City to River thinks outside the concrete box

Opportunity is knocking on St. Louis’ front door. The fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the Gateway Arch (2015), and plans for a new Mississippi bridge are creating a confluence of events with the potential to reconnect downtown St. Louis with its riverfront. And a new grassroots group, called City to River, wants to help ensure that these two developments work together in a way that will transform the downtown area, the Arch, the riverfront and the connections between all of them.

Here’s the challenge. At the same time that the Gateway Arch was completed (1965), Interstate 70 opened between the Arch grounds and downtown St. Louis. “Although it was intended to bring people into the regions’ center, the interstate disrupted the city’s street grid and isolated the new national monument and the river from the activity of downtown,” says the City to River website. “A two-hundred-year-old connection was lost. Now, St. Louis has a momentous opportunity to revisit the unintended consequences of the interstate. The time has come to reopen the region’s front door.”

A walking tour of the proposed redevelopment area offers a powerful (and noisy) demonstration of the physical barriers and psychological distance between downtown and the riverfront. On a warm, sunny Saturday morning, with thousands of fans gathering in anticipation of a midday Cardinals’ ball game, you’d think that the sidewalks would be clogged with people strolling to or from the Arch grounds. They’re not.

It’s not because people don’t want to go the Arch. More likely, it’s because they simply can’t figure out how to get there. The Arch is an island–a reality not reflected by the glamor shots typically displayed on tourism websites. Getting from the Arch to downtown is equally daunting. Ask anyone who has worked at the Arch, and they’re likely to tell you that among the most frequently asked questions are, “Where can we go for a bite to eat, and how do I get to Busch Stadium from here?”

“If you see someone walking along Memorial Drive, they’re probably lost,” says Paul Hohmann, an architect and a founding member of City to River, as he shouts above the noise created by Memorial Drive traffic and the depressed lanes of Interstate 70.  “The area between downtown and the riverfront is a no-man’s land. And that’s true for drivers, as well. If you’re driving in downtown St. Louis, and you try to get to the riverfront, chances are, you’ll end up on a freeway ramp to Illinois or to somewhere else you hadn’t intended to go.”

Pointing to a bank of glass doors on the east side of the swank Hyatt Hotel, Hohmann notes that, although they face the Arch, its surrounding national park and the riverfront, the doors are locked and unused. “This should be the front door, not the back,” he says. “The most valuable real estate in St. Louis is next to a highway—a noisy pit of doom.”

What’s the answer? That’s the $300-million question that a design competition, sponsored by the National Park Service, St. Louis City government and others, is working to solve. Five design teams have been selected as finalists. City to River is not competing for the project. Rather, it’s a grassroots group seeking to add community input into the parameters of the competition and the final designs.

City to River is not, however, without opinions. One of its top priorities is to remove Interstate 70 where it passes through downtown, and to replace it with an at-grade boulevard from the Poplar Street bridge north to Cass Ave. If that sounds radical, think again, says Rick Bonasch, of City to River.

“Other cities have removed highways,” he says, citing successful projects in Portland, Oregon and Milwaukee. “St. Louis would have to be on its own planet to not consider it. The new boulevard that we’re envisioning would allow pedestrians to easily cross over to the riverfront area, and highway statistics say that it could readily handle the projected 50,000 cars per day. Think of Paris’ Champs Elysee: It’s a boulevard, and it handles 80,000 cars per day.  Locally, we’ve got Kingshighway, across from Forest Park. It handles significant traffic–in the range of 30,000 to 35,000 cars. This is doable.”

Bonasch may have some powerful mojo on the side of that argument. The National Park Service has indicated a preference for highway removal in other projects. In addition, he says, both the US Department of Transportation and MODOT are talking about rerouting Interstate 70 and even removing some of its entrance and exit ramps to push traffic away from the Poplar Street bridge and toward the planned new bridge north of the city.

“Another little-known fact is that the Park Service actually owns most of the right of way and Memorial Drive, and it leases it to MODOT,” says Bonasch.

As to the long-proposed and well-publicized notion of building a “lid” over Memorial Drive and the I-70 depressed lanes, Bonasch sees that solution as too narrowly focused and too low on the cost-to-benefit meter.

City to River’s leaders also want to expand the scope of the City+Arch+River design project. “It’s not just about the Arch,” says Tristan Walker. Standing on the corner of Spruce St. and Memorial Drive, he points south toward the Soulard neighborhood. “Some of the original history of St. Louis—like the Soulard neighborhood and Chouteau’s landing, are within walking distance of Busch Stadium. But you can’t see them or get to them, because they’re cut off by a tangle of highway ramps.”

Walk north to Washington Ave., cross Memorial Drive, and you’ll find a similar situation. Deafening noise, a confusing street configuration under an elevated section of Interstate 70, and vehicle fumes create what Bonasch describes as “a horrible environment, where visitors should be enjoying some of St. Louis’ most important historical destinations—Laclede’s Landing and the Eads Bridge.”

“We are at a historic junction of need, civic desire, and opportunity,” says Bonasch, who welcomes input from community groups and individual residents. “The time to address all of these issues with a unified solution is now.”