My Comment on City Arch River

As followers of City to River are undoubtedly aware, the National Park Service just concluded a one-month window to submit comments on the proposed City Arch River project. Basically, the outcome of this comment period determines whether the NPS will have to undergo a real Environmental Assessment with full Environmental Impact Statement or whether they can speed merrily along the current path.

The process thus far has been one of the worst planning processes I have ever witnessed. Public participation has been methodically curtailed: the public comment process for the finalist teams in the design competition was limited to two weeks; this ended before the majority of the public was able to view the entries. City Arch River's social media campaign was dead on arrival. Most troubling, City to River has pointed out that the winning MVVA proposal has been significantly undermined without public consent or awareness.

The text that follows is my official comment for the Environmental Assessment process. You can read City to River's official comment here.

Question 1:
Do the purpose, need, and objectives reflect what you think the NPS needs to accomplish with this project? If not, what else do you think needs to be accomplished?

The current City Arch River proposal addresses neither the majority of significant issues raised during the General Management Plan process nor half of the articulated goals of the City Arch River 2015 Foundation.
During the GMP Process key concerns such as access, connectivity, and boundary were raised (GMP §1.6, p.1-10). The NPS opened the door to rethink the difficult journey from city to park to river, how the riverfront might play a pivotal role for both visitors and residents, and the half-realized vision for the memorial might be broadened to encompass both banks of the river – achieving Saarinen’s vision after a six decade lacuna.

These intentions were supported not only by the NPS, but by the general public as well. During an energetic series of meetings, residents articulated their deference for the daring of the Saarinen monument and advocated equally bold new action. Public comment mandated including the Riverfront in the design competition (GMP §5.4, p.5.8), expanding the design competition beyond the park boundary to study better connections to downtown along Spruce, Locust, and Olive Streets (GMP §5.4, p.5.10), redeveloping the lifeless South end of the Arch Grounds (GMP §5.4, p.5.11), and multiple views supporting the removal of soon-to-be redundant lanes of I-70 and replacement with a pedestrian friendly at-grade urban boulevard (GMP §5.4, p. 5.14-15).

Building on these intentions, the City Arch River design competition included the following goals in the competition structure:

2. Catalyze increased vitality in the St. Louis region

4. Weave connections and transitions from the City and the Arch Grounds to the river.

5. Mitigate the impact of transportation systems

6. Embrace the Mississippi River and the East Bank in Illinois as an integral part of the National Park.

8. Create attractors to promote extended visitation to the Arch, the City, and the River.

As the NPS is undoubtedly aware, this EA process itself has removed the entire East Bank part of the project from consideration. In addition, requested park amenities along the riverfront and South end (water gauges, South skating rink/beer garden, underpass park) in the MVVA Plan have been removed from the original MVVA Arch Grounds. These changes remove much of the activities needed to energize the Arch Grounds while other functions have been displaced away from the Arch and River to Kiener Plaza. These actions are in direct opposition to the criteria established in the City Arch River competition goals, the NPS GMP, and through significant public input.

Question 2:
What concerns do you have about the potential impacts of the project to revitalize the park? How do you think these concerns could be addressed?

The most disturbing element of the revitalization project will be the effects caused by the removal of Memorial Drive and the preservation and illogical expansion of a redundant and soon to be de-designated highway. The removal of Memorial Drive, an action taken without public input, has never been subjected to public scrutiny or comprehensive study. Although curiously eliminated from the scope of this EA, the removal of Memorial Drive will require new highway ramps. Based on current practices these ramps will require a significantly larger infrastructure, will finalize the disconnection of the Arch from all but a select sliver of downtown, and will have ecological repercussions on the immediately contiguous arch grounds.

If the National Park Service does not want to risk turning the gateway to western expansion into a receptacle for windfall refuse from passing cars or an under-engineered arboreal carbon sink for truck exhaust, the NPS must undertake a comprehensive public study of the tangible costs, benefits, and management challenges – environmental, logistic, and economic – of removing Memorial Drive and lining the Arch Grounds with additional highway infrastructure. Such a study should thoroughly investigate at least the following options at a minimum:

1. Removal of I-244 (currently known as I-70) and replacement with a linear park/urban boulevard similar to the Embarcadero in San Francisco or the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston

2. Elimination of the proposed Washington Avenue SB entrance and NB exit and relocation of all exits/entrances to the Cass Ave. I-70 interchange

3. Elevation of I-244 to 24 feet above street level (similar to the Strada Aldo Moro adjacent to the old harbor of Genoa, Italy)

4. Maintenance costs of the status quo and attendant expenses in continually decreasing tourism.

Please submit any additional comments in the box provided.
The current challenge of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial is fundamentally one of disconnection. Visitor numbers are slowly decreasing because, although a compelling experience, it is not enough of a destination to warrant repeat visits. It now exists solely for out-of-town tourists. The park must be made a vital and important part of St. Louis civic life in order to reinvigorate the park. The fortunes of downtown and the JNEM are inorexibly intertwined. A house divided against itself cannot stand, yet the current plan hardens the divisions around the majority of the JNEM boundaries. This sad result is largely the result of unreasoned local interference in a good design.

Residents of St. Louis care deeply about this opportunity, but until now we have remained sidelined by a shamefully anemic public participation process. The National Parks Service now has a chance to exercise true leadership and to openly and carefully evaluate the merits of the current proposal alongside other strong alternatives.

If the NPS can take that step, the residents of St. Louis will meet you. We have already accomplished the resurrection of one great city park with Forest Park. It is not too late; if we are presented with aspirational goals and a chance to make a difference we will do it again.

dART St. Louis - The story of my entry

I participated in the second annual dART St. Louis event this month. Using the following quote from Susan Sontag as pretext, dART uses photography coupled with random chance to break down psychological and cultural barriers and draw attention to the multitude of overlooked places in St. Louis.

"The camera makes everyone a tourist in other people’s reality, and eventually in one’s own." -- Susan Sontag

Participants exchange a charitable donation for a dart and throw the dart at a wall-sized projected map of the city. Once your dart lands you have one month to create a photograph from within a block of where your dart landed. St. Louis's geographic reality strangely couples with the physics of dart throwing: the favored sector of the Central Corridor extends from downtown straight west across approximately 30º of what is essentially a 180º city. Many of the newly resurgent neighborhoods of the city occupy an additional 30º to the south of the Central Corridor and the middle-class stable and quasi-suburban neighborhoods occupy the outer part of the 20º to the South of that. What this means for dART is that those who are timid in their throw land in comparatively bland neighborhoods. I aimed high and hard and overthrew my intended targets of Vandeventer and Hyde Park, landing near E. Grand in the College Hill neighborhood (not to be confused with the BET series).

Approaching the photography I made several key decisions. The first was to reinforce the concept of dART St. Louis and center my investigation and images on the exact intersection of 19th and Bissell St. where my dart landed. The second was to avoid photographing either one of the iconic standpipe water towers equidistant from my site. Finally, owing to its location, College Hill is one of the first places in the City of St. Louis to see the rays of the morning sun and I decided to shoot as close to dawn as possible.

The blocks around my site have seen a systematic and continued population collapse over the past 50 years. Today, in the four blocks surrounding the site there are only 35 structures within 300 feet of the intersection out of 80 lots and two of the closest eight buildings are owned by the Land Reutilization Authority. The neighborhood was eerily quiet as I began taking pictures at 6:30am.

Morning dew
The juxtaposition of cooly bleached wood and brick warmed by the rising sun caught my eye. This image was chosen for my submission through a crowd-sourcing effort by my facebook friends.

Quiet streets on College Hill
This image captures the quiet and desolation of the particular corner quite well.

A worrisome detail
As I began to look more closely at the details of the place a hidden narrative of tragedy emerged.

momento mori?
Once I got home and was working on the images in post-production, I noticed the small pile of stuffed animals along the wall at the extreme right frame of the image. Whether these were just discarded or a memorial to a victim I do not know, but their presence along with the bullet holes in the storefront casts a pall of unease over the images.

Through a little research, I discovered that almost a year ago an 18 year old male was shot multiple times from a moving car while standing in front of the storefront building I photographed. At the time he was listed in critical condition, but whatever happened afterward remains a mystery.

If the object of dART St. Louis is to make one feel like a tourist in one's own city, my experience reminds me of the single most effective piece of street art I have ever seen. I saw the following wheatpasting several times in New Orleans in 2009, where it was prominently put up throughout the touristy French Quarter:

Vacancy: In the City and on the Blog

Once again I seem to have fallen off the wagon as far as blogging is concerned. This is not for lack of interest, but rather lack of time. Since my last writing I have worked with Alex Ihen of nextSTL, RJ Koscielniak of Frontier St. Louis, and The Rebuild Foundation to develop a conference on the issue of vacant property in St. Louis. Currently St. Louis ranks second only behind New Orleans for percentage of vacant property with 19.3% of addresses vacant. Despite the scale of the problem, vacancy has not played a major role in civic discussion and both government and residents have turned a blind eye to the corrosive effect of vacant property on community stability.

One of my major complaints with urbanists in St. Louis is that activism has been confined either to the cozy confines of the internet or to ineffectual and late reactions to development issues. With Open/Closed we are taking a proactive stance by directing civic focus to an issue, convening a diverse group of residents, experts, practitioners, and politicians, and driving conversation.

In addition, we would like Open/Closed to serve as a paradigmatic inspiration to a new generation of urban activism. For too long St. Louis has been solely reactive and has waited for someone else to take the initiative. We are simply a group of concerned citizens who decided that this issue needed to be addressed. We organized this free conference in three months with no budget whatsoever. If we can do it, you can too.

Finally, in an unrelated note, I am now covering urban design and urban strategy issues for NextSTL. My first piece will be a three part series examining the recent 2010 Census redistricting data release. I will examine where we are as a city, what implication the data holds for the built environment, and how we should adjust our strategy for the next decade. As I write the pieces for NextSTL I plan to elaborate my thoughts on the data in greater depth here, so watch this space for more nuance.

[EDIT: Part II can be found here.]