A Plan for the Gateway Arch Leaves a St. Louis Highway in Place. But for How Long?

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{I-70 and the Gateway Arch, downtown St. Louis – credit: MoDOT}

St. Louis’ downtown riverfront is on the verge of a transformation. A major new bridge span over the Mississippi River is nearing completion, while on April 2, in separate but simultaneous votes, residents of St. Louis City and St. Louis County approved Proposition P, a 0.1875 percent (3/16th) sales tax increase that will fund a diverse range of regional parks and trails initiatives.

The complicated arrangement is expected to raise between $700 million and $1 billion in new revenue over 20 years, shoring up funding for existing parks and expanding available money for the regional trail building district known as Great Rivers Greenway. Most controversially, it dedicates an unprecedented stream of local revenue to a national park, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, home of the Gateway Arch.

Great Rivers Greenway has enjoyed broad support in the St. Louis region since its creation by vote in 2001. Proposition P nearly doubles the agency’s small but steady stream of tax revenue, and will accelerate its progress building a regional network of off-street bike trails. The new money for existing parks will primarily address deferred maintenance and received scant media attention in St. Louis before the vote. But the signature piece, funding JNEM, generated months of discussion, both for breaking new ground in funding federally owned properties and for its efforts to connect downtown St. Louis to the Gateway Arch grounds.

Prior to the vote, National Park Service spokesperson David Barna said that the NPS “cannot find a similar situation” in which a local tax levy was directed at any national park. Lawmakers in Wyoming attempted to set the precedent with a local sales tax to fund Yellowstone National Park infrastructure in 2012, but the bill stalled early in the legislative process.

After false starts during the previous decade, St. Louis political and business leadership coalesced around a plan developed by CityArchRiver 2015, a non-profit lead by longtime political dealmaker and corporate attorney Walter Metcalfe. CAR 2015 launched a design competition and selected the firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates as the winner in September 2010. The design reoriented the park entrance axis from the garage on the north to a west to east flow, taking advantage of a new museum entrance and pedestrian cap over the short below-grade section of I-70.

Reaction to the competition winner in the progressive community began favorably but eroded over time as subsequent design iterations, driven less by MVVA and more by the Missouri Department of Transportation, removed existing surface streets in favor of modified highway infrastructure. In December 2012 many younger residents appeared at a Board of Aldermen committee hearing to testify against advancing the tax proposal to the ballot. The excitement at finally connecting downtown to the Gateway Arch was chastened by fear that similar mistakes in access that plagued the park for 50 years were again being made.

arch lid evolution
{evolution of the "lid" 2010-2012 – credit: nextSTL}

Before the Gateway Arch was completed in 1967, and before the nation-changing Federal Highway Act of 1956 was passed, St. Louis built the Third Street Highway, widening 2.3 miles of Third Street from two to six lanes and displacing 3,000 residents in the process. The state senator for the area, Anthony Webbe, successfully fended off the project for two years, but by 1951 St. Louis Mayor Joseph Darst had pushed it through.

Only a few years later, in 1963, the Third Street Highway was rechristened I-70 and sunk below grade, forming the “depressed lanes” that separate the downtown commercial district from the National Expansion Memorial, just as the two legs of architect Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch were beginning to rise skyward.

The landscape changed little over the next 50 years. The busy, noisy interstate and associated exit ramps made approaching the Arch from downtown unpleasant at best. The most recognizable symbol of St. Louis, a triumph of modern sculpture and the tallest landmark in the U.S., was utterly isolated from the adjacent downtown.

Visions to correct the access problem with a pedestrian bridge over I-70 date back to the original park grounds designed by Saarinen and landscape architect Dan Kiley, but were never built. Saarinen died in 1961, and Kiley’s association with the project ended in 1964 before the Arch was completed.

The CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation’s design is in many ways the culmination of the unfulfilled work of the 1950s and ’60s designs for the Arch Grounds. A central component of the plan is the long sought-after “lid” over the highway, offering direct pedestrian access from downtown to the Gateway Arch. Rebranded the “Park over the Highway” by CAR 2015, the lid will in fact alleviate some of the obvious isolation created by the highway. But for many observers who have followed the project, the result is underwhelming. Much has changed in how we view urban highway infrastructure since the lid was conceived at the dawn of the highway era 60 years ago.

In the intervening years, other cities proved you could remove an urban highway altogether and reconnect a street grid to a waterfront or urban park. The successes are well known: The Embarcadero in San Francisco, Tom McCall Park in Portland, the West Side Highway in New York and the Park Freeway entering downtown Milwaukee. Other projects on the near horizon include two miles of I-10 over Clairborne Avenue in New Orleans and I-81 in Syracuse. As CAR2015 was ramping up their efforts for the design competition, local advocates for converting I-70 formed the group City to River to increase local awareness of the viability and benefits of a boulevard option.

Grassroots support for removing or converting the highway seemed to be growing. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had editorialized in favor of removing the highway in early 2010, calling it “A dismal counterpoint to Eero Saarinen’s transcendent symbol of westward migration.” The Congress for the New Urbanism included I-70 on its list of “Freeways Without a Future” in 2010. During a round of public comments to the National Park Service about the CAR 2015 design, an incredible 97 percent of respondents referenced removing I-70. Even the MVVAdesign submission suggested eliminating the highway would complement their design, declaring, “The benefits of removing the highway altogether are clear.”

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{the new Mississippi River Bridge carrying I-70 nears completion – credit: MoDOT}

Despite public interest, CAR 2015 remained agnostic on removing I-70, saying it was in the province of the Missouri Department of Transportation. For its part, MoDOT made a similar claim, saying there was no reason to pursue a study if it was not part of the CAR 2015 scope of work.

Looming over both decisions is the impending completion of the new bridge over the Mississippi River. In 2014, the bridge will carry I-70 directly across the river north of downtown, bypassing the Gateway Arch grounds completely. With traffic counts expected to drop by up to 50 percent, highway conversion will be more feasible than ever. But in the near future, with tax funding directed at the CAR 2015 improvements and MoDOT not committed the project, it’s an idea with a constituency waiting for both a champion and funding.

Leading up to the April 2 vote, urban-minded St. Louisans were conflicted on the modifiedMVVA plan and tax proposal. Was the new tax a progressive measure to build first-rate bike infrastructure in the region? Or was it a missed opportunity to solve the vexing divisions created by I-70 50 years ago? While the answer to the first question is a firm yes, the second remains years away from a definitive conclusion.

Scott Ogilvie is a former bike mechanic and graphic designer who now serves on the St. Louis Board of Alderman, representing the city’s 24th Ward. This piece appeared first on the excellent Next City site, home to long form journalism focused on cities and urban issues.

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  • Peter Green

    The best suggestion made in this regard was by a team of Washington University architecture students, who recognized the opportunity afforded by the new I-70 bridge and proposed removing the sunken highway and filling in the already hollowed-out and established underground space as a public parking garage to serve adjacent activities–the Arch grounds, the hotels and office buildings. Peter H. Green AIA, AICP, Architect and Planner

    • dempster holland

      I Question the idea that the arch is inacessible from dowtown and that
      removing the depressed lanes would make it more accessible. During
      the day on a work day, my wife and I walked from the courthouse to the arch, and simply had to wait for a light change to cross memorial
      drive. Remove the depressed lanes and the result will be increased traffic on Memorial drive or on fourth st or Broadwy. And the
      other dumb idea is removing the parking garage at the north end of the
      arch grounds, which is the most accessible entrance to the arch.

      • Alex Ihnen

        You provide the only example of access between south of I-64 to Washington Avenue. The Arch is so inaccessible for long stretches that people literally don’t know it. The transition lanes (from elevated to depressed and vice versa) are the the biggest problems as they constitute four solid blocks both north and south of the Gateway Mall that are completely inaccessible. I’d agree, however, that access at the Mall isn’t bad today. Making Memorial/I-70 a city street would be similar to Kingshighway at Forest Park and the Central West End is our city’s most dense, vibrant neighborhood. Crossings could be improved, but people move back and forth from the CWE and Forest Park easily every day.

  • dredger

    Scott, we know where the stakeholders stand with the depressed sections of I-70 and the soon to be constructed lid and how convenient it is for parties to ignore conversation that involves anthing other then that. It is going to happen and it will be a long long time before a significant change happens to the depressed sections.
    What I’m curious about is if there is any political support for taking down the rasied seciton of I-70? It is very much doable, not cost prohibitive and might actually fit into future Bottleworks and RAMS developments with relative minor impact on travel time if a full study was actually done. If so, do you see this support growing? Is there any support that you are aware of from the players who will soon give us an idea what investment they are willing to make or want to see in this part of downtown, either it be McKee with Bottleworks, RAMS organization, and even Pinnacle who have a chunk of the property on the east side of I-70?

    I ask becuase to me you are still in the show me state. Tackling an infrascture issue like this one where you have two distinct stretches of I-70 piecemeal might bring around a better outcome in a much shorter timeline. It would be like closing a freeway for reconstruction but do it in two distinct sections. Once everybody admitted that sky wasn’t falling for the first section it was all about praise for a good idea by the time the second part happen. I really think this is how it is has to play out. Otherwise, you get another big idea that doesn’t go anywhere even though it can be supported be a solid track record from every other metro area that is successful.

    • jhoff1257

      Somebody correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the City of St. Louis issued a Request for Qualifications or Proposals for a Downtown Transit Study, which included streetcars, light rails, improved bus service and removing the elevated sections of I-70.

      • Request for Proposals from the St. Louis Development Corporation for the Downtown Multimodal Access Study. Within the RFP, there’s no mention of studying any kind of improved transit options, only pedestrian, street, and highway improvements. It did specifically call on studying the feasibility of removing the elevated section of I-70.

        Somebody should contact the SLDC to find out how far along they are with the study.

        • jhoff1257

          Thanks!

  • Don

    Never mind. I was off topic.

  • Steve Pona

    I’m reminded of (at least) two other recent infrastructure blunders that will affect regional transportation efficiency for the next 50 years: No access for MetroLink on the new Hwy 40 project (down the middle would have been perfect); Allowing a tiny municipality to use developers and build a strip mall to block southward expansion of the 170 Innerbelt. Can we stop acting like children and move this region forward?! Please?!

    • Must say I disagree with both of your examples.

    • Alex Ihnen

      I’m actually open, in concept, to the I-170 issue. However, putting MetroLink on an Interstate corridor, and especially the one with the least residential and job density of any in the entire region, would have been a massive blunder.

      • Vanishing STL

        The south extension of the I-170 was not stopped just by one municipality and a developer, but by THOUSANDS of citizens from Brentwood, Webster, Shrewsbury and Affton who stood up and said NO, highways are NOT always the answer. I think its safe to say that none of these communities regret doing so.

        • guest

          And now they all agree that the best option is to move that traffic to River Des Peres boulevard in STL City!

          • dredger

            I would re state that as “St. Louis county agrees the best option is to move that traffic to River Des Peres Blvd in STL city!” I think the citizens from Brentwood, Webster, Shrewsbury agree with south county connector routing traffic around their communitieis just as much as they didn’t want I-170 any farther south.

            What I would do as a city, agree to the south county connector county if the county would put its support in extending metrolink cross county down the River Des Peres Greenway. In other words, make it a deal that gives options.

        • Alex Ihnen

          The “in theory” part is really just the thought that an inner ring Interstate might have made it more possible to consider eventually eliminating some of the Interstates from our core historic urban area.

    • Chippewa

      Gonna have to disagree. I’m very happy we don’t have more interstates cutting up the region and displacing people from their homes and lives.

  • Thomas R Shrout Jr

    Great post. Keep up the good work.