Ice Rink, St. Louis Arch Tapped to Fight Urban Blight: Review

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Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A national design competition awarded a restoration plan to a design team led by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh of New York City.

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Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A national design competition awarded a restoration plan to a design team led by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh of New York City. Close

The Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A national design competition awarded a... Read More

Source: Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects via Bloomberg

A rendering of the renovation concept for the 80-acre grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh will install natural acting wetland plantings around ponds and add meadow grasses amid the mature trees of grounds originally designed by Dan Kiley, which have long been deemed one of his masterpieces. Close

A rendering of the renovation concept for the 80-acre grounds of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St.... Read More

Source: Michael Van Valkenburgh Architects via Bloomberg

A rendering of the West Gateway to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh proposes to cover the sunken lanes of the I-70 freeway to make a seamless transition from downtown St. Louis to the arch grounds. The new glass-fronted entrance to a rebuilt Museum of Westward Expansion would face the city, beckoning visitors. Close

A rendering of the West Gateway to the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. Landscape architect... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Detail of the Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A national design competition awarded a restoration plan to a design team led by landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh of New York City. His plan links the lush 80-acre grounds with surrounding neighborhoods as well as the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Close

Detail of the Gateway Arch in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A national design competition... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

The Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from the Gateway National Expansion Memorial. A plan to unite the two sides of the river in a renovated memorial must contend with railyards, a high levee, and noisy rail and freeway bridges. Close

The Illinois side of the Mississippi River across from the Gateway National Expansion Memorial. A plan to unite the... Read More

Photographer: James S. Russell/Bloomberg

Highway ramps at the southern edge of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A competition-winning plan led by landscape architect Michael van Valkenburg proposes to extend the memorial's lush greenery under the ramps, adding bike trails, a skating rink, and art installations. The plan links the arch grounds with a long-isolated warehouse neighborhood. Close

Highway ramps at the southern edge of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis. A competition-winning... Read More

If all goes according to plan, the fabled Gateway Arch in St. Louis, Missouri, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the year 2015 in a new setting including an ice rink.

The National Park Service and the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, a bi-state public-private partnership, held a contest -- “The City and the Arch and the River 2015 International Design Competition” -- for the refurbishment commission. They asked five finalists to extend the benign influence of the arch into shattered city neighborhoods and across the river.

The winner, announced last week, was Michael Van Valkenburgh, leading an impressive team of architects, engineers and consultants.

I recently walked around the Gateway Arch and looked at the Van Valkenburgh plans. I made my way toward the center of the arch, clambering over a hump of grass, to find a broad flat lawn spreading out below me and the arch’s haunches framing the swirling expanse of the Mississippi. A dogged rumble came from tugboats shoving barges upriver.

Designed by Eero Saarinen, the 630-foot-high stainless- steel arch stands in the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a landscape-design masterpiece by Dan Kiley. The park itself sits amid the spaghetti of freeways. The Mississippi River laps at a drag strip posing as a city street.

Saarinen and Kiley created a stirring image of the river’s majesty and the immensity and industry of American aspiration.

Effect Ruined

Regrettably, the blueprint by Van Valkenburgh, a New York City landscape architect, would ruin the effect. The plans call for inserting a glassy, grand entrance to the Museum of Westward Expansion, a structure the size of a football field that sits below the arch.

The new entrance turns the arch, river and grounds into a backdrop. It’s one reason I wished the jury had selected the superior approach of teams led by Stuttgart, Germany, architect Stefan Behnisch or the New York duo of Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi.

Both teams opened the museum to the arch and river. The Behnisch team proposed a river-crossing gondola offering a knockout view of city, river and arch. Weiss/Manfredi drew a dramatically undulating landscape for East St. Louis that would be a visitor must-see.

Think of Van Valkenburgh as an urban surgeon wielding skating rinks and playgrounds. His team plans to operate on the barrier where two freeways intersect at the southern edge of the arch grounds. He would slip fingers of greenery amid the concrete columns, dotted with the skating rink that becomes a beer garden in the summer, a farmer’s market, bike trails, art installations and food vendors.

Gentrifying Area

Van Valkenburgh hopes that closer park and neighborhood links will kindle renewal of the dignified but semi-abandoned warehouses in an ostensibly gentrifying area known as Choteau’s Landing.

The team deploys similar tactics on the north side of the arch grounds, in this case linking the arch to Laclede’s Landing. This is a warehouse and entertainment district brutalized by parking lots and two misbegotten gambling casinos, one shuttered. The tools: sensuous paths slithering around playgrounds, a river-view amphitheater, and an ecology center.

The Illinois side of the Mississippi is a much larger mess, with high levees, and more roads and rails barricading the riverside. A pitiful geyser surrounded by chain-link fencing spurts occasionally.

Beyond, East St. Louis has for decades receded into weed- filled blocks crossed by ghost streets.

Treetop Walkways

The Van Valkenburgh team turns a ratty forest into a nature park with treetop walkways that take gorgeous advantage of the best views of the arch. Still, I wish they hadn’t ignored the sad fountain.

Can skating and eco-education hope to reverse the effects of long-term economic forces and decades of wrong-headed urban renewal?

I say yes, with caveats. Punching through the physical barriers around the arch could assemble a waterfront with enough cultural critical mass to spur investment and invite the four million annual visitors to linger.

But the ear-splitting rails and roads and the enormous scale of urban decay won’t succumb to Van Valkenburgh’s modest but too tentative, prettifying approach. He must learn from his competitors and be as bold as Saarinen and Kiley were.

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: James S. Russell in New York at jamesrussell@earthlink.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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