Green Space Mayor Slay Preservation Board

Did You Know That the Preservation Board is Meeting Tomorrow?

by Michael R. Allen reports less than 24 hours head of time that tomorrow is a special meeting of the Preservation Board to consider changes to Government Hill in Forest Park.

What’s the hurry to get a plan approved? Why the under-announced meeting?

The revised plan, by the way, is somewhat better than the one previously submitted to the Preservation Board. I have not reviewed it in detail, and unfortunately cannot attend tomorrow’s meeting since I already have plans.

Green Space Northside Regeneration Parks

A Bigger Picture

by Michael R. Allen

While I do not approve of the lease of 12 acres of Forest Park by behemoth BJC HealthCare, I do not oppose the possibility that the lease funds would not be exclusively for the upkeep of Forest Park. Certainly, our city’s largest park deserves a guaranteed future of maintenance, but what about Penrose Park or Carondelet Park? Or, for that matter, Jackson Park or Sister Marie Charles Park? The city has 105 parks, all with maintenance needs. Some of these parks, like Fairgrounds Park on the northside, have considerable needs for the sort of rejuvenation that Forest Park has received. They are not as likely to receive the attention that Forest Park or Tower Grove Park have received, and without an infusion of funds may end up in serious disrepair. (Some would argue that this is already the case with a few of the city’s parks.)

The loss of part of Forest Park, no matter how disconnected it appears from a motorist’s perspective, is an affront to the Forest Park Master Plan. Now that the Planning Commission has approved the lease, I suppose that it’s a done deal barring an uprising. This impacts the lives of people in Forest Park Southeast and the Central West End, who will lose tennis courts and a playground. Replacing these facilities before they are demolished needs to happen. Elected officials should try to getting more money each year than what is currently proposed . If BJC is getting its way, make it pay! Some talk of “fair market value” but since BJC is getting public land, the rules of the real estate market don’t apply. The fair price is one that is democratically decided by all citizens through their government.

However, just as all citizens have a stake in Forest Park they have a stake in the other city parks. With the city’s revenue low, city residents need to work together to make sure that no one loses their neighborhood park or its quality. That many people don’t know or care about their stake in other parks should be changed. If the lease money gets distributed to the entire city parks system, that would be a great step toward rejuvenating all of the city’s parks and getting people to think about their future, which is as important as that of Forest Park.

(Incidentally, BJC is chaired by Paul McKee, whose name has appeared in this blog before.)

Downtown Green Space

Around the Old Post Office

by Michael R. Allen

According to Martin Van Der Werf’s column in today’s St. Louis Post-Dispatch, plans for the park just north of the Old Post Office on Locust Street are stalled to point of finally frustrating developers and Downtown Now! topper Tom Reeves. Perhaps the inability to put in this useless park will convince people that this site is ideal for high-density development, not a stale piece of green space. The Old Post Office is surrounded by dense architectural fabric on its east and south sides, and by a huge parking garage on its west. Why not mitigate the parking garage’s ugliness and complement the remaining architectural fabric by developing this site with tall modern buildings?

The Roberts brothers want to build a glassy tower addition to the Mayfair. They could push it up to Locust, providing a lower connecting portion between the Mayfair and the new building that would make for a more pleasant transition. Another developer could acquire and build upon the western end of the site. Why squander the opportunity? Downtown has far too much open space, and needs greater density.

UPDATE: From a thread on the Urban St. Louis forum: “They should develop the plot of land the park will be on and build an underground plaza, beneath the parking garage.”

Downtown Green Space JNEM

The Arch is Surrounded

by Michael R. Allen

The National Park Service has completed the construction of most of the bollards surrounding the grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (better known as the Gateway Arch grounds). The result? Not as bad as many people expected, but still terrible. While the spaces round spikes improve upon the impenetrable nearly-waist-high temporary concrete barrier around the grounds, their presence disrupts the integrity of the Arch grounds.

The bollards form rows of alien spikes visually dividing the Arch grounds from the sidewalk. This effect is particularly bad given how visually separated those grounds are from the rest of the city. It’s as though, in the name of “homeland security,” the grounds have been given an extra line of defense against the city.

Of course, the grounds really need further connection to the city, and the terrorist threat to the Arch is debatable. I also note that the architectural vision of architect Eero Saarinen for the grounds has suffered a second major blow — talk about the Arch being under attack. The first major compromise came in 2001, when the Arch was lit permanently at night. Saarinen did not want the Arch lit, and instead wanted it to gently reflect back the lights of the city. The unlit Arch was a lovely nighttime monument, although not as easily digestible to tourists and people who are always tourists in their own city. The lit Arch is much less interesting, and the harsh lighting’s glare shows that the surface of the Arch was never intended for illumination.

Perhaps the bollards will be used to keep the grounds from being trampled by the throngs of downtown pedestrians flocking to the proposed new floating islands in the Mississippi River — if they don’t get hit by cars trying to cross Memorial Drive and I-70 first. From those expensive islands, the throngs can declare triumph over the vision of Eero Saarinen and the city leaders of the last century — just as those leaders triumphed over the rich architectural history of the city’s riverfront.

Downtown Green Space land use

Dead Zone

by Michael R. Allen

The empty land in downtown St. Louis fronting Locust Street between 8th and 9th streets covers over one-half of a city block. This land is surrounded by numerous historic buildings: the Board of Education Building, the Orpheum (later American) Theater, the Mayfair Hotel, the Mercantile Bank Building and the rear end of the Old Post Office. The site is prominent, but the space is dead.

Currently, this entire space is covered by three parking lots. One of these lots is crudely paved with gravel ringed by the top of a remaining foundation walls of a now-gone building. The sidewalk along Locust is in horrible disrepair. This area is a visual and functional dead zone in a downtown rapidly gaining pedestrian movement.

Civic bigwigs want to keep it that way, except they would replace the asphalt and gravel covering the lot with grass. They have released proposed renderings of a sterile and ill-designed “plaza” that is too large to be a good urban space and too devoid of uses to remedy the blight of the location.

The one use the planners have allowed to intrude upon the site is an ugly glass-walled addition to the Mayfair Hotel, proposed by the Roberts Companies. This addition would sit in from the sidewalk lines, and not even come close to fronting Locust or Eighth streets. Yet it would be large enough to make building a building at the corner feasible. The design is based upon the site’s always being dead space.

Could we please bring this site back to life? The last thing downtown needs is more open space. One block to the east of this site is the more modestly-sized “plaza” built by Mercantile Bank on the site of the Ambassador Building, wrecked in 1996 and 1997. This open space consists of a big driveway and some landscaping, so it’s pretty unattractive. But its size is not wholly inappropriate to a big city and, if a building were built across Locust on a parking lot, the site would be framed tightly. If Mercantile would turn the site over to civic use (there is not even a place to sit on the site at present), this could be a fairly urban downtown plaza.

Let’s be sensible.

Carondelet Green Space JNEM Mississippi River Riverfront

How Do You Get to the River?

by Michael R. Allen

It’s late in January and I find myself slipping on the ice. I am walking down a deserted city street that runs near an abandoned industrial complex. Few cars travel this street, but luckily one has driven here recently, or I wouldn’t have the fortune of walking in the tire tracks that save me from a fall. Still, I can’t avoid slipping every few minutes.

Why am I enduring this desolate and dangerous walk on one of the coldest winter days of this season? I am looking for access to the Mississippi River in the city of Saint Louis. Such a search requires patience even when one knows where to go, as I do. Beyond the public and dirty river access provided at the levee parking lot at the foot of the Arch grounds, all other access points require a little bit of walking.

There is an almost-inaccessible short promenade at the foot of Bellerive Park, but the last time that I tried to go there I found construction equipment in my way. Technically, that promenade is the only park in the city that offers access to Old Man River. It’s odd that the city doesn’t even post any signs in upper Bellerive Park pointing out how to get to the riverside.

Yet its even more odd that a city with a riverboat on its city seal, that was a pivotal seat in the river-based exploration of the Western United States and that was once a prosperous inland port does almost nothing to point out that the Mississippi River is more than just an iconic legend around here. Even Downtown Now’s new signs, which readily point out places where people can spend money, do not point out how to get to a place where one can sit by the peaceful flow of muddy water that was so important to the city’s founding and commercial development.

Signs really wouldn’t help much, though, because they could only point to access that doesn’t exist. Much of the riverfront in the city consists of concrete floor walls or industrial tracts such as my favorite river-watching spot. And the ostensibly grand civic riverfront of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial has been host to burger barges and a shabby surface parking lot in the last twenty years. City planners have gradually cleared the riverfront of moored vessels, but they have never studies moving the parking lot.

South of the Arch grounds, one can walk though the usually-open gates on the flood wall and get to the river, but then the whole sense of the urban world disappears as one stands between a tall wall and a river. This is a bit more intimate spot than the access offered in front of the Arch grounds and Laclede’s Landing. There are no cars. But then again, there aren’t likely to be any people and hence the experience is rather cold. Engineering thwarts the potential for an urban river outlook.

Elsewhere in the city, people don’t have many choices. The north riverfront trail offers many good vantage points and in a few places provides points of access. These points, however, entail walking down banks and even trespassing. They aren’t fully public. Around the Chain of Rocks Bridge, once can get fairly close to the thicket of trees and foliage growing near the riverbank, but without a machete won’t get too far.

Then there is my favorite place, which I want to keep a secret. This place is not easy to get to, but it provides a clear vantage point far from automobiles and flood walls. I can see the city behind me and the river in front of me, and I can sit down and listen to the river. I don’t feel good about having to keep this place private, but it’s not my choice. Like 96% of the rest of the city’s riverfront, it is not a public space in the eyes of the law. Of course, all of the riverfront is natural public space. The Mississippi is the city’s greatest natural resource, despite its forces removal from the lives of Saint Louisans.

We have turned our backs on the Mississippi River because it no longer is the backbone of our commerce. Like the railroads, the river is a commercial casualty of the interstate highway. But that’s fine, because the river is a natural force that would much rather beckon weary city dwellers to its peaceful banks on a cold January day than be clogged with steamboats and barges. It’s time for us to cooperate.