Confused by Plans for the Arch Grounds?

Are you confused by the plans floating around for the Arch Grounds, Highway lid, and other downtown street infrastructure? Are you confused by how this $500 million plus project is going to be paid for? You probably should be, there have been a series of complex and changing proposals made over the last three years. Here are the basics you should know, and what I believe are the serious shortcomings that make the project cost too much without delivering meaningful improvements to the area.

Everyone agrees that access, especially pedestrian access, to the Arch grounds is not nearly what it should be. There should be a better connection forged between downtown and the Arch. This is a complicated project in a very important area for downtown St. Louis and the region. The convergence of highway infrastructure, the Arch grounds, and the Mississippi river creates an environment with certain limitations. However, there can be no argument that the situation is any more complicated than similar settings in downtown Chicago or Portland, where comparable endeavors created successful connections to the riverfront or lakefront.

What is being proposed, and how major elements are funded:

Park over Highway / Highway Lid + Major changes to downtown streets. Approx. $47 million:

This portion of the plan is already funded, including $27 million from MODOT state funds and $20 million from a federal grant. The positive aspect presented here is the lid over the depressed section of I-70 / I-44., which makes a successful connection between the Old Courthouse grounds and the Arch grounds. Unfortunately this plan, which could be under construction as soon as summer of 2013, turns the street grid of downtown St. Louis into a hopelessly unintelligible tangle of ramps, diversions, one-way streets, turnarounds, and six leg intersections. It also removes northbound Memorial Dr. It is a striking move away from a street grid in favor of highway infrastructure. Projects like the 1973 highway removal in downtown Portland, and the configuration of Lake Shore Dr. in downtown Chicago through Grant Park, went in a completely different direction, connecting destination points to busy downtowns with a logical, pedestrian friendly street grid. The plan presented by MODOT and CityArchRiver essentially envisions downtown and the Arch grounds as one giant highway interchange, with thru- traffic and commuters bypassing downtown given priority over downtown workers, residents, and tourists. It is literally a project 50 or 60 years behind the times, ignoring successful efforts in numerous cities (including mid-western cities) to reconnect to riverfront, lakefront, and oceanfront parks. Perhaps most puzzling is that all of these changes would be implemented before the $700 million Mississippi River Bridge is completed – a project which will dramatically alter traffic, especially commercial and semi-trailer traffic, through downtown.

Successful street grid examples from Portland & Chicago offer a proven alternative:

Improvement to Leonor K. Sullivan Blvd. & Riverfront. A ppr ox. $10 – $20 million:

Great Rivers Greenway, the tax funded regional trail building agency, is proposing to rebuild, raise, and improve LKS Blvd. from south of the Arch Grounds to the entrance to the north Riverfront Trail. While there is some concern that the expense of this project will delay other trail expansions, it will form a key link between the north Riverfront Trail and future south Riverfront Trail. I believe this project stands on its own, with or without other changes to the Arch Grounds. More info is available here.

Arch Grounds Renovation. Approx. $150 – $450 million, currently unfunded:

The ‘big enchilada’ hovering behind the above projects is a mega-project that remakes the Arch grounds itself. The final mix of proposed changes is still in flux, but components include a potential $100 million new west facing entrance to the subterranean museum, more changes to downtown streets around Keiner Plaza, a new Keiner Plaza itself, new interior pathways and plantings, and removing the only profit generating operation in Metro’s entire portfolio, the recently paid for parking garage on the north end of the Arch Grounds. More details are available at the CityArchRiver website.

These changes, despite a proposed 2015 deadline imposed by CityArchRiver, are as of yet entirely unfunded. Earlier this year, the rabidly anti-tax Missouri state legislature authorized a local tax increase for StL City, StL County, and St. Charles County. The proposed .1875% sales tax increase would be used to pay off construction bonds issued to fund the project. In order to be enacted, the tax increase would have to pass the legislative body in the three jurisdictions, and be ratified by voters in a subsequent election. The soonest such an increase could be on the ballot is April of 2013. The most distinct feature of this sales tax is the fact that it would be the first time a local tax had ever been used to fund improvements or operations in a National Park. CityArchRiver plans on a fundraising effort to match revenue generated by the tax increase, but so far there are no major commitments equivalent to the project size and cost. Without the tax increase, there are no means of funding the proposed improvements. The Arch Grounds are approaching their 50th birthday, and it may very well be time to re-envision their function. However, it is incredibly problematic to fund improvements entirely on the back of a local sales tax increase without looking to tourists, Arch, and museum visitors to shoulder any of the price tag – especially in a National Park, which local residents do not have an ownership stake in. This is all the more evident when you look at the closest local equivalent to this project, the Forest Park Master Plan and Forest Park Forever, which I’ll cover in the next post. Perhaps the most important question to ask: If we plan on increasing local taxes, is this the most effective way to spend the new revenue? What about a new MetroLink or streetcar line? What about more money for neighborhood based improvements? What about a less expensive project with a broader and more diverse funding mechanism?

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