Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (JNEM) in St. Louis and the grounds around the "Gateway Arch" could look very different in the years to come, depending upon the outcome of a General Management Plan (GMP) that is currently being developed for the park. Public comments are currently being accepted on four different alternatives. Here's what you need to know if you care about the future of this park.
An update of the park's GMP is probably overdue—the last comprehensive master plan for the Memorial was completed in 1962. Such plans attract varying amounts of attention from park to park, but the stakes may be higher in this case, and the outcome could have implications far beyond the St. Louis waterfront.
This plan could help set the tone for how the NPS responds at other sites to local business interests who want a park to take a more active role in local economic development. How far that role should go is understandably controversial—especially if it involves additional development on park property. The stakes are even higher if that development involves private funds.
As previously described in the Traveler, St. Louis area business and political leaders have been pushing hard to develop the area around the Arch—including new uses for park property. Their goal is to "revitalize the St. Louis waterfront" and draw more people and business to the area.
An article in the October 22, 2008, St. Louis Post-Dispatch stated that former U. S. Senator John Danforth "is lobbying for a major museum or other world-class attraction designed by an internationally acclaimed architect. He and others said their plan would give St. Louis a boost at the cost of a few acres of open space on the Arch grounds."
The former Senator is apparently unimpressed with the open space that surrounds the Arch. An article in the St. Louis Business Journal included the following quote:
"We have an absolutely world class sculpture, which is an icon of our whole region, and it is surrounded by nothing or something worse than nothing," Danforth said.
Others have a different view of the design which integrates the arch and grounds into an award-winning landscape—and of the park's announced "preferred alternative" for the GMP now under development. A National Parks Conservation Association statement noted:
"…this majestic site is protected by the National Historic Landmark designation—something bestowed on less than a third of all properties in the National Park System. This important designation cannot be tossed aside every time there is local pressure to book hotel rooms. If we do, what national park is next in line for inappropriate development?
"Commercial development and historic preservation are compatible, and surely, with additional public input and a responsible approach to a design competition, a solution can be found that would locate new attractions nearby and on a site that doesn't mar the significance of the Gateway Arch itself."
The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees (CNSPR) has also expressed opposition to the agency's current preferred alternative, which it says:
"…includes an innocuous sounding plan for "heritage education and visitor amenities," and proposes a design competition to "revitalize the memorial grounds, expand interpretation, education opportunities and visitor amenities."
CNPSR Executive Council Member Don Castleberry has first-hand knowledge about the park. He is a former regional director of the NPS' Midwest Region, and in that role had management oversight over JNEM for more than eight years. Describing the agency's preferred alternative, he noted:
"In fact, what this would mean is the construction of a new, large building on the grounds. It would be completely inconsistent with the original Gateway Arch site design, and would conflict with the purpose of the grounds as backdrop to the arch.
We have to draw a line now and say that national parks are not up for sale. Eero Saarinen's iconic design, which is one of America's most recognized and admired monumental features, attracts over 250,000 visitors annually. The surrounding grounds are planned to complement and provide for the backdrop for the monumental Gateway Arch."
CNPSR officials said they have no concern with minor changes that are consistent with the original look and feel of the National Historic Site.
Local development proposals for the Arch grounds are separate from the park's GMP, but the two processes are running concurrently, and are thus inevitably related, especially when the political and financial stakes are this high. It's difficult to determine how much pressure has been—or will be—exerted by local interests on agency staff involved in the planning and decision-making process. At best, it's an awkward situation for public officials expected to develop and maintain good relationships with local leaders.
Ironically, the recent economic downturn may enter into the equation. Late last year, news reports indicated that Senator Danforth had written to now former Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne, reiterating Danforth's support for a major cultural attraction on the Arch grounds. However, he stating that previously announced plans for the Danforth Foundation to contribute $50 million toward a "major cultural attraction on the Arch grounds" would now be a "difficult challenge."
Whether or not private funds become available for a new "cultural attraction" in the park, expect to see a major push for that option by local interests during upcoming public meetings on the new GMP. Those events will be held at 5 p.m. February 23, 2009, at the Arch and at 6:30 p.m. February 24, 2009, at Washington University's Fox School of Design in St. Louis. More details about those events are available on-line.
Most of you won't be able to attend a meeting in St. Louis—and that's not a problem. You can submit your comments on the plan until March 16, 2009, in any of several ways:
• By U. S. Mail or fax. Click here for the mailing address or fax number.
You obviously need some information about the proposals to make an informed comment.
The NPS planning team has developed four preliminary alternatives for how the park might look in the future. Alternative 1 ("No Action") essentially maintains the status quo. You won't find an Alternative 2, which was dropped earlier in the planning process. Alternatives 3, 4 and 5 provide different options for the future of the park.
Unless you want all the details, you can download the highlights at this link. I'd suggest you download the "Executive Summary" and scan pages "i" through "v," then download the "Alternatives" file. You'll find maps describing alternatives 3, 4 and 5 on pages 2-14, 2-18 and 2-24. Finally, Table 2.3 on pages 2-38 through 2-42 provides a comparison of all four alternatives.
You can also download the entire draft GMP, which has details about the alternatives being considered, including maps depicting the various options.
Alternative 3—the agency's current "preferred alternative" is generating the most controversy. It envisions "revitalizing" the Memorial "by expanded programming, facilities, and partnerships," and includes a "design competition, akin to the 1947 competition ...in close coordination with partners." The draft GMP notes,
The appearance of the Memorial within the design competition zone could be substantially changed and could include above-ground structures as a result of the proposed competition under this alternative...The boundaries of the design competition zone as presented in this draft plan are preliminary and would be further adjusted based on public review and comment on the Cultural Landscape Report.
Those potential "substantial changes for the site," possible new above-ground structures and vaguely defined boundaries for this design zone are among the issues raising concerns by groups such as the NPCA.
Here's a final point to keep in mind as you consider your position. Accompanying the Draft GMP is an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). The EIS is required to identify an "environmentally preferable alternative"—one that "would best protect, preserve, and enhance historic, cultural, and natural resources, especially in regard to enhancing the physical resources."
Sounds like a logical choice for an NPS site, and in this case, the EIS determined that Alternative 5 ("Park into the City") is the environmentally preferable alternative.
Hmm... I stated earlier that the NPS has identified Alternative 3 as the agency's preferred alternative for this GMP. Why would the NPS recommend an option other than the one identified by the EIS as the environmentally preferable one?
They're allowed to do so under current guidelines—a discussion much too complex for this article. I'd simply suggest you consider this disparity as you draw your own conclusions, but I believe part of the answer lies in a brief excerpt from the "rationale for identification of the NPS preferred alternative."
The NPS believes that a design competition would once again serve as a catalyst for civic and economic rebirth. For these reasons the NPS has identified alternative 3 as the preferred alternative, rather than alternative 5, which is the environmentally preferable alternative.
I believe this brings us full circle, and back to the question I raised at the beginning of this article: How should the NPS respond to local business interests who want a park to "serve as a catalyst for civic and economic rebirth"—and how far that role should go if it involves additional development on park property?
A decision about the GMP—and the future of this park—won't be based merely on a "popular vote," but comments from the public are important, and the NPS does have the option of choosing a different alternative for the final plan in response to the public review process.
Those who favor increased development of the park's grounds are well-organized, have already been actively involved, and can be counted on to have a major presence in the next round of public comments.
It remains to be seen if those who value the integrity of the site's design—and preservation of a "few acres of open space"—will choose to get involved as well.
No matter which option you favor, the ball's in your court.