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Commentary: A bridge to the future

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 17, 2011 - My perception is that pretty much every one, no matter his or her political persuasion, is fed up with the constipation of our nation's government. So it was extraordinarily good news last week to read Jo Mannies' report in the Beacon that $2 million being allocated for work on the Arch grounds project.

And how appropriate that this money will go to remove a major obstacle that exists between the Arch grounds and downtown. This is a small but critical piece of the big overall Arch renovation-reconnection plan.

The junction in question is where Chestnut and Market streets intersect with Memorial Drive. For as long as I can remember, there has been a need for a safe and inviting connection, or bridge, between Luther Ely Smith Park, a lovely one-block urban oasis that forms the front yard of the Old Courthouse, and the grounds of the region's major monument, Eero Saarinen's splendid soaring stainless steel monument, a celebration of Thomas Jefferson and Westward Expansion.

I wish I had a buck for every time I picked up a reporter's notebook and went to some meeting or another where an announcement was to be made, or a discussion was to ensue, about creating a better, safer, more attractive, more inviting conduit between Smith Park (and thus downtown St. Louis) and the grounds of the Arch (and thus to history and heritage).

My friend Eddie Roth, who recently went to work in the mayor's office, is a talented and perspicacious observer of the city scene. He aptly described traffic arteries that separate the city from the Arch as scars, and the stretch of Memorial Drive and the underground, also aptly named depressed lanes of Interstate 70, is a festering urban scar if there ever was one.

This scar is dreaded for a several reasons, all intertwined. One (high curbs) has been corrected, more or less. Another is the day-to-day busyness of the surface streets, and a tangential issue there is my observation that some regional drivers apparently regard pedestrians and cyclists as targets rather than fellow human beings -- and potential contributors to the economic health of the metropolis. The yawning apertures that open onto the depressed lanes are ugly and are more psychologically formidable than actually dangerous, presenting a passerby with an experience rather like a view into a vehicular Hades.

All of this is considerably more than inconvenience, and the inclination to say that those of us from near or far who travel back and forth between Arch and downtown should suck it up, watch our steps and get over the real and perceived perils that exist between downtown and the monument grounds is demonstrably off base. Any impediment to easy access either way -- from downtown to Arch and vice versa -- should be removed or paved or bridged over one way or another. And quite frankly, what should be a simple design problem has become a civic bugbear. Why in the world has such a fixable problem been deferred so long? The correct response is to say get on with it and get it done, the sooner the better.

The problem, historically, is important however, and in recent times has acted as a benevolent sparkplug. That is because the impulse to correct the Memorial Drive-depressed lanes problem was one of the important seeds from which grew the enormously grander plan to make better connections. These are connections between the Arch grounds and the magnificent and great brown god to its east, and on to East St. Louis and further into Illinois, and to urban neighborhoods to the north and south of the Arch grounds.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates Inc., which won the competition to plan the redesign of the Arch grounds and its surroundings, has devised a spectacular plan to do just that. What is needed now is a trip to the civic gymnasium, where all of us should be working to build civic muscle -- the sort of civic strength, moxie and energy that made the Arch possible in the first place. We need such fortitude to assure that the entire project is done, without a lot of equivocating or value engineering, on time, according to plan.

Therefore, to that end, Rep. Lacy Clay's announcement last week that the Department of Transportation is to provide $2 million for this important initial step is cause for celebration. In the final analysis, this connection is more than engineering and architecture, it is opportunity -- opportunity to correct a nettling deficiency, one that can be regarded as a metaphor of our observable regional fragmentation.

How much better it is to launch the Arch grounds project with what we can regard as a symbol, one that speaks a material and psychological message of reunion and of rebirth.

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