An Arch Grounds Design Primer for a Suddenly Aware Board of Aldermen

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Arch pano

Something interesting happened at the City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen Transportation and Commerce Committee meeting recently. It seems some elected officials in the city just realized that a private organization with mayoral carte blanche has redesigned the Arch grounds. Who knew? One could exhaustively contemplate how an elected official could be unaware of the project (after all, the BoA did pass a bill putting a city sales tax that will total $120M+ over 20 years to voters), but one could also sit dumbfounded that CityArchRiver, MoDOT and the mayor’s office have all failed to adequately inform locally elected officials of their plans for the $578M project.

This lack of knowledge led aldermen to ask MoDOT for detailed plans for the redevelopment area before they would vote in favor of a bill that would allow MoDOT to take possession of city land in order to build the one block I-70 lid. This may seem an odd point at which to question the project’s design and history, but aldermen have never been given an opportunity to vote on any component of the project design, leaving moments like this the only point of possible leverage. It would appear that there’s much more of which the city’s representatives may be unaware. Luckily nextSTL is here. What follows is a concise guide to the CityArchRiver development plan, public input and detailed design of the “lid”.

Committee meeting summary via St. Louis Core – Alderwoman Phyllis Young, D- 7th Ward, introduced Board Bill 83 that would move forward plans to remove Memorial Drive and build a “lid” over one block of I-70. Alderman Bosley, 3rd Ward, wisely (did I just type that?) questioned the amount of public participation in the planning process and expressed concern with plans to close Washington Avenue from 3rd Street to the riverfront. Chairman Conway, 8th Ward, questioned whether or not the redevelopment would make it more difficult for visitors to access the monument (it will). Alderwoman Young said these concerns were considered, though she didn’t say by whom. Alderman Shane Cohn, 25th Ward, questioned MoDOT’s choice of this project versus alternate redevelopment proposals that call for making Memorial Drive an at-grade boulevard, removing the highway underpasses and bridges intersecting the Arch grounds and reconnecting the street grid. The representative from MoDOT explained that the proposal removing city streets was the option requested for analysis and planning and that the boulevard option wasn't being considered.

Project History
August 2010 – the five design teams presented development plans that all featured plans to replace Interstate 70 with an urban boulevard as the best solution to reconnect the city with the Arch grounds and riverfront. Each design either called for the eventual conversion, or was designed to accommodate the plan.

The winning design team led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) recommended keeping Memorial Drive in place with the “lid”. In the final design competition jury report, it was stated time and time again that the “closure of Washington Avenue between Memorial Drive and the river is a mistake.” The report also stated that the “closure of Memorial Drive overturns that sense of (street) grid” that connects downtown.

{MVVA winning design provided a "lid" with Memorial Drive in place, largely maintaining the street grid}

January 2011 – CityArchRiver and MVVA announced major revisions to the winning submission. The biggest change was the removal of eight blocks of city streets. Gone was Memorial Drive connecting downtown at the Arch. Gone was Washington Avenue between Memorial Drive and the river. No explanation was provided and the presentation didn’t allow for questions from attendees nor provide any format for feedback.

{Memorial Drive was removed without comment in late 2010}

November 2011 – The National Park Service, as required by federal law, was required to accept public feedback of the CityArchRiver project environmental assessment (EA). The same design made public in January 2011 was presented for comment. The NPS received 123 pieces of correspondence and parsed them into individual comments. In total, 119 comments supported strengthening the city’s street grid and exploring the conversion of I-70 into an urban boulevard. The NPS dismissed comments as not being relevant as they concerned a MoDOT property outside of the park. However, in the final EA, the NPS wholly endorsed the removal of Memorial Drive.

February 2012 – The city's development corporation released its "Request for Proposals for Downtown Multimodal Access Study". The bland-titled 22-page document contains the most significant step forward in the effort convert the Interstate to an urban boulevard: In particular, address the potential removal of the elevated sections of I-70 from north of Pine St. to O’Fallon St, to determine feasibility and traffic impacts should the elevated sections be completely removed, brought to grade, and what various alternatives might be considered for this scenario to occur long-term.

{the plan to convert I-70 to a boulevard has shown to produce more than $1B in potential development}

April 2012 – MoDOT holds legally required public meeting presenting three alternatives to the “lid” plan and proposed closure of Memorial Drive. Two of the three alternatives, the two that leave Memorial Drive, and the city street grid, in place are labeled, “Does not meet the purpose and need of the project." Clearly the ideas had been dusted off the shelf to have something, anything to present the public. One option shows Busch Memorial Stadium in the background and the other is even older. The client for this project is the CityArchRiver2015 Foundation via the city. Clearly they did not ask MoDOT or MVVA to consider anything other than the "preferred alternative".

MoDOT has not summarized and made public the responses received, but did respond to individuals who voiced support for an urban boulevard in place of I-70. MoDOT simply stated that the CityArchRiver plan "precludes eliminating I-70 and turning it into a boulevard."

MoDOT I-70 lid alternatives
{MoDOT presented this drawing as a design alternative to closing Memorial Drive}

Summary – It’s clear that CityArchRiver wants to close Memorial Drive and Washington Avenue. “Why” is not clear. Removing city streets removes connections. It’s also very expensive. In addition, closing these city streets then requires tens of millions of dollars in additional infrastructure projects such as reversing I-70 exit ramps, reconfiguring intersections at Washington Avenue and the foot of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Bridge. Think of it as an infrastructure Ponzi scheme. The design has been produced by a private organization, stamped with Mayoral approval and set in concrete with no public accountability.

Ostensibly, removing Memorial Drive allows visitors to get to and from the Arch and Luther Ely Smith Square without crossing a city street. To go anywhere else, well, everyone will have to cross several city streets. Anyone arriving by car, bike or on foot will have to cross city streets. Only those being dropped off by someone, who will then have to navigate downtown streets, will not cross a city street. Of course those visitors are just the kind that the CityArchRiver project has stated it hopes to eliminate – the Arch visitor who simply comes and goes.

To-date, nearly three years after a winning design team was chose and a preliminary design revealed, the public has not been allowed to weigh in on the project’s design. The two legally required opportunities have been nearly fraudulent efforts that either defined the vast majority of public opinion as not relevant, or simply dismissed it as not conforming to the design settled upon in private. The City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen has similarly not been granted an opportunity to assess the project as a whole. As such, what appear to be simply procedural considerations, such as the innocuous Board Bill 83, are the only opportunity for elected representatives to impact the project and voice their concerns and those of their constituents.

MoDOT CityArchRiver update 8-30-2012
{the overall highway infrastructure project at the Arch}

MoDOT CityArchRiver update 8-30-2012
{the highway infrastructure project and elimination of Memorial Drive detail}

{image of CityArchRiver "lid" – Pine Street pedestrian access would be maintained}

Additional ways to visualize the project:

Arch lid street disruption

Arch mouse cheese_problem_wide

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  • Stlplanr

    Um, does anyone else notice that the depressed section in MoDOT’s visual shows a WIDER freeway? So not only are they not considering a boulevard but actually widening the freeway from four to six general purpose lanes?!

    • guest

      Not counting the lid, the barrier between downtown and the Arch is intensified with traffic barriers under the City+Arch+River plan.

  • Alex Ihnen

    Calling people names in a comment will result in that comment being deleted. The same rules that govern the Forum apply to article comments.

    • Sook Deek

      What type of operation are you running here? Hell, I made a concerted effort to not use cuss words.
      I hate MoDot. In fact, I hate all DOTs. How can I express that here???

  • Brian

    The first 2 paragraphs of this article seems to present contradictory views of the BoA – are they now using what power they have over the project to have it re-evaluated because it’s the first time they’ve had the opportunity or because they just now realized the project is happening?

    Also, I was recently explaining to someone (who is probably very much on the same page as most people here) that it would be best to get rid of that stretch of I-70 and replace it with a Blvd and she immediately pointed out that it is already impossible to go from I-44 or I-55 north to I-64 without some creative routing through downtown and if the I-70 stretch is removed, one would also not be able to get from either I-55 or I-44 to I-70 (or vice-versa). I guess we’ll all have to drive several miles into Illinois to go from say, I-44N to the airport via interstate? I can see how the added 10-15 minutes of commute will cause some serious grumblings unless the Blvd is directly connected to each highway. Even then, it’s probably going to be jammed. Am I missing something in this plan?

    • Alex Ihnen

      There are a couple important issues here. First, the vast majority of people using I-70 at the Arch are arriving at or leaving downtown. A boulevard would provide more options for them to do this, rather than the one or two Interstate ramps today. So, a boulevard in place of I-70 would best serve the greatest number of people who drive. This is in addition to being better for pedestrians, businesses, etc. – which are compelling reasons alone.

      Second, and more important to your explanation of the idea: If I-70 between the PSB and new bridge were a boulevard instead of an Interstate people would still be able to drive on it. From I-44 or I-55 going north into downtown, the Interstate would simply become a boulevard. A driver would continue going straight north, likely stop at a stoplight or two and then continue straight onto I-70. In terms of time, this section is approximately one mile long. If you average even just 10mph on this one mile instead of 60mph, the added time is 5mins, and that’s exceptionally conservative. And better yet, instead of accidents in the depressed lanes clogging the Interstate, a driver could navigate away from any congestion.

  • Gary Kreie

    With the new Mississippi River Bridge taking all the I-70 traffic across the river to the North, there is no longer any need for an Interstate highway in this stretch at all. No “inter-state” traffic will use it. Where would it take them? It would only be used for local traffic, and it should be restored to a normal regular local street, like all the other ones downtown that people cross every day.

    The diagrams shows that MODOT plans to rename the depressed lanes stretch “I-44”. So let me get this straight. If you are coming from Tulsa and going to Chicago (old Route 66), I-44 currently ends with a merge into I-55 near Soulard before crossing the Poplar Street Bridge. With the change, drivers who stay on I-44 will find that it goes North past the Arch and then doubles back toward KC and becomes I-70 Westbound. There will be no lanes that connect East Bound I-44 to East Bound I-70 across the new bridge. That won’t be confusing.

    Alternatively, if the Boulevard was built as a local exit to 3rd street or whatever we would call it, then I-44 could end in Soulard as it does now. No new confusion. If we build the lid, just rename the lanes under it “The Depressed Lanes”,

  • ealfotd

    Great article Alex, a couple unanswered questions though. Sorry if these are simplistic but my understanding of city politics isn’t great.
    1. What is the current status of BB 83?
    2. Is there anything the BoA can do to force a comprehensive study of I-70 removal (in regards to the CityArchRiver plan, I assume that if they requested and funded their own study it could be done)?
    3. Is there anything that citizens who support this plan should be doing to encourage its consideration?

    • Alex Ihnen

      1. BB 83 will be considered again next week and likely pass.
      2. Yes, the BoA can support the study already in the works, and/or could ask/require the city to study the boulevard. This idea has been introduced by 24th Ward Alderman Scott Ogilvie. Alderwoman Phyllis Young, who represents downtown prevented a full discussion of the idea at the BoA, let alone a study.
      3. Contact your alderperson. Contact Phyllis Young. Contact Mayor Slay. Contact CityArchRiver.

      • ealfotd

        Thank you so much! Luckily Phyllis is my Alderwoman, so she will be hearing from me today.

        • guest

          The time to have talked to Phyllis Young passed years ago. The Arch planning effort never really became an aldermanic conversation until newcomer Scott Ogilvie introduced a resolution to try to get the city to study highway removal , which was basically blocked by Young. Alderman Young was in the tank for the lid years before the City+Arch+River plan was ever put on the table.

          • wump

            Phyllis Young is a dinosaur. Scott Ogilvie is an idiot. Stick with Shane Cohn.

          • guest

            “Wump” – more fun than a fortune cookie and a Magic 8 ball combined!

  • guest

    Maybe a landscape architect can answer this question: How difficult/doable is it to grow/maintain a lush lawn on a concrete deck over a highway, especially to survive the extreme heat of a St. Louis summer or cold of winter? It looks pretty in the pictures, but is it a maintenance challenge?

    It seems like it would be very difficult to maintain moisture in an environment like that. Sort of like a potted plant on your patio, sitting in the hot sun all day. Those are hard to keep healthy. Maybe they plant zoysia on a foot of top soil? Wouldn’t that soil lose its nutrients in a hurry? Maybe “wump” knows the answers?

  • wump

    Shut the fuck up about your inane blvd, its over, ya lost, ya blew it capisce? Ya fired

    • guest

      Yo, “wump”: Hilarious! Funniest comment of the week!

      Bonus: now we know how to spell “caspisce”!

    • Alex Ihnen

      Battles, wars, death, good ideas and such.

      • Sook Deek

        Where did my reply go? I am passionate about this topic and this wump POS needed to be dealt with.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Your reply was deleted. It’s easy to share your passion, but comments directed at individuals with that type of language won’t remain. This isn’t stltoday.

  • guest

    Since now they are bringing the park area right up next to the overlook into the depressed lanes (for what look like a 1,000 feet or more), they are going to have to worry about crazy people and pranksters throwing things down into the pit, including themselves and little children. Maybe they will station guards there?

  • guest

    Seriously. Who did tell MODOT not to study the boulevard option? Wouldn’t that be good to know? Sounds like MODOT’s getting its Pontius Pilot on. “It wasn’t us; it was *them*. It was *them* that ordered the killing of the boulevard.”

    • Alex Ihnen

      The City of St. Louis is the client. The city has agreed to support the CityArchRiver vision.

  • Paul

    Honestly I was a fan of the lid idea before even considering the removal of the highway. Now I can’t believe that highway was ever built, but most St. Louisans use highways more than sidewalks. We speak the language of cars and it’s hard to transition out of.

  • samizdat

    Further confirming my observation that the majority of alderman are idiots.

    Secondarily, and shortly, as I have little time to parse the whole article, this whole plan–and the process by which it was chosen, and then bowdlerized–is just one more big-ass clusterf***. In other words, St. Louis ‘bidness’ as usual. We will end up with the weakest, most worthless, least valuable project this City hasn’t seen since Pruitt-Igoe, Mill Creek Valley, or the original clearing of the riverfront. I am disgusted at the secrecy of those involved, and it will only be when the whole c***-up is completed that we will finally know why the PTB, ie, our betters, chose this stinking pile of rotting flesh over the desires of the citizenry. *spit*

  • guest

    Amazing story. Love the quote from the MODOT official stating they were told not to study the boulevard option. By whom?

    How can these public agencies ignore overwhelming citizen input favoring study of the boulevard option? It’s as if the entire planning effort was one gigantic moving facade, all with the sole goal of capping the highway. And the NPS even ignoring its own preference for highway removal. MODOT reigns apparently.

    Then to hear of questions from aldermen at this 11th hour and it’s like a sad lonely shred of humanity entering the story when the pre-determined outcome has already been decided. Truly amazing.

  • T-Leb

    CityArchRiver is an exclusive club that gives no shits what the public thinks is best for the city, region or to create a thriving downtown. I’m guessing the reason the public doesn’t have input is b/c it’s being saved for special donors. I bet everything outside of the park is littered with big donor names. I’d love to know different, but details are not really available…

  • Joe2122

    Keep beating the drum on this one, Alex. The lack of visionary leadership and the complete disregard for public input are frustrating. Not only that, the result could be a HUGE impediment to growth in the city for decades to come.

    How about we make the Arch part of St. Louis again?

    • dempster holland

      As things stand now, you can drive to the arch, park at the north
      garage , take the elevator to the top and walk to the arch without
      crossing any streets. The new plan would take away this garage,
      meaning that you have to park somewhere else, cross some streets
      to get to the lid and then walk to the arch. How is this an improvement?