Remake of Kiener Plaza Gets Go Ahead, “The Runner” to Remain

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Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO

Yesterday, the city’s Preservation Review Board voted to recommend approval of the final design for a new $20M Kiener Plaza as part of the CityArchRiver effort to remake the Arch grounds area. Initially planned to be completed by October 2015, construction is now set to begin later this year and finish in 2017.

Although a city park, and not part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial like the adjacent Old Courthouse and Luther Ely Smith Square, Kiener has been included in the scope of the CityArchRiver project from the beginning. An agreement with the city to redesign Kiener required public meetings and review by the Preservation Board.

Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO
{the revised MVVA plan retains The Runner and central fountain}

Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO
{fall 2014 Kiener Plaza design}

The plaza, a 1.9-acre city park, was dedicated in 1962, a product of urban renewal which demolished blocks of buildings to create the Gateway Mall, a series of parks stretching 15 blocks from the Arch to Union Station. The current design, organized around an amphitheater, waterfall, and “The Runner” fountain, dates to the 1980s.

There’s some recognition in St. Louis that Kiener could be refreshed, and it’s been the site for some great public events including sports rallies, concerts, and is a popular stop for wedding photos, family fun, and just hanging out. Beyond this activity, the park has suffered from a lack of regular programing and maintenance, resulting in thin daily crowds.

Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO
{Kiener Plaza and May Amphitheater as it appears today}

The amphitheater’s cascading fountain attracts the most activity and interaction. Reminiscent of Angela Danadjieva’s celebrated Keller Fountain Park in Portland (a designer at Lawrence Halprin & Associates) (and Halprin’s Freeway Park and Lovejoy Fountain Park), the water feature has remained contemporary and wouldn’t be out of place if proposed today. In fact, the waterfall and stepping stones at City Garden, two blocks to the west, often attract the biggest crowds at that park.

Design charrettes have produced numerous, and widely varied visions for Kiener Plaza over the past decade. Some leave the plaza’s form mostly in place, others start over. Unfortunately, no serious effort that we’re aware of imagined repurposing or updating the existing configuration. Every public space falls out of favor with subsequent generations. If a space survives long enough, or is heavily enough used, it may have a chance to remain. If not, it is completely remade. Two of the many imagined designs:

The bet now is that a complete remake and rededication to programming will better activate the space, the same logic being used for the larger CityArchRiver project. Planned is space for concerts, rallies, markets, a civic lawn, children’s play area, and shaded areas to sit. The park itself will grow from 3.05 to 3.67 acres according to CityArchRiver, largely by expanding slightly to the south. Plans call for more than 150 shade trees to replace the 66 sparsely planted ones currently in place.

Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO

The design raises the sunken amphitheater to street level with a central open plaza ringed with nodes of activity and a slightly askew and raised civic lawn at the eastern end. A shade garden, bicycle parking grove, woodland garden, fountain garden, and play garden line the park’s edge. The design has changed little since being released late last year. The one notable difference is The Runner statue and fountain now remain, occupying a central space in the plaza. The statue had been considered for relocation.

The MVVA plan is also meant to better reveal one of the nation’s architectural treasures, the Wainwright Building. Designed by Louis Sullivan and built in 1891, the building is regrettably obscured by the Gateway One building. The open design of the plaza will make its southeast corner much more prominent. The wide walking corridor built as part of City Garden will be continued along Kiener’s south edge.

Kiener Plaza redesign - St. Louis, MO
{the plaza’s new design allows for a more clear view of the historic Wainwright building}

Separate from its design, Kiener Plaza has suffered from its surroundings. Market Street is overly wide along the park and the Ballpark Hilton hotel adds nothing of interest to the streetscape. Gateway One to the west with its cold facade and raised plaza doesn’t help either. Even the stately Old Courthouse hasn’t been great as it hasn’t served as the attraction it could be (that’s set to change with CityArchRiver renovations planned to expand functional exhibition space and recenter the Old Courthouse as a central part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial experience).

But the worst neighbor to the plaza by far has been the hulking, looming Kiener East and West parking garages. At some point the garages were probably considered modern and streamlined, great examples of downtown “renewal”. They’re also hideous, but changes may be coming.

Kiener Plaza East garage - St. Louis, MO
{Kiener Plaza East retail plan by Pace Properties}

The CityArchRiver plan was always conceived as a way to catalyze development on adjacent parcels. This hasn’t happened yet, but proposals are being floated for The Landing, as well as a few adjacent areas. Pace Properties is now marketing Kiener Plaza East for new retail development. The garage would stay, but the retail facade would be raised and the concrete structure painted. Enhancement of the street level experience could have a big impact. With the removal of the Arch garage, Kiener East is now the nearest public garage to the Arch and Old Courthouse.

Kiener Plaza was named in honor of Harry J. Kiener, who was born in St. Louis on February 27, 1881. A multi-sport athlete, he is most noted for being a member of the U.S. track team at the 1904 Olympics in St. Louis. The park is highlighted by the May Amphitheater by Team Four Design (1987) and “The Runner” sculpture. The Runner is a work from Lithuanian-born immigrant William Zorach. The amphitheater takes its name from Morton D. May (1914-1983), a local art collector and heir to May Department stores (Famous-Barr).

A visual history of Kiener Plaza:

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  • Pingback: A Brief Proposal for Development of the Gateway Mall (1969) - nextSTL()

  • Generally against this. The problem with Kiener Plaza has never been about its design, it’s been about its activation and surroundings. Market Street’s too wide and office buildings/businesses don’t front it.

    If there was an organization actively programming the space — swap meets, tasting events, live theatre, live music (rock, symphony, etc) and various approved organizational rallies/fundraisers/etc, it would be valued much more for what it is. Unfortunately the Gateway Foundation never really did that. Are they even around anymore?

    For the amphitheater, a complaint is that it’s uninviting from street level as you can’t see into it. Don’t necessarily agree with that, but a fairly simple solution would be to widen it out so the bowl’s edge touches or joins with the sidewalks. Then your sightlines are much better.

    • John R

      I think you might be thinking of the Gateway Mall Conservancy? Gateway Foundation funded and manages the Citygarden but I don’t think it ever had a relationship with Kiener Plaza. I believe the Conservancy is pretty much dormant for now as the City+Arch+River initiative took the sails out of pursuing the Master Plan at least for now. Hopefully it can re-emerge once things wrap up with the Arch related work.

      I agree with you that we could improve over existing conditions if we just freshened up the amphitheater a bit; but it is seriously deteriorating and I suspect it would take a lot of $$ to get it to become an attractive magnet for folks… personally I think getting rid of the sunken space and going in a different direction is the better way to go if it is cost reasonable.

  • John R

    I think this will be a nice improvement over the existing conditions… I particularly like the extension of the nice walkway/”hallway” on the south side of the Citygarden on down to Broadway and think the western block should become more activated with the play area, etc. The lusher landscaping and tree canopy will be nice as well.

    My biggest concern is how versatile and activated the generous lawn will be… if it is dead except for events then it is not successful. Also, do we know if this will have special management like CItygarden to help with upkeep and programming?

    As for the garages, along with the retail upgrades I’d like to see a wider sidewalk so their could be more outdoor dining taking advantage of one of the iconic urban viewsheds in the nation and helping to activate the street and soften the brutal upper levels.

  • Jeff Leonard

    I’m not as negative on the new design as most of the posts here. Could you tweak the current plaza and improve? Yes. Could you start over and improve more? I think yes. CAR has the resources (budget) and momentum to impact components of downtown. So I’ll take what’s been proposed as incrementally better. I’ve visited the plaza at multiples times of the day, multiples times of the year. It’s clearly underutilized and frankly weary. I think what’s proposed is more versatile and therefore more likely to be active more often.

    Should security be beefed up too? Would that make it more used. Sure. I sat on a citizens input group for CAR, and BY FAR he #1 issue raised over and over and over and over again was the need to beef up security throughout downtown. In the parks, at the Arch, around Busch, in the garages, on the streets, etc. The CAR folks ABSOLUTELY heard the message. Same around the need to integrate programming throughout the CAR footprint: at Keiner, in the Arch grounds and activating the edges, the Old Court House, on the Riverfront, leading into the Landing.

    I just want everyone to realize that the lots of people – private and public – are thinking on the issues raised in this forum. Whether they’re effectively addressed? Time will tell.

  • Presbyterian

    I wish we could do something about Market Street. It’s like Lambert’s off-site backup runway.

  • Benjamin Aronov

    So freaking stupid. Kiener is one of the coolest parts of downtown. If there were enough people living and using the area regularly it would be a major gathering spot and community asset. Instead of investing 20M into something that may actual address the problem, instead our glorious officials are giving us shit. No vision, no imagination. The amphitheater with street musicians, performers, and artists would give St. Louis a very big city feel. Think Union Square in NYC or Jackson Square in New Orleans. Instead we’ll have more grass and trees…….sometimes i hate this town.

  • Dustin Turpin

    loving the fifty shades of gray for the kiener garages. more lively colors or upward lighting might be better. The amphitheater remains unused 99% of the time. used for a winter festival and groups to meet before parades. there is still a big security issue that turns lots of people away from kiener plaza. as a former guide I have seen countless times aggressive panhandling and people running scams when taking photos for people. despite the large and continuous growth of annoyances. there has never been a police presence. only when they are called and then they show up too late and mark it as nothing has happened. this is not a design issue. when 20 million gets pumped into this the plaza will most likely have the same issues. some of the money can go to teaching the police how to direct people to social services when needed. as one of the top tourist destinations in the city for photos. more basic issues need to be resolved first.

  • Chris Mroz

    V Three Studios worked with the Downtown Neighborhood Association to develop a few more designs. If you’re interested check them out here:

  • Michael B

    What would it take to get rid of the Gateway One building? It destroys the continuity of the Gateway Mall, and obstructs views of the Wainwright building, the old courthouse, the civil courthouse, and the arch. So much work went into creating this really cool idea of the Gateway Mall, only to be ruined by corporate blandness.

    • moorlander


      • Michael B

        Thanks for the chuckle.

    • Adam

      at this point i suppose we wouldn’t have much to loose by taking down one more building, but that “really cool idea” destroyed one the largest collection of historically significant buildings in the US. excepting the Arch itself, i’d gladly take even a handful of those buildings over an underused and ever-unrealized strip of dead grass… er, mall.

      • Michael B

        Yeah, that second to last photograph really shows a good utilization of that space with historic buildings, but unfortunately that time has passed. The main difference is that those buildings were only four to five stories tall, while the Gateway One building is 15 stories tall, effectively blocking many of the great views. I would like to see a design of the city that capitalizes on what makes it special. The Arch, the Civil Courts building, the old courthouse, and our beautiful red brick buildings make our downtown unique and interesting.

    • jhoff1257

      Pretty much came here to say the exact same thing. I think the Gateway Mall was a stupid idea for most of the reasons Adam listed below (though I would argue Mill Creek Valley and Near North demolition was a bigger loss), but I do think it could be something special between the Arch Grounds and 12th Street. The Gateway One building ruins that. With the Old Courthouse refresh, the Park over the Highway, the Kiener rebuild, and Citygarden the Mall between the Arch and 12th could be amazing. Get rid of Gateway one and fix up the “Twain” block and you’ve got a pretty special park. Personally I would end the mall at 15th Street and allow for construction between 15th and 18th (keeping Aloe Plaza) and then opening up Kauffman and the Eternal Flame Park to development. Some dense urban development on those parcels could bring some life back to that area. Keep the views to the library and the large civic buildings and fill the rest in.

    • HawkSTL

      The construction of Gateway One funded the acquisition of all of the Gateway Mall parcels. It paid for the City’s eminent domain budget, and therefore was an absolute necessity to construct the Mall. The reason Gateway One was made “skinny” was to minimize its impact to the park areas and view. But, without Gateway One, there would be no Mall.

      • Alex Ihnen

        I think I’d go with no Gateway One in that case. :/

      • Don

        Are you sure about this because that’s not my memory at all. I recall Gateway One being very controversial and seen a betrayal of the plan for no buildings except the court house for the entire mall. All the old buildings were cleared and then they put Gateway One right in the middle of the mall. It possible I’m just misremembering, but I remember it being very controversial.

        • HawkSTL

          Yes, I’m sure. The $2 million bond issue was to build Kiener Plaza only. The idea of Gateway One came into being because there was a shortfall of City revenue to fund the acquisition of the Mall parcels and develop park space (i.e grading and landscaping). The publc-private partnership relates to the creation of Gateway One as a funding mechanism. And, I agree that sticking an office building in what was to be park space was not an ideal solution — particularly when the City demolished a lot of buildings just to construct another one. But, the City did what it felt it needed to do at the time.

          • HawkSTL

            Don — I should also add that, yes, you are remembering correctly that Gateway One was controversial at the time. The original Mall plan, of course, did not contemplate a new building there. The funding issue came up in the middle. The Mall took 30 yrs. to complete, so the 1965 roadmap had to be revised.

  • Michael C

    I love that STL sign made by V Three Studios. We definitely need that downtown somewhere.

    • What happened to the #STLLove sign from the birthday celebration at Forest Park? Maybe there’s a place for it here — or, hell, attach it to the side of one of the Kiener garages. Suddenly it becomes a point of interest (kind of).

  • STLEnginerd

    I am in the fix it instead of reinventing it camp. The plaza needs some freshening, but it’s a long way from needing a complete redesign. Additionally I believe the functionality of the park will significantly decrease without the amphitheater. And the waterfall is a very iconic and crowd pleasing feature.

    If the new space were being developed on a blank pallet of grass like city garden was I would be far less negative, but the waterfall is cool and the amphitheater has serious potential to be an iconic place people go for movies, plays, music, ice skating, bazaars, etc. if only someone would invest in some programming for it.

  • Luftmentsch

    Excellent reporting! I can’t imagine any real progress without ripping down those garages. They deaden the air. They cast a pall over the entire area. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with Kiener Plaza that couldn’t be fixed by putting 400 residents in three new buildings across the street to the north.