The Story Behind The Plan For Kiener Plaza's Facelift | St. Louis Public Radio

The Story Behind The Plan For Kiener Plaza's Facelift

Nov 23, 2014

If there’s a sports-related rally, a festival, even a gathering of protesters or an outdoor civic event in the city, chances are that it will happen in downtown’s Kiener Plaza. In the view of some, Kiener works just fine as it is.

But what if:

  • Kiener got bigger, by more than half an acre.
  • A larger street-level gathering area with a sweeping lawn and adjoining paving replaced existing areas used for events, including the sunken Morton D. May Amphitheater.
  • Kiener had more than twice as many trees, more landscaping and gardens, including a shade garden with moveable tables and chairs for lunchtime visitors.
  • A new interactive fountain with colored lights at the bottom replaced the existing fountain and water cascade. Think red lights, for example, for Cardinals game rallies.
  • You’d find a visitors center, children’s playground and bicycle parking area.

Those are the major elements in a new plan for Kiener Plaza made public earlier this month by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, the Great Rivers Greenway District and St. Louis, which owns the two-block-long Kiener. It’s also part of a much bigger $380 million plan underway by CityArchRiver to revive the Gateway Arch grounds and its surroundings.

So far, the new plan, estimated to cost $18 million to $22 million, has generated mixed reviews. Some applaud the envisioned changes, saying what’s there now is “tired” and needs to be refreshed. Others like things as they are and say don’t “mess with” and spend money to fix something that’s not broke.

Why was the plan changed?

To help sort it out, we talked with landscape architect Nate Trevethan at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates in Brooklyn, the firm selected to design the overall Arch grounds project. We discussed what’s on the drawing boards for Kiener and why MVVA decided to remove a beer garden and carousel, which had been part of a previous plan.

“The change in direction is based on new momentum and other development downtown that has come along since other plans were put forth,” Trevethan said. “Ballpark Village has a very large beer garden,” and the idea is not to compete but to have “complementary” attractions, he said.

“The carousel just didn’t seem to make sense anymore, considering we were wanting to build this really big green space with flexibility in Kiener. That made more sense than trying to overprogram the space,” he said.

That big new space – a lawn and adjoining central paved area – would cover 1.38 acres of the 3.05 acres in Kiener now. The lawn would be on the eastern half of Kiener across North Broadway from the Old Courthouse.  It’s where “The Runner” sculpture stands in its pool and fountain. The paved area would extend westward onto the block with the amphitheater.

It sounds like a more flexible and usable design.

The new design, Trevethan said, would bring “approximately 20,000 additional square feet of flexible and completely accessible public gathering spaces” to Kiener.

After the October Ferguson march, many gathered in the amphitheater in small groups and talked.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio

By way of comparison, the amphitheater has about 22,500 square feet. But because of its sunken design and steep slopes, he said, “it is not all useable” and “is difficult for some people to use.”

By putting the new gathering area at street level, he said, it’s all useable “and we like the notion of seeing into and through it ... and having a place that’s easy to get to for everybody.”

The western edge of the lawn would rise about three feet and slope gently toward the Old Courthouse, a focal point for the new design.

CityArchRiver spokesman Ryan McClure said the lawn would have seating around it but no permanent stage.

“The paved area around the lawn could be used to set up a temporary stage,” McClure said. “We like the idea of it being temporary so when there is not an event there, the space would be useable and accessible.“

What about “The Runner,” William Zorach’s popular sculpture? And is the fountain being replaced? Will there be new fountains?

The 2011 World Series followed the tradition of turning the water red at The Runner's fountain.
Credit Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio

McClure said the sculpture will stay somewhere in Kiener. “We are getting public feedback now” on where, he said. “We want ‘The Runner’ to be part of Kiener, as it has been since the 1960s.”

"It's not out of the question that 'The Runner' could stay in a fountain setting," said McClure. "That's why we're getting public input."

Another element in the new plan is an interactive fountain in the center of Kiener with seating around it. It would be different but playful like the one at Citygarden, west of Kiener.

Trevethan said it would be 32- by 32-foot square, subdivided into four 16- by 16-foot square “rooms.” Each room would have moving, changing lines of water.

“You could walk into this space and have water come up around you and stay dry, and as the water lowered, you could walk out,” he said.

Colored lights – rather than dyes and harsh chemicals -- would change water color for events like Cardinals rallies and the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure.

What other changes are being planned?

North of the fountain, you’d find a bicycle parking area alongside Chestnut Street where a bike lane is coming as part of planned street improvements. Trevethan said there’s also talk at Great Rivers Greenway about doing bike sharing, “so that could happen there.”

Artist renderings show specific accommodations for bicycle riders.
Credit ArchCityRiver

At least some of the bike parking area would be used for a new visitors center to come later. McClure said the center is included in the estimated $18 million to $22 million price tag for Kiener.

The center is being delayed, McClure said, because “before designing it, we want to explore and get public comments on the sorts of things that should be in the visitors center, what amenities there should be, and what kind of programs everyone wants to see.”

Market, itself, would be different – narrowed, with no planted median and less traffic because of traffic changes in the works.

The median, Trevethan said, “is pretty, but it can be dangerous because of the plantings. And so many parades use Market. This will better accommodate parades.”

Beyond that, narrowing Market and moving the curbline south means Kiener would get bigger – 3.6 acres, versus 3.05 acres there now. But the more important result of the narrowing, Trevethan said, is that “it will make it easier for people to cross Market” to get to Kiener from the south end of downtown.

A children’s playground area would be on the south side of Kiener along Market Street, enclosed with landscaping and possibly a fence.  Also separating a new children's playground from Market would be a “hallway,” a widened sidewalk with landscaping that would be an extension of the existing hallway between Market and Citygarden.

Why put a children’s playground in Kiener?

Trevethan said the designers still are exploring what would go into the playground. But they know why they want one.

When the Arch garage at the north end of the Arch grounds is removed as part of the overall Arch grounds plan, more people will be parking in downtown, he said. And some will be driving for hours to get there with children in their cars.

“Kiener will become the first place to touch down, and children will have a chance to get out of the car and run around and run off steam,” he said.

“We wanted to do a children’s play area on the Arch grounds, but that was not allowed. By putting it in Kiener Plaza, it complements what’s on the Arch grounds and becomes a more complete park if you see the Arch grounds and Kiener as a park.”

Trevethan said another element of the new plan are five new green areas with trees and shade, angled to focus views on “three really amazing pieces of architecture around Kiener – the Old Courthouse, the Wainwright Building and 700 Market,” designed by Philip Johnson in the 1970s as headquarters for General American Life Insurance Co.

So, again, why redo Kiener?

“It’s basically making improvements to accommodate events,” Trevethan said. “It needs some sprucing up and we have an opportunity now to bring it up to grade and build something that will be timeless, respectful of the Old Courthouse, take advantage of the excitement of what is happening downtown, be a catalyst for future development and celebrate what’s happening downtown.”

As for a possible name change for Kiener, McClure said that “remains to be seen” and that “any name change would be a public process.” Its namesake is Harry J. Kiener, a civic leader and athlete who died in 1960.

Construction should begin next year and take 14 months. It’s to be paid for with private money and proceeds from a 3/16ths of a one-cent sales tax passed in 2013.

McClure said that CityArchRiver continues to seek public imput before the new plan becomes final. You can make comments here.

The architects see the Kiener facelift as a complement to the Arch.
Credit ArchCityRiver