Rendering "lid" exhibit A.

Written by Frank DeGraaf 

- Updated Tuesday April 17 at 8:00 PM with response from CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation.

Let me start by reiterating that I’ve always been a proponent of a “lid” over I-70 at the Arch Grounds in downtown St. Louis. When Michael Van Valkenburgh & Associates (MVVA) were chosen as the landscape architects for the Arch Grounds renovation they initially presented us with an attractive and urban “lid” proposal.

Then things went haywire.

Last Tuesday MoDOT held a (mandatory) meeting at St. Louis City Hall to inform and seek input from the public on their concept for a “lid” over I-70, or in official speak: “Park over the Highway”. It was a curious affair.

Exhibit A (above) was, until last week, the preferred rendering published by the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation. It shows the lush “Lord of the Rings” landscape envisioned by the foundation.

To my surprise, the rendering presented at the meeting looked different. Something was missing. The entrance to the museum, the “hobbit hole”, had magically disappeared by means of a rather crude Photoshop modification. See exhibit B below.

Rendering Arch Lid Exhibit B.

So what does this mean? Will there be a western entrance to the museum, will it look different, or has this feature been scrapped to save money? We will likely not find out until all plans are set in stone because these days it seems easier to get credible information about the Chinese Communist Party.

The CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation responded with the following:

“It is still the goal within the CityArchRiver plan to create a new entrance for the Museum of Westward Expansion on the western edge of the Arch grounds leading from the Park Over the Highway. It was not included in this rendering because it is not part of the MoDOT portion of CityArchRiver 2015. The National Park Service will have a separate public input process on the museum entrance and other improvements to the Arch grounds. There will also be public meetings held this year on the proposed changes to the riverfront.”

At the MoDOT meeting two alternatives were given to the (apparently) newly preferred concept above. I was eager to see the new alternatives but was presented with two renderings that had seemingly been found in a long forgotten MoDOT drawer.

Alternative 2 (Courtesy of nextSTL)

Alternative 3 (Courtesy of nextSTL)

The concept of ye olde renderings  was actually good: urban and in stark contrast with the “fantasy” style of the latest  preferred one. Then another curiosity caught my eye. It was clearly stated at both alternatives 2 and 3: ”Does not meet the purpose and need of the project” (See above.)

So, MoDOT holds this meeting at St. Louis City Hall (and a virtual meeting online)  to ask the public for their input and choice of three alternatives but then makes sure to tell us that there’s really only one viable choice.  The alternatives shown online do not even include the latest preferred rendering sans museum entrance.

What’s bothersome is not the fact that there is really no choice. It’s the fact that it is so blatant. MoDOT didn’t even make an effort to pretend the public actually has a say, by drawing up some new alternative renderings. They dug up some dusty, pre-CityArchRiver drawings which ironically both happen to be preferable over MoDOT’s desired option because they keep Memorial Drive intact, like the original lid proposal by MVVA (see below).

Initial MVVA Rendering Arch Lid (Courtesy of MVVA)

One look at the two proposals (above and below) makes it clear: Paris or London, or an exurban fantasy land.

Was Bob Ross the genius behind "Park over the Highway"?

It’s not just a concern (and admitted a little fun) over aesthetics. They likely removed the museum entrance from the rendering because it’s not part of (or funded in) the MoDOT proposal. (See also added CityArchRiver comments above.) More important is that if the lid is built as in the latest concept, it will severely dim the chances of a future transformation of  I-70 downtown into an urban boulevard, thereby forfeiting hundreds of millions of dollars in potential development.

In fact, the depressed section’s importance will only increase, with additional lanes and ramps planned to compensate for the loss of Memorial Drive. It would become virtually impossible to even rip out the elevated section of I-70 just to the north. This seems at odds with the recently issued $90,000 RFP by the City of St. Louis for a study of removal of just that section of I-70.

Architects Newspaper yesterday published an excellent article about the potential for a boulevard, titled Mending St. Louis  (On a side note: Notice the difference in quality of renderings by City to River, a group of volunteers, as compared to those by the half billion dollar men of the CityArchRiver Foundation.)

There’s no doubt that the men and women behind the lid project are dedicated professionals, but it’s also become clear that MoDOT and the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation are not interested in the public’s input. Some of this can perhaps be explained by the (arbitrary) deadline of 2015 they are dedicated to adhere to: you can only do so much with the available funds in the allotted time.

This is understandable, but it would be a big mistake to spend $57 million on a lid that is at best of a marginal design, demolish Pine Street bridge to save money, and eliminate Memorial Drive, thereby removing connections and more importantly, shutting the door to realizing a much better concept in the future by removing the elevated section of I-70 just to the north, perhaps even a transformation into an at grade boulevard further down the road.

There is however still a glimmer of hope: MoDOT announced they will not start building their Tolkien-esque contraption until late 2013. Hopefully, someone will wake up in time and a reversal of this erroneous plan will be initiated.

Until then, please keep telling them to do so, even if they pretend to not hear you.