A flock of birds flies past the Gateway Arch.
A flock of birds flies past the Gateway Arch. Jeff Roberson/AP

St. Louis’ Gateway Arch once stood in splendid isolation. A new $380-million renovation of its grounds brings it closer to downtown.

Until recently, the grounds of St. Louis’ Gateway Arch were as hemmed in and isolated as the shimmering catenary curve that defines the city is grand and imperious.

Walled off by a 1,200-car parking garage on one side and a freeway gulch on the other, the arch was a car-choked hub of tourist activity: good for driving to, parking, snapping a few photos, and driving out again. The city-scaled sculpture by architect Eero Saarinen could never be an intimate part of the neighborhood.

But the landscape architects at Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates (MVVA) have found ways to amplify the arch’s appeal through the neighborly connection of park to street to river. They have renovated and expanded the arch grounds, originally designed by famed Modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley. New parks adjacent to the grounds are intended to funnel activity to the riverfront and work as connective urban tissue for the city’s most iconic feature, as well as to serve as a pedestal for that quicksilver curve.

The Gateway Arch has long been an international destination. But now its setting has the potential to become a civic front yard, and you might just happen upon it organically.

The arch and its newly restored grounds stand between downtown St. Louis and the Mississippi River. (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

Sunken beneath the arch is a museum, newly expanded by the design firms Cooper Robertson, James Carpenter Design Associates, and Trivers Associates. Fronted by a circular water feature and seating, the museum will tell the story of America’s westward migration from a variety of perspectives. Visitors will enter via a grand mezzanine that leads to several galleries, including one on the building of the arch.

The revamped grounds are mostly open now, but will formally reopen with the museum in July. They are the result of years of work and $380 million, including $221 million in private funding. That makes the refreshed Gateway Arch National Park, as it’s now known, the largest public-private partnership investment in a U.S. National Park ever.

The arch’s history began in 1948, when 38-year-old Saarinen, fresh off the success of his Womb Chair and Minneapolis’ Christ Church Lutheran, was selected to design it. The Gateway Arch was one of his first major commissions, although he died in 1961, four years before its completion.

“His whole career occupied part of the implementation of this project,” said Gullivar Shepard, lead planner and designer for the arch grounds at MVVA. Dan Kiley’s work on the site began when Saarinen’s did and lasted into the mid-1960s, making it as much his composition as Saarinen’s. His tree-lined walkways, which meander and curve in reference to the arch above, and sinuous reflecting pools are still defining elements of the landscape.

Those amoeba-shaped flourishes repeat at Kiener Plaza, a new park by MVVA a few blocks west of the riverfront; it reaches into downtown St. Louis to draw people to the arch and water. Its neon foam rubber play-scapes (only the second playground in all of downtown St. Louis) make it clear that while the arch is an international signifier of American urbanism, its back door is a neighborhood park. The on-ramp to Saarinen and Kiley’s high design can be as humble as park benches and jungle gyms.

Kiener Plaza, a new park connecting the Gateway Arch to downtown St. Louis (Gateway Arch Park Foundation)

East from Kiener Plaza, along an axis that bisects the arch grounds, is St. Louis’ 19th-century Old Courthouse, and then Luther Ely Smith Square, a gentle new green that caps Interstate 44 and provides a direct pedestrian connection to the arch grounds. The square is the culmination of a three-block runway of public space that channels visitors into the looming shadow of the arch.

A site plan shows Kiener Plaza on the western end of the axis leading to the arch, and parkland to the arch’s north and south. (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

In general, the designers at MVVA have left Kiley’s circulation and planting patterns intact (with planting updates for pest and disease resilience), while adding new infrastructural connections around the edges to bring people onto the site. Their most conspicuous change was removing the parking garage that once anchored the northern end of the grounds. It had hampered pedestrian access into the park and formed a visual wall.

Between the garage, the roaring freeway to the west, and the four-lane road that blanketed the river’s edge to the east, the arch grounds had seemed made for cars more than people. “The edge of the park was basically a DMZ,” said Shepard. A hotel across the street even made a habit of calling cabs to take visitors to the arch. But the new plan is made with the flaneur in mind, perhaps for residents living in the loft district on nearby Washington Avenue.

By removing the garage, Shepard and his team revealed a view of Eads Bridge (built in 1874, the oldest bridge over the Mississippi) and its rich masonry, and improved the connection to Laclede’s Landing, a classic red-brick historic district, and to public transit. (The bridge contains the nearest MetroLink light rail station.) This edge of the park, the North Gateway, is the most expressive, its whorls and elevated paths nestling into the landscape.

The North Gateway section of the park, with Eads Bridge and Laclede’s Landing beyond (Zach Mortice)

There’s also a one-and-a-half-mile promenade along the riverfront, and more room for event programming at the water’s edge—a critical addition. “This is really the only waterfront that St. Louis has,” said Shepard. “Everything else is really a berm or a flood wall.”

From 2006 to 2011, an average of 2.3 million people per year visited the arch. Civic leaders say they think the new landscape can help increase this by about a million. The new plan grew out of an earlier riverfront development agenda, said Don Roe, the city’s planning director, almost a decade ago. But the city, he said, quickly realized the riverfront’s fortunes couldn’t be charted independently from what surrounded it: the city itself, and the arch. So “CityArchRiver” was name of the nonprofit that managed the park’s design and construction, now re-dubbed the Gateway Arch Park Foundation with the project’s substantive completion.

“We have an opportunity to bring St. Louisans down here every week, or once a month, or once every two months,” said Eric Moraczewski, executive director of the foundation. “That’s something that wasn’t happening before.”

The Blues at the Arch music festival (Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates)

Fifty-eight percent of the cost of the new grounds came from private donors, but St. Louis County and city voters passed a small sales tax increase (three-sixteenths of a cent) in 2013 to fund construction, operations, and maintenance of the complex. Approximately $11 million per year for park maintenance and operations will be administered by Great Rivers Greenway, a St. Louis public agency that draws funding from the City of St. Louis, St. Louis County, and St. Charles County to develop public green space and emphasize urban connectivity.

The Greenway is developing a 600-mile ring of trails that trace the paths of the St. Louis region’s three major rivers: the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Meremac. Already, its Mississippi Greenway offers 12 miles of trails, leading northward from the arch grounds. Their next major initiative is the Chouteau Greenway, which will connect the arch across 5 miles to Forest Park at the western edge of the city.

“The whole city-arch-river project,” says Great Rivers Greenway CEO Susan Trautman, “is the keystone.”

CORRECTIONS: An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the Great Rivers Greenway as a nonprofit; it is a public agency.  

The name of the Meremac River was misspelled in an earlier version of this article and has been corrected.

The Gateway Arch National Park was originally identified by its previous name, the Jefferson Expansion National Memorial; the name has been updated.

Don Roe, previously described as a planner, is the director of the city’s Planning and Urban Design Agency.

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