City and River Pt. II: TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!

This is Part II of a series advocating for the reconnection of Saint Louis and the Mississippi River.

I have already examined the importance of the Mississippi River to the identity of the City of Saint Louis. But why is this historical identity important?

Identity is important because it is the one inducement Saint Louis currently has to attract new residents.

For its first two centuries Saint Louis has relied on its major transportation routes and geographic location as an economic inducement. With the rise of globalization, this will not suffice. As globalized trade decimated the manufacturing lifeblood of the city, governmental focus turned to finance and technology in order to attract well educated residents and maintain tax bases. However, the digital revolution of the past two decades has broken the location-based restraints for this significant segment of the population. Before this time period you had to live in some proximity to your job; now you can work anywhere a suitable communications infrastructure and well-connected airport exists.

If you could live anywhere in the world, why would you live in Saint Louis?
We must develop a compelling answer to this question to survive, but given the rate of out-migration of our graduates we have not.

The increased level of competition evident in this century is problematic because, as economist Edward Glaeser understands from studying Boston, the "ability [of a city] to regenerate itself is hinged upon its ability to attract residents, not just firms." In short, a reserve of talent is necessary given the increasing vicissitudes of the economy because skilled and educated workers can react more quickly to massive change and prevent urban decay.

If there is one strategy Saint Louis must embrace, it must take strong action to attract and induce new residents to move here. While policy and subsidy may prove effective, we must overcome an overwhelmingly negative national image first. Until recently, the city has focused on strategies of beautification and tourism promotion rather than creating vibrant livable communities. Over twenty years ago reporter William Allman assessed his native city:

“Coming back to St. Louis after many years ... the city’s surface has changed considerably...
[T]hese changes, while putting a shine on the old city, are merely cosmetic. The downtown areas seemed designed primarily for tourists”.
Allman, William F. “St. Louis” U.S. News & World Report, vol. 107. December 18, 1989: p.49-50. As quoted in Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline. p. 222

While this mentality is still present in the city, (one snarky commentator described the visionary implementation of City Garden as "putting lipstick on a pig") the influx of 3,800 new residents downtown in the past decade (a 40% increase) marks a turning point for the city. With a modest residential population downtown and amenities beginning to develop, a bold, unifying stroke is still needed.

As I discussed in part I, the riverfront provides the authenticity and ability to attract residents by differentiating Saint Louis from numerous other competing cities. In addition, the reconnection of city and river has the potential to create an unrivaled amenity by serving as a hinge between the revitalized urban space of Gateway Mall with the Arch grounds/riverfront and the regional Great River Ring beyond. The imperative for connection in this area has been in the news for several years as a result of the Danforth Foundation's plan for a three block lid over the depressed lanes of I-70.

The 3 Block Lid would not change the miserable condition under the elevated lanes of I-70. Image by City to River.

While the lid concept is appealing, it is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem. Lids require expensive retrofitting and engineering and entail increased inspection and maintenance. The lid concept should only be used as a last resort. When we examine the use of I-70 alongside with the plans for the New Mississippi River Bridge, better alternatives present themselves.

New highway routings planned for the new Mississippi River Bridge. Image by Andrew Faulkner/City to River.

An examination of the bridge plans reveals that a four lane interstate will be constructed to carry I-70 from the junction of I-70/I-64/I-44/US-40 at St. Clair Avenue in East Saint Louis. From there a new 4 lane roadway designated I-70 will travel north in parallel with Illinois route 3, cross the new bridge and rejoin the current routing of I-70 around Cass Ave. This routing makes eminent sense as the new corridor will have the potential for eventual expansion to 6 lanes.

With the opening of the bridge, the downtown lanes will become a spur connector and duplicate the linkage of eastbound I-44 with westbound I-70. According to MODOT the downtown lanes are one of the least travelled sections of interstate in the Saint Louis area. Currently the majority of the 73,000 vehicles per day in this section is traveling through Saint Louis to points west. With the rerouting of I-70 it is probable that that amount of traffic could be reduced by greater than 50%.

Given the imminent reduction of traffic on the depressed and elevated segments of I-70, is their contribution worth the depressing effect they have on acres of surrounding property? What could we do instead of maintaining an obsolete eyesore?

We could demolish this section and replace it with an urban boulevard. With synchronized traffic lights, boulevards in many cities throughout the country carry in excess of 40,000 vehicles a day without problems.

Replacing the existing I-70 and Memorial Drive configuration would free land for new development. Image by Andrew Faulkner/City to River.

A boulevard would also be cheaper than the lid concept. The depressed lanes currently feature five bridges and a half mile of elevated viaduct that require annual maintenance. While a boulevard would also require maintenance, it would not be as expensive as the elevated and depressed lanes. Furthermore, the removal of I-70 opens up the potential for revenue generation through new development. Currently, the transportation corridor consists of 4-8 traffic lanes and four interstate lanes that add up to between 200 and 250 feet in width. A sufficient boulevard designed to carry the predicted traffic in this area would only need to be 6 lanes and would only use 70 feet of width (or 90 if it included on-street parking). That would free between 110 and 180 feet per block for 19 blocks. That would create 16 acres of government-owned developable land in a prime location to sell or lease, and this could be used to pay for highway demolition and offset the cost of building the boulevard.

Reopening Our Front Door: Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive. Image by Jeremy Clagett/City to River.

The transformative power of demolishing a highway to reconnect the city and river cannot be ignored either. While Saint Louis is gaining momentum towards walkability, simultaneously reopening our front door to the river and creating an urban and walkable spine downtown will send a message to the region and the nation that this city has finally learned from our mistakes.

The construction of the Ronald Wilson Reagan Mississippi River Bridge and the demolition of the obsolete lanes of I-70 for a more walkable alternative will position our city for a more vibrant and sustainable future. We must take action for the future of the city and


2 reactions:

Daron said...

My frustration with the name of the new bridge has now been partially muted. That's quite an image and slogan.

Doug Duckworth said...

A wonderful post!

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