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Arch revisions include some surprises

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 27, 2011 - Here's a rundown on some things that are in or out in the new scheme presented for the renovation of the Arch grounds and the reconnection of the grounds to downtown St. Louis and the East Side. First, however, here is the answer to a question many have been asking for months, and that is how much is this monumental renovation and reconnection project going to cost.

The answer: An estimated $578.5 million. More about that later.

But now, here are the proposed improvements presented Wednesday by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Brooklyn.

Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard is still out of the picture -- but only part of the time.

There'll be limited vehicular access to the river on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard: buses for casinos; private automobiles will be permitted and there will be access to the water. But the street will be closed for special events; it will also be repaved with a material resembling cobblestones but more comfortable for walking.

A high-flying gondola is in.

The gondola in the new plan features cars such as those found at ski resorts, and there was talk at the presentation by Michael Van Valkenburgh and others at America's Center on Wednesday evening (Jan. 26, 2011) of the possibility of some cars having glass bottoms, the better to see the river and what is going on on land. All the gondola cars would travel on the same track that loops around park grounds on the east side of the river. And when crossing the river, the tracks will be installed parallel to the Poplar Street bridge, and footings for them will be sunk in the same location as bridge footings. There'll be no new obstacles to river traffic.

Closing Memorial Drive east of Luther Ely Smith Park is very much in. This has bedeviled visitors coming to and leaving the Arch grounds for as long as there have been Arch grounds. The closing of Memorial Drive is a different approach to the problem than the one in the original plan, but it is a solution the winning team, led by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Brooklyn, wanted to include in the future. It would end once and for all a vehicular barrier to easy access between the Arch grounds and downtown.

It would provide as well access to an expansive and glassy new entrance to the Museum of Westward Expansion beneath the Arch. The entrance would open onto a corridor system and exhibition spaces and would bring a visitor to the existing museum space beneath the Arch. A "lid" would cover and conceal the depressed lanes of Interstate 70. In this revised concept the new museum entrance is shown moved from a proposed location farther north on Memorial Drive.

The team, along with experts and officials on both sides of the river, has been working to improve the concept since it won the international design competition sponsored by the CityArch River2015 Foundation in September. The importance of meeting the 2015 deadline was stressed Wednesday evening. That is the 50th anniversary of the topping off of the Arch, an engineering feat accomplished on Oct. 28, 1965.

The original gondola scheme came from the finalist Behnisch Architekten team, presented with plans by the other finalists in September. Some observers were enthusiastic about the idea, saying they would visit the riverfront just to ride a gondola. For others, including the design competition jury, it didn't fly. Jurors worried it would trivialize the project, making it like a theme park rather than part of a stately memorial. The Behnisch plan was to put the gondolas near the Eads Bridge and to fly them diagonally across the river.

Michael Van Valkenburgh said Wednesday, however, his approach -- placing the track parallel to the Poplar Street Bridge -- would tuck the gondola away from a central position and would not in any way detract from the Arch, or compete with it visually. It also would effectively connect the Arch grounds to new attactions proposed for the Illinois side of the river.

His team originally proposed a water taxi system to cross the river, but Van Valkenburgh said Wednesday, "We thought it was a great idea -- except it wasn't." He said extreme water-level fluctuations as well as commercial river traffic made the water-taxi plan "not practical."

East side story

Van Valkenburgh said the existing features of the Malcolm Martin Park, including its observation platform and geyser, will remain as they are. A new element in the revised plan is to build a 100,000-square foot pavilion around the geyser's pond. It would include exhibits about the Mississippi River, a restaurant and other attractions.

Elements in the winning design concept for the East Side, including the wetlands restoration area with walking trails and an avian research center and a wetlands hydrology research center, will come in a later, post 2015 phase, after completion of an access road into the area from Illinois Route 3, scheduled for 2016, An urban ecology center, shown on the north end of the Missouri side on the riverfront, will also move to the east side eventually.

Another dramatic change in the revised plan is to increase the acreage of the Illinois bank improvements from 60 to 100 acres.

From Kiener Plaza To The River

The team's new concept also presents revised sketches for Kiener Plaza in downtown St. Louis. Its winning design for the Plaza was to replace the sunken center with "a flat bosque" with more trees, a remote ticketing facility for Arch tram rides and other visitor services.

Some, including design competition manager Donald Stastny, said that because of Kiener's prominent location near Citygarden in the Gateway Mall, and between the north and south ends of downtown, the initial design concept needed more work to connect the enormously popular sculpture park with the continuation of the Arch design to the west of the Old Courthouse.

Van Valkenburgh's revised concept keeps Kiener Plaza flat and retains the remote Arch ticketing facility, a visitor's center and restaurant. It adds new elements such as a carousel, a large fountain where children could play and a beer garden that had been proposed for the south edge of the Arch grounds.

Van Valkenburgh said the revised approach eliminates building a parking garage at the south end, with an ice-skating rink in winter and a beer garden in summer on top of it.

The proposal to close Washington Avenue alongside the Eads Bridge, and the demolition of the garage at the north end of the grounds stays in the plan. That area might feature an amphitheater and playground. The north end improvements, would connect Arch grounds visually to Laclede's Landing, the Eads Bridge, and the river.

No new parking is proposed for the Arch grounds. Rather, visitors will be encouraged to park in underused lots and structures around downtown, Stastny said. This saves adding new spaces and increases the possibility of greater pedestrian traffic downtown. There is "a lot of parking is below capacity downtown. It is not prudent to build new garages at the present time."

In another change, the team removed 60-foot-tall river gauges it had proposed being built out into the river. "They're gone," Van Valkenburgh said. "Value engineered out." The revised plan does include riverboats floating on the riverfront.

The plan would restore and embellish Dan Kiley's landscape historic landscape design, adding paths around the the ponds, improving ecological balances and making the area more accessible for everyone.

Paying for the Project

Officials of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation have taken the lead in raising about $2 million from businesses, foundations and individuals to pay the tab of about $2 million for the design competition. That included a stipend of $100,000 to each of the finalists, including Van Valkenburgh's team.

The new estimated cost of $587.5 million includes design expenses incurred between the selection of the winning design in September and the creation of the construction drawings. Attorney Walter Metcalfe Jr. of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation has been working to secure assurances of private money to pay for the ongoing design work expenses.

Metcalfe said Wednesday he thinks he has enough pledged to cover those expenses. The remaining amount is to cover all of the construction work -- except for the wetlands reserve, urban ecology center and other new features proposed for on the Illinois bank after the Route 3 access road is completed. (The $587 million does include money to extend Illinois Route 3 to the Illinois riverfront.) Statsny said the total cost covers infrastructure foundations for those upcoming features.

The project supporters have said all along they intend to use a mix of private and government money to pay for the overall project.

A number of private contributors, including Civic Progress, an organization of the St. Louis area's major corporate leaders, have stepped up.

Thomas Irwin, executive director of Civic Progress, said the organization has been helping financially because getting the project done is "a fundamental priority for Civic Progress."

"I think the reason is that the Arch is clearly the icon of St. Louis. People see the Arch and think of St. Louis," he said. "And I think the community can benefit from the extraordinary team assembled to take this world-renowned piece of architecture and do something to make it more magnificent, and at the same time, link both sides of the river.

"For Civic Progress," Irwin continued, "The most important goal is always what's good for the community." And, he said, "the more destination facilities that exist, the more people will come to see them, which in tern helps the economy."

In a strong show of unity, all nine Missouri and Illinois members of the St. Louis area congressional delegation have pledged their support for getting the project completed. U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has also enthusiastically given his support during visits here.

Charlene Prost, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered downtown development. 

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.

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