Hope for a better Arch | St. Louis Public Radio

Hope for a better Arch

May 8, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Before Thursday morning, St. Louis civic leaders who have been actively promoting a revitalization of the St. Louis riverfront sat south of square one in the progress department, in a holding pattern, maintaining hope perhaps, but definitely sitting still. The sticking point was the reluctance of the National Park Service to consider any changes or alterations of the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, the site of the Gateway Arch and the Old Courthouse to its east.

On Thursday morning, however, the new superintendent of the memorial, Tom Bradley, sent out a press release announcing the National Park Service's intention to begin a process that could open the grounds to changes. This change of attitude could offer the potential of a dramatic riverfront revival, one long hoped for but never achieved.

Such a revival, supporters say, should not only increase the number of visitors to the grounds of the iconic Gateway Arch but also would serve to connect the Arch and its grounds to downtown St. Louis, by bridging Market Street and the depressed lanes of Interstate 70, a physical and psychological barrier separating downtown from the national monument and the Mississippi River itself.

The Role Of The Danforth Foundation

Former U.S. Sen. John C. Danforth has been a prime mover for riverfront development; and while he appreciates the majesty of the Arch, he regards its surroundings as third rate. He and other supporters of a riverfront revival plan were gratified when they received the news of the Park Service's decision to open discussions about other attractions on the Arch grounds.*

For some time now, Danforth and his family's philanthropic foundation, the Danforth Foundation, have supported efforts to remedy the lackluster character of the St. Louis riverfront. Several plans were floated – one, literally, proposed a buoyant attraction – but none was implemented. In addition, schemes were advanced for putting a lid over the depressed I-70 lanes, the better to connect the Arch grounds to downtown. None made it off the drawing boards.

. . .

As we said last August, we believe we are wasting our region's two most valuable physical assets – the Gateway Arch and our position on the Mississippi River. There is little to do on the riverfront, and the Gateway Arch stands in splendid isolation amidst 91 acres devoted strictly to "passive use." The riverfront and Arch grounds are cut off from downtown by six lanes of Memorial Drive and four lanes of Interstate 70. Small wonder that visitorship is declining and that the Arch grounds and riverfront are often nearly empty.

Yet in our view the potential of these assets is virtually unlimited. The St. Louis central riverfront could be a magnet for visitors from the St. Louis area and from around the nation and the globe. It could offer our region a significantly greater economic benefit. It could be a source of excitement and pride to St. Louisans, and bring new luster to our image worldwide.

. . . 

—Sen. John Danforth, read the rest of Sen. Danforth's statement

Down by the river itself, along Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and on the stone-paved levee, it became clear that any permanent improvements were folly because of the unpredictability of the Mississippi. So the planners looked to the Arch grounds as a home for new attractions, and that notion did not sit well with Arch aficionados, who consider the grounds inviolable.

Even though the original plans for the grounds called for a number of buildings and public attractions, the Park Service was reluctant to stray from a management plan in place since 1960 -- five years before the Arch was completed. That plan defined the Arch grounds as a pristine park for passive activity. Only on special occasions, such as Fourth of July celebrations, were the rules relaxed. Thursday's announcement represents significant movement from that position.

Last summer, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay asked lawyer Walter Metcalfe; Robert Archibald, president of the Missouri Historical Society, and Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden to explore possibilities for the riverfront and ways to move the planning process forward. Peter Sortino, president of the Danforth Foundation, was active as an advocate for the exploratory process. In August, Sortino told the National Park Service that park land would be involved in a riverfront plan. The response was not encouraging.

A report by Philip Dine of the Post-Dispatch's Washington bureau provided the reaction of Frank Mares, deputy superintendent of the memorial.

"We've been involved with a number of community planners over the past two years on the riverfront master plan," Mares told Dine, "so it's surprising that one of the partners in the planning efforts has jumped out in front of everyone and come to this conclusion without consulting us."

Guiding principles

Walter Metcalfe, Peter Raven and Robert Archibald made a statement concerning changes to the St. Louis riverfront and the grounds of the Gateway Arch.

". . . We were guided by these principles:

  • Preserve and protect the Gateway Arch as one of the world's greatest monuments;
  • View the Riverfront, the Arch grounds and what are currently the depressed lanes of Interstate 70 as one integrated project area;
  • Maximize the use and impact of St. Louis' two greatest physical assets, – the Gateway Arch and the Mississippi River – for the long-term benefit and enjoyment of area residents and tourists;
  • Ensure that the future of the project area is guided by individuals with a long-term vision for St. Louis and accountability to the public."

Read the rest of the statement, including the recommendations.

In the eight intervening months, however, things have changed. The Danforth Foundation commissioned American Viewpoint Inc., an opinion research firm in Arlington, Va., to test the regional waters about plans for the riverfront improvements, including the possibility of additions and changes to the Arch grounds. The results, presented Thursday, reveal positive interest in the plan, if not 100 percent approval. A sheaf of letters from political and civic leaders on both sides of the river, along with labor union officials, the St. Louis County Municipal League and organizations interested in urban design and historic preservation revealed largely positive dispositions, although again, some reservations were expressed.

In addition, Danforth invited Dirk Kempthorne, secretary of the Interior Department, to St. Louis to look at the Arch grounds for himself. Kempthorne came, and according to a spokesman for the planning group, did not like what he saw. He regarded the approach to the grounds as the worst entrance to a national park he had ever seen, the spokesman said. The Department of the Interior is responsible for the National Park Service.

New Vision For The Arch

Bradley's announcement on Thursday said a General Management Plan/Environmental Impact Statement process will be initiated. "The NPS has developed some preliminary concepts, including reinvigorating the Arch grounds as encouraged by the Danforth Foundation. However, to facilitate sound planning, public participation is crucial. The public will be invited to develop new concepts as well as to comment on those presented by the NPS and other private and public institutions. Participation will be encouraged and facilitated by newsletters and public meetings."

According to the release, improvements the Park Service would consider include "accessible walkways, a pedestrian walkway over Memorial Drive and the depressed lanes of I-70, and streetscape changes to make the "environment surrounding the Memorial more inviting and visitor friendly. "

The Arch was designed by the late Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and completed in 1965. It is a magnificent structure, a triumph both of engineering and art. And in the 48 years since its topping off, it has become a symbol of St. Louis.

Magnificent as it is, however, it has existed in a state of splendid isolation, a minimalist jewel in the center of a leafy walking park with winding paths and reflecting ponds. It is separated both from the churning Mississippi River by a street and a levee, and from the city proper by a the tangle of city streets and a depressed (and depressing) interstate highway, which ventilates noxious fumes through large apertures

Two exceptions to the pristine character of the Arch grounds exist already. One, to the north, is a massive multi-level parking garage and on the south, a maintenance building. Neither is architecturally distinguished. Nevertheless, they form bookends to the monument. (The boundaries of the 91-acre park are Washington Avenue on the North, Poplar Street on the south, Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard on the east along the river, and Memorial Drive and the depressed lanes of I-70 on the west.)

Metcalfe said polls and consultations elicited a number of recommendations, three paramount.

  • First, the riverfront, the Arch grounds and Memorial drive should be considered as one project area, notwithstanding separate ownership.
  • Second, the experience of visits to the Arch and the riverfront should be richer and more enjoyable to attract visitors and to extend the length of their visits.
  • Third, to make that happen, a major new "destination attraction," such as a museum or other cultural facility, "is absolutely essential." That facility would be built on the Arch grounds.

The original design for the Arch and its grounds was the result of an international architectural competition mounted in the 1940s and won by Saarinen. The competition attracted enormous interest: In fact, one strong design contender came from Saarinen's far more famous father, Eliel Saarinen. Harris Armstrong, one of the greatest St. Louis architects of the 20th century, was one of the five finalists. In that spirit, an international competition would be conducted for a design for the grounds and the the cultural facility. Metcalfe, Raven and Archibald recommended the establishment of a regional not-for-profit corporation to raise funds for the cultural facility and its operation and maintenance.

The plan's promoters have 2015 in mind as a completion date. That's the 50th anniversary year of the topping off of the monument, which mesmerized a large crowd gathered downtown on Nov. 28, 1965. Metcalfe said the 2015 goal also has meaning for the National Park Service, which is to celebrate its centenary on Aug. 25, 2016. He said the Park Service's work should be completed in 2009 and announced in January 2010. Raven, Metcalfe and Archibald have recommended that the new riverfront-Arch grounds plan be poised to go as soon as the Park Service makes its recommendation.

Danforth said he agrees with the Park Service that the public must be involved in the planning. He said also ideas advanced by the Archibald-Raven-Metcalfe team, however, are distinguished because "they have set their sights high and want to make this project as good as the Arch itself.

"A first-rate monument shouldn't have third-rate surroundings," said Danforth, "Right now we have a beautiful Arch with a subterranean museum sitting on 91 acres of vacant ground book-ended by a parking lot and an equipment shed. There have already been alterations to the grounds. If we have done that to it (the parking lot and the maintenance building), why can't we do something great with it?"

What would you like to see at the Arch?