Great Arch Expectations

It is a most miserable thing to feel ashamed of home. So said Pip in Dickens' Great Expectations. While no one's ashamed of the Arch grounds, perhaps we owe a blush or two for its state of condition and its surroundings. As much is acknowledged by the extraordinary effort underway to readdress the grounds for the first time in four decades.

That effort brought an elite cast of characters to Malcolm W. Martin Memorial Park this past week. There were few details regarding design or funding, but the scene clearly captivated Bob Duffy of the Beacon. "Beauty", "enormous power", "exquisite", "majestic", "audacious", "collective muscle", "enormous benefits"; the superlatives cover both the people and the park. U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called it a "magnificent project." East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks said it is a project of "big dreams and big ideas."

It's easy to be drawn into the possibilities of the site. Ever since Pierre Laclede and August Chouteau steered their boats to the western bluffs people have stood alongside the river at St. Louis and proclaimed it to be the new center of Spanish power in America, the locus of a new nation's manifest destiny, the gateway to the west and more. But St. Louis' global and national importance has waned and is unlikely to return in a way that rivals past prominence.

We should possess great expectations, but what should they be? Undoubtedly this project has the potential to be transformative, but no new icon, be it gondolas, a pedestrian bridge cantilevered off the PSB, or a soaring multi-story museum entrance with a siteline to the east side via a glass enclosed trainspotting cafe (all proposed by competition finalists) is in the works.

Coming changes will be more subtle. The project could introduce an integrated parking system utilizing realtime signage to direct visitors to existing parking and pulling them into downtown. It could help frame the Old Cathedral, presenting it as an iconic destination itself. It could offer a true pedestrian realm on the historic Eads Bridge. A real, lasting benefit could be the new found partnerships established by having so many traditionally siloed agencies and interests repeatedly sitting face-to-face at the planning table. How does one sell transformative parking or put inter-agency cooperation on a postcard?

In his column, Duffy defines the issue: "The subject at hand, after all, was how improvements would be made to better connect the Gateway Arch grounds to neighbors separated from it so abrasively by unnatural barriers in Missouri." This may in fact be the one thing that isn't being addressed, the proverbial (Interstate) elephant in the room. The most significant visual transformation publicly proposed to-date is the closing of city streets – the erecting of more barriers. The design reality betrays the soaring rhetoric.

The design process is challenging and we do not yet know when specific details will be revealed. Michael Van Valkenburgh, who leads the winning design team, stated at the gathering that a "real, substantive answer" to specific design questions will be released next month. The new date of January 24 allows an additional month past the original 90-day design and budget development window; not a substantive delay by any means. However, an official with the CityArchRiver Foundation stated at the same event that what the public sees in January, "will by no means be the final design plan." A true design, (budget), build process may be the best solution to the extremely complicated project, but this also likely means the public will never see what will be the final project rendered in a "final product" package.

Whatever the design, a new Arch grounds will not transform downtown St. Louis or the region, not in the way our hopes and dreams make us wish. The Arch didn't transform downtown St. Louis or the region; not beyond providing one of the most iconic city images in the world. Silver bullet developments here and elsewhere have failed to deliver on big promises. Fortune 500 companies haven't been convinced to relocate even with the guarantee of appearing in every single one of the millions of Arch images appearing on TV, in ads and various publications and taken by visitors each year. Downtown itself hasn't grown toward the Arch, or grown at all. That's not to say it's the fault of the park, or deny the influence of other factors, but the Arch can't claim catalytic development either. Vacant lots and vastly underutilized buildings face the iconic monument at every edge of the park.
The park is not of the city. It stands alone and yet, "We all believe it belongs to us," said Missouri US Senator Claire McCaskill, referring to the Arch. That's probably true of the Arch itself, but venture to the surroundings and they belong to no one. How else to explain the dilapidated state of the north and south overlooks? How else to understand the parking lot fronting the Cathedral or the transitioning Interstate that is the separation between the City, the Arch and the Mississippi River? Sure, someone's in charge of it, but "we" express no ownership. As long as the Arch stands, most will be happy.

The best outcome is to set the stage for incremental transformational change. Erasing barriers, bridging communities and reinvigorating a region cannot happen in five years. Accomplishing as much as possible in that time frame is vital, but must serve to build momentum. We must ensure that change continues, that opportunity exists for new cultural institutions, that physical barriers can be removed. If the park enters another five decades of stasis, we will have failed.

The City + The Arch + The River competition has succeeded in drawing attention the the park, its faults and potential, perhaps beyond its intent. Incredible talent assembled and put their best ideas forward. Unfortunately, such a high-profile effort has left some lamenting that the greatest visual transformations were left on the design shelf. To highlight the point, Duffy cites a "local potentate who is drowning in InBev bucks," who laments spending millions on "landscaping" as "ridiculous." Presumably, locals "drowning in InBev bucks" are one significant piece of the funding puzzle. Perhaps they need to be shown that transformative change can grow out of the promised five-year package,  setting the stage for future development.

Some say that little needs to be done, or that even if necessary, substantial change is not worth the expected cost, be it $200M or $500M. The naysayers are wrong. Much needs to be done on the Arch grounds, but it's not the sexy, or incredible or transformative. Much of it is literally out of sight. Poor drainage and soil, not to mention rust inside the Arch itself threaten simply the current state of the park. Each of these necessarily must be addressed to set the stage for future change. The challenge, then, is to sell "transformative" programming, environmentally sustainable rehabilitation, landscaping and infrastructure remediation.

Potential funding sources cited have ranged from native St. Louisian and Mad Men actor Jon Hamm (no kidding, and no word is he's aware of the mention) to local potentates, to private philanthropies, to the City of St. Louis, to the states of Missouri and Illinois, to the Federal government. Funding large projects such as this, absent a dedicated Federal outlay was always going to be a challenge. Those in attendance this past Friday didn't address funding sources directly, but McCaskill suggested the bulk of funds would come from private sources and that a Federal outlay depended heavily on economic recovery.

Perhaps elevated rhetoric is a necessary ingredient to identify funding. Maybe raising expectations and speaking of transforming the region and leaving a new legacy are necessary. Our great expectations for that legacy should include drainage, programming and a reconstituted street grid. The real opportunity here is to transform future change, to set the stage for a new and continuing development paradigm. Now that would be a beautiful, exquisite, majestic, audacious, and enormous accomplishment of which we could all be proud.