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Park Service draws sharp criticism on plans for the Arch grounds

The article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 24, 2009 - The National Park Service apparently got what it asked for. The park service had said it wanted to hear comments and opinions about its plans for the Arch grounds at public meetings this week. Last night, at the first of two meetings, it got an earful from Walter Metcalfe, one of three civic leaders appointed by Mayor Francis Slay to counsel him on getting the riverfront rejuvenated.

Metcalfe, senior counsel at the Bryan Cave law firm, started out by saying that the Park Service's preferred plan -- the one including a design competition for the Arch grounds -- is flawed. The problem, he said, is that the Park Service's competition would focus on the Arch grounds alone and "continues to isolate the Arch grounds from the reason the park is there."

The better approach, he said, would be to broaden the focus to include the Arch grounds, the riverfront, Memorial Drive and Interstate 70. The highway separates the Arch grounds from downtown. "Unless they are thought of as one," he said, "the vital historical and current relationships among the river, the park and downtown St. Louis will continue to be lost."

Before making his presentation before Park Service officials and nearly 50 others gathered in the Tucker Theater beneath the Gateway Arch, Metcalfe said he was giving his views and the views of the mayor's other riverfront advisers. They are Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden, and Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri History Museum.

At one point, those views drew a vocal dissent from someone in the audience.

It came after Metcalfe said that the advisers support a design competition. But he said it would be "a waste of time and money" unless the competition is based on results of engineering, traffic, hydraulic and other studies already done by the Danforth Foundation, a longtime advocate for improving the area.

To illustrate his point, Metcalfe singled out one of the four Park Service plans that contains a proposal for water taxi service between the St. Louis riverfront and the Illinois side of the river. Because of the Mississippi River's strong currents, flooding and the barge traffic -- all documented in one Danforth Foundation study -- water taxi service might be fun, "but it won't work," he said.

"Sure it will," someone shouted back from the audience.

Metcalfe went on to say that the Park Service must "immediately" set "an absolute" completion date for its project to generate the enthusiasm and public and private support needed to get the job done. And, he said, "Congress should adopt a timetable if no one else does." He suggested completion dates of Oct. 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the completion of the Arch, and 2016, the Centennial of the National Park Service.

"If people shake their heads now and say that's impossible, that is a failure of leadership," Metcalfe said. But on the other hand, he said "if people are directed toward a deadline, remarkable things can happen."

The public meetings this week are part of a planning process for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial that the Park Service initiated about a year ago, after the mayor and former Sen. John C. Danforth and his family's philanthropic foundation pushed for improvement. The four plans up for public review evolved after previous public meetings here and the collection of public comments from across the country.

The meeting tonight (Tuesday, Feb. 24) will be from 6:30 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. in Steinberg Auditorium at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University. It is the last scheduled meeting of its kind before the park service issues its final plan, likely by summer.

Last night's gathering attracted a mix of folks. They mingled first with Park Service officials as they viewed sketches and highlights of each plan, then sat in the auditorium for a more formal visual presentation and more discussion,

Timothy Tucker, vice president of real estate and community development at the St. Louis County Economic Council, was among those taking a first look at the plans. "I recently moved back to St. Louis," Tucker said, "and I just wanted to see them."

Another was Jeremy Clagett, an aspiring architect with a new master's degree, who wasn't sure which plan he liked best. "I can't say one just jumps out at me," he said.

Clagett did, however, bring along a question for the Park Service. He said he took his brother to visit the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch not long ago and that his brother was "amazed" at how unspectacular the place looked. "It definitely looks dated," he said, "and should be something to rival the quality of what's above ground."

Clagett wanted to know if any of the Park Service's plans include renovating the museum. The answer was yes.

Sandra Washington, chief planner at the Park Service's regional office in Omaha, said that all the plans - except the "No Action" one -- call for renovating exhibits at the museum beneath the Arch and at the Old Courthouse. All also include more activities and events on the Arch grounds, more amenities for visitors and extending the Memorial's boundaries onto part of the riverfront in East St. Louis.

The plans do, however, vary greatly in scope and estimated price. The "No Action" plan, for example, would cost zero. At the high end, the "Park into the City" plan that features remaking part of Memorial Drive into pedestrian plazas, a new research and educational facility containing the museum's archives, and replacing parking on the grounds with a visitors transportation system, would cost nearly $380 million.

The "Portals" plan, which includes new entrances on all sides of the Arch grounds, a deck over the recessed highway, water taxi service between both banks of the river and underground parking on the Arch grounds, would cost slightly more than $368.5 million. The Park Service's preferred plan, which focuses on the design competition, more programs and activities and better connections between the Arch grounds and its surroundings, would cost at least $154.6 million. But that doesn't include the cost of any new features that might be added as a result of the design competition.

In fielding questions from the audience last night, Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley said that the final plan could wind up containing some elements from all four plans. "We do have a preference," he said, but "we welcome your comments on how these (plans) might be combined."

Bradley said the Park Service will continue seeking public comments until March 16, and that "we hope" to have a final plan ready to go by midsummer. Then, he said, Park Service officials will be looking to get a combination of federal, state, local and private money to get things moving.

Charlene Prost has reported for many years about development in St. Louis.

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