On February 28, outgoing Missouri Governor Matt Blunt announced that Illinois and Missouri had reached a final agreement for construction of the new Mississippi River Bridge. While actual construction remains a few years away, the agreement brings back to the forefront concerns about the bridge's impact on the urban fabric of north St. Louis.
While officials long ago shelved a highly destructive initial bridge concept that included a local traffic connector from the bridge to 14th street, the current plan leaves much to be desired. There are many problems
Clearance. The bridge plan still entails clearance of historic buildings and existing business. While the path of the bridge itself is actually one of the least invasive paths possible, the affiliated roadway projects will entail demolition of dozens of buildings. Particularly troubling is the plan to wipe out all of the buildings remaining on the east side of 10th Street north of Hempstead Street. There are many occupied buildings and houses in that stretch. Most important, the part of Old North St. Louis east of I-70 is integral to connecting Old North to the emerging North Broadway corridor.
Bridge planners are more concerned with traffic efficiency than creating infrastructure that respects settlement patterns. While I-70 has some maddening issues related to placing exit ramps in odd spots due to existing buildings, those issues are small concessions to reality. Reality is that cities are what bind people together, and highways are but a means to that bind. Reconfiguring the St. Louis Avenue interchange is economically profligate; the plan entails spending millions on a road project with no economic return. Reconnecting Old North and North Broadway will cost less and maintain an existing building stock with the potential for high real estate values.
A corollary is that the presence of highway noise and pollution lowers real estate values. Why on earth political leaders would want to champion anything that lowers real estate values amid a recession is beyond my comprehension.
Connectivity. The plan still entails closure of north-south streets like 10th Street. Northside residents use these streets to get downtown. Closing the connections will stall pedestrians and add time to drivers' commutes. Closing the connections could isolate Old North from downtown. There is natural synergy between Old North and downtown, but there are physical impediments caused by a belt of vacant land, industrial uses and monolithic public housing complexes. The bridge exploits that belt, and tightens it.
Short-Sightedness. The new bridge does not address the terrible congestion caused by the poor configuration of ramps on the Poplar Street Bridge. Would the bridge even be needed if the Poplar Street's problems were fixed? No.
The bridge plan does not include any allowance for public transit. There is no space on the bridge for a street car line. That's going to seem silly in 25 years when our automobile lifestyle will be in crisis. Oh, well -- at least we can still walk across the bridge then.
Avoidance. The bridge path funnels I-70 traffic out of East St. Louis and away from downtown St. Louis. This path is a boon to people wanting to live in far-off Illinois suburbs like Highland but work in St. Louis or St. Charles counties. Sure, long-distance traffic will be well-served by a new bridge, but so will exurb-to-exurb commuters.
The bridge itself seems every bit a done deal. But are the details cast in concrete? No. There is still space to mitigate the bridge's impact on the urban fabric of the near north side. Since almost every change for the better involves reducing the project cost, changes are not only logical but prudent. In the wake of the agreement, it's time to make the best of the bridge.