Full Review: Behnisch Team Arch Grounds Competition Design

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This is the third of five full reviews of the Framing a Modern Masterpiece: City + Arch + River design competition submissions. Each review focuses specifically at treatment of Kiener Plaza, the Old Courthouse, I-70/Memorial Drive, the Museum of Westward Expansion, the Old Cathedral, the Arch grounds north and south ends, the riverfront, cross-river connections and the east side as well as overall feasibility and overall excitement. Each of the five final design full narratives can be viewed on nextSTL here.
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First, if you only read one full narrative, read this one. It’s literally a narrative with a cast of characters: “Charles, age 75, from Memphis – Joan, age 45, from Denver, now lives in St. Louis – Michael, age 25, from St. Louis – Sahsa and Alex, ages 8 and 30, from East St. Louis – Carol, age 45, from East St. Louis and Xiao Feng, age 50, from Shanghai. Carol contemplates the new Arch grounds, “But, she muses, as she rises above the great river in a cable-stayed, smoothly gliding gondola car; that was all before – before the competition…” It’s fantastic – the architecture competition equivalent of the Woot.com missives.

Kiener Plaza
I like the linear motion of the Kiener Plaza elements. Not a lot of detail is provided, but a winter garden, rose garden and fountain/ice rink are offered. Placing an active use on Kiener is a great idea and seems to fit well with the larger master plan for the Gateway Mall.

The Behnisch vision for the plaza serves as the western starting point for what is the most coherent and focused effort by any team to force movement onto and through the Arch grounds and museum. The risk is that it may be too rigid, but what the area lacks now is a sense of movement, an answer to the ever-present question of where a visitor moves next.

The plan is asymmetrical, which seems at first to be a mistake. However, I think the asymmetry creates movement. A small, but interesting detail is that an ice rink placed on the axis of the Gateway Mall would offer skaters just one quick sideways glance of the Old Courthouse framed perfectly by the Arch. With the rink shifted, the long side is on the axis of the Mall and skaters would have a long glide with a straight look at the Courthouse and Arch. That’s good design.

Old Courthouse
Americans with Disabilities Act issues are acknowledged and addressed by Behnisch. The continuity of linear elements from Kiener Plaza to Luther Ely Smith Park place the Old Courthouse firmly in the center of motion.

I-70/Memorial Drive
The Behnisch Team imagines Memorial Drive as an entirely pedestrian realm. They propose the same for Chestnut from 7th Street to Memorial Drive. Exciting on one level, the idea adds massively to the available pedestrian space when one major problem downtown continues to be the lack of people filling the sidewalks and plazas that already exist. How would demand for more pedestrian space materialize?

Benisch has a much more aspirational and complete transportation and city plan to offer. They are the only design team to promote reconnecting all downtown east-west streets to the Arch grounds, every. single. one of them: Spruce, Clark, Olive, Locust and even St. Charles. I’ve imagined reconnecting Olive and Locust through the Mansion House complex superblock and that seemed to be a very lofty goal. Behnisch took the idea a big step beyond by re-imagining even the Millennium Hotel and restoring Clark Avenue. If Clark ever sees Ballpark Village built and becomes the Yawkey Way of St. Louis, it’s reconnection with the Arch grounds would be incredibly significant.

But the proposal continues to be a mixed bag, offering two contradictions. Behnisch calls for removing I-70 after 2015, but offers a three-block lid, the largest of any team, and introduces pedestrian bridges across I-70 and Memorial Drive at Spruce, Clark, Olive and Locust. While this represents the greatest addition of connectivity, it also severely limits the benefits of a boulevard, at least south of Washington Avenue. Would the infill and investment depicted by Behnisch facing the Arch grounds happen with traffic access via Memorial Drive traded for pedestrian access and I-70, or a boulevard trench remaining? I don’t think so. Something has to give, either the team is showing sexy infill simply for the look, or offering pedestrian bridges and a large lid knowing that an at-grade boulevard is the preferred solution.

Behnisch directly and forcefully addresses the need for a new paradigm downtown: “We are interested in people driving into town, parking and walking. No longer will we allow high-speed through traffic imperiling people walking and their quality of life. Our plan sees Downtown as a destination, not a way-station.” and they pledge to produce a way forward: “In the short term, we know that these types of projects are fraught with political peril. The driving public is understandably wary of change, especially anything that adds uncertainty to their commutes. Our team will produce predictive models so that we know we a) minimize disruptions, and b) minimize political heartburn. We know, however, that people are smart, adaptive, and respond to positive change positively.”

That’s brilliant and true.

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Museum of Western Expansion
The orientation of the expanded museum is unique. Three teams propose some sort of glass walled entrance facing west and leading underground. I generally like the idea of orienting the museum toward the city. But Behnisch offers two unique elements that may just win me over. First, the combination of the continued directionality of Luther Ely Smith park and the large plaza over I-70 with Memorial Drive removed pulls the Arch grounds into the city like no other plan.

The museum entrance is pushed farther west, past what are currently the northbound lanes of Memorial Drive. It’s physically closer, but it’s also visually much closer to the Arch and river, an effect created by a direct pass-through view to the East side. Visitors can descend into the museum or continue walking east, exiting a curved glass wall very similar to other design team’s west entrance, onto the best defined space proposed for the Arch lawn.

A large oval skylight (think 50M pool size) covers a substantial amount of this covered space. Visitors can also walk atop the structure for an elevated view of the Courthouse, Gateway Mall and east riverfront. The result of these elements that is truly unique is the space created adjacent the Arch itself. A defined space is articulated by the glass wall, allees and continued directional elements carried to the waterfront from the Gateway Mall.

In a varied, but patterned fashion, walkable skylights pierce the ground, introducing natural light to the museum below. A series of three larger skylights span the base of the Arch. While less dramatic than PWP’s single skylight in the same space, the views directly up at the Arch would be stunning. The walkable skylights are a neat idea and could be their own attraction from above, but maintenance and the visual breaks created in the Arch lawn are reasons for concern.

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Old Cathedral
Beyond, offering somewhat altered parking, the Behnisch Team does not address the Old Cathedral.

North end
The Behnisch Team appears to have been especially thoughtful and deliberate about uses for the north and south ends of the grounds. Washington Avenue is transformed into a pedestrian plaza from 4th Street, a block west of Memorial Drive to the Eads Bridge and on to the riverfront. The team envisions two streetcar lines intersecting at this point. This could very well be a transit plaza as Metro has an initial plan to introduce Bus Rapid Transit  (BRT) on I-70, I-55, I-44 and I-64. This site would be a natural and attractive place for those lines to intersect, whether streetcars or BRT.

The Washington Avenue streetcar crosses the Eads and connects to the East side. Of course this would all work much better without the elevated Interstate lanes, and again, the success of the plan seems predicated on highway removal. Behnisch also offers the idea of a North-South MetroLink line along the I-70 alignment once the highway is gone. This creates some redundant transportation infrastructure as the streetcar and MetroLink follow almost identical paths, but if one or the other were to be built it would be a great success.

The North end also offers the “music project.” To be focused on “the music of St. Louis,” the location very near Laclede’s Landing and a variety of smaller live music venues makes a lot of sense. It’s easy to imagine a music festival activating both the Arch grounds, the Eads Bridge and Laclede’s Landing. The only hiccup may be the very recent news that a Blues Hall-of-Fame may be in the works several blocks west on Washington Avenue. Laclede’s Landing may be a better site, and could offer buildable lots for a unique new building. But then in St. Louis, a Blues Hall-of-Fame really belongs on South Broadway, a few blocks past the far other end of the Arch grounds.

South end
The south end sees the most active and practical proposal for the under-infrastructure wasteland. Four courts for America’s most popular urban sport, basketball, are planted directly under the Interstate and ramps. A skate park is offered as well. If you know St. Louis, you likely know of one or more impromptu skate parks under major thoroughfare bridges in the city. This would be a great formal addition to the skating culture of St. Louis. The uses are also a great compliment to the hoped for mixed-use art and culture development of Chouteau’s Landing. An open lawn is created with the Arch grounds for use as flexible event space.

Riverfront
Lenor K. Sullivan Drive is gone in favor of the most natural west riverfront landscape proposed. Termed the “River Balcony,” cobblestones are used to create an irregular, serpentine wall. It’s unique in that it doesn’t re-imagine the working riverfront that made St. Louis, nor does it try to recreate Saarinen’s vision.

The “balcony” is a natural form mimicking the water line 20-30 feet below for the length of the riverfront. It allows overlooks but also “strategically located direct water access points. Basically, it’s a dynamic edge that lends a bit of intimacy and “place” to an expansive and exposed levee. The idea seems like a good one and keeping programmed activity close to natural activity (the city) makes sense. It’s likely better to have a food festival on Chestnut or the Eads Bridge. than the levee, for instance. The central “balcony” continues the force of the Gateway Mall eastward.

Cross-river connections
The Behnisch Team clearly steals the prize for inventiveness here. Not only do they imagine glass globe gondolas, they propose closing the Eads Bridge to traffic during the summer and keeping half a pedestrian zone year-round. Of course they put a streetcar on Washington Avenue and over the bridge as well. The MacArthur Bridge is also identified in several drawings as part of a “Interconnected Public Space Network,” but there is no further detail offered.

Closing the Eads entirely (and re-routing Eads traffic over the McKinley strikes me as a step too far. Better to close the bridge to traffic than to extend curbs by three feet, but this is yet another enormous pedestrian space created for casual use and festivals. It’s difficult to image this expanse seeing dense activity without 10’s of thousands more people visiting the Arch grounds each day.

The gondola’s are easily the most flashy “whoa” moment provided in any of the designs. The feature is the only attraction offered by any team that has the potential to add a second signature element to the Arch grounds. In fact, I find it very likely that the gondola experience would be much more popular and enjoyable than riding the Arch tram, though I don’t know if that’s the right way to celebrate the Arch.

The departure point of the west side would be to the far south of the grounds, an attempt to activate the underutilized area. The line would run across the river to a riverside amphitheater and floating stage (more on that next). The gondolas would likely be the most expensive addition the grounds (perhaps after an extensive museum transformation). It would certainly be the most expensive to maintain, but it also has the potential to generate enough revenue to cover the cost.

But I think the real problem is that gondolas do not serve well as a practical, multi-use connection to the East side. No one out on a run and wishing to do a loop to the east would run to the gondola, buy a ticket, take a ride and resume running on the others side. Few cyclists would do so either, maybe once, but not as a routine act. A pedestrian bridge serves this everyday, casual purpose much better. The MacArthur is mentioned as a pedestrian route, but with no plans or other information, I have to believe that it’s a long term possibility and not an integral part of the plan.

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East side
The Behnisch Team was determined to carry the Gateway Mall to the east riverfront, and they have. A riverside amphitheater with floating stage sit on the Mall’s axis. I have doubts as to whether a performance venue on the east side will be successful and even a busy venue will sit vacant the vast majority of the time. A floating stage is also a bad idea as it is prone to closure by flooding. A predictable schedule is a must for a performance venue and one shouldn’t need to check the river’s flood stage to know if a performance on the Arch grounds will happen. The tent-like covering of the amphitheater hasn’t been interesting since the white fabric roof of the Denver International Airport was built in 1995.

From behind the amphitheater extends linear gardens and boardwalks to what appears to be the largest building proposed by any design team. The unfortunately named “Great Resource Center of the American Bottoms” looks like a small circular stadium, a mini glass Busch II, if you will. Its appearance, along with the gondolas and overuse of fireworks in the renderings makes me think Behnisch is creating a proposal for St. Louis to host an Olympic Games.

In fact, the Resource Center “defines the role of our built environment as a helping tool for a productive re-naturalization of a depleted industrial landscape.” That sounds more interesting, and a lot more relevant to St. Louis, than water ecology and avian research. If one would like to study a depleted industrial landscape, the east riverfront would be one of the best places to be. Perhaps the research would also play an active role restoring the park on the East side and contaminated sites nearby. There’s an endless supply.

Feasibility
If I had to pick one, I would say the Behnisch proposal is the least feasible given the October 2015 deadline. It is also the most “phased” project as it’s obvious that by 2015 we will not see gondolas, streetcars and/or a new MetroLink line. This phasing isn’t necessarily a bad thing, they’re offering a much more holistic, much more complete picture for the future of downtown St. Louis. The problem is determining if and when each step could be taken. The museum renovation is as big as any team’s and the East side Resource Center is a significant building as well.

Excitement
If you were hoping a design team would offer up something exciting, this is it. It’s not as detailed or specific as other submissions – just try looking for a view through the new museum towards the Old Courthouse (there isn’t one), or multiple views of the north end (none of those either). But if we could look 10 years into the future and say with certainty that we could have everything proposed in a single plan of our choice and nothing else, it would be impossible to pass this up. It’s bold, it’s new, it’s energetic – it’s exciting!

 

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