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Thursday, February 25th, 2010

St. Louis: Reconnecting the City to the River

Now that the competition to redesign the Arch grounds in St. Louis is underway, a group of citizens is hoping to use that as an opportunity to make an even bigger change happen, namely demolishing I-70 through downtown St. Louis and replacing it with a boulevard. Their plan is called City to River, and it would do just that, reconnecting downtown St. Louis to the riverfront by eliminating the freeway barrier.

I originally wondered if people would be interested in a story on this. I mean, the idea is great, but this is something that has been done enough times before that it isn’t really trailblazing.

Then I realized that was the story. The fact that so many downtown freeways across America have been demolished (SF, Portland, Milwaukee, Boston) or have an active movement to (such as in Louisville) such that it has almost become commonplace is reason to celebrate. Maybe one day in the future getting rid of these monstrosities will be no more newsworthy than installing yet another bike line. At least we can hope so. And I say that as someone who actually thinks we need to built and widen some roads in a number of places.

Before (aka Now)

All that doesn’t mean this isn’t a project without potentially big impact in St. Louis because it is. Downtown St. Louis features a disappointingly standard issue tangle of elevated and depressed freeways and ramps that cut off its downtown from the riverfront.

This one I particularly love because someone went through the trouble to install historic gas lamp replicas and a decorative sidewalk underneath the freeway. I want to laugh, but this was probably a good faith attempt to humanize an otherwise thoroughly depressing space. That’s much more than most places ever did.

There is a Flickr group with many more where that came from if you are interested.

I have to admit, looking at the pictures, I-70 seems like it uses a pretty compressed ROW, which limits the impact versus some other urban freeways I’ve seen, but there is still no doubt you’ve got a freeway separating downtown from the river. It converts what should be prime real estate into less desirable frontage.

A Possible After

City to River wants to whack the freeway and replace it with an at grade boulevard called Memorial Drive. Here are a couple of renderings.

Looks better to me. The concept is obviously a good one. There are still plenty of questions to be addressed, engineering, money, public involvement, etc. But projects like this ought to be pursued with a “can do” not a “can’t do” attitude. More info is available at the City to River web site.

Related:
The Case for 8664 – an in-depth look at a similar but larger scale proposal in Louisville

26 Comments
Topics: Architecture and Design, Economic Development, Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: St. Louis

26 Responses to “St. Louis: Reconnecting the City to the River”

  1. Anonymous says:

    The only concern I’d have about pouring resources into this project is that right now you have several connection points into the Arch grounds/riverfront and yet you don’t have masses of people looking for a way to cross the freeway or vice versa. The most successful types of these projects I’ve seen are in areas where there are already large numbers of pedestrians and the project is meant to expand the walkable area to accommodate them. The underlying issue with that is that over the past several decades downtown St. Louis has largely been transformed into an office park, with single use commercial skyscrapers surrounded by acres of open green space. I think a case could be made that the city should wait to see if fundamentals improve with regard to pedestrian demand before pursuing such a project. Again, not saying this wouldn’t be an improvement, only that I think people may end up being a little underwhelmed by the results considering the cost.

    With regard to the renderings, they seem to reflect the current planning obsession with Copenhagen and other northern European cities. Given your criticism of the idea that progressive planning policies can be transplanted into Rust Belt cities with more diverse demographics (White City), I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. In a city that’s over 50 percent African American, I don’t see too many people of color enjoying the new amenity. Mightn’t limited resources be better spent on the large, disproportionately poor north side of the city, which needs things like better police protection and small business and home improvement loans? In struggling Rust Belt cities, should we define “livability” the same as Portland or San Francisco?

    Thanks.

  2. Matthew M. says:

    Anonymous–

    The point of this project proposal at this particular time is twofold.

    1) I-70 is being re-routed into Illinois, over a new Mississippi River Bridge. Therefore, the depressed AND elevated section of the interstate will cease to be I-70 upon the bridge’s completion in 2015. Current plans call for this stretch to simply be redesignated I-44 and left as is. Clearly this alternative is preferable, given that no actual intestate mileage will even be lost.

    2) This proposal also coincides with the Archgrounds Design Competition. Because that competition is searching for bold ways to reconnect the monument to the city, this proposal simply makes sense.

    Now, for some other points. Sure downtown St. Louis has suffered and has many single-use office towers, but it has indeed added thousands of new residents over the past decade. Its residential population is now estimated at 11,000, up from less than 2,000 in the year 2000, and some formerly stalled residential projects are coming back online. You’re right, though, that the portion of downtown nearest to the Arch has little mixed uses going for it. That’s exactly what this proposal could create.

    Given that the idea is exactly NOT a radical one and actually simply makes sense, I don’t see the point about this not being a priority. Furthermore, City to River is seeking to rid of the ENTIRE superfluous stretch of I-70, which extends to Cass Avenue, which is in north St. Louis. This new boulevard could help provide a better connection to downtown from the highly severed Near North Side.

    I agree with Aaron that these projects are almost becoming commonplace. That’s because it almost always happens that a region can lose a mile or two of asphalt to restore human scale to the built environment. And many regions are willing to capitalize on the effects of such an undertaking. For slow-moving St. Louis, though, this could be transformational.

  3. John Morris says:

    How is tearing down an expressway expensive? I don’t know the specifics of St. Louis but it looks like there are few buildings near it. All you need is explosives and the will to do it. It’s a money saving project since elevated roads are very expensive to maintain.

    The relative costs, of creating a boulevard, can’t be that great. I mean, you don’t have to landscape it and pretty it up much–it will look better than what’s there now.

    The main thing is you are sending the signal to the market about the type of city you want and instantly making it more desirable for that kind of development. Gradual construction is almost better and economically less risky anyway.

  4. What’s interesting about this project is that it could be done easily without disrupting traffic. Because St. Louis is building a new I-70 bridge, it can move traffic that currently uses the downtown link elsewhere, around downtown. This would allow the highway to be demolished with very little effect on congestion. Too bad there’s more money in the region for new roads then for demolished ones.

  5. The cost of this removal wouldn’t be that high, especially, as Yonah noted, the segment doesn’t need to be replaced. But the cost should also be seen in the light of permanently reducing the ongoing operations and maintenance expenses associated with having 1.7 miles of freeway through that area. So you spend money on the program, but you reduce your ongoing maintenance costs.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Yes it would be nice if access to the Arch grounds were improved but relative to other areas in the region this is one of the most walkable, accessible areas around. In addition, significantly less than 0.1% of the residents live in this area. Other areas are worse and depopulation is the result.

    The New 64 has already sent the signal on what the region seems to prefer. Areas along this route that were once walkable have been made less so. Local bloggers in the Lou remained silent as the destruction to walkable-cycling friendly areas were obvious and ongoing. But their priority is to favor what they prefer, not which priorities impact the greatest number. The political divisions are exacerbated when favoritism remains ongoing.

    By the way, where’s MoDOT on what they think is best for highway 70? Their ideas dominated and controlled the New 64:
    http://www.improvei70.org/

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTUf3qZQvf4&feature=PlayList&p=0D0FDAE5D39B9D92&playnext=1&playnext_from=PL&index=2

  7. Mike Poe says:

    Milwaukee completed a very similar project years ago. Growth in the area has been very slow, but ultimately was the right thing to do. The recession has not helped either.

    http://www.preservenet.com/freeways/FreewaysParkEast.html

  8. Matthew M. says:

    I’m not sure I understand your comments, Anonymous.

    City to River is not some connected group playing favorites.

    So often in St. Louis there is a collision of two attitudes towards change: idealistic/immediate and pragmatic/incremental. I am usually a member of the former group; I am frustrated with how closed local governments are to meaningful citizen input and involvement. MODOT is one of the nation’s least urban- and transit-friendly organizations. Local bloggers could have picketed, written their senators, angrily blogged, you name it–but this project would have been built. Truly “regional” projects in St. Louis always defer to the car as opposed to other modes of transit. And MODOT certainly was not going to budge.

    I think the New I-64 was a tragic waste of money that set the region back. There should have been more symbolic activism against it, but it definitely would have occurred anyway.

    The difference I see in this case is that this could be the triumph of the pragmatic faction. It’s actually a slow, conservative step to call for the removal of a soon-to-be redundant stretch of interstate. The progressive, idealistic, impatient side of me says, “While we’re at it, let’s scale back I-55 into an urban boulevard and reconnect the Soulard and Benton Park neighborhoods, among others.” Or I-70 to reconnect Hyde Park and Old North’s stranded sections. Either way, the result would have been MODOT laughing out loud, if acknowledging the idea at all.

    The City to River group is being smart about the prospects for ridding of this small stretch of interstate. The design competition is underway and I-70’s being rerouted. The time is NOW to remove this segment. Hundreds of millions will be spent on the Arch Design Competition anyway. If that competition’s main goal is connectivity, why the hell not take down I-70?

    Fighting the new I-64 would have been something the region is just not quite ready for yet. Sometimes we urban activists have to learn how to balance our progressive and pragmatic sides.

  9. Daron says:

    I’ll concede that I-64 cuts the city in half, and I’d love to see it buried and gone. I-70 is what we can take out now though and it is at the symbolic heart of the city.

    It isn’t quite fair to say downtown has less than .1% of city residents live downtown. First, it isnt’ true. Wikipedia cites 806, which debunks you right there. You ought to include at least downtown west, lasalle park, and columbus square, which pushes the restidents up near 2%. Soulard and Old North and loads of other adjacent neighborhoods have a stake in it as well.

    The non-residents, Cardinals fans specifically, office workers, and tourists are there quite often. I lived downtown, and I’ll bet you didn’t. Parades and festivals flood the streets more often than you’d think.

    This is a two way thing. This isn’t just about getting people from downtown to the arch and the landing. Thousands of people visit the arch and then leave. People don’t see the rest of downtown as much as they could.

    We’ve also left an important issue out of this discussion. City to River’s plan includes freeing up many blocks of land for arch-front developments. When those blocks go on the market, any construction at all will increase property value.

    It has been cited that the reason the Bottle Works District just north of the Edward Jones Dome failed to get recent funding had everything to do with the undesirability of a residential area next to a highway.

    Pull down the raised section, stuff it in the depressed section, and we’ll see a boost in dividends across the board.

  10. Daron says:

    the popular solution of putting a lid over the highway like this,
    http://www.archpaper.com/e-board_rev.asp?News_ID=4275

    does not address the problems of the raised section, and it would add significant cost.

  11. Alon Levy says:

    Tearing down highways isn’t just for white people. New York removed the West Side Highway after a portion of it collapsed in the 1970s, long before San Francisco and Portland did the same. This isn’t a white elitist issue – nowadays the city is majority black/Hispanic, and many (but not most) pedestrianization and anti-car projects are popular.

    Nor is it just for residents. Again, look to New York. The Upper East Side and Upper West Side together comprise 5% of the city’s population, but most of their residents live far from Central Park. I’d guess that maybe 2% of New York City lives right next to Central Park, and the numbers for the other major parks are no higher. People just visit those parks from other neighborhoods.

  12. Regine says:

    Anon, of course a project like this one is for everybody. However, the point is how many black people are seen in the rendering?

    It’s a subtle message to non-white people – our vision does not include you, except on the periphery. It’s par course for renderings used to garner public support for a development project.

    The majority of the people one sees milling around the southern parts of Central Park are tourists – and white. Only on the northern-most fringes of the park does one see black/latin people. Most of the New Yorkers who use Central Park live close to it (from Broadway to Lexington) or they visit because of an event.

    NY is all about location and convenience. NYers tend to utilize their neighborhood parks. People are not going to take the train to go to the park.

  13. Alon Levy says:

    Upper West Siders and Upper East Siders don’t really use Central Park that often, either – they use smaller neighborhood parks. The large parks draw people from multiple neighborhoods, and, despite what you say, I see plenty of minorities when I cross 72nd Street through Central Park.

    In the renderings above, there’s a small white majority. In the first rendering, 1 person out of 7 in the foreground is black, and in the second, it’s 4 out of 6 plus 1 who could be Hispanic.

  14. Anonymous says:

    In regards to the New 64, it was not just MoDot that governed the end result but also EWGC and the many small minded municipal governmental units along the route. But the problems runs deeper. The majority of the public favored a Metro Extension down the center of 64 but CMT, local urban bloggers, and EWGC were against it (what often serves as civic discourse in the region). The end result is an Extension to nowhere designed to serve an extremely small but politically powerful group of entities. The region is thus stuck with a large financial burden that offers service to only a small minority. Obviously the problems were not just caused by MoDot. Metro continues to sink under its many years of mismanagement, operationally and financially, and now wants to fund its future via higher sales taxes.

    The StL region needs civic discourse on these important issues and it should have been done over 10 years ago when the plans for the Extension and the New 64 were in the early stages. But saying “fighting the new I-64 would have been something the region is just not quite ready for” shows that small mindedness is ingrained in the regional culture. Another example: Instead of Complete Streets, EWGC initiates a diluted version titled Great Streets which is not politically or operationally supported by County governance (http://www.greatstreetsstlouis.net/). In that regard why isn’t Great Streets organization handling this matter instead of City to River?

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m 100% for better pedestrian access but for the whole region not just one that primarily benefits visitors over residents. Like its local politics, the region is greatly divided which largely explains why depopulation is the most powerful and the longest ongoing trend. And of course this division is readily used by entities like MoDot to control the final result. If you want the public “to get it”, think and act regionally not predominantly local. In that regard, City to River is supporting and repeating a long term tradition in the Lou.

  15. Regine says:

    Alon, Are we looking at same photo? There are no (zero) black people in the second rendering! I am using a MacBook Pro – the display is great. Out of 14 total people in both of the renderings, there is 1 black person and possibly 1 Spanish-speaking person (it’s hard to say since all we can see is her back).

    The large majority of non-white people you see in the 70s on both sides of the park from river to river are working – nannies, retail clerks, delivery people, cooks, doormen, etc. – they are not residents.

  16. Matthew M. says:

    Anon–

    The Cross County extension is designed to serve whom? A small minority? Doesn’t it run through the densest portions of the County? I’m DEFINITELY not alleging that the stations are perfect or even necessarily good regarding accessibility/attractiveness–but those populations are nevertheless still served by the line.

    I think that a commuter train, as opposed to Metrolink light rail, would have been nice for the I-64/40 Right of Way. It could have started in Chesterfield and made one stop, perhaps in Richmond Heights near the Galleria, before heading downtown as a sort of express train. Light rail itself is best having its own right of way for the very pedestrian accessibility issues you mention.

    Either way, we both agree that the New I-64 project should have done SOMETHING other than rebuild a road and a couple bridges. It was a scandalous waste of money for which there should have been more outcry–before AND after. No HOV lanes, no tunnel south of Forest Park, no art or creativity at all–a definite net loss for the region.

    I disagree that saying that the I-64 project was a done deal is “small-minded”. Where was the uproar from even the most progressive of St. Louisans? There was almost not a peep. If we all failed to generate any opposition, the proverbial everyday driving commuter almost certainly would have no objections to MODOT saving them from falling pieces of overpass on I-64. It’s not small-minded to say that the opposition just wasn’t there and probably couldn’t have been shored up anyway.

    I think that you need to see City to River as a crucial step to dismantling other interstates and improving walkability across the region. This is the sort of project that we can point to and say, “Look, the Memorial Drive project caused little disruption, so why not tear down I-55 and connect Soulard and Benton Park next?”.

    I see this mindset as regional.

  17. As a general rule, it is not a good idea to run a transit line down the median of a freeway.

  18. Alon Levy says:

    Regina, the two people on the bottom right of the second photo look black to me. I thought the same of the two people on the left, but looking again the one further left looks white. So it’s 5-6/14, not 6-7/14.

  19. Regine says:

    Alon, the two people on the bottom right are not black. They may be Latin or Asian – it’s hard to tell because one can’t see their faces.

    I don’t want to concede this point because I view it as a great “teaching moment”. The renderings should – but clearly don’t – reflect St. Louis’ diversity. Hopefully, when the renderings are updated, more non-white people will be included.

    I’m sure it’s an oversight[sic] – but these kinds of small slights are very illuminating and sadly common practie. It’s a clear message to non-white people – This project is not for you.

  20. John says:

    “As a general rule, it is not a good idea to run a transit line down the median of a freeway.”

    Assuming that you are referring to the pedestrian connectivity issues, I agree. However, if the ROW is available, it could still be the most cost effective option.

    I’ll also agree that I don’t like waiting for the “El” in the median of the Kennedy, Dan Ryan, or Eisenhower Expressways, but the alternative of having no transit at those locations is worse than transit in the freeway. That said, couldn’t they enclose stations along freeways to make the platforms less noisy and more pleasant?

  21. Daron says:

    Ok, so a few renderings happen to lack minorities. I’ve been told that will be addressed. Other renderings are more diverse. See the website, http://www.citytoriver.org

    City to River is not a good old boys network. It is just a citizen’s group. You’re welcome to join it. There’s a discussion board on the website. This group promotes highway removal because Great Streets doesn’t, yet.

    It looks like St. Louis’ 30 year plan calls for all its BRT routes to be on highways. Just as foolish as running the metrolink there. Bus stops off of highway ramps are not nice places to be dropped off. If you wanted to be on the other side of the highway, you’ll just have to try not to get killed when you make a dash for it.

  22. Anonymous says:

    The best ads for mass transit occurs when drivers on the Kennedy, Dan Ryan or Eisenhower sit in their cars watching the trains speed by. The benefits to mass transit are enormous as drivers are quickly converted to the transit riders which allows for risk free texting and other infotainment. And these effective commercials for mass transit are FREE!

    In addition, the stations place additional pressure on the elected leaders to include better pedestrian infrastructure surrounding these stations. Ideally mass transit would run through linear green parks. However favored routes by residents have been already influenced by the design and layout of our highways. Not to use this public space means mass transit has a low probability of being successful.

    Living along the Extension it is not convenient and who cares about traveling to River Des Peres? I can travel faster on my bike even to downtown St Louis than I can on the Extension and it’s FREE. Time to travel to Lambert by car from the downtown Clayton is just 10 minutes while by the Extension 45 minutes. In both cases the Extension is the least attractive choice as the stations are too close together which elongates the needed time to travel. Case closed.

  23. Wad says:

    Anonymous, actual transit practice does not work out to how you describe it.

    The only thing a highway-based transit service is better than is nothing. However, if there is an opportunity to avoid a highway route, it should be avoided.

    One problem is station aesthetics. Stations within a highway right of way are extremely noisy. Waiting for long periods can induce headaches. They are also disconnected from the streetscape, which can lead to a breeding ground for crime.

    Even if those can be managed, you have to keep in mind that a person-trip is completed in a different way than a car trip. The car trip’s destination is not always within the proximity of the off-ramp. However, the person trip must often transfer to another vehicle to get to another destination. That’s a big penalty for a trip.

    You know what’s a better way of finding out where rail riders travel? Look at your existing transit system’s ridership. The busiest rail lines will mimic the traffic patterns of the busiest bus lines.

    If you don’t have busy bus lines to go by, you must take a look at what are existing busy transportation destinations and try to string them together like pearls on a necklace.

  24. Anonymous says:

    As predicted, MoDOT says it “can’t happen … it’s not something we will entertain.” The New 64 set the tone for the area and that is one that favors large trucks and the car culture over people.

    http://interact.stltoday.com/blogzone/the-platform/uncategorized/2010/03/more-thoughts-on-interstate-70-downtown/

    Sad that the StL region is so poorly managed and that local bloggers prefer favoritism over Complete Streets and livable communities. Think Small Live Small is the Lou.

  25. STEEL says:

    This is a common scenario in many if not all American cities. The idea of eliminating these monsters from cities has logic on its side but the state DOT’s are all about cars. They have no concern for people or neighborhoods. IN Buffalo the DOT just rammed through a rebuild of a waterfront highway that has less volume than many surface roads. They have been dragging their feet for years on downgrading a highway that splits an Olmsted park in half. Another trench style auto sewer replaced an Olmsted parkway in the city. Thankfully they are starting the process of studying ways to cap it with a park. Unfortunately they will not even consider the opition that removes the highway

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