St. Louis Pulls I-70 to Boulevard Conversion from Downtown Multimodal Access Study

{the City to River vision of an urban boulevard in place of I-70}

The full story of the city's RFP appears to be something more than what was originally written below, or at least there's another take on it. SLDC Deputy Executive Director Otis Williams and Amy Lampe, SLDC Major Projects Specialist, reached out to offer more information. Williams says he was mistaken to say that the I-70 issue was "the primary reason" the study was held up. The real issue, they say, is that the $90,000 available to produce the study simply couldn't properly address the original language below. This is certainly true and the scope of the study has changed. According to another source, there were also some rather mundane bureaucratic issues causing delays. Although the study has not been finalized, we have learned that it will likely spell out the steps needed to eventually de-designate approximately one mile of I-70 as an Interstate, without offering a judgement on the merits of the idea. If so, the study will fall quite short of what was hoped for a year and a half ago, but perhaps the idea will live on. The original post is below:

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.

These words were included in the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) "Downtown Multimodal Access Study" RFP in February 2012. The study was to be completed by December 2012. Today, Tim Logan reports that the disappearing study is back, but stripped of the language above. The question Logan is unable to resolve is "why?"

Did the Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) push for its exclusion? It's well-known that several of the agency's engineers oppose the idea. But MoDOT doesn't set policy, technically. MoDOT serves their client, the City of St. Louis, in such matters. Did Mayor Slay or Alderwoman Young ask the SLDC Board to remove the language? Young recently blocked a proposed Board of Alderman resolution endorsing the study. Did CityArchRiver want it gone? It's difficult to understand why, as the study falls outside their project boundaries.

But gone it is. The Partnership for Downtown supplied local matching funds for the study on the condition that study of I-70 conversion to a boulevard be included. According to some accounts, the paragraph at the top of this story was an add-on, only included at the insistence of Partnership leadership. The Partnership is currently searching for a new President and CEO following the May resignation of Maggie Campbell. Campbell had more than once publicly expressed support for the I-70 study. Downtown businesses and organizations lined up to support study of the concept.

The consultants contracted to conduct the study presented preliminary findings months ago. Then the study sat. From Logan's story: "Content issues," said SLDC deputy executive director Otis Williams, who said most of the "issues" involved the I-70 elevated lanes. "That was the primary reason. We had to stop and have a discussion about that." "We" who? As is too often the case in city planning here, no one owns the issue. Who is responsible for the content of the study and what is the justification for the change?

An initial consultant presentation was met with intense opposition from the St. Louis City Streets Department and CityArchRiver. The move surprised consultants who had simply followed the content of the RFP. The preliminary study, according to more than one account, endorsed converting elevated I-70 to a boulevard and highlighted the benefits of such a plan. Yet it appears clear that the political forces aligned to insure the private plans for remaking a portion of downtown and the Arch grounds were willing to shelve the study for a full year in order to eliminate the I-70 language.

After the story went live on the Post-Dispatch website, Logan later Tweeted: City called back about I-70 elevated lanes. Said they were cut from downtown study b/c of $, not unwillingness. Still, no $ for new study. There's no word yet if the study will completely omit the I-70 to boulevard concept, or simply not offer a full view of options. The funding provided by the Partnership for the study, will now study other issues. And this still leaves the question of "who" cut the I-70 portion of the study. If it wasn't cut due to an unwillingness to explore the idea, where does the willingness to explore the idea exist? The downtown alderperson, Mayor and CityArchRiver clearly do not support the idea, yes without explanation. Despite public opinion and support from businesses and organizations along the corridor, those controlling the levers of politics won't permit the discussion to take place.

It’s time for accountability, not conspiracy theories, but this raises the clear implication that the I-70 portion of the study was initially included to simply pacify boulevard supporters and mollify those who believed CityArchRiver wasn’t taking a holistic enough approach. If so, it did its job. This site applauded the inclusion, the Architect’s Newspaper championed the progress. Then nothing happened.

More than three years ago, Mayor Francis Slay was proud to announce that he had directed all city departments to expedite CityArchRiver plans and assist whenever possible. The goal: to complete the project by October 2015. Along the way, the public has been ignored and city streets have been deleted on the planning board without explanation. The design work has proceeded from renderings to engineering drawings out of sight and public input has been brushed aside.

As noted in An Arch Grounds Primer for a Suddenly Aware Board of Aldermen, The National Park Service received 123 pieces of correspondence when soliciting public opinion, as required by law. In total, 119 comments supported strengthening the city’s street grid and exploring the conversion of I-70 into an urban boulevard. The NPS endorsed the larger CityArchRiver project while dismissing pro-boulevard comments as not being relevant as they concerned property outside of the park.

Then MoDOT presented a sham public meeting at which it offered two alternative development plans for the "lid" over one block of I-70. The alternatives were both at least a decade old and both labeled, "Does not meet the need and purpose of the (CityArchRiver) project." Nice alternatives, huh? Why is studying an issue that has been recognized by architects, designers, residents, visitors and the city for fifty years seemingly so controversial? Why is exploring best practices and evaluating the options at hand anything less than an obvious path forward?

The issue at hand is really the issue of how to envision the future of St. Louis, and not the political and hidden power plays that we all understand shape the city to some degree. But why isn’t anyone willing to own and explain the apparent controversy surrounding the study? When will a political victory over (perceived) opponents not be an end unto itself? When will the most simple step of discussing ideas for our city’s future be rewarded?

Ultimately, the question remains, how does a community alter the political calculus to make a planning and vision victory a political victory as well? In the case of I-70 in downtown St. Louis, CityArchRiver will need to run its course. We should all celebrate in October 2015; celebrate the genuine accomplishments of CityArchRiver, and the passing of the project and the next opportunity to create a better St. Louis. In the meantime, we’re only 1,000 $50 donations away from producing one of these:

I-10 Removal and Claiborne Alternatives – New Orleans by nextSTL