Monday, November 10, 2008

Vacant Beauty

STL Rising seldom writes on vacant or abandoned sites, but this weekend's Arch and riverfront planning charette brought into stark focus vacancy where our city should be it's best - downtown, facing the Arch.

The Mansion House complex was built near the time of Arch construction, back in the mid-1960s. It's a three tower complex, with each tower now under separate management. One serves as a hotel and the other two as apartment buildings, Gentry's Landing and Mansion House. Within the complex there are a number of related service buildings, some for retail, others for office or community space.

The charette was held in one of the community/office spaces, a 3 or 4 story building directly facing the Arch and riverfront. With good reason, the building was generously loaned to the AIA for the charette by the owners of Mansion House. If future improvements happen around the Arch, it can only mean good things for downtown property owners. They are "deep stakeholders" in this effort.

Owners of this building should be concerned. According to charette organizers, the building has not had a tenant for over 21 years. Knocking on the door of 50, I know personally how the years can add up pretty fast. In this building, the bathrooms and elevators no longer work. Nonetheless, to the casual observer (given that most people see it through a windshield at upwards of 50 miles an hour) the building still looks pretty good. There could have been no more ideal setting for this charette.

This building not only offers commanding views of the Arch and grounds, but also a panoramic view of the highway barrier dividing downtown from the riverfront, Arch, and Laclede's Landing. Counting shoulders, traffic lanes, raised concrete barriers and viaduct walls, the expanse between downtown's front row of buildings and the Arch and riverfront uses is equal to about 16 traffic lanes.

For the charette, the students were divided into seven teams. Each team had architecture, art and traffic engineering students represented. Based on the diversity of presentations, the teams were given broad latitude in developing their ideas.

One team followed closely Professor Krieger's "Mind the Gap" principle, prioritizing the edges of the Arch grounds, connecting them to their neighboring uses. On the north side, they proposed replacing the underground garage with a dramatic new use, with a wall of steel and glass facing the Eads Bridge and Laclede's Landing. It could possibly house a new museum or other major attraction, drawing visitors from the Laclede's Landing, Lumiere Casino, and Washington Avenue areas.

Along the southern edge, where concrete pillars support the Poplar Street Bridge and its ramp connections to Interstate 70, Memorial Drive, and Interstate 44, they proposed a concrete garden, to green the area and soften the transition to Chouteau's Landing.

On the western edge, where the Arch faces downtown, they proposed reworking Interstate 70, the depressed lanes, and Memorial Drive. They recommended removing the interstate, filling in the depressed lanes, and creating a new, local circulation system. They envision a trolley loop connecting with downtown, new retail uses and sidewalk cafes facing the Arch, and a cobblestone road, remembering back to the original days of the St. Louis riverfront. What would such an improvement mean for the vacant Mansion House building?

One team suggested multiple bridges connecting downtown across the interstate and Memorial Drive. These bridges would provide varying view angles of the Arch. Another team made the analogy that while Forest Park is the "back yard" of St. Louis, the Arch is the front yard, suggesting that the region place equal priority to improving its front yard as its back yard. Recent improvements to Forest Park have transformed Forest Park into a regional jewel. The price tag for the Forest Park improvement effort was about $50 million.

(Note: a commentor notes the actual cost of Forest Park improvements was $102.6 million. That's a better number, giving more headroom for thinking big in terms of possible Arch/riverfront improvements.)

The students presented a wide range of ideas about how to improve the Arch and riverfront. Restoring connectivity was a theme throughout their presentations. Results of their work will be made available to the public on a blog in the near future.

Our new president-elect has stated that among his plans to rebuild our economy will be the prioritization of public works projects. Professor Krieger stated that one of the requirements of a successful waterfront revitalization program is support through a regional mandate. Michael Allen at Ecology of Absence makes the case that President-elect Obama may be one of the most urban friendly presidents in 50 years.

Another blogger writes about St. Louis as "Confluence City". Are we possibly at a crossroads where our region, our national agenda, and efforts to revitalize the connections between downtown and the river can be leveraged into a regional development agenda?

With so much potential and focus on our riverfront, the Arch, the national effort to restore the economy, and our city's overall ongoing renewal, think of the case we might make for this effort as a demonstration project on various local and national priorities. That's a case statement waiting to be written.


Anonymous said...

The price tag for the Forest Park improvement effort was about $50 million.

$102.6 million

Rick Bonasch said...

Duly noted. Thanks for the correction.

Does the cost include an endowment for long term maintenance?

Anonymous said...

Does the cost include an endowment for long term maintenance?

I think it does, though the maintenance endowment was only $10 million bucks before the current market hijinks. The most reliable source of FP maintenance is the lease revenue from BJC on the land over its parking garage.

GMichaud said...

As the current economic crisis confirms, millions and billions or even trillions don't matter. Money is just imagination. I think the challenge is to come up with better solutions, whether it is for the arch grounds, mass transit or many other of societies ills.
It is the vision that can win the moment.
What I see is getting hung up worrying about a few million here or there that prevents coming up with the ultimate solution.
Don't get me wrong, I'm as practical as anyone, but when we let Wall Street walk off with a trillion dollars, I think it think it is time main street competes with the bastards.
They certainly are not as smart as they think, nor deserving of their multi million paychecks which at this point the America people will fund.
I would not worry about funding or maintaining the arch project until the ultimate solution is arrived at, and, if it is as you say Rick, it also influences regional planning, then it will be a great plan and the money will follow.
America is ready for new visions and new directions, the same crap over and over is going nowhere.
If Obama fails, the next move will be towards a true third party to replace the tired and useless government as usual.