The Answer to Kamin’s Critique: Chicago Architecture Critic Blair Kamin Visits the Arch

{more than 50,000 cars and thousands of pedestrians use Michigan Avenue daily at this point adjacent to Millennium Park}

Chicago architecture and urban planning critic Blair Kamin recently took a stroll around the St. Louis Arch grounds. His take: "the experience is decidedly imperfect…clunky security barriers…access to disabled people is woefully inadequate…very little thought was given in the original contest to how pedestrians would get to the site…If I had remembered that the Arch has an underground Museum of Westward Expansion, I might have dragged (my son) in. But there was no sign calling attention to it…a food stand is an obvious addition…" Of course this is just "a quick summary of the challenges facing the design teams in the Arch competition.

He's right. These are difficult issues to address. Better promoting the underground museum, expanding it and even getting natural light to shine on the stuffed bison should be doable. Better security bollards and improved ADA accessibility too. The challenge is how to activate the Arch grounds while leaving the grounds as they are. This is what would create a positive experience for Kamin and other visitors. As he recognizes: "It's hard to find fault with the Arch grounds, designed by the late landscape architect Dan Kiley." Clearly the National Park Service and many others agree.

{a current view of Downtown St. Louis from the Arch grounds showing lack of accessibility}

In fact, that's why we're having a competition. The Danforth Foundation and others in St. Louis have long recognized the need for better accessibility and more activity. The Park Service decided not to allow private management of the grounds themselves, which was proposed in part as a way to add food service and other amenities to the grounds. So there's much that cannot be touched, a large majority of the grounds that cannot be build upon.

This is why activating the edges of the Arch grounds, outside the park is necessary. It is also the biggest challenge. The historic Eads Bridge, I-70 and Memorial Drive, the Mississippi River and the Poplar Street Bridge carrying I-70, I-64 and I-55 are some of the worst barriers to accessibility one could imagine. The Eads is an historic monolith, the river can't be moved and the PSB with its three Interstates isn't going anywhere. Only I-70 provides a real opportunity. It can be removed. The new Mississippi Bridge will carry I-70 over the Mississippi at completion in 2014. Visit the City to River website for more specifics.

{a view of Millennium Park with Michigan Avenue to the left}

Adding activity to the western edge of the grounds would address many of the amenity issues. Imagine coffee shops, restaurants and an attractive sidewalk. Imagine connections not only at the Gateway Mall, but also at Poplar, Spuce and potentially other downtown streets in the future. Imagine unimpeded access to Lumiere Casino, the Arch and Lacledes Landing from Washington Avenue and the Convention Center/Edward Jones Dome. Imagine seeing where you want to go and simply walking straight there. Radical, I know. These changes simply are not possible with what will be the former I-70 still in place. Removing the Interstate resets the chess board. This makes many people nervous. There is a fair amount of "unknown" in the process. Yet, this is the opportunity that will not be available again for decades.

Millennium Park, in Kamin's Chicago, has been lauded for promoting adjacent development and creating a civic living room. Walking across Michigan Avenue isn't everyone's idea of a good time, but its presence along the western edge of the park provides unimpeded access to pedestrians and local traffic. This is certainly one component of the parks success. Of course the park itself is great, but place a sunken, transitioning and elevated Interstate along this edge and the park ceases to energize the city as it has. In reading much about Millennium Park, including Kamin's work, I have yet to see one word about Michigan Avenue being a barrier or in any other way detracting from the park.

{a view of zero accessibility at the Arch grounds southern end (image via Google Earth)}

We must remove barriers and re-weave the park into the city. Given the incredible challenges surrounding the park, removing 1.4 miles of what will be former I-70 and building a six to eight lane city street provides by far the best solution. 

Kamin's article quotes Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley as stating, "You don’t want a Boston ‘Big Dig’ to come out of this.” That's a fair statement, but at the same time not a remote possibility. I recognize that what he's saying is that the competition result cannot be a bloated, ultra-expensive, unrealistic dream, but the Big Dig cost $22B, placed an elevated Interstate in a tunnel 3.5 miles long, built a new 1.5-mile tunnel under Boston Harbor, constructed a cable-stayed bridge to carry I-93 over the Charles River and connected all of this with existing Interstates and other infrastructure. No matter what is proposed for the Arch grounds, we can rule out the Big Dig.

Instead of adding infrastructure to the equation in the hopes that another layer may somehow cancel out, or mitigate another layer, the boulevard idea gives the city and visitors a knowable, predictable landscape. Restoring and utilizing the downtown street grid is the best way to create accessibility and invigorate downtown and the Arch grounds. Beyond the fairly straightforward task of recognizing the Arch grounds shortcomings, I hope that Kamin takes the time to consider what could be. He need not look any further than Michigan Avenue to understand how a park truly connected to its surrounding city lays the groundwork for a better experience.