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Can St. Louis's Arch Become a True Gateway, Rather Than a Black Hole? [Updated with VIDEO]

Five plans attempting to transform the Gateway Arch into a true connector for the city.

Can St. Louis's Arch Become a True Gateway, Rather Than a Black Hole? [Updated with VIDEO]

St. Louis's biggest urban design problem is so obvious that it's visible from a plane. At the center of the city, its star, Eero Saarinen's 1965 masterpiece, the 630-foot Gateway Arch, easily one of the most stunning and unusual architectural triumphs of all time. Surrounding the Arch, 91 acres of rolling lush green grass and mirror-like pools designed by Dan Kiley. And on either sides, massive physical barriers that completely sever this prized public space from the rest of the city: To the west, I-70, a rumbling interstate offering limited and unsightly pedestrian access, and to the east, the Mississippi River, prone to flooding, and dividing downtown from blighted East St. Louis. In other words, the Arch, which was mean to symbolize unity and free passage, prevents both from taking place, while draining the downtown area of liveliness.

A competition named CityArchRiver2015 aims to change all that by implementing a plan to reconnect the grounds with St. Louis's downtown by 2015, the Arch's 50th anniversary. Last Thursday, the five proposals from five architectural supergroups were presented to the public, as well as a panel of jurors who will decide the winner. Here's how they fared at the presentation:

While not the most ambitious, the early favorite according to attendees was the proposal by team led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, Hargreaves Associates and Bjarke Ingels Group (perhaps it's due to the soothing phrases superimposed across all the renderings.)

New facilities and cultural attractions would be tucked underneath the grass of the the rolling parkland, much like the structures in the park are now. The same planes of grass would extend out over the freeway as a "Magic Carpet" element, creating a more welcoming entrance and transition to the area—in fact, interestingly, all five teams recommended removing the freeway completely.

The SOM team also hoped to integrate East St. Louis better into the plan, which recently opened a small park with an outlook and a "Gateway Geyser" to help connect its mostly-undeveloped riverfront with the Arch. SOM would add a large performance space and park to the east side to serve residents, and a floating pool using filtered river water—that was a crowd favorite at the presentations.

Weiss/Manfredi looked at the lacing paths of transportation that weave through the park and decided to use them to create a larger circuit for pedestrians, creating a series of walking paths that travel over two bridges and create a new park on the east side of the river. An existing parking garage would utilize its roof for an ice rink and a beer garden that nods to St. Louis's brewery legacy.

Here the freeway would also be capped and a dramatic new gateway would front the north side of the park, near the bars and restaurants of Laclede's Landing. The park would be connected to the Gateway Mall, a series of parks that heads west from the Arch into St. Louis's downtown and includes the new sculpture garden Citygarden.

The German and L.A.-based Behnisch Architekten chose big moves and a "catalytic" event that they claim the Arch grounds need. Like Weiss/Manfredi, they also added a pedestrian walkway over the historic Eads Bridge but one-upped the proposal by recommending a gondola that operates over the river. An outdoor theater would also have a dramatic location on the east side's banks, with a stage floating in the river.

Behnisch would also open up the underground Museum of Western Expansion with a wide, glass-topped plaza that would spread out below the Arch's shadow. This improves on the current museum, which is completely underground and incredibly dark and cramped, but loses valuable greenspace.

Also part of the plan is a large new museum to celebrate St. Louis's music history with a large, circular glass structure, also on the east side. Although visually, Behnisch's plan was easily the most exciting, attendees at yesterday's event worried that such a flashy, carnival-like atmosphere would take away from Saarinen's masterpiece.

A team headed by Michael van Valkenburgh Associates focused on revitalizing St. Louis's riverfront with a connection to ecology. A nature center, and wetlands reserve on the east side, would help naturalize the parkland and draw more visitors to see birds and other wildlife. It would also help with flood management.

MVVA also placed emphasis on new uses for the parkland itself. Large athletic fields would bring activity to the Arch grounds and a new northern gateway with a large outdoor theater that could hold concerts would link the park to the entertainment district of Laclede's Landing.

Alas the historically-reverent plan by PWP Architecture, Foster+Partners and Civitas was too throwback for some, with its hope for a return to the pastoral vision of Dan Kiley (complete with vintage-looking renderings). The most exciting idea was for the east side, PWP hoped to transform the park into an urban farm, with acres of agriculture and greenhouses, and a mound of earth that functioned as a lookout. A fleet of water taxis would take Arch visitors across the river. They also hoped to cap the freeway and pour acres of new trees into a walkway that helps direct attention towards the Gateway Mall.

Read more about the competition and proposals here. The winner will be announced on September 24.