Full Review: Weiss-Manfredi Arch Grounds Competition Design

This is the fifth 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.


Kiener Plaza
The plan for the plaza is a public green, a grass oval on the Gateway Mall axis with just a few rows of seating built into a small rise at the western end. They propose extending City Garden through the 1/2 block wide setting to the west. A new visitor’s center and cafe are ordered up as well.

The symmetry addresses the Old Courthouse well, but also highlights the Gateway One building’s intrusion into an otherwise unobstructed view westward. The one thing Weiss-Manfredi does here that is very welcome, is prescribe programming for the space. It’s an excellent reminder that whatever is built will succeed or fail largely on programming. Weiss-Manfredi designed the Olympic Sculpture Park on a challenging urban site in Seattle and has pushed that space to succeed with both design and arts programming.

Old Courthouse
The Courthouse is placed in a more prominent stance as the land between it and a new museum entrance sees more change than other designs. Accessible entrances as well as “increased educational and interpretive facilities” are added, though there is little detail provided.

I-70/Memorial Drive
Weiss-Manfredi propose to close one block of Memorial Drive between Market and Chestnut, directly in front of the Old Courthouse and Arch. The design team cites Route Directness Index modeling, stating that with this one block closure, “pedestrians will spend 40% less time passing from downtown to the Arch.” They also propose removing lanes from Memorial Drive north and south of the new “land bridge” and adding street trees to improve the pedestrian experience. This, they acknowledge, would impact traffic, but surrounding streets have enough excess capacity to handle the changes.

The design narrative also states, “the design of Full Circle does not preclude the creation of this (City to River’s) boulevard should the option be pursued.” They even include “Connect City to River boulevard at Memorial Drive to weave the city to the park,” in their “2015 and Beyond” planning. However, given the language and the presence of the substantial “land bridge,” one must conclude that a boulevard would not be at-grade at the axis of the Gateway Mall.

The design understands well the necessity of pedestrians on the sidewalks and specifically considers but “does not propose elevated walkways (now widely understood as deleterious to vibrant urbanism).” Weiss-Manfredi attempts to strike balance between unimpeded access across I-70 and “keeping pedestrians on the city sidewalks where they are part of the city fabric.” It should be possible to create a much-improved pedestrian realm, while at the same time not decreasing traffic circulation and options for visitors. This is likely the most pedestrian-friendly proposal at the Gateway Mall.

Museum of Western Expansion
This is the most dramatic proposal for the expansion and enhancement of the existing museum space. The new west entrance traces the form of a shadow of the Arch, with its apex nearest the Old Courthouse. The descending slope of the land is further excavated east of a buried I-70, providing for a dramatic two-story museum facade without impeding the view to or from the Arch and Courthouse.

The glass entrance is truly expansive and appears to soar while remaining a below-grade museum. It’s exciting, expressive and genuinely unique. The slightly terraced lawn between the entrance and hidden I-70 creates a grand, and yet more human-scale plaza than other designs. Windows stretch in an arc from the south to north leg of the Arch, providing plenty of natural light.

There are no skylights as in other designs, but a visitor will be able to see straight through the museum and across the river to the East side. The dramatic “Trainspotting Cafe” would be an experience on its own. Roughly 1/2 way down to the river, a glass wall would pierce the grand staircase. Weiss-Manfredi describes the glass expanse as “providing light as well as a view to the Mississippi River, occasionally interrupted by a freight train”. That just sounds like fun. While MVVA offered a trainspotting experience at the north end, no other team offers an indoor view across the river while inviting a freight train to join you at your table. What’s not to like?

Old Cathedral
No new development is detailed for the area surrounding the Old Cathedral.

North end
Washington Avenue is kept open and re-imagined as a commercial street with storefronts facing the Eads Bridge. Although the plan expressly hopes to build on the “residential and commercial vibrancy of the Washington Avenue Corridor”, it’s difficult to imagine successful retail here while storefronts on Washington Avenue and within Laclede’s Landing have remained vacant. It’s doubtful that residents of the loft district, stretching from 9th to 20th Street and beyond, would visit retail at this location often.

The top level of the parking garage is covered with an “undulating glass and steel canopy of photovoltaic panels” and can be used for a variety of programming, ice skating, films festivals, etc. Large staircases descend through the north wall of the building and align with access to Laclede’s Landing. It’s an attractive vision, but I believe that park-related programming may be best suited for this area while the commercial and retail presence should be focused on existing opportunities.

South end
The south end is less exciting. An open amphitheater is placed atop the current NPS maintenance building which is re-christened a “working lab” where visitors can learn about sustainable park practices. The amphitheater is large,a great lawn best suited for watching movies and not active uses. Weiss-Manfredi saved some creativity for the space under the Poplar Street Bridge.

Winding ramps serve as bicycle and pedestrian connectors to the dreamed-of Chouteau Greenway development, Chouteau’s Landing and Busch Stadium. The ramps rise and fall, accommodating a bike rental facility and possibly classroom space in glass enclosures under and above the trails. The ramps treat the area as it should be, a pass-through, a connector to other places, while placing enough amenities to attract a regular presence. The pedestrian and bike paths serve an especially critical role here as they connect to a new Poplar Street pedestrian bridge to the east side. There are basketball courts, urban rock climbing and a skate park offered as well.

Weiss-Manfredi has woven together the Arch grounds and river in an altogether unique way. The cobblestone levee is retained, but “rising landforms” are placed at the river’s edge. Accessible from several directions at low flood stage, the landforms become islands only connected to the upper Arch grounds via pedestrian bridges over Lenor K. Sullivan Drive at high water stages. This creates a dynamic, changing landscape on the riverfront and, Weiss-Manfredi claims, is “reminiscent of the break in the original limestone bluffs that led Pierre Laclede to found the city of St. Louis.”

The design team claims that these new landforms also provide safe access for riverboats to dock even at high flood stages. Keeping any floating attraction open more often would be a huge plus. The varied landscape would invite exploration and offer an opportunity to be out into the river in a way that no other proposal offers. This method of weaving together the park and the waterfront together also allows for Lenor K. Sullivan Drive to remain open.

Cross-river connections
Introducing an arcing pedestrian bridge anchored to the Poplar Street Bridge, Weiss-Manfredi offers the most elegant, straightforward way for a visitor to access the east side. The bridge does two things a conversion of the MacArthur and a more pedestrian-friendly Eads Bridge do not. The suspended bridge is beautiful in its own right, but it serves double-duty by hiding the aesthetically challenged PSB. Thus, the bridge not only serves as a vital connection, but also frames the park, completing a visually appealing “room” with the Arch to the west, Eads to the north, new attractions to the east and pedestrian bridge to the south. Second, the bridge ascends directly from the Arch grounds. A visitor need not search for access and it is easily understood from where the bridge leaves and where it arrives. This bridge allows a full recreational route within the infrastructure bounding the park site.

The southern half of the Eads Bridge deck is given over to bikes and pedestrians, in similar fashion to other teams. Ferries are proposed as a mid-park river crossings as well. As I stated in the SOM review, I’m not convinced that a ferry service connecting the two riverbanks works well, crossing under the Eads and possibly the PSB and MacArthur would add some excitement and opportunity for education, more similar to a boat tour exploring the Golden Gate, or the architectural boat tours of Chicago.

East side
In my opinion, the Weiss-Manfredi east side design is a better counterpoint to Saarinen’s Arch than any other plan. Agriculture seems to provide poor balance to the Arch and city, an amphitheater and mounds could be interesting, a large cultural resource center serving as an extension of the Gateway Mall tries too hard to connect two distant shores. The sculpted geometric mounds here effectively recognize the Native American history of the region without offering an imitation.

The pedestrian and bike path is clear and straightforward while offering varied views and experiences, and is more likely to become a regular routine for locals. The Oxbow Lake offers a semi-urban kayaking experience, allowing a visitor to imagine a pre-settlement riverscape, again without trying to hard to imitate a pre-settlement riverscape. The tree-nursery presents a good use of open space and would serve to re-green the Arch grounds and adjacent areas on both sides of the river.

The elevated east side lookout is dramatic as well, aligning with the axis of the Gateway Mall while not adhering to its symmetry. The platform would offer the best panorama of the river and St. Louis of any design. The plan incorporates many uses and draws varied visitors. RV parking is planned, as is a “Living River” research lab and urban farming center. The challenge of the east side is to attract interest while at the same time offering predictability. Anyone contemplating crossing the river wants to know that there’s something to see and that they won’t get lost. This plan strikes that balance better than others.

The biggest challenges to completing the Weiss-Manfredi plan are closing Memorial Drive and constructing the pedestrian bridge anchored to the PSB. The north and south ends are relatively straight forward and even the unconventional museum expansion and land forms at the riverfront do not seem overly complicated or expensive. That’s not to say they aren’t slightly more disruptive to the existing landscape than other plans. In fact, this “disruption” represents the only real re-thinking of the central Arch grounds and is a welcome design relative to more hands-off approaches.

While other teams mostly avoided doing too much to the central Arch grounds, Weiss-Manfredi creates a lot of new excitement. The uninterrupted pedestrian access to the grounds across I-70, the two-story recessed museum entrance , trainspotting cafe, riverfront land forms and new pedestrian bridge together offer the most substantial changes to the signature elements of the park. The dramatic new museum and pedestrian bridge serving a clear circumnavigation of the park alone are enough to hope for the design to become reality. Only slightly disappointing north and south ends, as well as complications with a future boulevard detract from this excitement.