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

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