Disappearing Deadlines and Deleted Design: Time to Consider All Options for the Arch Grounds

MVVA 01/26/11 Arch grounds design updateA year ago tomorrow, Michael Van Valkenburg and Associates (MVVA) was announced as the winning team in the effort to reimagine the Arch grounds and its relationship with the City of St. Louis and the Mississippi River. The competition, managed by the CityArchRiver2015 Foundation, attracted incredible talent to focus on how to best connect downtown, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) and the river. Some of the more audacious visions were left on the design table, including the Weiss-Manfredi east side and the Team Behnisch vision of added pedestrian space and reconnected street grid.

While the MVVA selection seemed underwhelming to some at the time, if realized, would have truly been transformational. Since the winning announcement, it has become clear why a less ambitious plan was selected. The site is incredibly complex, involving everyone from the City of St. Louis to the Army Corps of Engineers, the National Park Service, and dozens of others. With so many stakeholders (read: limitations) wholesale transformation was never really going to be possible. In addition, funding such a project is an extraordinary task. This is becoming ever more clear as the MVVA plan continues to be scaled back. Gone are many of the elements that made the plan attractive.

Elements that remain are increasingly being planned for after the once hard-and-fast October, 2015 deadline. The gondola and east side expansion (one of the 10 primary design goals), among other changes will have to wait. While once, anything suggested for after the deadline was verboten (see City to River), it's becoming a common refrain. Why then, is there no discussion of planning for the future transformation of I-70 to an urban boulevard by CityArchRiver or MVVA?

What may be most disconcerting is the lack of information or development of the design plan. Having been selected in September 2010, the plan was updated and presented to the public in January 2011. The most recent presentation, made this week, offered no changes to the January presentation. We have now passed a full year with one, significantly scaled-back revision and none of the promised public outreach from CityArchRiver. The following was originally posted on the City to River website:

After nine months of little news, the plan to redevelop and renew the Arch grounds was presented by Michael Van Valkenburg at an American Society for Landscape Architects (ASLA) – St. Louis Chapter event Tuesday at the Forest Park Visitor’s Center. The roughly 25-minute presentation provided no new information. Though the presentation was not made available to the press or public, Van Valkenburg stated that several slides had been presented previously. All images offered appeared to be the same as those offered at the January public presentation.

A slide at that presentation depicted reversed I-70 ramps at Washington Avenue, the removal of the north parking garage, closure of Washington Avenue adjacent to the Eads, the “lid” over the depressed Interstate lanes, ADA ramps to the riverfront, and the reconfiguration of Third Street at Laclede’s Landing. In addition, the south gateway adjacent to the Poplar Street Bridge and addition of land on the east side were shown as not being completed by October 2015.

Although these elements were shown in January, they were not explained. Several elements, such as the removal of the water gauges, remain unexplained. The headline from that event was the announcement that a gondola over the Mississippi River, originally offered by the Behnisch design team, had been added to the design plan in lieu of other considered south gateway options. Now the news, as reported by the St. Louis Beacon and Post-Dispatch, seems to be that what we saw in January has been confirmed. Aspirations for 2015 have been officially scaled back.

This isn’t necessarily a negative, as it should allow us to more fully consider the unique opportunity to recreate our city’s relationship with our iconic monument and river. It is a positive step for the CityArchRiver organization to have Michael Van Valkenburg communicating with the St. Louis community. However, the lack of any additional information after nine months begs more questions.

The initial rejection by competition organizers of the City to River presented plan to convert I-70 between the PSB and new Mississippi River Bridge to an urban boulevard focused on the project’s assumed inability to be completed by October, 2015. CityArchRiver has now confirmed that much of the initial design plan, including very significant elements such as expansion of the east side park, south gateway and gondola will not be completed by October 2015. Why, then, does the City to River option, supported by many St. Louis businesses and organizations, and all five of the competition’s finalist design teams, remain unconsidered?

Has there, in fact, been any revision or refinement of the design plan first presented in January 2011? Why not spell out any changes and explain the process involved? How has the design team arrived at the decision to close city streets, reinvest in Interstate infrastructure and reconfigure traffic patterns? Is this choice based on a longitudinal traffic study?

The standing $578M effort to reinvigorate the Arch grounds could not have more significant public implications. Why then, does the process continue to be opaque and uninviting to public input? What incredible contrast to the very public Forest Park Forever process that has rewarded the St. Louis region with one of the very best large urban parks in the nation.

It’s time to consider not only the most expedient, but the best available options in the remaking of our region’s front door.

*I currently serve as the Chair of the City to River organization