Sunday, March 21, 2010

Are Stars Aligning For Downtown?

Yesterday I joined City to River on its "Walking of Future Connections" tour. The tour went from Busch Stadium to Laclede's Landing, by way of Memorial Drive and the Arch grounds. There were stops along the way at key points of future connections.

The first stop was at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Spruce. Presently, the corner is a no-mans land. Even though this is the closest direct route between Busch Stadium and the riverfront, hardly anyone ever ventures in this direction. (Click on all images for a larger view).

The image below is the intersection with a new Memorial Drive at Spruce. Pedestrians would have a direct connection from Busch Stadium to the Arch grounds and riverfront. A possible arts, music and loft district at Chouteau's Landing would be directly connected through this new opening.

From Spruce and Memorial, we headed north towards the Old Cathedral. The walls of I-70 block views and the depressed lanes forms a brutal gateway to our riverfront and the Arch. (Note the deteriorating concrete on the underside of the bridge over the depressed lanes. Broken concrete exposes the rebar inside the bridge structure.)

A new boulevard changes the experience for drivers and pedestrians alike. Wide crosswalks and slower traffic make the area more visually interesting and attractive.

The tour traveled north on Memorial Drive to the area adjacent the new downtown Hyatt. Presently, there is no buffer between cars on Memorial Drive and the sidewalk. There is no on street parking. Street parking is good for local business and helps bring foot traffic to the Arch.

A new boulevard would have street parking on both sides of Memorial Drive, buffering the sidewalk from moving traffic and with parking meters adding revenue to local government. Connection to the riverfront is broken as much if not more by the elevevated lanes as the depressed lanes. Visitors staying at the Hyatt now have this view over to the Lumiere Casino and Laclede's Landing. (Notice the lack of street parking buffering the sidewalk from moving traffic):

The corner of Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive is the most historic entry point of St. Louis. The Eads Bridge is where travelers from the east crossed the Mississippi to the west. This is how the area looks today:

Pretty lousy tribute to our historic point of entry, isn't it? Removal of the elevated lanes and creation of a new Memorial Drive opens the area visually and adds value to the Eads Bridge and Arch grounds while creating potential for new development.

Laclede's Landing is a primary connection to the Arch grounds and riverfront. However, with I-70 cutting off Laclede's Landing from downtown, the connection looks like this:

Is 2010 the year stars align for downtown? There is reason for hope. A lot of positive developments are coming to our city at the same time including:

The New Mississippi River Bridge (scheduled for a February 2014 opening)

I-70 depressed lanes and elevated lanes approaching the end of their useful life

The rerouting of Interstate 70 north of Laclede's Landing (coinciding with the new Mississippi River bridge)

The City Arch River Design Competition (underway at this time with a September 2010 decision on the winning design)

The possibility of federal funding to help reconnect downtown to the Arch and riverfront (total cost estimated at $300 million by the National Park Service)

Local and National leaders all focused on reconnecting the city to the riverfront and the Arch grounds

Since the highway has long been known to be the main problem cutting off downtown from the riverfront, will highway removal and replacement with a new boulevard be a possible design solution under the design competition? The National Park Service has stated they strongly prefer highway removal.

The Park Service is also concerned that highway removal may not be feasible during the life of this new General Management Plan (20-25 years). However, the Park Service has stated that it would amend its General Management Plan to provide for highway removal if it could be completed sooner.

Whatever the outcome, the results of the design competition and subsequent investment of many tens of millions for connection improvements will be geared for the long term well beyond the life of the new General Management Plan. Decisions we make today will be around for the rest of our lives and the next few generations of St. Louisans. Now is the opportunity to make lasting, transformative change for our region and downtown - not 25 years from now.

Fifty years ago it was not very difficult to build an interstate highway through the heart of downtown. At the time it was the right thing to do. Are we saying today that it's too difficult to change it? Why wait another 25 years when we may never have a chance like this again? Other cities around the country are converting highways to boulevards to help revitalize and reconnect their downtown areas and waterfronts. Is St. Louis up to the task?

With the coming of the new bridge, the rerouting of I-70 away from the Arch grounds, and the major investments planned to implement the winning design of the design competition, shouldn't highway removal be considered at this time if ever?

(Architectural renderings courtesy City to River)


Anonymous said...

Not only are stars aligning for downtown, but north St. Louis as well. It's just a matter of time. The people piece (peace) is very vital. Past developments have failed because there was no heavy concentration of PEOPLE. People spend money, people create atmosphere, people make a difference. I'm looking forward to North St. Louis being revived, Old North flourishing and Downtown THRIVING! They are all necessary spokes in the wheel! For once it looks like a lot of positive things are happening in tandem! This is time for large developments,mid-sized developments and small one & two rehab projects to all co-exist. Imagine that St. Louis.

Kevin Barbeau said...

You really can see a lot of positive points of connection for all the activity being planned. It's exciting to watch, to talk about and to be a part of.

The new bridge brings the north side into play as a focal point, which coincides nicely with ongoing/upcoming renewal efforts there.

This opens up an option to remove the I-70 barrier high and low, reconnecting the city to the riverfront and the Landings to each other (Chouteau appears to be positioning itself as an arts district, Laclede could regain its strength as a textiles/goods district?).

The President is leaving and with the new bridge to the north, a new commitment to the north riverfront (on and off river) can begin.

Get a North/South metrolink in play and a downtown "wheel" to join both lines and that pulls the region together even more.

And finally, westward expansion of downtown St. Louis is beginning. The opera house is reopening and businesses are realizing the high teens-and-20s streets offer interesting/nice work spaces.

People are becoming more eco-conscious and new buildings are too. Color me excited.