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Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates wins Arch grounds design contest

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2010 - Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a Brooklyn-based landscape architecture firm, is the winner of the competition to redesign the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial's Gateway Arch. The selection of the MVVA was first reported by the Urban STL blog, which talks about local development issues,  and then confirmed to the Beacon by an informed source this morning.

The Van Valkenburgh firm would not comment on the selection, and calls and emails made to local sponsors were not returned.

However late Tuesday afternoon a press release from The City+The Arch+The River, the competition organizer, confirmed the selection, provided information about how the decision was made and also provided information on timetables and methodology.

According to the release, the competition jury called the MVVA Team "a strong team with solid methodology." It said in its final report that as a team the Van Valkenburgh group conveyed "intelligence" and provided "clear technical support for their design proposals." 

Arch Superintendent Tom Bradley said, "MVVA is an outstanding team that presented a winning combination of the ambitious and the manageable. They showed great reverence for the beauty and significance of the existing site, while suggesting improvements and attractions in line with our competition goals.

"We're excited to start planning."

According to the release, the team will work "in partnership with competition sponsors, the City of St. Louis, the National Park Service and others to further define program requirements; begin developing a design that takes into account the feasilbiluty and practicality of proposed solutions; create a construction budget and fundraising plan; and define the delivery expectations from now until 2015."


From the beginning of the competition, the charge to competing firms was to create a plan to connect the Arch grounds more felicitously and efficiently to the city surrounding it. The hope is this reconnection and renovation will bring more visitors to the Arch. Further, the teams were charged with better integrating the Arch and its grounds with land facing the Arch grounds across the river in Illinois.

The MVVA plan proposes to change the look of the riverfront drastically. It would remove Leonor K. Sullivan Drive and would create a raised cobblestone levee reaching from the river's edge to the Arch grounds, thus creating a seamless connection between monument and river and eradicating what has been called a gash in the cityscape. Such a plan would accommodate the rising and falling of the river and, by eliminating any rigid structures there, removes the problems associated with flooding.

Other aspects of the winning MVVA proposal include:

  • Dramatic lighting to illuminate the floodwall and to make it a canvas for shadows, and the creation of water gauges in the river that would reflect the shadow play.
  • Eventual removal of the north parking garage. This garage is regarded as an impediment to movement between the Arch grounds and Laclede's Landing. Loss of parking would be resolved with underground lots. The north edge of the grounds near the Eads Bridge would have an urban ecology center, an amphitheater and other activities linking into the Landing.
  • The south end of the park, now rarely visited, would provide space for a new park beneath an existing overpass, an ice skating rink in winter and a beer garden in summer. These features would be built atop new underground parking and would link the Arch grounds to Chouteau's Landing, a neighborhood beginning to be redeveloped.
  • One of the most important aspects of all the plans is the connection to the west, between the grounds and the Central Business District. The MVVA concept would create a lid over the underground lanes of Interstate 70 and link to the Old Courthouse. A new entrance would also lead to an expanded museum beneath the Arch.
  • In Illinois, on land facing the Arch grounds, the MVVA plan would create a 60-acre wetlands park around the existing Malcolm Martin Park, the overlook recently built there and the dramatic geyser in that park. An avian center would be built as well, and elevated walkways would wind through the wetlands there.

In its presentation to the jury in late August, MVVA emphasized it would respect the landscape created by landscape architect Dan Kiley, a close associate of Eero Saarinen, the Arch's architect. While taking care to retain important characteristics of the Kiley design, MVVA would rebuild it with updated ecology and sustainability features.
The official announcement of the winner will be made Fri., Sept. 24 at 10 a.m. at the Old Courthouse, Fourth and Market streets. The Old Courthouse is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, along with the Arch. Click here for more information on the competition.

Some information for this story was contributed by Charlene Prost. 

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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