And The Winner Is…

Following is my online submission to the National Park Services competition comment page. I don’t know if they’ll consider it when judging (since it doesn’t necessarily adhere to their Four Question format), but I can only hope it guides them in picking SOM Hargreaves as the winning design team — and helps them target some necessary redos

– – – – – –

After reviewing each plan, I see portions of each I like, and portions I don’t. Since I can’t piecemeal my vote, I give it to SOM Hargreaves, for the amenities it adds, the connections it builds, and the history, culture and nature it highlights.

First and foremost, the central Archgrounds are – and should continue to be – unassuming, modest and simple. Saarinens gorgeous sculpture should be seen with a clear view — not from a gimmicky walkway or through a subterranean window or a glass elevator/gondola. SOM successfully activates the grounds’ boundaries – creating points of interest that not only draw people to the grounds, but catch those exiting them – without sacrificing the deserved solitary status of the marvelous Arch itself.

The North end is particularly well-conceived. It becomes an important transit hub for Metrolink and Metro buses. Combine that with the proposed auditorium and education facilities, and this could prove an exciting opportunity to activate the city’s youth, who can arrive independently on bus or train throughout the year for continuing education/entertainment programs. The North edge also preserves Washington Avenue – which is very important, since that street arguably reignited downtown development in St. Louis. With the removal of the 6th Street skybridge and the projected and sensical removal of I-70 downtown, there’s every indication that Washington Avenue can and will continue its growth eastward, to Laclede’s Landing, the Eads Bridge and a new North Archgrounds.

SOM’s plan successfully activates the South edge of the Archgrounds for recreation and relaxation, a very important addition if Chivvis Development succeeds in redeveloping some of nearby Chouteau’s Landing for residential lofts and apartments. While regulation rinks and courts and fields are difficult to incorporate without creating a generic ‘sportsplex’ feel, SOM does a decent job of making natural space for them within the existing southern section and the street- level space under the highways.

Through the Market/Chestnut corridor, SOM makes a couple of ‘look-at- me’ mistakes (a condition unique to architects and designers where, in an effort to put their legacy stamp on a project, they create something bohemith/abstract/interpretive and, ultimately, ugly and/or unnecessary; usually accompanied by an artistic piece in quotes). The activation of the Old Courthouse is admirable, but the “Whispering Gardens” and “Magic Carpet” to the courthouse’s west and east, respectively, reeks of ‘look-at-me’ syndrome. In fairness to SOM though, their vision of “Whispering Gardens” is just too big and would become interesting if scaled down and limited to East Kiener Plaza (leaving the waterfall basin intact) and Magic Carpet is – as SOM themselves thankfully alluded to – a temporary solution until I-70 is removed entirely between Poplar Street and the new Mississippi River Bridge at Cass Avenue.

The riverfront itself looks nice and is, apart from the odd ‘river pool’ barge, respectful to the river and the Arch. With more riverboats, increased tour hours and a dedicated bank-to-bank tow-tug, life on Lenor K. Sullivan should be fairly active. My major qualm, however, is the closing of LKS to street traffic. If, as this competition intends, the surrounding areas (i.e. Laclede’s Landing, Chouteau’s Landing) are rejuvenated, LKS needs to exist to connect these two districts – if not for personal automobiles, then for taxis, dedicated buses or even a future Mississippi Mile trolley from Laclede’s Landing boulevard to Chouteau Avenue.

SOM almost planned the East riverfront perfectly. I say ‘almost’ because there are four humongous ‘look-at-me’ Easter Island heads posing as art or culture or Cahokian river spirits or…something. Get rid of those heads and you have an East Side success story. SOM smartly made the focus about nature and about history. The paths, the riverwalk, the mounds (sans “Mississippi Soul”), all pay tribute to the tribe that was here before the city and the land that was here before the tribe. It’s a compliment to SOM that, having designed a smart and centered river’s edge amphitheater, the peaceful river trails and foliage is still maintained as the focal point.

The MacArthur Bridgeway is a design that, while admirable and beautifully imagined, should be discouraged. St. Louis used to be a hub for rail traffic and a hub for commerce. While both the city and the rail industry have changed, it would be disastrous to cut the city off from its nearest East/West connector in favor of another walk/bike path. For St. Louis to excel, it needs to strengthen its commercial connections – not weaken them. Furthermore, quality options for public transportation increases a city’s desirability and the MacArthur Bridge is the best option for a future true-train commuter system (akin to Chicago’s suburb-serving Metra) better linking the neighboring region and bringing workers of all collars from Cahokia, Dupo, Belleville East, Columbia, Waterloo, etc.

I think SOM has it right. The stuff that’s good is very good – it’s respectful not only of Saarinen’s design, but of the modesty and sensibilities of St. Louisans as a whole. Looking at the design proposal, one can envision how successful this plan could be, and imagine what other growth it could direct. Beware the “look-at-me’s” though — when possible, these should be sized down considerably or removed all together.

Thank you. I look forward to the competition results and a design selection that respects the region’s history and the people who have shaped it, while smartly and confidently helping advance it toward its future.

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2 comments

  1. Yet Another St. Louis Blog by Kevin B. · · Reply

    Hmm…must have missed that part. If that's the case, then I guess it becomes a bit more palatable. I'd still like to see some feasibility/safety info on running a freight train regularly under a walkway. Didn't Alex mention a similar scenario in New York then?

  2. They plan on using the top deck of the MacArthur Bridge which was a road deck in the past. The railroads use the lower deck. So we could have both the bike/walking trail and continue to have our rail connection.

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