The St. Louis Riverfront:
What’s the Attraction?
Now that the South leg tram is repaired, visitors to St. Louis can once again travel to the top of the Gateway Arch and back down to the bottom. But a question that’s been up in the air since the last piece of the catenary curve was put into place remains: Where do they go from there? A lot of creative minds have wrestled with that problem of St. Louis’ riverfront over the decades… including the creator of Mickey Mouse.
Dozens of cities had invited Walt Disney to build another Disneyland Park. He showed no serious interest in any city until St. Louis leaders approached him in 1963. Disney pursued his proposed project for the site, “Riverfront Square” despite less-than-ideal financial projections, because of his Missouri roots and because of a desire to help create a lasting tribute to the pioneer statement that the Arch represented. But civic leaders presented him with a variety of financial hurdles, as well as pressure from August Busch and others to include beer and liquor sales in the project. Finally Disney moved on down the road to a flat piece of Florida scrub in Orlando.
Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Minneapolis, Chattanooga… The list of cities reviving their riverfront districts seems endless. One city missing from the list, however, is St. Louis. Despite numerous plans and 40 years of redevelopment, St. Louis’ riverfront remains a hidden, dirty, back alley. Is there any hope?
On August 1, 2005, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay asked the Danforth Foundation to develop bold plans to potentially transform the St. Louis riverfront in the vicinity of the Gateway Arch. The committee selected by the Danforth Foundation came up with plans for putting floating islands in the Mississippi River or terracing the levee and then concluded they weren’t feasible. The Danforth Foundation, which pointed to Chicago’s Millennium Park as its model for an active riverfront, then concluded than nothing could be done without major changes to the Arch grounds themselves.
Former Sen. John C. Danforth, chairman of the Foundation, said, “We are wasting our two most valuable assets: the Gateway Arch and our position on America’s greatest river.” He called for changing the way the Arch grounds are used to allow restaurants, ice skating, swimming, water fountains, and other activities.
After accepting the Danforth Foundation’s report, Mayor Slay called for federal legislation to transfer ownership of portions of the 91 acres comprising the Arch grounds to a local entity. He asked Walter Metcalfe, Robert Archibald, and Peter Raven to give him their best advice on what that entity would be and how to proceed with plans to “activate” the park and put a cover over the I-70 trench between the park and downtown. Metcalfe is former chairman of Bryan Cave, the law firm; Archibald is president and CEOof the Missouri Historical Society; and Raven is director of the Missouri Botanical Garden. Little has been heard publicly from them since the mayor’s announcement.
What follows are other ideas for the St. Louis riverfront from architects and planners who have thought deeply about it.
Saarinen, the architect of the Arch, once wrote an account of a day at the Arch that anticipated a park full of activities, but activities related to the history of St. Louis and the West. In addition to the Old Courthouse, history museum, and tram ride up the Arch, he imagined a re-creation of a pioneer village set inside a forest on the north side of the park, a Colonial Williamsburg inspired collection of historic St. Louis buildings surrounding the Old Cathedral, formal gardens and an Architectural Museum.
He imagined at least three restaurants on the grounds: a “levee restaurant” on the north end by the river, a more centrally located “River Restaurant,” and a café set amidst the garden terraces atop the history museum.
He imagined a “Campfire Theater” inside a forest where park rangers would tell stories about the history of St. Louis. And he pictured an arcade near the levee, with a series of “little courts” where the history of St. Louis, the Louisiana Purchase and the westward expansion of the United States would be told through sculpture and painting.
A vision that contrasts sharply with Danforth’s comes from Lou Saur, principal of Saur Architects and a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects. Saur focuses on one problem-connecting the Arch grounds to downtown along the axis formed by the Old Courthouse and the Arch-in order to come up with a confined, doable project.
The core of his idea is a higher quality museum modeled after the underground World War Imuseum in Kansas City, a major cultural attraction on the order of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. In essence, it would be a major expansion, renovation, and upgrade of the existing underground museum with a new entrance near Memorial Drive. He proposes a passenger drop-off from Memorial Drive and an auto loop to a new underground parking garage underneath Ely Luther Smith Park, and an elevated walkway over Memorial Drive for better pedestrian access from Smith Park to the Arch grounds. To complete the connection to the river, he proposes construction of an elevated pier extending from the top of the Grand Staircase over Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and levee.
“I just don’t see the Arch grounds as a Millennium Park,” he said. “Millennium Park is a Chicago experience. The Arch grounds should be a beautiful cultural experience. It is just incomplete,” he added.
HOK’s Planning Group has worked on several plans for revitalizing the riverfront over the years, including the plans from the Danforth Foundation. Before the Danforth plan, HOK came up with the Chouteau Lake Plan to connect Arch to Forest Park.
Chip Crawford, director of HOK’s Planning Group, said the goal of all of such plans is “to create something that is exciting enough and accessible enough to get people down there. . . . We’ve proposed a number of things: restaurants, boat activities, ice skating, swimming, and educational activities.”
The new Mississippi River Bridge, he said, will create many opportunities for revitalizing the riverfront north of the Arch in Laclede’s Landing. ” It will create a new front door to the city, closer to the CBD (Central Business District) than Soulard. That will create new opportunities for housing, etc.,” he said.
As for developing anything immediately adjacent to the Mississippi River, “There are great challenges to building along a river as mighty as the Mississippi,” he said. “There is flooding; there are sediments; there is barge traffic, which most rivers don’t have; there is turbulence and floating debris, which makes it very difficult. But north of the Arch, you could build-in a natural platform for housing and other development with parking on the lower levels.”
Arcturis was involved with the Danforth study on the “connector” or lid over the I-70 trench. However, “it is not the depressed section so much as Memorial Drive that is the challenge,” said Vernon Remiger, chief operating officer of Arcturis. The City could move to redirect traffic from Memorial Drive, slow it down, and make Memorial Drive more pleasing to pedestrians, he said, but, “since the National Park Service owns the land beneath it, whatever we do, we need National Park Service buy in.”
If the goal is to get a connection between downtown and the riverfront, “the Arch grounds can’t do it on their own,” he said. “What we need is a strong Laclede’s Landing and a strong Chouteau’s Landing,” he said, referring to the areas just north and south of the Arch grounds. “If we get that, then the connector piece between them is stronger.” Both areas, he added, need some sort of residential life. Unfortunately, “both areas are bounded by highways and a floodwall so that they are basically islands, which is what is keeping them from getting developed,” he said. To get development started, “We just need the National Park Service to give a little,” he said.
“From architectural point of view the Arch is a great symbol, but symbols can only go so far to revitalize the city,” said Andy Trivers, principal of Trivers Associates. “In order for the Arch grounds to function they need some activity. We need to intensely develop the riverfront itself,” he said.
“We’re a river city that has ignored its river. People gravitate to water. What was supposed to be a connector is now a divider. No one has a plan that will enliven the riverfront.”
Trivers’ idea is for an elevated promenade over Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard with stores and restaurants tucked into the hillside the supports the Arch grounds. “We have to get out of flood plain,” he said. “We need a space from which to look out over the river to appreciate it.”
“In the grand scene of things we’re talking about not that much money. We’re only talking about the future of the city,” he said.
Vince Ebersoldt and Kevin Underwood
Vince Ebersoldt, principal of Ebersoldt + Underwood Architecture, said that reconnecting downtown to the riverfront will take much more than just covering up the I-70 trench. “Washington Avenue does a terrible job of connecting to Laclede’s Landing, and there the highway is elevated,” he said.
His partner, Kevin Underwood, elaborated on that point, “We need multiple points of access,” he said. Chouteau’s Landing has only one access point from downtown, he said, Chouteau Avenue. Between Chouteau Avenue and Market Street, a distance of over one mile, there is no way to get to the riverfront from the city. Access to Laclede’s Landing from downtown is similarly restricted, and neither Laclede’s Landing nor Chouteau’s Landing offer direct access to the Arch grounds.
“They have no connection with the park or the rest of the city,” Underwood said. “We have to establish connections with the park at the bookends and then provide reasons for people to go there, amenities like shopping, restaurants, etc.”
Ebersoldt said that with Lumiere Casino open on the Laclede’s Landing and Chivvis Development moving forward with plans for Chouteau’s Landing, development will happen on the bookends. “If not for the slowdown in the housing market Ithink we would see more activity there now,” he said.
Ultimately, he added, “the city needs to put more resources forward to come up with a real plan that really tries to improve tourism and integrates it with recreational lifestyles.”
Berendzen, president of Fox Architects and past president of the AIA St. Louis, said he was “tangentially involved” with the plans from the Danforth Foundation. Although he agrees that the Arch grounds are underutilized, he said the real issue is not the center of the park, but the edges.
“Good urban design is all about the edge, I can’t stress that enough,” he said. “The Arch is a wonderful thing; the park is beautiful; but the problem is there are no edges that mean anything to any pedestrian. We have world’s greatest sculpture and a beautiful garden and all the buildings that front it have turned their backs on it. They have their loading docks facing the park. It is atrocious. The front of the city is really the back of downtown.
“Our problem is not that we need a wonderful pedestrian connection; we need a thriving pedestrian, mercantile, and office environment surrounding park.”
The first step, he said, is to get rid of I-70 in front of the park and do something to slow down and possibly reduce Memorial Drive. After that, he would take on the north and south edges of the park.
“I would be prone to developing a strip along those edges, particularly the northern edge that abuts Laclede’s Landing. It would be great if we had buildings on the north side looking into the park,” he said. “The Arch grounds and the garage have created a moat between the park and Laclede’s Landing, so we have to take a slice out of the park and redevelop it to make a connection to the Landing. There has to be a reason for people to go there and it has to be office,
residential, and mercantile mixed together or it won’t work,” he said.
Architect Richard Claybour also starts from the position that one point of access at the foot of Ely Luther Smith park is not good enough. “The park is 12 blocks long. We need many access points,” he said.
To get that access, he would eliminate Memorial Drive. When the new Mississippi River bridge is built for I-70, he said, the city won’t need Memorial Drive anymore. He proposes to take it out and create more green space where the eastern lanes were and let the buildings downtown expand into the western lanes with new “fronts” that face the park. He proposes letting the east-west streets that currently terminate at Memorial Drive loop into the park so people can drive in, drop people off, and drive out; and he proposes putting in a new bridge at Spruce Street and an elevated pedestrian bridge from the Eads Bridge to the park.
The maintenance building on the south end of the park and the garage at the north end are violations of the master plan, said Claybour, so he would replace the maintenance building and the top level of the garage with retail or mixed-use buildings that extend across the entire north and south edges of the park and out from the hillsides on the eastern side of the park on platforms over Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and the levee.
In the interior of the park, Claybour would replace the existing fenced-off reflecting ponds with a river feature that traverses the entire length of the park, like the river feature in Forest Park. And noting that half of the train tunnel is unused, he suggested using that space for a trolley to carry people from one end of the park to the other, or from Chouteau’s Landing to the Arch and on to Laclede’s Landing.
However, more important than any particular idea, Claybour said, is that the city have a more open and public discussion about how to improve the riverfront and make the Arch truly part of St. Louis.
“There has to be a reason for people to go there and it has to be office, residential, and mercantile mixed together or it won’t work.”
Richard C. Ward
Ward, Vice President with the Development Management Group of Zimmer Real Estate Services, said any realistic discussion of reanimating the riverfront “has to start with the reality of what we have: a big ditch created by Corps of Engineers and dictated by demands of waterborne commerce. When water fills it up it is as mean as can be. . . .[and] the kind of thing that was proposed by the HOK team (in the Danforth Foundation report) went beyond the pale of reality,” he said.
Of the various ideas for the Arch grounds that are floating around, Ward is most taken with Berendzen’s focus on the edges. He said that while many things could be done to animate the edges of the park, he likes the idea of a restaurant on one of the parapet overlooks in the southeast and northeast corners of the park. “I think one of the great amenities of the park is the view of the river from the high parapets on either end of the park,” he said.
“I would hate to lose passive park feel of center,” he added. “Idon’t think it needs to be made into Disneyland. I see no need for the whole area to be animated and made a playground for visitors. One of great experiences I’ve had is walking around the plaza and looking up at the Arch and appreciating what a great piece of art it is. That does not need to be mussed up,” he said.
Ward was dismissive of the idea of capping the I-70 trench. “In Cincinnati, there is a wider highway in a ditch, but it is very pleasant to walk across,” he said. “People cross streets all the time; the issue is how it is designed.” The Memorial Drive/I-70 should be “re-polished” to be more pleasant and less utilitarian, he said, but it does not need a lid and “it does not have to cost hundreds of millions of dollars.”