Thursday, July 9th, 2009
The first time I visited St. Louis might have been one of the most depressing city trips I’ve ever taken. First I arrived at a nearly deserted airport, then took a taxi ride through a sea of industrial decay, only to arrive at a rather bleak downtown. One of the key fixtures I recall was a more or less empty grass mall through the center of downtown. It was sort of like the war memorial mall in Indianapolis – only no memorials, just plain grass. Along with cracked sidewalks, mostly deserted, it summed up how pathetic the city seemed to me.
Today, the downtown of St. Louis has changed remarkably. Tons of old buildings have been renovated into condos and there is new life where there was once barren nothingness. Downtown has added 5,000 new residents, and over $4 billion has been invested just since 2000.
And even that dreary grass mall has been transformed into a new urban park known as the City Garden. Here’s a rendering:
Note the uninspiring buildings and still excessively wide and underutilized streets. Now imagine it with just a barren grass plaza in there. Not good. While this area still has a ways to go to get livened up, this new park would appear to be a huge improvement.
First a few facts about the park. The cost was approximately $30 million, paid for by the Gateway Foundation. The landscape architect is Nelson Byrd Woltz from Charlottesville, Virginia. It’s 2.9 acres and spans about two city blocks. The park is unfenced and is designed to be entered or exited from almost any points. There are a variety of features, including cultivated terraces, a limestone arc wall, a plaza and cafe, three fountains including a “spray fountain” where children can play, and 24 pieces of sculpture from a variety of artists.
If this sounds similar to Millennium Park in Chicago, it should. This park is similar in size, and has a number of similar features. The spray fountain is obviously inspired by Crown Fountain in Millennium Park for example. Indeed, I was told by someone in St. Louis directly that they consider this their Millennium Park. The city is hoping that like the Chicago version, this one also sparks redevelopment in the area.
The comparisons are interesting, but there are a few differences between them. The price tag for one. Millennium Park is over ten times the price. Of course, it also spans a railroad track and has many other features. This is clearly a much smaller scale effort. For example, while Millennium Park features bespoke, site specific artwork, it appears that the pieces in City Garden are mostly existing pieces purchased for display in the mode of a more traditional sculpture garden. Artists include Mark di Suvero, Julian Opie, George Rickey, and Tom Otterness.
This isn’t the first time a city has drawn comparisons to Millennium Park. Indianapolis refers to the Indy Cultural Trail as its Millennium Park. This appears to be a sort of shorthand not for a specific type of facility, but rather for the use of signature landscape architecture as a transformational element in a city. A “Millennium Park Effect” by analogy with the “Bilbao Effect” for starchitect buildings.
Someone asked me what the lessons of Millennium Park were. I assume this was in the context of how those lessons could be applied elsewhere. Frankly, I think mostly people will draw the wrong lessons, and that most of what is great about Millennium Park can’t be transported elsewhere.
Millennium Park is a spectacular space. But as I’ve long noted, Chicago’s excellence lies not in its spectacular monuments, but in its magnificent workaday neighborhoods and throbbing commercial heart. To take away Millennium Park and its ilk as key to Chicago’s success is to mistake the frosting for the cake. Chicago has Millennium Park because it’s a great city, it’s not a great city because it has Millennium Park. To try to replicate merely the effect of the built environment is to miss the point.
Also, the large crowds drawn by the park are enabled by the massive size of the Chicagoland region, its huge tourist base, and the gigantic employment and student base in the Loop. Building Millennium Park was like throwing gasoline on an already raging bonfire. Yes, it will make a nice explosion, but the fire was already going. The vast bulk of downtown areas do not have anything like this, thus what they can hope to gain from similar ventures is much less.
Also, Chicago can afford to indulge in spaces that are only energized by the presence of large numbers of people because, well, there are huge numbers of people around. In smaller cities, you need to plan for spaces that function effectively when there are few if any people there, while hopefully being adaptable to larger crowds as well.
That’s not to say that St. Louis should not have built this park. Far from it. This will be a huge improvement on the space and a big step in revitalizing that depressing mall. (The entire mall is 1.1 miles, so there is still a ways to go). The fact that they spent much less than Chicago is appropriate given the phase of development they are in and the benefits they are likely to achieve.
However, unlike the Indy Cultural Trail, which appears to have been conceived independently of Millennium Park and which is a very different type of facility, this one was clearly explicitly modeled on it. I might suggest that St. Louis tone down the superlatives and direct comparisons, and let this park speak for itself. The danger is that expectations are set so high that they cannot be met. That would clearly be unfortunate since there is a lot of good here.
Here’s the site plan:
Note: The following images are third party links:
Mies van der Rohe meets the Modern Wing. The design probably could have been a bit less Chicago-centric. We get it already.
It looks like the park is well patronized so far. It did just open, so crowds checking it out are to be expected. Hopefully these keep up over time.
I should note that I have not yet gotten the opportunity to visit this in person. So consider these comments provisional. They were based on photos from others and information provided by the City Garden organization. I wanted to go ahead and put something out on this as part of my effort to give more coverage to cities like St. Louis that I haven’t always focused on as much.