National Park Service moves forward on plan for Gateway Arch grounds

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

ST. LOUIS -- The National Park Service said Tuesday it favors a plan that would allow for changes to the look of the Gateway Arch grounds.

The agency's preferred alternative would allow for a design competition to revitalize the park grounds, increase educational opportunities and possibly improve or add visitor amenities, like a restaurant.

Officials with the park, officially known as the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, have held public meetings and taken comment in recent months.

Assistant superintendent Frank Mares said one common view was that more must be done to better link the Arch grounds to downtown St. Louis.

Proposed changes would include barrier-free routes between the Arch grounds and the Mississippi riverfront, and updating existing entrances to the visitor center to improve access.

Any changes to the grounds would have to fit with the property's status as a historical landmark, according to a written summary of the plan. There's no word yet on whether the final plan would support adding a new cultural attraction on the grounds.

A group of St. Louis community leaders, including former senator John Danforth, R-Mo., has been seeking bolder changes on the Arch grounds. The Danforth Foundation, a private foundation that works to revitalize the St. Louis region, has sought to have a world-class attraction built near the Arch to draw more visitors to the riverfront.

Danforth said Tuesday that the alternative the Park Service prefers raises questions about whether such an attraction, which would likely be a cultural facility tied to the theme of western expansion, is possible.

That's because the plan the Park Service favors calls for preserving the essential character-defining features of the park to the greatest extent possible.

"This language appears to create possibly insurmountable barriers to creating the world-class destination attraction we recommend," Danforth said in a statement.

Plans call for doing a full analysis of the alternatives, including the preferred option. A draft plan is expected to be released next year, followed by more time for public comment and a decision on how to proceed.

Mares said after a plan is selected, a design competition would be dependent on funding. Such a contest would give designers parameters of what the Park Service was seeking, but would also allow them to use their own creativity.

Mares pointed to that as a key to the success of the 1947 competition, when Eero Saarinen came up with his famed design. "A man named Saarinen came up with an Arch everyone liked," he noted.

The Arch is part of the 91-acre Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. Beyond the 630-foot-tall monument itself, the underground museum below the Arch and the historic Old Courthouse, the rest of the property is green space along the Mississippi River.

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