by Michael R. Allen
On next Tuesday, August 8 will be a groundbreaking ceremony for the Old Post Office Plaza. Situated just north of the Old Post Office on Locust Street between 8th and 9th streets, the plaza site is currently a series of parking lots sharing the block with the Orpheum Theater, Mayfair Hotel and the site of the Roberts Tower. That the site is one of the most valuable pieces of downtown real estate is unquestionable. Located in the core adjacent to some of the city’s largest and most splendid historic rehabilitation projects and one block south of bustling Washington Avenue, the plaza site seems ripe for development. In fact, the Roberts Brothers’ proposed tower — what may be the first downtown high-rise since the Eagleton Courthouse — underscores the fact that developers see viability in this location.
Yet the site is being squandered for yet another downtown park. I admit that this site could be far worse for a downtown park. Sure, it offers a broad view of the Century Building Memorial Parking Garage (which fails to fully screen its descending floors). Sure, having an Old Post Office Plaza that faces the rear of the Old Post Office is more than a little strange. Yet the site does have some sense of enclosure, being surrounded by buildings that come up to the sidewalk line on all of its street-facing sides and butting up against the Orpheum Theater and the Roberts Tower. One can see some interesting views of wonderful buildings from the middle of the site. A failing of many downtown parks, including blocks of the Gateway Mall, is the lack of visual enclosure that creates interesting views as well as an urban sense of place. This site is better than most in that regard.
The design, published on the website of designers Baird Sampson Nuert (link here), provides the basic ingredients of the typical contemporary urban plaza: a large paved assembly space, a wooded lawn for passive recreation, a screen for moving images, dramatic lighting and the presence of moving water. Perhaps all of these plazas, at least in the United States, are now the descendants of Chicago’s Millennium Park with predictable dominant genes. The Old Post Office Plaza deftly packages the components of this type of plaza without overwhelming the site severely. The plaza design doesn’t dazzle, but it just might work. (One potentially troubling visual issue is the relationship between the new tower and the plaza.)
Of course, the plaza probably won’t get to work. There is a simple reason: It’s in downtown St. Louis. This is no slight on the center of our fair city, but a recognition of the fact that there is glut of park space downtown and already spaces like Kiener Plaza that receive the attention of tourists, noonday office workers and other users attracted to well-defined recreational spaces. The cool kids, it seems, prefer their outdoor concerts and movies on parking lots and streets, saving lots for buildings.
Downtown lacks a coherent vision for recreational space, an in the absence of that vision has accumulated enough of that space to serve a downtown three times more dense. The worst part of the Old Post Office Plaza is not its location, or its design, but its timing — it is simply too late to make a difference. The loose-knit nature of downtown has led to disconnection, visual uncertainty and diminished context for those truly good park spaces like Lucas Park. City leaders seem to see no problem with the situation, since the in-progress Gateway Mall Master Plan calls for neither treatment of the mall’s ills nor of the context that makes the mall so dreary. Instead, the mall is proposed for mere remodeling and the amount of green space downtown goes unquestioned. Thus, the Old Post Office Plaza stands little chance to redeem itself.