Highways for Habitats #20: Park Over the Highway, St. Louis

Photo of the depressed I-70 between downtown and the Gateway Arch.

Photo of the depressed I-70 between downtown and the Gateway Arch.

Transportation planning is tough.  Roads have to serve a number of (sometimes competing) purposes.  Roads whose primary purpose is moving people and goods quickly through a community often have a detrimental effect on the communities they bisect (see: the history of freeways in Detroit).  Take state trunk lines for example, which you can recognize because they’re usually twice as wide to cross as the other roads in a neighborhood, and, of course, highways and interstates.  We’re currently running a series of posts featuring creative solutions from around the globe to make these roads – roads that must run through communities – also work to serve those communities.  Check out more about our inspiration here.

St. Louis has received notoriety for its urban renewal projects over the past few decades.  One such project – the Park Over the Highway – broke ground just last week.  On Friday August 2nd, the park construction over Interstate 70 began, on schedule, in an effort to overcome half a century of poor planning in the downtown area.

St. Louis reached its peak population in 1950, and suburbanization over the following forty years decreased the population by more than 50%.  Coupled with construction of I-70 along the riverfront, the downtown became a fragmented and disconnected urban core.  For years, city officials, planners, and residents have been debating the future of I-70 in the midst of plans to invigorate the area through reconnecting the downtown to the riverfront and the Gateway Arch.  Today, approaching the river and Arch – the tallest man-made landmark in the country, a global icon and symbol for St. Louis – from downtown requires crossing over multiple lanes of noisy freeway.

The Park Over the Highway Project, which should be completed in 2015, consists of a bridge over I-70 and a beautifully landscaped public park with walkways on top.  The park will connect the Arch and the Mississippi to the city center and substantially improve the connective fabric of the city center, which is dotted with cultural institutions, attractions and landmarks like the Old Courthouse grounds.  The project is intended to improve pedestrian traffic flow between the downtown and the riverfront.

While the project has received widespread support for its beautification and connectivity enhancements, there are some who believe the park is not the right solution.  These people want I-70 removed completely, and this fight has been growing for years.  Though direct access to the arch and river is an end goal, removal advocates believe that simply capping the Interstate does not address the underlying issue: the needs of urban highway infrastructure have changed and the highway no longer belongs.

Instead, advocates believe a boulevard option would serve alternative transportation options more fully.  Boulevard proponents say that a boulevard would give drivers more options, dispersing and easing traffic, thereby creating new links and access points between destinations.  They also think a boulevard would fit better into the framework of the area, opening up views, and drawing investment and new development for the waterfront area.  Versus a highway cap – which only affects three blocks – a twenty block boulevard would enhance and connect a much larger area, and could potentially become a destination it itself.

The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) is aware of the efforts to remove the highway but believes it is the wrong choice for today.  They say the boulevard option would not solve the purpose of ease of pedestrian flow to the river, as crossing a “four to six lane boulevard would restrict pedestrian and bike access, not make it better.”  MoDOT also notes traffic patterns as problematic: that 60,000 cars per day would still need a road to travel on, and trucks on the boulevard would not be ideal for pedestrian crossing.  MoDOT does understand that times change, however, and states that building the park does not mean the highway cannot be removed sometime in the future.


Photo from tracktwentynine on flickr.com