In the face of decades of population decline—some of the most dramatic in the nation—St. Louis is now witnessing a significant turnaround, at least downtown. According to figures from the mayor’s office, 10,000 units of housing have been built downtown and 70 (out of 76) vacant historic buildings have been renovated and reoccupied. Perhaps no project has done more for the city’s self-image than a new two-block sculpture park, known as CityGarden. Completed last summer, the park has been instrumental in drawing families and visitors back downtown. Civic boosters hope the project is just the tip of the iceberg, and are planning to revamp downtown’s other major public spaces, including the 17-block Gateway Mall (CityGarden is a two-block section of the Mall) and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, home to the iconic Saarinen Arch. Improving these landscapes is considered essential to downtown’s continuing recovery.
Financed entirely with private money from the Gateway Foundation, a local nonprofit that supports capital improvements in St. Louis, CityGarden’s transformation was both physical and cultural. “From what I could tell, it was mostly used as a place for nearby office workers to smoke,” said Warren Byrd, principal of the Charlottesville, VA–based landscape architecture firm Nelson Byrd Woltz that designed CityGarden. “Our marching orders were to produce something that was both visionary and practical,” Byrd said. “There were also very specific requirements that reflected the climate of St. Louis, lots of shade and water features.” Byrd’s firm took the site, which was “essentially a blank slate,” and created a dense composition of plantings, art, and other features, which will be maintained by the foundation. The garden’s 24 sculptures, including works by Keith Haring, Mark Di Suvero, and Martin Puryear, are set amid curved paths, benches, lawns, and fountains. It has become a magnet, especially for families with children.
While Byrd and his colleagues were transforming two long blocks on the Mall, the Gateway Foundation was funding a new masterplan for the rest of the Mall by New York– based Thomas Balsley Associates and Urban Strategies. That plan calls for the linear park to be reconceived as a series of distinctly programmed “rooms.” “The term we use a lot is that we want to ‘activate’ these spaces,” said Barbara Geisman, the city’s deputy mayor for economic development. “The Mall has acted like a boundary between one side of downtown and the other, and we want it to become a connector.” Last summer, the masterplan was adopted by the city, and in March the mayor appointed a high-profile advisory board of civic leaders and philanthropists to begin its implementation. “The wonderful thing is that CityGarden has set the bar so high,” Geisman said. The board will also advise if the remaining sections of the Mall should be given to different designers or built out by one firm. “There have been a lot of plans in St. Louis that haven’t gone anywhere. One of the things that CityGarden convinced people of was the value of implementing pieces of a larger vision,” Byrd said.
The St. Louis Arch is visible at the eastern end of the Mall, and the Arch grounds sit roughly perpendicular to the Mall. While the Arch draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year and is the city’s most recognized structure, those visitors add little to the life of downtown due to the isolated nature of the grounds, bordered by highways and the river. The National Park Service is sponsoring an international competition to redesign the 91-acre area surrounding the original Arch grounds (designed by Dan Kiley and now part of the landmarked site), to better connect it with the city. Nelson Byrd Woltz is a part of one of the nine teams competing for the job, which includes the city, the National Park Service, the federal Department of Transportation, and the Army Corps of Engineers among its stakeholders. “That’s the great challenge. It’s not a single client. So whoever wins, they’re going to have to put a lot of stock in that scheme,” Byrd said. The competing teams are an eye-opening Who’s Who in architecture, landscape, and engineering. Four finalists will be selected this month, and a winner in September.
Among the most contentious issues these teams face is how to respond to I-70, an elevated and trenched highway that divides the Arch grounds from downtown. A civic coalition called City to River is advocating for the highway’s removal in favor of an on-grade boulevard. An editorial in The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently also advocated that the teams plan for its removal, and the competition includes the highway as an area for consideration.
Geisman describes the recession as a “hiccup” in the course of downtown’s turnaround. She points to two other major mixed-use projects that will be moving ahead in the next 60 days. “These public spaces create lasting attractions for residents and visitors,” she said. “They make downtown a more dynamic environment for development opportunities.” And they just might save the city.