by Michael R. Allen
The sidewalk on Olive Street in front of the Old Post Office in downtown St. Louis is unusually wide, taking up the parking lane. The expanded sidewalk is almost the perfect size for an urban plaza, with views of the Olive Street building canyon that create visual excitement. There is enough space for casual lounging, small speeches or concerts, outdoor dining, brown bag lunching or numerous other activities that happen in the downtown of a large city.
Yet the recent renovation of the Old Post Office ignores the inherent possibility of this space, giving it all of the drama of a doormat. The space is mostly flat with granite and concrete paving, skimpy plantings that are visually dull and no provision for seating. There is absolutely nowhere to sit in this space, save for the steps of the Old Post Office itself — and that is forbidden.
The redeveloped Old Post Office doesn’t even give the front of the building the weight of the main entrance. Once inside, one hits a static wall and must make a jog down a hall at the left to reach the impressive space under the building’s skylight. Why this is hidden from the main entrance is truly baffling, and creates a very confused arrangement of spaces.
Meanwhile, the building’s non-office tenants, a Pasta House Pronto restaurant with outdoor seating and the Central Express Library Branch, are both located on the Locust Street rear elevation of the building. The rear elevation faces one of the most lifeless and ugly half-blocks in the city: a mess of cobbled-together parking lots (one is even paved in gravel!) butted up against elevations of the Orpheum Theater and Mayfair Hotel never intended for public display.
This is the site that civic leaders keep pushing for a downtown plaza, despite the fact that it is absurdly large for any space intended to foster lively activity and be an attractive focal point. This site suffers from the presence of another absurd “plaza” one block east in front of the US Bank Tower, and from rather lackluster views. It also would be redundant in a downtown with a mostly-underused Gateway Mall that consumes eighteen blocks right down the middle. I suppose the proposed plaza is the perfect spot to be for those who think that the most wonderful piece of architecture in St. Louis is the Locust Street elevation of the Old Post Office.
Meanwhile, the really dramatic space lies underutilized. The plaza in front offers an urban enclosure not found in the ridiculous “plazas” that civic leaders have built over the years. Really, all that needs to be done to liven it up would be better plantings and some benches. There’s enough street life on Olive Street to fill in the rest. A truly healthy urban public space doesn’t need a name, a plan or a program to create vitality; it only needs to be ready for people to use.