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Beacon blog: Planning a present for the region

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 24, 2010 - Ninety days is the operative figure.

Three months.

That's the amount of time Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates, the City of St. Louis, the National Park Service and the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation have given themselves to come up with a workable strategy for launching one of the biggest, most ambitious and most audacious projects the region has seen in many years.

That project is a radical configuration of the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and creative connections between the grounds and its city neighbors to the north, west and south, as well as to the Mississippi River and Illinois to its east. If they finish in the confines of those 90 days, everybody concerned who celebrates Christmas can go home and do so. Being able to say "Done" would be a pretty big, quite elaborate present.

MVVA is the big winner in the very big competition for energizing the grounds of the Arch and making the connections almost everyone in the region who is paying attention understands need to be made. For years, indeed for the almost half-century existence of the great stainless steel monument, access to it from its surroundings and back from it to the city and the river has been problematical and vexing. Some quick and easy fixes were available and some were implemented. Still, the grounds have continued to exist in isolation. And as downtown has become a more vigorous and vital heart of the region, and as the potential of the land across the river has presented itself more clearly, a radical transformation has become an obligation rather than an option.

So Friday, in the Old Courthouse, a formidable company of designers, historians, civic leaders, politicians, educators, businessmen and businesswomen, critics, boosters and experts (legitimate and self-anointed) gathered in the rotunda to proclaim the commencement of the 90 Days and to address some of the details of the project. For some, such as attorney Walter Metcalfe Jr., and Arch superintendent Tom Bradley and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay, the meeting signaled accomplishment with a capital A. Three years or so ago, there was general agreement that any sort of plan for refiguring, reconnecting and revitalizing the Arch grounds was impossible. Friday, the talk was all about possibility and getting the project done.

Deborah Patterson, president of the Monsanto Fund and one of the members of the CityArchRiver sponsoring organization, hosted the event, leading a parade of officials and participants. Each made a good case for the project and spoke of its nobility and necessity.

Patterson mentioned Westward Expansion, the phenomenon the Arch officially celebrates, but emphasized the expansion of vision of what an urban park can be. "The park," she said, "is our identity, our part of the American story."

She said, too, that the Arch is a symbol of our proud past and our hope for the future.

"The real planning," she said, "begins today."

The MVVA plan, she said, provides a strong foundation on which to build the working plan for the project. "It's a tall order," she said. No budget has been set officially, although $300 million is a figure that has been suggested. Metcalfe said he wanted to avoid getting locked into a specific budget, because such figures distract observers from the real issue, which is getting the job accomplished. Funds for the project will come from public and private sources, the proponents say, and officials such as Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar have said money will be found for the project. The date for its completion is October, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping off of the Arch.

Arch Superintendent Bradley described the progress achieved in the last year as being beyond his wildest imagining of success, and noted that Friday's meeting took place where the model of Eero Saarinen's and Dan Kiley's designs for the Arch and the park were displayed in 1948.

"MVVA has exactly the right approach," he said. Bradley said the public has been vocal in telling the planners what it wants. On the one hand, he said people want to protect what we have at the Arch, but on the other, they want engagement and to bring the Arch into the 21st century.

"We can do both," he said. "We take our stewardship seriously."

Dan Wenk, deputy director of the Department of the National Park Service, shared Bradley's sense of wonder. He described the MVVA team as outstanding and its plan as "a strong foundation on which we can build. ... The plan demonstrates great reverence for the site while recommending improvements."

Mayor Slay spoke of the stunning but underutilized grounds of the Arch and of the magnificence of the Arch itself - "one of the most significant pieces of art in the world." He also praised all the competing teams: "We are overwhelmed and pleased with all who entered."

For his part, the victorious Michael Van Valkenburgh expressed some hesitation in speaking about the Arch because he is, for now anyway, only a visitor. He undoubtedly will spend more time here, however, and says his job is to honor and to understand the Arch and its grounds and the success of them but also to discern how his design can help to make improvements.

"We feel the changes we propose will be transformative."

Van Valkenburgh said the project - now his project - is in every instance a process of building bridges. Those are bridges of experience and activity and material. And ideas about how to build them, and the beginnings of plans for their execution will evolve, as everyone has told us now, in the next 90 days.

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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