Gateway to the Arch

Inside the $380 million project that promises to revive STL’s iconic riverfront park and reconnect it with the city.

 

For nearly half a century, the Gateway Arch has served as St. Louis’ most prominent landmark—perhaps one of the most recognizable in the country. It’s one of the first images people associate with the city and is a source of marvel for tourists and locals alike. Still, the Arch has been losing visitors for years. From 1995-2005, the Arch grounds averaged 3.3 million visitors a year; from 2006-2011, that number dropped to 2.3 million.

 

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The CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation formed in 2009 in response to a challenge by St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay to transform the Arch grounds and make the riverfront park more welcoming, lively and connected to the city. Inspired by the 1947 design competition that led to the design of the Arch itself, the foundation teamed up with the National Park Service and the city of St. Louis to sponsor a new design competition. It drew architects and designers from around the world to tackle the challenge of creating a seamless connection between the city, the Arch and the river‰ÛÓmaking the destination more attractive to visit and revisit, but also transforming it into a place where locals and visitors alike want to spend time. “We want to match the awe and respect that people have for the Arch and what it represents,” says Maggie Hales, executive director for CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.

Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, a landscape architecture firm based in New York, won the competition in 2010, and CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation and its partners have been working ever since to make its design a reality. The project is a massive one, bringing together national, state and local entities to pull it off. On the whole, the project will cost $380 million‰ÛÓa sum that CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation has been quietly fundraising to meet through a combination of corporate and individual donations and public funding. Once the project is paid for, the foundation will shift its focus to funding a conservancy endowment to help maintain the park in the years to come.

The project aims to be complete by Oct. 28, 2015, just in time for a grand celebration of the Arch’s 50th anniversary. The park will remain open throughout the process, and there are plans for web cams and viewing platforms to allow people to follow its progress.

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Park Over the Highway: Bridging the I-70 trench to provide a safe, peaceful path from Downtown to the Arch grounds.

Since flooding is a major contributor to the scarcity of activity along the riverfront, one of the first orders of business on that portion of the project is to elevate Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard by 2.5 feet from Biddle Street to Chouteau Avenue and along the length of the park. This is estimated to eliminate more than half of the instances of flooding every year, making it much less risky to plan events there. The boulevard will also feature wider pedestrian pathways, better lighting and seating along the river (pictured above).

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Westward Expansion: Connecting the park’s visitor center and Museum of Western Expansion to Downtown.

As visitors cross the Park Over the Highway, they’ll be faced with a grand new entrance to the visitor center and Museum of Westward Expansion. A circular plaza nestled into the gently rising lawn of the Arch will lead to a broad glass entryway, which will open into a spacious, natural light-filled lobby (pictured above). Turn around, and you’ll be faced with a view of Downtown buildings stretching up around the Old Courthouse and green expanse of the park‰ÛÓa perfect tribute to the pioneering spirit of the museum.

Inside, broad passageways will lead east into the original museum, adding 42,000 square feet of space designed to accommodate school groups, educational tours and events. It will all be lit to mimic natural lighting and minimize the feeling of being underground. The exhibits themselves will cover the same subject matter, redesigned into six story hubs.

Moving the museum entrance to face west rather than its current location under the Arch’s north leg helps reorient the entire park toward the city and reinforce that connection. Shifting the park’s main entry point also is expected to increase foot traffic for Downtown businesses, encouraging visitors to stop by on their way in or out.

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On the Riverfront: Bringing activity and excitement back to the banks of the Mississippi.

Since flooding is a major contributor to the scarcity of activity along the riverfront, one of the first orders of business on that portion of the project is to elevate Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard by 2.5 feet from Biddle Street to Chouteau Avenue and along the length of the park. This is estimated to eliminate more than half of the instances of flooding every year, making it much less risky to plan events there. The boulevard will also feature wider pedestrian pathways, better lighting and seating along the river (pictured above).

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Gently sloped pathways will be built in along the east slopes of the park on either side of the grand staircase to help make the riverfront more accessible from the park (pictured above). This will not only allow those with strollers or wheelchairs to move more easily between the riverfront and the park, but also offer views of the river and the train tunnels that cut through the hill. Hales envisions people gathering on the grassy slopes for picnics and concerts overlooking the water. “We want to build the riverfront back to the vibrancy, activity and excitement it used to draw,” she says.

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To the delight of fitness enthusiasts, bike paths along the boulevard will connect with scenic trails to the north and south, creating a continuous path along the river. They’ll also tie into the network of trails exploring the park to provide a pleasant entryway into the city and its amenities. Great Rivers Greenway is leading the charge on the riverfront improvements and urban trail system. Workers broke ground on construction in November, and will finish by October 2015.

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North Gateway: Breaking down barriers and making space to play.

The massive parking garage that caps the park to the north is going away, as is the leg of Washington Avenue that links to Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard. It’s all being replaced by nearly 7 acres of new park space (pictured below) that will extend all the way to the iconic arches of Eads Bridge to the north (pictured above). The space will feature event grounds, a natural amphitheater and a natural play area for kids. It’s even expansive enough to host multiple events at once. The concept is similar to Chicago’s Millennium Park as a place within the park where people will gravitate and spend time.

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The elimination of the parking garage is a boon not only to the environment (reducing runoff and pollution to the river and removing a huge heat island), but also to the community directly to its north. As it is, when people look toward the park from Laclede’s Landing, they’re confronted with an ugly concrete wall‰ÛÓa physical and psychological barrier. Take that away, and it’s a green vista crowned by the Arch, just begging to be visited. Once the visual link is made, the vibrant energy of Laclede’s Landing, Washington Avenue, the MX District and the Convention Center will all be drawn into the park as well.

The Lewis and Clark Explorers’ Garden was designed with the park’s youngest visitors in mind, providing a natural space for play that’s scaled down to kid size. There will be boulders to climb on, room to run and native flora from the pioneering era to inspire the imagination. Visit cityandarchriver.org to follow the project’s progress and to donate to the cause.

 

Photo credit: Renderings courtesy of CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation

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