Five Arch Grounds Finalists Give Insight Into How They Will Address Complex Site

In what was the most significant public event in the City+Arch+River design competition to-date, representatives from the five finalist teams introduced themselves and their design philosophies to St. Louis last night. The Orpheum Theater was standing-room only as people waited to hear more from those who will transform the Arch grounds, the riverfront and our city. Both KMOX and the Post-Dispatch were on hand, but the best write-up I've seen so far can be found at the STL Energized blog.

Joe Buck first introduced Don Stastny, the competition manager. What you need to know is that Don literally wrote the "Guidebook for Architectural Competitions". He seemed to set an ambitious and realistic tone, stating, we built this fantastic monument, but then "all the infrastructure around the Arch makes it an island" and he recognized that many visitors park in the Arch garage, walk to the Arch and then leave because the grounds are not integrated into the city. His final statement was that "more than anything, the priority is to weave the Arch grounds back into the city."

More biographical information and background on the five finalist teams is available on the competition website at City+Arch+River. At first glance, several people, including myself, were underwhelmed by the presentations themselves, but in retrospect the event was exactly as it was billed, the public's opportunity to "Meet the Design Teams."

It's exceptional that such talented teams have chosen to participate in the competition. Each team is comprised of world-class firms and all will utterly transform the Arch grounds and our city's connections to it. While the night was heavy on basic introductions and design philosophy jargon, one did get a feel for how the design team leaders address challenging projects.

Before looking at the teams, here are the 9 stated design goals for the competition:

1. Create an iconic place for the international icon, the Gateway Arch.
2. Catalyze increased vitality in the St. Louis region.
3. Honor the character defining elements of the National Historic Landmark.
4. Weave connections and transitions from the City and 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.
6. Reinvigorate the mission to tell the story of St. Louis as the gateway to national expansion.
7. Create attractors to promote extended visitation to the Arch, the City and the River.
8. Mitigate the impact of transportation systems.
9. Develop a sustainable future.
10. Enhance the visitor experience and create a welcoming and accessible environment.

The Behnisch Team was represented by Christof Jentzen, principal of Behnisch, Behnisch & Partner in Los Angeles and a Washington University faculty member. Christof recognized that the Arch grounds has "yet to achieve its potential" and repeatedly spoke of the "human dimension" and "public realm" as being of utmost importance. He also stated that the "city should open up and invite people in" with a "diverse and active landscape." All of that is simple enough, but listening to Christof I got the impression that "weaving the park pack into the city," as Don Stastny would put it, is the design principle at work. He also stated that his team would "expect a dialog with the community." This is encouraging and hopefully an opportunity to advocate for a true transformation and the removal of what will be the former Interstate 70. In a 2004 interview Christof said that he enjoyed confronting obstacles in revolutionary ways, "I like to question codes and regulations and come up with new solutions," he said.

Behnisch was a member of the winning design team for Pittsburgh's "Cultural District Riverfront Development" in 2006. That commercial development, more similar to Ballpark Village than the Arch grounds, mitigated the 10th Street Bypass by creating a tunnel and spanned Fort Duquesne Boulevard with a half-block long lid. St. Louis resident, WU professor and principal at H3 Studio will be managing the public outreach component for Behnisch. This is great news for St. Louis as John has managed the public component of the CWE form-based code development, The Grove's Chouteau Park planning and was the lead for both the Forest Park and Lafayette Square Park master plans.

{the winning Behnisch design for Pittsburgh's Cultural District Riverfront Development}

The MVVA team is led by landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. MVVA and Behnisch have partnered on architecture competitions in the past and both appear focused on the effect of the built landscape on human interaction with the site. Presenting for MVVA was WU graduate Gillivar Shepard. More than other teams, Gullivar focused on the human connections with the existing grounds, asking, "How is a place so central to St. Louis so removed from its daily life?" That's a great question. He went on to describe the challenge presented by "physical barriers" and the "attack on your senses of traffic." In the team's competition design statement they reiterate this sentiment, describing the site as "a parcel surrounded by a crushing maze of infrastructure." Their wish to address the landscape surrounding the grounds sounds very promising to me. MVAA, along with most other teams displays prior work along riverfronts. They focused on the Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh, a sliver of a park that again seeks to mitigate the influence of an adjacent highway. While the project may have allowed people greater access to the river, it's not a model for the Arch grounds.

{a view of Allegheny Riverfront Park and adjacent highway trench}

{another view of Allegheny Riverfront Park}

Peter Walker represented the PWP team and spent a significant amount of time describing the challenges of the World Trade Center, 9-11 Memorial site in New York City. Though the Arch grounds has its own challenges, I think we can agree that it doesn't get much more complicated and political than the WTC site. He also spoke of Trafalgar Square in London and the work there that reduced the width of adjacent roads and closed a road on the northern edge of the square, "Trafalgar Square didn't work because it was surrounded by roads." Well said. As the first two teams did, he also spoke of "removing barriers" and "creating activity where none existed before."

{aerial view of Trafalgar Square with traffic lane reductions and a north side closed to traffic}

So the first three teams appeared to have more in common than not. Through their comments and prior work, they all seemed to view traffic and infrastructure as problems to be addressed, whether avoided, softened or removed. The "human connection" dominated their comments. The final two teams focused on economic development and how to bypass or disguise impeding infrastructure with bridges and tunnels. One team appeared ready to embrace the "energy" of traffic.

Phil Enquist and Mary Margaret Jones presented for SOM. They were the only team to expressly highlight the inclusion of a Native American cultural consultant on their team. Their current work includes multiple projects along the Trail of Tears. Describing themselves as "city builders," SOM pushed the idea of creating economic vitality, stating that the "real question is how do we make the Arch a catalyst for growth in St. Louis and East St. Louis?" Their cited work spanned the spectrum of urban development and may be the most impressive of the teams.

Though they cited the Lindbergh Avenue tunnel under Lambert International Airport (a project that likely could not be less creative or interesting), "the very first in Missouri," they also spoke of Canary Wharf in London as an economic development success, Millennium Park in Chicago, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., and Chrissy Field in San Francisco. The team's work in Millennium Park should tell them that a parkside boulevard can handle 50K+ vehicles per day, making the City to River plan feasible. Phil was the only person of the evening to mention Chouteau's Landing, saying that it presented an exciting challenge.

{Michigan Avenue adjacent to Millennium Park in Chicago handles more than 46K vehicles per day}

Lastly, Michael Manfredi and Marian Weiss took the stage for Weiss/Manfredi. Michael began by saying that "there are several jewels to connect." The "jewels" presumably being Laclede's Landing, Washington Avenue, the Gateway mall, the Arch grounds and Chouteau's Landing. Michael also focused on bringing light into dark areas. Perhaps skylights can light the underground museum and make it feel a little less separated from the city?

Marian provided the most interesting comments by describing the team as "kind of crazy about barriers." She focused on the interplay of transportation components and what she thinks barriers and traffic can add to a site. She stated, "a new environment under ramps and highways is possible." It's clear that the team would embrace the site's barriers. The primary project she displayed was Olympic Park in downtown Seattle, a park that straddles a busy thoroughfare, leaving 80% of the central park as an impassable barrier. Going full in, Marian concluded by saying, "highways and trains are kind of wonderful, they add energy…(referring to Olympic Park) you can see here, we are experts at spanning highways."

{a Google Earth view of Olympic Park in Seattle and Weiss/Manfredi's treatment of barriers}

Without a doubt, creatively spanning I-70 and creating "a new environment" under I-70 would improve the experience of getting to and from the Arch grounds, yet it falls short of creating anything more than an application of lipstick on the "crushing maze of infrastructure" that separates the Arch grounds from its surroundings. I'd say that there's a pretty good variety of approaches we will see at work when the plans are presented to the public in August. What we need now is for the public to loudly weigh in on the side that will best "weave the Arch grounds back into the city," removing I-70 from the PSB to the new Mississippi River Bridge.