by Michael R. Allen
Yesterday evening I happened to be driving south on I-70 through downtown St. Louis. Often this drive passes by and barely registers in my mind, but this time I could not help but vividly see something — something that was not there. As I rode the elevated lanes that divide and conquer the area between downtown and the riverfront, I looked south at the point where 4th Street comes close to I-70. There, the highway and the street form a wedge shape filled by overabundant sidewalk space, a parking lot and the Hampton Inn.
I imagined that instead of being elevated ahead of a descent, I was driving at grade from Cass Avenue all of the way to the Poplar Street Bridge. The highway became an urban thoroughfare allowing for easy local access and great views. I could foresee stopping at traffic lights as pedestrians walked from the casino over to restaurants on Washington Avenue, or from downtown apartments to the river for a stroll. Instead of a gravel lot, I saw a completed Bottle District with modern mid-rise residential buildings. Lumiere Place presented an attractive face to downtown.
Straight ahead, I did not see the weary concrete sidewalks and parking lot ahead of the Hampton Inn, but a new flatiron office building with a fountain in the middle of the plaza where traffic between the boulevard merged with Fourth Street. The sensation was akin to the view of downtown Chicago offered at the point near the Drake Hotel where Lake Shore Drive meets the north end of Michigan Avenue. That view always gives me a giddy feeling, because the essence of the entire urban density of Chicago seems to come into view there. The options there are staying on Lake Shore Drive for the breathtaking view of the lake or turning off onto the Magnificent Mile. There is no mediocrity in sight.
Yesterday, I saw a similar picture. I could make a right turn and veer off into the excitement of downtown, lured by the refined architecture of the Missouri Athletic Club, or head straight for that section of downtown that is right at the Gateway Arch. Either way I was going to see our urban core at its best. When I was right at the Arch, instead of dangerously looking up through aging concrete infrastructure, I caught a red light and had at least 20 seconds to take in the glistening sheen of the Arch skin reflecting the golden sunset.