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American Society of Landscape Architects


September 2008 Issue

Meet Me (Again) in St. Louis, Louis
Reports of a city’s imminent demise appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

By George Hazelrigg, ASLA

Meet Me (Again) in St. Louis, Louis

When syndicated columnist Neal Peirce and urban expert Curtis Johnson arrived in St. Louis in 1997, they found a downtown of deserted streets and deteriorating buildings. Their published report predicted continued decay, squalor, and decline unless aggressive actions were taken. Tourists and conventioneers carried away similar impressions of downtown. Statistics sounded another alarm bell. From a population peak of near 860,000 in 1950, St. Louis had lost more than 500,000 by 2000 as residents took flight to the suburbs.

Just eight years after his report, Peirce returned to St. Louis and praised the downtown revival he found under way, calling it the most significant he had ever witnessed. “There’s an energy that didn’t exist in 1997,” he declared. Peirce was not the only outside observer to notice the recovery. By 2006, St. Louis’s progress had garnered awards from Partners for Livable Communities and the World Leadership Forum and, earlier this year, the St. Louis region took one of the National Civic League’s 2008 All-American City Awards.

What has happened in St. Louis during the past decade to warrant such recognition? And is it time to pop the champagne corks?

A Renewed Downtown?

In 2007 Mayor Francis Slay announced the selection of a design team to prepare a comprehensive master plan for Gateway Mall, a 1.2-mile-long row of mostly uninspiring downtown blocks from Kiener Plaza to Aloe Plaza. The mall design process would be funded by the private St. Louis-based Gateway Foundation, already known for the placement of quality public art around the city. Slay’s announcement was met with skepticism by many St. Louisans. Even after the city began its 50-year decline, new mall plans continued to surface. None were realized; one local columnist had dubbed St. Louis “the City of Forgotten Plans.”

In June, however, the mayor announced that the Gateway Foundation would be making one of the largest private gifts in city history: at least $20 million for the design, construction, and maintenance of a world-class sculpture garden on a 2.9-acre, two-block site on the mall. Despite the history of mall plans collecting dust, this time there was a difference. For at least one section of the mall, there would be funding.

Today, St. Louis downtown’s transformation remains an active work in progress. Projects completed or well advanced include:

  • City Garden, the two-block sculpture garden in the Gateway Mall (under construction)
  • Gateway Mall master plan (completed)
  • Old Post Office Plaza, an exciting $8.2 million project that places a valuable open-space attraction in the central core (under construction)
  • New streetscape for an emerging loft district (completed; streetscape guidelines are now in place for additional downtown phases)
  • Development of downtown housing for a growing residential population, a high priority for the area’s revival (ongoing)
  • Other projects that are pending include:
  • Chouteau Lake and Parkway project (revised plans recently completed; phase one construction awaits pending federal funding)
  • Riverfront–downtown connector efforts and redevelopment of the Arch grounds

To understand the background to these developments, we need to return to 1997. The Peirce Report confirmed an already growing recognition by civil leaders that the time had come to act. The upcoming centennial anniversary of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair seemed a timely deadline. St. Louis 2004, a not-for-profit organization launched in 1996, had already begun to map out a vision for, and strategy to achieve, important regional improvements. “St. Louis is not a spectator sport” was its battle cry; the revival of downtown became one of its priorities.

In late 1997, the city and key civic organizations formed a public–private partnership, Downtown Now. EDAW Inc. was tapped to head a consultant team charged with drawing up a plan; two years later, the resultant Downtown Development Action Plan was approved. It outlined four “focus” areas for concentrated action: the Washington Avenue Loft District, the Old Post Office District, the Laclede’s Landing and North Riverside District, and the Gateway Mall and Arch Grounds District (see “Renaissance Rivertown?” Landscape Architecture, June 2001). The plan received a 2000 ASLA Analysis and Planning award.

Reconnect Downtown to the River?

One of downtown’s liabilities is that a depressed Interstate 70 and six-lane Memorial Drive separate it from the Gateway Arch and its scenic riverfront. Mayor Slay made reconnecting downtown to the riverfront a priority; in 2005, he asked the Danforth Foundation to explore the potential for transforming the riverfront at the Arch into a major destination for residents and tourists. The number of visitors to the Arch had dropped in recent years. The Arch is surrounded by largely unused land designed by Dan Kiley, and while it offers photo opportunities and a view of the city from 630 feet, there is no reason for most visitors to linger or return.

The Danforth Foundation helped to fund a downtown riverfront design process led by the Great Rivers Greenway District. The latter, a public organization created by passage of a 2000 sales tax referendum, was already making impressive progress on its signature project, the River Ring, a 600-mile web of greenways that crisscross the region and include the Riverfront Trail, which runs 10 miles north from the Arch area. By late spring 2005, a design team was selected with HOK Planning Group (St. Louis) providing project management and Balmori Associates (New York) as lead designer.

From the outset, the team was handicapped by space limitations. The National Park Service (NPS) owned the 91-acre site of the Arch and considered those acres off limits to most redevelopment. That left the team with just a strip of riverfront land to work with. Nevertheless, Slay had called for bold planning, and Diana Balmori, ASLA, gave him just that. A clear favorite among design proposals was her “Terraces and Islands” design, which added six acres by creating two groups of floating islands extending into the river. The islands, connected by floating bridges, would host restaurants and cafés, playgrounds and fountains, swimming pools and rinks, and trails and bike paths.

The “Terraces and Islands” concept underwent extensive engineering analysis, elaborate river modeling studies, and design modifications during the following year. The innovative concept was a first; to attempt it on the powerful Mississippi with active barge traffic made the challenge even greater. But even though the design team worked closely with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Coast Guard to meet the complicated engineering hurdles, the team and steering committee concluded in 2006 that the “terraces and islands” option was impossible.

The Danforth Foundation separately asked St. Louis planning and architecture firm Arcturis in early 2006 to serve as project manager for an engineering and design study of a “connector” that could provide convenient, safe pedestrian movement across Interstate 70 and Memorial Drive. Later that spring, Thomas Balsley Associates (New York) was selected as lead designer of the team to design the connector. The team’s most ambitious scheme featured a three-block deck to cover I-70, but resultant “tunnel” ventilation would require two acres of unavailable land. The steering committee favored a concept that would incorporate a graceful pedestrian bridge and enhanced pedestrian street environment. In its 2007 report, the Danforth Foundation concluded that as long as none of the Arch grounds were available for redevelopment, hopes of making the Arch–riverfront district a world-class attraction were slim. Foundation President Peter Sortino says that the connector, with or without a “lid,” must remain on hold pending a decision regarding the Arch grounds’ future. “It’s not worth the money if there’s nothing to go to,” says Sortino.

Undeterred, the mayor asked a panel of civic leaders to take another look at how the riverfront transformation process could best proceed; in May 2008, they emphasized that the riverfront, Arch grounds, and Memorial Drive must be redeveloped as one project area. They recommended a new “destination attraction” such as a museum to be built on Arch grounds, seasonal activities to be planned on the riverfront, and year-round attractions such as restaurants to be included. They opted for a three-block Arch connector and a regional not-for-profit trust to raise funds and operate and maintain the new cultural installation.

Two public surveys commissioned by the Danforth Foundation showed wide support for developing the Arch grounds “to provide a variety of cultural, recreational, and leisure activities and entertainment.” More than 30 mayors in the St. Louis region voiced similar support; civic and business leaders in the city and adjacent counties in Missouri and Illinois have subsequently created an organization to promote their commitment to enlivening the Arch grounds and riverfront.

In the face of this groundswell of advocacy, the NPS appears stubbornly resistant to change. It did hold its own public meetings where individuals were able to comment on preliminary alternatives for the Arch grounds’ future, but it’s not clear what change, if any, the NPS will actually accept. While supporters of grounds improvements hope to avoid a major confrontation with the NPS, public comments by NPS officials have not been encouraging. A final resolution of this issue—namely, a transfer of a portion of the NPS land to an independent regional trust—will require action by the U.S. Congress.

A Grand Downtown Garden

Meanwhile, work on the sculpture garden, now officially known as City Garden, had progressed substantially. From the outset, the Gateway Foundation envisioned a hybrid garden of trees, groves, and water features—a city park with garden qualities that would showcase major public sculpture, open to the city. Neither the garden nor the 20 to 25 sculptures that would be placed on the site would be fenced.

Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects in Charlottesville, Virginia, the garden’s designers, had focused early on the idea of three east–west bands of forest, lawn, and garden. They became fascinated with aerial views of the two great area rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri, their arcs, limestone outcrops, and islands. That geography informed key features in the garden, as did a 1916 map of the site showing existing property lines, alleys, and foundation walls.

The northern more “urban” band of the garden includes groves and rows of primarily oak, elm, and birch trees, which shade upper terraces and a video wall. An imposing six- to eight-foot wall extends across the entire site, evoking the bluffs of the Mississippi. Near a café, the wall bisects a water basin, creating a waterfall. The middle, more parklike band includes a large expanse of grass, and a large rectangular pool and spray basin with vertical water jets for interactive play are featured in the western block. Perennial beds, shrubs, and smaller flowering trees fill the southern “garden” band. A series of low hedges mark the historic property lines and building foundations. On-site stormwater management includes a number of bioretention treatment areas as well as porous paving on the upper terrace and along Chestnut Street.

The Missouri Botanical Garden is collaborating on plant selection, native whenever possible, and will maintain the plantings after the garden opens. The designers have also worked closely with Jeffrey Bruce, FASLA, of Kansas City—whose specialties include urban soil management—and James Urban, FASLA, regarding tree plantings in several paved areas.

City Garden will offer a wide variety of experiences, with seasonal changes throughout the year. Warren Byrd, FASLA, expects a range of garden users: day workers in adjacent office buildings; the growing community of downtown residents, tourists, and conventioneers; and attendees at the nearby Busch Stadium who routinely crossed the site prior to construction before and after ball games. City Garden is due to be finished in time for the July 2009 All-Star Game.

But what about the rest of the 1.2-mile Gateway Mall of which the City Garden is just one segment? The master planning team, headed by Thomas Balsley Associates and Urban Strategies Inc. of Toronto, faced numerous challenges to enlivening the bland mall. Except for a few annual events, most of the mall offers little to attract people. Skeptics questioned whether there was sufficient residential density downtown despite impressive gains in recent years. Few buildings flanking the mall generate street life. Despite its location, the mall failed to provide “much-needed unifying glue for downtown.”

The final master plan, publicly unveiled in January, sets the stage for individual proposals to develop separate parts of the mall. It lays out distinct “rooms” starting with Kiener Plaza at the east end and progressing westward through the urban garden, a civic room, a neighborhood room, and finally the terminus at Aloe Plaza. Together, the final mall offers a potential mix of public performance and civil gathering spaces and platforms for public art and cultural activity. An “urban hallway” running the entire southern edge of the mall unites the linear site and ultimately could provide a link to the Gateway Arch grounds across Memorial Drive.

Balsley told me that the next priorities should be unifying the Urban Hallway and redesigning Kiener Plaza. “Together, they have the highest profile and will change the public’s perception forever. Funding for the rest will then follow.”

One civic leader expressed hope to me that City Garden will raise the design bar high for other mall spaces. That is already happening with an exciting redesign proposal for Kiener Plaza. Local designer “Hansi” Hommel initially designed a series of 20-meter-high cantilevered fabric solar panels that would wrap around a performance space at the western end of the plaza, the arcing ensemble and its processing of solar energy evoking a leaf in structure and function. HOK Planning Group prepared a plan for the entire plaza; Arup engineers in New York technically vetted the solar structures. While the plaza plan is still at the initial conceptual stage, the designers have already given thought to the possible installation of solar-energized electric car rechargers around the plaza.

The Old Post Office District was another downtown focus area of the 1999 Action Plan. Central to its redevelopment was the renovation of the Old Post Office on Olive Street, a late-19th-century National Historic Landmark building. The city unveiled the design for Old Post Office Plaza in the summer of 2000; now under construction, the $8.2 million plaza is replacing a former parking lot. Baird Sampson Neuert of Toronto won the design competition to serve as the plaza’s architect, and Arcturis was named project landscape architect. The plaza’s centerpiece, a large figurative sculpture called Torso diIkaro by artist Igor Mitoraj, has been contributed by the Gateway Foundation. The plaza will add an important open space attraction, allowing for public entertainment and special events in the heart of the downtown core.

Finally, a project located just south of the new Busch Stadium ballpark is expected to have a major impact on downtown’s revival. Chouteau’s Pond was drained in the mid-1850s; today it is largely parking lot and rail tracks. In 2000, the HOK Planning Group and St. Louis developer McCormack Baron Salazar began drawing up the plans for a new 16-acre lake at the site together with a greenway that would eventually link the lake and downtown’s riverfront with Forest Park to the west as part of the River Ring network. The project is expected to spur significant economic development on both sides of the greenway. Furthermore, the lake is expected to help reunite the north and south sides of downtown. Last year, Congress overrode a presidential veto to pass the Water Resources Development Act, from which funding for the Phase I lake construction will come.

At the time the 1999 Action Plan was drawn up, city leaders and planners recognized the need to restore a “critical mass” of people living downtown. Attention initially turned to the city’s former Washington Avenue garment district, a corridor of fine historic buildings, most vacant or underused since the once prosperous area’s decline beginning in the 1970s. The buildings were naturals for loft development; with one of the country’s largest historic designation programs, state and federal historic tax credits helped to make the decision. Today, nearly every historic building has been restored or is under reconstruction. The effort has spread to nearby streets, and downtown’s population has increased to more than 10,000 people in the past five years. A Washington Avenue streetscape plan by WRT of Philadelphia, implemented with $17 million of federal and state funding, was followed by streetscape guidelines for much of the remaining downtown core by HOK Planning Group. Streetscapes will be redeveloped with Missouri Downtown Economic Stimulus Act funding as individual building construction proceeds.

Taking Stock

So almost a decade and more than $4 billion in investment later, how has the plan fared? People are moving back downtown, and retail shops, services, restaurants, clubs, and hotels keep opening. Street life now continues after dark from Washington Avenue to Laclede’s Landing. Major sports and convention facilities add to the energy. Downtown life will soon be further enriched by City Garden and Old Post Office Plaza. And a bistate greenways network with assured revenue is bringing St. Louis the city and St. Louis the region closer together, already proving to be a catalyst for economic growth.

St. Louis’s downtown growth is not immune from current national trends in capital markets and tightening credit. Several major residential or mixed-use projects that were forging ahead last year are now stalled, altered, or cancelled, but the downtown $507 million Lumiere Place complex, including the Midwest’s second Four Seasons Hotel, is off to a successful start, and an on-and-off mixed-use Ballpark Village development adjacent to the new ballpark that opened in 2006 is back on, with the first phase—hotel, retail, and office, costing $280 to $320 million—scheduled to begin construction in 2009.

As downtown St. Louis moves forward, two questions remain high on its agenda. Will the city be reunited with its riverfront? Can momentum be sustained on the Gateway Mall? Events of the past decade are cause for optimism. The answers could not be more important.

George Hazelrigg, ASLA, is a senior project associate in Virginia Tech’s landscape architecture program.

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