A series of parks, memorials, and trails could help heal a city.
By Zach Mortice
The Chouteau Greenway (pronounced “show-toe”), which is planned to run about five miles from Forest Park on St. Louis’s western edge to the newly rejuvenated Gateway Arch National Park at the Mississippi River, is not a park. It’s not even a park system. It’s a landscape-driven development strategy for an entire swath of the city. Its goal is to break down the city’s stark north-south racial divide by attracting St. Louisans from across a socioeconomic spectrum toward a corridor defined by a tangle of transit infrastructure. Along the way are some of the region’s most eminent education, medical, and cultural institutions.
The plan is led by the Great Rivers Greenway, a public agency that works to connect the city’s three rivers with a network of greenway trails (which currently measures 117 miles). It envisions these often desolate and transit-scaled corridors as a series of parks, memorials, trails, and art spaces that tell the cultural history of the city. The proposed greenway could put St. Louis’s two premier urban landscapes—and the city itself—on a new pedestal. But inspiration for the winning plan from the Great Rivers Greenway’s design competition, concluded earlier this month, draws from subtle histories.
The winning prescriptions, by Stoss, call for reviving ecologies long paved over and making visible the erased narratives of African American communities. “We wanted to use this project as an opportunity to unearth these buried histories,” says Stoss’s founding director, Chris Reed, FASLA. Especially in its treatment of the bulldozed African American neighborhood of Mill Creek Valley, the plan is an overdue recentering of the city’s civic dialogue around people who have done much to develop and define it yet have been excluded from its cultural mainstream.
The questions Reed hopes to answer are as big as they come. “How can a landscape project sponsor a bigger conversation about the nature of race and class in a city?” Reed asks. It’s a conversation that starts from deeply entrenched lines of segregation: poorer African Americans in the northern section of the city, and more affluent whites in the southern section, largely divided by Interstate 64, which runs east-west. Beyond its prized red brick and underappreciated design history, St. Louis is also a place that often feels as though its poorest residents either aren’t welcome in or can’t get access to the best civic spaces it has to offer. The greenway is a comprehensive attempt to remedy this sense of exclusion.
“We need to make our central corridor a place that is welcoming and inviting to every resident,” says Susan Trautman, the CEO of the Great Rivers Greenway.
Building on the heels of the successful effort to refresh the Gateway Arch grounds designed by MVVA, the Great Rivers Greenway hopes to have a refined concept from Stoss by midsummer, though there is no money yet for implementation. The Stoss team includes Marlon Blackwell Architects, the artist and architect Amanda Williams, the urban planner Toni Griffin, and others.
Stoss’s plan, called the Loop and the Stitch, is a pair of perpendicular loops running east-west parallel with I-64 and north-south. The main east-west axis (the Loop) connects several higher learning institutions (Washington University, St. Louis University, and Harris-Stowe State University) and the Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical campus. The Stitch, the satellite north-south axis, is about five miles long. It extends northward to Fairground Park and southward to Tower Grove Park, offering trails that reach into neighborhoods on both sides of the divide.
There’s an intense transit focus throughout, offering new pedestrian and bicycle paths in places where public transit options are few. The trail is paved in teal concrete and sandblasted with patterns reminiscent of the curves of Eero Saarinen’s Arch, African American textiles, trees, and railroad patterns. It has a vaguely Prairie style sensibility.
Thematic plantings define each greenway section’s identity. The northern pathway of the Loop is a grand forest promenade, an axial boulevard framed by trees. The south Loop section is a meandering resurgent prairie, with softer grass edges filling in the gaps between concrete infrastructure. The Stitch is planted as a series of orchards, bringing activity and green programming to areas plagued by vacancies and poverty, especially on the north side.
It’s such an expansive plan that questions about just who the city might be changing for have to be asked in advance. There’s a “huge range,” says Reed, of places in St. Louis that are vulnerable to gentrification-led displacement and those that aren’t. But the prevailing sentiment is that linking the city together better can benefit everyone. “The reality is, in St. Louis there is a lot of open land,” Reed says.
“St. Louis is not on a trajectory of dense growth,” says Trautman. “What we’re trying to do is drive growth and population into the city of St. Louis.”
The biggest investments are called for along this central east-west axis next to freeway on-ramps and rail lines, areas with few dwellings nearby. But an adapted warehouse-turned-food-hall’s smashing success can spill over into adjoining residential areas, for good and for ill. The north side orchard trails and a wider “tool kit” for vacant lots proffered by Stoss are all fine-grained and sensitive. But amid high rates of vacancy, a more intensive development strategy might have a bigger impact here.
With Reed’s plan (selected by a jury that included Mark Johnson, FASLA, of Civitas), St. Louis takes on a “grittier, greener” sensibility, he says. Like other finalists, Stoss’s plan adapts overlooked areas and uses ribbons of green space to wrap around freeway overpasses and rail rights-of-way, making them into inviting, human-scaled places. There’s the adaptive reuse of a highway overpass trestle into an art and event space next to the City Foundry, a 15-acre electric motor factory that will be converted into a food hall and commercial innovation hub. Farther west, the Kingshighway Overlook will be a teardrop-shaped land bridge that emerges from the topography of Forest Park’s eastern edge, with a broad lawn for lounging, a circular void at its center to see traffic below, and promontory views back to the city center.
Whereas the land bridge rises out of the earth, the proposal’s Mill Creek Valley project is more subterranean. Once home to 20,000 people, Mill Creek Valley was a thriving African American neighborhood just west of downtown St. Louis that was eradicated by the construction of I-64 in the late 1950s. The Loop and the Stitch tells its story with a large art installation by the local artist Damon Davis. The project excavates the footprints of houses demolished by freeway construction, giving visitors a feel for the scale and urban texture of this ghost neighborhood. “You can imagine where somebody’s kitchen was, where somebody’s bedroom was,” says Reed. There are low walls of rich, red St. Louis brick, and uprooted trees are held aloft in lighted hourglass-shaped columns, “like an hourglass would suspend time,” he says.
The plan recognizes submerged ecologies, too. The memorial honors the original Mill Creek, now buried underground, and the overall plan prominently features prairie landscapes, long since paved and sodded over.
The story of Mill Creek Valley is prototypical in the racist history of American “urban renewal,” and as such, Reed offers a moment of recognition, but also implication. “How do we come to a moment of reconciliation with our past in a way that recognizes what happened?” he says. “We can create places within the central [east-west] corridors that recognize other histories, buried histories, that bring things back to life and that make for spaces that are more inclusive.”
It’s an ambitious mandate with a culmination that won’t happen for many years. But Trautman says she already knows what success will feel like. In the summer of 2016, the Great Rivers Greenway opened a new section of the Mississippi River Trail, and invited neighbors to eat together at a 2,016-foot-long picnic table, from the Eads Bridge to the Poplar Street Bridge. “It was the most wonderful experience to see every kind of walk of life sit next to each other at a table and share a meal,” she says. “It was an exciting moment, and I guess I want that moment to be replicated all the time within the greenway.”