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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Needed: Public Input

As I sat in the Steinberg auditorium on Friday night waiting for the start of a panel discussion on the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, I wondered where the crowd might be. The panel discussion was part of this weekend's student charrette sponsored by the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and the Transportation Engineering Association of Metropolitan St. Louis, and featured the public match-up of Danforth Foundation President Peter Sortino and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Superintendent Tom Bradley. Joining the panel were moderator Robert Duffy of the St. Louis Beacon, George Nicolajevich of Cannon Design and Professor Eric Mumford of Washington University. The line-up promised to be provocative.

Alas, the spirit of debate was rather tepid, although the panelists were in top form. First, the critical mass of interested citizens that I expected did not attend. Most of the audience were students participating in the charrette, university faculty and charrette speakers. Curious citizens were not present, nor was the pack of urbanist bloggers who usually pack meetings. The panel was widely advertised, too, so people did know this was going on.

At Sunday, student presentations at Mansion House, I felt the same disappointment. Where were my fellow St. Louisans? Where were even those people already disposed to caring? Where was Sortino? The press, aside from intrepid Post-Dispatch editorial writer Eddie Roth? (Tom Bradley was present.) Even I was late, scheduling something else during that time. The students put considerable intellectual energy into their projects and presentations, and generated many useful ideas. The students were, quite frankly, buzzed by the charrette. There were even smiles!

I am wondering what sort of attention the region's citizens have paid the Arch grounds debate. With minimal attention and input, proceeding with any plan now is reckless. First, the public needs to be drawn out from whatever barriers that keep them from caring about the fate of the region's front door. Perhaps the distance of the Arch from our citizens' daily lives is a block to investment in discussion about design changes. The Arch grounds occupy a spot on the far east edge of the city, and terrible highway infrastructure cuts them off from even immediate urban surroundings. Maybe people don't think of the Arch grounds as "theirs."

Perhaps the debate has been too mired in polarization to draw interest. If the discussion is framed in terms of the Danforth proposal, the outcome may seem quite the fait accompli to most people familiar with business as usual in Mound City. The discussion needs to be recast. After all, we are talking about the future of public land. It belongs to the people, and the people ought to direct or at least inform the future of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

One thing that I think is keeping people from becoming interested: there are no visuals to back up any of the ideas about the grounds. The Arch itself is such a powerful visual symbol. Every St. Louisans knows it. Few know what the Danforth Plan looks like, or what a revamped Memorial Drive looks like or even what a lid over I-70 looks like. To most people, ideas for changing the grounds are painfully abstract. To build public excitement, visuals are needed -- showing problems and solutions.

Good news: the students participating in the charrette just created a bunch of such images. Hopefully the student charrette ideas can be spread around -- the proposals will be exibited starting in late November -- and amplified. The Memorial is public land, and we are the owners -- that is, as long as we act like we are.

TAKE A LOOK YOURSELF: Over at the Post-Dispatch's blog The Platform, Eddie Roth has posted his thoughts and a lovely, impressionistic video featuring sounds and sights from Sunday's presentations. Check it out here.


Anonymous said...

I think what is missing is civic leadership. It would be good to see the Mayor, the Board of Aldermen, the County Executive, the County Council, the St. Charles and Jefferson County Executives, and their counterparts on the Illinois side, all come together and join in a leadership effort around this issue.

There is a lot of potential power here. Not in terms of political capital, but rather in terms of community capital. This project could bring a worldwide spotlight onto St. Louis and important urban issues. Our leaders have the opportunity to lead us to something wonderful.

Were there any elected officials at this week's charette activities? I'm almost afraid to ask...

Anonymous said...

I'm not trying to be a jerk by saying this, but I think you're operating under a false assumption that people *would* care, in advance, about this issue. I'm not sensing a real buzz in the community about this issue, at all, aside from some of the civic blog(ger)s.

A less-cynical thought would be: because of the recent election, people's civic itch has been scratched for the time-being. They're in a resting state, until the next flash-point issue or bigger election.

Another thought is that people feel vaguely unsatisfied by the current, plain nature of the Arch grounds and, in their silence, are voting for "anything but..."

Of course, I'd also offer that if heavy machinery began moving earth around, say, tomorrow, everyone and their brother would be calling Charlie or McGraw, with fully-formed opinions and various shades of upset.

Chris said...

I actually felt like I was intruding.

Doug Duckworth said...

How many times have the public given their input on various issues only to be discarded? The public attended the Gateway Mall presentations. How did the Administration proceed? They built a garden where National Register buildings once stood, demolitions which were justified under the auspices of the City needing new office space. Perhaps some lost their youthful optimism, patience, and do not wish to be disappointed by the delusion of being included in the decision making process?

Brian said...

A couple of things:

- I didn't even know about this charette, and I try to follow these matters as closely as I can. Was it well publicized?

- It seems like everything Danforth is associated with involves a ridiculous amount of meetings, plans, revisions to plans, meetings to discuss the revisions to plans, etc. - but little action. I remember attending meetings about riverfront redevelopment a few years back - many great ideas were proposed and absolutely nothing has happened since then. If the turnout wasn't good, perhaps people are getting the idea that these meetings are generally useless.

My thinking is leave the Arch grounds alone and improve connectivity. Get rid of the highway that cuts through downtown - the depressed section and the elevated section by Washington Avenue. If we absolutely HAVE TO have a museum downtown, build it somewhere else.

When we have firms leaving downtown, vacant buildings, etc., there are much bigger problems that need to be addressed downtown right now.

Anonymous said...

The problem with the comments above is that if you want to improve access, and nothing else, you better get involved.

Danforth has made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that their vision is to add programming to the Arch.

They see added programming as the way to justify improved connections.

They are not patient enough to start with improved access, see how that works, and then see if any further "improvements" are warranted.

Their approach is forcing a vision, rather than allowing incremental change.

By the time people are freaked out about heavy earth moving equipment regrading the site, it will already be too late.

Anonymous said...

The Arch grounds are federal property (so they theoretically belong to all of us), but the authorities in charge are very restrictive of citizen gatherings, political demonstrations, free speech, distributing literature, etc. Maybe this is part of the reason St. Louisan's feel distant from the Arch--we are treated like outsiders or criminals if we try to do any of these things! (Yes, people have been ticketed and arrested while performing the above mentioned acts.)

Thanks for posting on this on the St. Louis Independent Media Center.

GMichaud said...

I have been involved in organizing several community based charettes and the results were similar smaller scale than the arch).
Low turnout was the rule, however the political representatives did attend. (Pagedale especially had the Mayor, alderpersons, police officials and a few others attend). If government representatives did not then there is a problem.
I have often thought a better strategy is to do some type of professional architectural jury (invited) right after the project and then have a public meeting several weeks later after the project has had time to be circulated among the public. (And the public can still be invited to the initial jury with comments if so desired).
This requires of course a concerted effort to get information to the public.