St. Louis has a history of demolishing city blocks for …

It all began innocuously enough. A city block was condemned and demolished for the Soldiers’ Memorial in the 1920s. Then a few others for park space. Looking at the city map, there was effectively no park space downtown at the time. Some green space existed around both the old and new courthouses, and around City Hall, but squares were noticeably absent.

Civic structures rapidly clustered around the park space, and in the postwar era, city leaders proposed a long mall extending all the way from the Old Courthouse to the north front of Union Station. And of course, there was the Arch plan, bankrolled with Federal dollars to give the city a visible new symbol and a large new greenspace. Remember, more than most cities, this was needed in St. Louis at the time, and even today. Unlike Cleveland, which had implemented a City Beautiful landscape plan during the 1900s, the only significant greenspace St. Louis had in its entire downtown ca. 1950 were those squares it had built in the 1920s, the ones the civic center had clustered around.

Like all postwar urban renewal plans, this had its share of ugliness. The Gateway Arch sits on the bed of an entire neighborhood, leveled flat for a park. St. Louis’ city leaders detested its brick vernacular and tiny blocks, seizing on every opportunity to demolish them. To this day, St. Louis’ city leaders don’t seem to care when landowners demolish willy-nilly, or that vast tracts of its urban fabric on the north side are just gone.

But the fact remains: St. Louis did need downtown green space, and in fact still does. The problem has been implementation.

It’s a stroke of the kind of aesthetic genius that usually eludes 1950s-era urban designers that the Arch is aligned with the downtown greenway. The Arch is aligned with the Old Courthouse; the Old Courthouse is aligned with the “new” one facing the civic square; both are aligned between Market and Chestnut (hmm, those street names sound familiar), producing a greenway that extends out to Union Station. Or it would, if St. Louis’ civic leaders hadn’t fucked up.

St. Louis’ civic leaders fuck up. A lot.

Anyway … for all its flaws (a big one that it divides downtown’s north and south halves), the greenway does provide downtown plenty of greenspace. Enough that buildings on the blocks nearest the network shouldn’t need open space requirements. Had the greenway been cleverly constructed and zoned, the return on private improvements (i.e. increased tax revenue) would have been able to pay for its construction. Of course, as we can see with parking garage blocks facing the greenway, this did not happen.

Screenshot 2016-04-10 at 5.30.31 AM

Sketch of reconfigured park space in downtown St. Louis. The Gateway Arch’s size is reduced, allowing for high-value redevelopment along its edges. A long greenway visually links the Arch, Old Court House, and current courthouse; a second greenway along the same axis stretches in front of Union Station and the post office. A block of small parks between the two is surrounded by City Hall and other governmental offices. To the south, a new square is suggested at the main entrance to the Gateway Transportation Center. Finally, new development is proposed over the Metro embankment (a structurally easy overbuild) and reclaiming a former freeway path, now an oversized exit, dividing Downtown from the university neighborhoods to the west. Existing streets are in gray and new/rebuilt ones, black.

Three Actions With Lots of Impact

But that doesn’t mean we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. Yes, the western greenway sort of … just tapers off. Yes, the Gateway Arch’s park is too big. And yes, some idiot put a tower right between the new and old courthouses, completely fucking up the middle part of the mall. But the bones are in place to make for a pleasing civic-center experience in St. Louis. Here’s how.

(1) Shorten the Arch park. Right now, it extends all the way from the Eads to the Poplar Street bridge. This is clearly too much park — about 80 acres of it! Extending it to the bridges also means that there aren’t any active edges around the park, which keeps it a border experience. The Gateway Arch isn’t just the city’s gateway and main tourist draw, it’s also downtown’s primary and largest greenspace. That means it needs to be a part of downtown, not apart from it.

Re-plat the blocks between Washington and Locust (damn, these street names sound familiar) on the north side of the Arch, and between Spruce and Pine Poplar on the south — some six blocks. This gives the Arch active edges, as well as giving it more prospective users — right now, it’s little more than a tourist trap.

Yes, the rail line runs through the blocks closest to the river, between 1st and Leonor K. Sullivan, and that’ll make things interesting. But size isn’t everything, and a slightly smaller Arch is a better one.

(2) Modulate the greenspace on the west side. The civic courthouse is excellently placed — it does three major aesthetic jobs in the city. First, it forms the west end of the natural viewshed that extends from the Arch. Secondly, it helps frame the civic park area, along with City Hall and the other courthouses. And thirdly, it separates the greenspaces. That is, instead of being one amorphous blob, the civic courthouse makes the greenspace have an “east mall” chunk and a “civic park” chunk. These spaces, smaller, are more digestible and easier to design for. (Though malls are usually very formal greenspaces.)

This is not done on the west side. Here, the west mall just sort of flows into the civic park, exactly the kind of amorphous blob that the civic courthouse breaks up. And because it’s so poorly framed, the west mall feels less like a mall … and more like an oversized median. Which makes drivers on Chestnut and Market treat them more like extended offramps and less like streets.

So we modulate the space on the west side. Building a civic structure on the block bounded by 15th, 16th, Market, and Chestnut no, not Centre Square does that. Perhaps a new city offices building, setting up their current aging New Formalist digs just across the street for a gut rehab and a new use? The key is to make the building tall enough that it adequately terminates the vista for the western mall and handsome enough that it blends into the city, framing the civic park on its eastern side.

The other part of framing the western mall is to terminate its western vista, too. This calls for a new hotel building (although apartments and condos can do the same thing). By doing this, we prevent the mall from being a sort of placeless … thing, but instead make it a long, but clearly urban, city park.

(3) Get rid of the Peabody Building. It’s only been around for a little more than 20 years, which means that (short of St. Louis turning back into the region’s economic center overnight) it won’t reach the point where its mechanicals start to go for another 20-30 years. However, the Peabody Building is the only thing in the way of the sight lines between the courthouses and the Arch. It clearly stands out of place and ruins what should be one of the city’s signature vistas — the view from the east side of the Civic Courthouse, down an urban-canyon mall with the Old Courthouse’s capitol dome and the sleek glinting Arch hovering above at the end.

Probably the best way to do this is via a land swap — give the developer some underutilized public land (a set-aside parcel? a parcel that has just become available e.g. an obsolete highway exit? other strategies?) as an incentive to replace on that land instead of replacing or renovating Peabody. While patience is the name of this game, the payoff will be a great formal St. Louis mall.

The Results

Come off the riverside trail — a recreational path extending along the shores of the Mississippi. Cross Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard and climb the steps up the bluff to the Gateway Arch. The park is pleasant — large enough that it allows its centerpiece breathing room, but small enough that you can feel the city surrounding you, towers that hem it in and give it a sense of place. And from the edge of the bluff, right over the railroad tracks, you can see the bridges across the Mississippi, the strings sewing East and West together. Off in the distance, the mounds of Cahokia.

Climb to the top of the Arch. Whether or not it’s still St. Louis’ tallest structure is immaterial — it’s still its most iconic. From its vista you can see the long green path of the Downtown Greenway parks network, a bustling city in every direction.

Climb back down. Walk past the Old Courthouse and you’re on the Court Mall, a belt of parks extending from the Old Courthouse to the Civic Courthouse, six blocks away. On either side of the Court Mall rise downtown St. Louis’ highrises, restaurants and cafés and bars and stores of all sorts at their bases. Bright and busy, the city entices you off the mall, into downtown to see what discoveries you can find. But there, at the end of the Courthouse Mall, is the city’s other great view, the wall of midrises flanking the mall, the glinting arch shimmering, like a mirage, over the Old Courthouse.

Pass by the Old Courthouse and you’re in the Civic Parks, several small squares, linked together by common theme. The city’s main civic and government buildings sit on the square’s south side; on the north, the Solders’ Memorial provides a focal point. Then the Library sits a bit further north.

Beyond the new municipal building, defining the Civic Parks’ west side, you’re on the Old Station Greenway, a handsome greenbelt setting off the Post office and old Union Station on its south side. At the end, a high-end hotel marks the back of the Downtown Greenway, and on its north side, the city is more sedate and residential.

This is a greenway that befits St. Louis, a park system that gives it a bit of that Boston feeling. Most of the skeleton is already in place — let’s see if they can fine-tune it and get the details right.

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