gateway Arch grounds was finally unveiled on January 26. The presentation marked another milestone in the coming re-imagination of our city’s National Park. The CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation continues to invent the process by which we build a more vibrant Arch grounds and construct connections to better integrate those grounds with our city. City to River celebrates CityArchRiver’s accomplishments and continues to advocate for better connections between the Mississippi River and the neighborhoods of the central riverfront.

Along with the rest of the St. Louis community, City to River is excited by many of the design elements of MVVA’s plan.  At the same time, we remain dedicated to the future prospects of a signature, at-grade boulevard in place of the current conflated maze of highway infrastructure. The MVVA team’s winning design purposely accommodated the future boulevard, and the newest iteration remains designed to work with this comprehensive solution to better connections.  City to River has already suggested one way in which MVVA’s design and a future boulevard might work together.

Arguably the most significant and immediate aspect of the redesign is the closing of Memorial Drive and construction of a pedestrian “lid” in its place and over the current I-70. The lid has long been discussed and studied, and to the excitement of many, is finally coming to fruition.  Essentially an elegant extension of Luther Ely Smith Square over I-70 and into the Arch grounds, the lid leads directly to a beautifully articulated and graceful new glass entrance to the underground Museum of Westward Expansion. The reconfiguration of this plaza will connect downtown and the Arch both physically and psychologically.

The design improves connections in other important ways. MVVA’s plans for the Gateway Mall—the present and future spine of downtown St. Louis—is a bold, ambitious and utterly modern planning vision, creating a new connection oriented toward the river. By holistically considering the various “urban rooms” of the Gateway Mall alongside the Arch grounds, the visitor experiences of both are enhanced in a way that would not be possible if they didn’t flow seamlessly together. The plan also calls for more than 10,000 new trees planted throughout downtown and the grounds, the creation of acres of new parkland, and increased access to the east bank of the Mississippi River.  These human-scaled improvements should be celebrated.

The plan should not be without criticism, however, particularly with respect to the unfortunate ripple effects that will be created by the closure of Memorial Drive. Traffic will be diverted onto Fourth Street, separating pedestrians from the Old Courthouse and Smith Square. Drivers will be required to navigate a more disrupted and confusing street grid. And most unfortunate of all, new highway ramps are planned to substitute for lost connections. While specifics appear not to have been finalized, the revision to the MVVA plan offers a northbound off-ramp from the depressed lanes to Washington Avenue and an opposite southbound entrance ramp.
More highway infrastructure is not the solution to the existing maze confronting pedestrians and drivers, and it is unfortunate that a competition charged with improving and adding connections will result in further deterioration of the street grid. Reconnecting our streets and replacing what will soon be the former I-70 with a boulevard must be considered as the next logical step if we are to create new and meaningful connections. A boulevard dipping under the new pedestrian lid for one block shows how the two plans are perfectly compatible, perhaps even complementary. Doing so would alleviate the newly proposed disruptions to the downtown street grid.

In many ways, the new design from the MVVA team will go a long way toward improving connections. But while we look forward, we must not forget that the single biggest obstacle to truly connecting downtown and its river remains. To truly fulfill the design competition’s mandate to “weave [the park] into the city fabric” and “mitigate the divisive ‘moat’ of transportation around the site,” it is imperative that St. Louis take the next step.  What we do with the remaining barriers of antiquated and failed infrastructure will greatly determine how connected our city is to our riverfront.