Like many American cities, St. Louis long ago severed its downtown from its riverfront with an Interstate highway. A new $90,000 city-funded study focusing on reconnecting to the Mississippi River could lead to removing a half-mile stretch of elevated road near the St. Louis Arch. A Request for Proposals to study downtown multimodal access ended on March 23 and the St. Louis Development Corporation is reviewing respondents.
With construction of a new bridge diverting Interstate 70 out of downtown progressing, diminished traffic volumes leading into the city could make highway removal a feasible option. The study will explore barriers to riverfront accessibility, including removing an elevated span north from the Pine Street Bridge to O’Fallon Street, a stretch of highway paralleling the northern third of the Arch grounds and disconnecting the historic Laclede’s Landing district, casinos, and undeveloped industrial land from the city.
City to River, a citizens advocacy group, was formed in 2009 to promote removing the entire riverfront portion of Interstate 70 and replacing it with a boulevard. Alex Ihnen, chair of City to River, said the CityArchRiver competition to redesign the Arch grounds put highway removal in the spotlight and applauds the city for studying highway removal. “Removing Interstate 70 is the number one thing that could make better use of the Arch,” he said. This year the Congress for the New Urbanism listed Interstate 70 among the 2012 Freeways Without Futures, highlighting urban highways with the most potential for removal.
In 2008, the Lumière Place casino built an $8 million, 400-foot tunnel under the elevated section of Interstate 70 to a plaza outside the Edward Jones Dome, eliminating the unsightly walk under the highway, but Ihnen said tunneling misses the point of reconnecting to the river. “As long as Interstate 70 is there, it’s not going to be an attractive place to be,” he said. “The Arch just being there isn’t enough. It’s got to be part of the life of the city.” City to River maintains that over a billion dollars in development potential exists along the riverfront if the highway is removed.
The National Park Service (NPS) issued its support for removing the highway in the 2009 General Management Plan (GMP) that guided the CityArchRiver design competition, won by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates. Responding to public comments, the document stated that the NPS “prefers and strongly supports the removal of the Interstate highway between the Poplar Street Bridge and the Eads Bridge at some point in the future. We recognize an undertaking of this magnitude may not be possible during the timeframe this GMP addresses (15–20 years), but we would amend the GMP should such an opportunity become feasible prior to the expiration of this plan.” Currently, a block-long landscaped highway cap is planned to connect the Arch grounds to downtown, eliminating several blocks of Memorial Drive and keeping the highway in place. City to River advocates relocating Memorial Drive underneath the lid.
There is no set timeline for the city’s review of the RFP respondents, which is expected to take several months. If the study shows that highway removal is feasible, Ihnen said St. Louis must act before it loses a once-in-a-generation opportunity: “If we spend millions on new ramps and infrastructure on the existing highway, it’s going to be 40 or more years before we can think about removing the highway again.”