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City to River Boulevard Plan Gains Steam as Arch Designs Come Due

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Today's the deadline for the five finalists in the National Park Service's competition to redesign grounds around St. Louis' famed Gateway Arch.

slinky resized.jpg
They didn't go for the Arch Slinky. Weird.
Oddly, even after our inspirational and, dare we say it, revolutionary suggestions last month, the RFT was not among those who've been asked to submit plans. But we are among the many who now eagerly await the finalists' proposals -- as is the citizens' group that's played a hefty role in shaping the redesign debate, City to River.

More than a year ago, the volunteers and gadflies who make up the City to River group began pushing for what was then an incredibly novel idea: Tearing down the 1.5-mile stretch of I-70 that cuts through downtown, and replacing it with a broad boulevard connecting the rest of the neighborhood with the Arch.

It's a testament to the group that what once seemed absurdly idealistic has now reached some critical consensus. Yesterday, City to River announced a long list of supporters for the idea, including many key stakeholders downtown.

 

You can see the list of stakeholder endorsements here.

We reached City to River steering committee member Alex Ihnen to talk about where things stand -- and what comes next.

Daily RFT: Are you surprised to see such consensus forming around this idea?
Alex Ihnen: A little bit, yes. It's encouraging. It enforces the idea that the concept has merit, that it's not just a single developer who'd benefit from it -- that it's a wide range of people focused on regional transit, and urban design, and walkability. I guess it's a little bit surprising only in the sense that you don't ever assume everyone will be on board.

Daily RFT: You expect to see developers and businessmen pushing for greater highway access, so it's kind of interesting that they're on board for getting rid of that part of the interstate.
Ihnen: It's important to note that I-55, I-64, most of I-70 -- none of that would be affected in an way whatsoever. The vast majority of traffic on that interstate is traffic trying to get in and out of downtown. Right now, in a mile and a half stretch, they have just three ramps that give access to downtown. If we built a boulevard, you'd have two-dozen-plus options for getting in and out of downtown. If they miss one, they can turn onto the next one. It really gives everyone a lot more options ... It's so much more straightforward.
And part of the plan is to have on-street parking. What would be better than saying, 'There's the Arch, here we are, let's park on the street.'" You can't do that now.

Daily RFT:
So the finalists' proposals are due [today]. How much of an impact will that have on your campaign? If the plans don't include the boulevard option, are you guys screwed?
Ihnen: I think they're linked in two ways. One, there's so much focus on the Arch grounds -- it's an opportunity to have a discussion about what's best for St. Louis.
Two, there's a small opportunity that something that gets selected [by the National Parks Service] may prevent us from having a boulevard in the future. If they spend $50 to $100 million on fancy pedestrian bridges to go over the interstate, or some partial solution that addresses two to three blocks, not the whole 20, that "solution" could be in place for decades.

Daily RFT: Have you been contacted by any of the design finalists? Have they been receptive to your pitch?
Ihnen: We have sought out all five design teams. We had face-to-face meetings with at least one member of each team -- in some cases, we met with a half-dozen members from the teams. They were all very receptive. None tipped their hands, but we did have more than one team say, "We looked at this idea, and we put it on the shelf. Now we're going to put it back as an option." Of course, we don't know what will go into anyone's final proposal.

... I think there's a possibility of two things. One, the winning team will include a boulevard, in which case we'll stay involved, or the winning team doesn't -- and we'll stay involved, too. ... They're picking a design team, not a winning design. That's a small distinction, but they may choose a team and say, "We love the way you address this, but other things need to be tweaked." The real wrangling happens in September [after a design team is selected].

Daily RFT: So the plans are being turned in to the Park Service tomorrow, but not unveiled until next Tuesday. Will you get a sneak peak?
Ihnen: No! I'll be there at 8 o'clock on Tuesday morning.

We feel like we've been successful in a lot of ways. One and a half years ago, we thought, "let's get this issue in the Post-Dispatch once." If we'd been in the Riverfront Times once, we would have been happy. But one thing leads to another ...

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