Continued from last post:
The Arch grounds are a popular destination in downtown St. Louis and the primary way the city connects to the river. The impulse to improve and invigorate the area is indeed the correct one – a great and varied park network is one of St. Louis best assets. While the grounds have been reasonably well maintained by the National Park Service, its not hard to see that the visitor experience could be improved for both tourists and residents.
The feeling about Forest Park was much the same in the 1980′s and early 1990′s. The crown jewel of the St. Louis park system was seriously under performing due to deferred maintenance and lack of a cohesive plan or funding source. Two major initiatives turned the park around, slowly creating the wonderfully maintained and financially stable attraction we enjoy today.
The first was the foundation of Forest Park Forever, a local citizen’s effort to raise money to maintain and improve the park grounds. FPF created a cohesive nucleus of residents interested in working with the St. Louis Parks Dept. to move the park forward. In 1993, St. Louis embarked on the second initiative, a two year planning and public engagement process that culminated in the adoption of the Forest Park Master Plan. This plan has been the guiding force behind the improvements to the park since its adoption in 1995. The FP Master Plan laid the framework for the coming two decades of improvements, overseen by both citizens and elected officials – while acknowledging that the changes planned would take time to implement. The stability and community support of the Master Plan enabled FPF to fund raise more effectively, as donors gained confidence that their generosity was contributing to a cohesive and sustainable vision.
In short, the combination of Forest Park Forever and the Forest Park Master Plan are the best local analog for the current situation with the Arch. What is perhaps most astonishing about the success of Forest Park is the level of support from private donors. Since FPF’s modest beginning in the 1980′s, they have raised and spent over $100 million on a multitude of physical improvements to the park, while following a ‘don’t build it if you can’t maintain it philosophy.’ Today, Forest Park is greeting more visitors and providing a better experience than ever before – the partnership between residents, local government, and Forest Park Forever is a model that can and should be emulated.
Unfortunately, CityArchRiver, the group that has taken on the Arch Grounds, while faced with a similar challenge, has not followed a similar model to Forest Park Forever. Perhaps the most striking contrast is the arbitrary deadline of 2015 imposed on completing their proposed $500 million project. Its laudable that CityArchRiver wants to do something big – but St. Louis best big projects have evolved over time. Likewise, our biggest failures were top down projects built without broad support.
Another contrast: the funding source. I pointed out in the last post that thus far, less than 20% of the project is funded. CityArchRiver is relying on a proposed tax increase to fund the next $150 of the project. This is the real rub – a local tax to fund improvements to a national park that do not have broad support. Now – the pressure will be on to approve this tax: The message, want an Arch Project? Approve the tax increase. Haven’t heard about the tax increase yet? You will.
Perhaps worst of all, despite proposing to spend $500 million – the CityArchRiver proposal misses the one item that would truly transform downtown and the Arch Grounds – converting a mile of I-44 & I -70 into a boulevard. As it currently stands, the plan, after $500 million in spending, would still leave the I – 70 depressed lanes, and the I – 70 elevated lanes at Washington Ave. fully in place. The barrier between downtown and the Arch will be as it ever was – except perhaps even worse, with the street grid downtown further eroded.
How do we move forward and build a better Arch and Downtown St. Louis? First, do the portions of the project that make sense now: rebuild LKS, and build a lid over I – 70 without destroying the street grid. These projects would provide results and momentum build upon.
Next: go back to the drawing board on the improvements inside the Arch Grounds, and keep a realistic budget and timeline in mind. Build a group of devoted citizens who can help guide the process and build community support.
Finally – if we are going to devote a new sales tax to this project – lets build something truly transformational. Lets eliminate a mile I -70, reclaim downtown streets, and truly connect downtown to the Arch and the river. Downtown cannot continue to be viewed as a highway interchange by MODOT – just another exit and tangle of ramps in their regional network, one more mile on the way to Arnold or the airport. Downtown is first a place where people live and work, a cultural center, and the hub of the region. Lets elevate it to the place it deserves – not miss a $500 million opportunity.