Arch riverfront redesign gets green light

2013-02-21T00:45:00Z 2014-07-03T12:07:09Z Arch riverfront redesign gets green lightBy David Hunn dhunn@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8121 stltoday.com

UPDATED at 8:45 a.m. with cancellation of presentation on project that had been set for tonight.

ST. LOUIS  •  The $380 million restoration of the Gateway Arch grounds has the green light on a second big project.

Construction will begin, as planned, on a “lid” over Interstate 70 this summer. And now, the riverfront road that runs in front of the Arch, Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, will get a lift — of about 2½ feet — and a redesign, with bicycle and pedestrian paths.

The lid and park over the highway downtown, originally estimated to cost $47 million, is funded and designed. Engineers, however, recently found some unexpected savings. The concrete walls that hold the earth away from the sunken highway don’t need to be torn out and rebuilt after all.

And those savings, worth about $11 million, pushed a second project into the fast lane: The redevelopment of Leonor K. Sullivan.

The redesign has long been on the Arch grounds renovation wish-list. The river road was slated to be torn up, raised out of the floodplain, beautified and coupled with a bike trail and pedestrian boardwalk, from Chouteau Avenue to Biddle Street.

But the anticipated cost — $33 million — was enough to keep the work on paper, at least until April. That’s when voters in St. Louis city and county will decide on a sales tax increase, adding less than two cents on a $10 purchase, to help fund the grounds restoration.

Then last fall, state highway engineers designing the lid over I-70 — a park that connects the Arch grounds to downtown — decided the highway walls were in good shape and didn’t need to be moved.

“Our funding is complete. And we’ll be starting the riverfront project,” said Susan Trautman, executive director of the publicly funded regional trails organization Great Rivers Greenway, which is leading the Leonor K. Sullivan redesign.

Great Rivers is contributing $10 million to the project, and an additional $4 million is coming from private donations for the Arch redevelopment. The remaining $8 million will come from federal transportation funds. Designs are due this summer, and construction scheduled to start in March 2014.

It represents a key moment for the Arch grounds project. Up to this point, everything but the lid was just a dream.

The redevelopment as a whole is a gigantic undertaking, slated to cost more than $500 million. It involves both sides of the Mississippi River and includes plans for an aerial tram across the water.

A series of local agencies are now focused on the Missouri projects, which include demolishing the parking garage at the north end of the Arch grounds, connecting the grounds with Laclede’s Landing, creating interconnected gardens and parks with looping trails and raised pathways, and renovating the Museum of Westward Expansion under the Arch.

The Missouri projects alone, slated to wrap up in 2015, will cost more than two-thirds of the total, with the museum’s new entrance and expansion making up the single largest expense so far, at about $160 million.

The proposed sales-tax increase on the April ballot is a key component, expected to contribute $101 million.

The project agencies and consultants had planned present their annual report to the community at the America’s Center downtown tonight, but the presentation was canceled because of weather. They plan to reschedule the gathering, where they will announce the funding for the river road redesign, give status updates on the I-70 lid and present ideas for the museum expansion.

Many residents, however, have expressed skepticism. Some doubt the redevelopment will actually bring more tourism. Others question the expense.

“If we’re going to increase the sales tax, maybe we should have a talk about what the top priority should be,” St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie said at a public meeting in December. “Is the top priority removing I-70 downtown? Street cars? A Metrolink expansion? Or something else entirely?

“It’s the right problem,” he continued. “But this is a very expensive way of addressing it.”

Ogilvie, however, likes the riverfront project. Leonor K. Sullivan, he said Wednesday, looks “demonstrably bad” right now, and yet it’s where most visitors experience the river.

Trautman, the Great Rivers Greenway chief, understands that the dollars can be jarring. Engineering and landscaping costs alone are about $1.4 million. But the project is complicated, she said, and the designs have to be correct.

The road, bike trail and pedestrian walkway all have to be separated with barriers both attractive and strong enough to protect the various users. The wall between the road and the river has to hold in earth and hold out water.

A newly designed public space has to serve multiple functions, too: It’s a walkway from the Arch steps to the river, a stage for concerts, a veranda for weekday cafe seating and a speed bump to slow down cars.

Moreover, the road will still flood. The elevation boost is projected to give bikers and walkers 87 more days, on average, outside of the flood zone. But it will not prevent all flooding. So everything, from trees and pavers to benches and railings, has to withstand time in muddy water.

And, finally, since the road will touch historically significant structures that can’t be altered — the Arch steps, the Eads Bridge and the river cobbles — the whole project has to pass through a variety of added checks.

Trautman said the project would connect southern bike trails to northern paths, bringing new visitors to the riverfront.

Still, for some, it’s hard to see.

Paul Sableman, 27, from the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood, walked along Leonor K. Sullivan on a recent afternoon. He said he’d love to see a designated riverfront trail.

“But I don’t know if that would bring some life,” he said, looking at the empty sidewalk in front of him. “It’s pretty dead here right now.”

David Hunn covers taxpayer spending on regional cultural institutions. Follow him on Twitter @davidhunn.

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