Imagine riding your bicycle on a greenway from a North St. Louis neighborhood, passing apple orchards and a playground as you pedal past the Grand Center Arts District and Tower Grove to the Gelateria Del Leone on South Grand for a gelato. Sound good?
At lunchtime, you might take a break from your job or class in Midtown to walk along a path lined with perennial flower gardens and monarch butterflies. A stop to watch the sunset over Forest Park from a land bridge over Kingshighway could be a highlight of your evening commute.
The partners behind the vision for the Chouteau Greenway have imagined these and many more experiences like them for families, commuters, tourists, and residents across the city, providing safe spaces to meet people, travel by bike, and enjoy being outdoors. The plan would transform St. Louis by connecting people and neighborhoods in all directions with its iconic parks, job centers, museums, and educational institutions.
Green infrastructure would bring beauty and better ecological function to the areas around the greenway. Grasslands and prairies, wetlands, and open woodlands native to Missouri would enhance air quality and biodiversity. Meadows and rain gardens planted with deep-rooted native species would soak up storm water.
Loop and Stitches
The original plan for the Chouteau Greenway connected Forest Park to the Gateway Arch, but feedback from public engagement sessions and a community advisory committee fueled broader thinking to make the project more inclusive and equitable by connecting the north and south sides of the city, too.
“There’s not much transportation in North St. Louis. A lot of people can’t find jobs because they don’t have a way to get there,” said Monique Y. Williams, who represented the Vandeventer neighborhood on the advisory committee. “It’s a quality of life issue.”
Stoss Landscape Urbanism was selected in an international design competition to refine the vision for the plan. Its design proposed an east-west loop from Forest Park to the Arch, with stitches to extend the greenway north to Fairground Park and south to Tower Grove Park.
“It’s important to make investments in a wider range of neighborhoods, in places that are crying out for equitable consideration,” said Chris Reed, founding director of Stoss. “We need to do it in a way that is tuned to the people who live in those neighborhoods, creating safe spaces to recreate and get to work or school or church.”
The planning team drew on other proposals like Trailnet’s Connecting St. Louis plan, which proposed north-south connections to the central corridor to increase equity, safety, and access.
“We need to do this in a way that is impactful for neighborhoods that need it most. These communities need safe connections along the north-south corridor,” said Ralph Pfremmer, CEO of Trailnet and a member of a working group that is exploring how to achieve equitable outcomes on the greenway.
Beyond building pathways to connect people with opportunities, the project has a deeper purpose: to bridge the divides of race and class in the city.
“The idea is to elevate St. Louis,” said Susan Trautman, CEO of Great Rivers Greenway. “We’re thinking about the greenway as much more than a trail, much more than the landscape, but about design, about art, about community. It’s about knitting our city together and connecting neighborhoods that have never been connected before.”
The Stoss plan offers a toolkit of ideas for recreation and programming that will bring people together. Pop-up shops and performances, public art, urban farms and orchards, playgrounds, and food truck hubs are some of the possibilities.
One public art project would tell a cultural history of Mill Creek Valley, an African-American community that was erased in the late 1950s to make way for I-64 and the Gateway Mall. Damon Davis, a multi-media artist, musician, and filmmaker in St. Louis, developed a concept for an art installation along the greenway at the west end of the Mall.
“Mill Creek Valley was a thriving African-American neighborhood that was torn down to make way for highway construction. We want to unearth that history and remember the people who lived there,” Reed said.
Trails as Economic Drivers
Major greenway projects in cities like Indianapolis, New York, and Atlanta have realized significant returns on investment through business and real estate development, job creation, and increased property values.
“We’re seeing greenways becoming new kinds of people spaces that are catalysts for commercial and retail spaces” said Greg Brummit, principal of Active Strategies. He pointed to Bentonville, Arkansas, as an example. Tourism and activity on a network of trails generated $137 million in economic benefits for Northwest Arkansas in 2017, according to a Walton Family Foundation study.
Attracting and retaining talented people to live and work in St. Louis is one of those benefits.
“Thoughtfully planned and implemented greenways have proven to be catalysts for urban revitalization and growth. Indianapolis’ Cultural Trail and Atlanta’s BeltLine have both attracted billions in investment for residential, commercial, retail, and mixed-use development,” said Jason Hall, CEO and co-founder of Arch to Park, an investor in the Chouteau Greenway. “On a simple level, a greenway is transportation and infrastructure that creates value, improves connectedness, and improves the quality of life in a city.”
Based on average cost per mile for major greenway projects in other cities, Great Rivers Greenway’s initial estimate of the cost for design and construction is $250 million.
Look, Feel, and Feasibility
Where the greenway actually goes, what it looks like, and how it will be developed will be determined over the next year with extensive community involvement. Great Rivers Greenway and the Stoss team are coordinating with a steering committee and four working groups to develop an overall framework plan for the project.
“The community groups are a mix of people who are usually at the table and people who have never had a voice before,” Trautman said. “We’ve made sure that all of the working groups have neighborhood representation.”
The groups are exploring how the greenway should look and feel, the feasibility of possible routes, how to achieve equitable outcomes, and opportunities for economic growth.
At an open house in February, Great Rivers Greenway invited the public to help shape the plan by marking places where they live, work, learn, and play on a map of the project area. Visitors have suggested sites for basketball courts, water access, public art, events, and places to enjoy nature.
The public mapping effort continues with an interactive map on the project’s website at chouteaugreenway.org. Visitors can mark historical sites and places that have been important to them for consideration in the framework plan.
Great Rivers Greenway will hold another open house event in June and will reach out to neighborhoods affected to review the framework.
“When you’re in the greenway corridor, next to people’s property, they want to know, ‘What does that mean for me? It’s in my neighborhood,’” said Trautman. “As we move closer to where those corridors are, we’ll be doing intensive community engagement in and around the neighborhoods where we may be considering constructing the greenway.”
“What’s exciting about this is that usually Great Rivers Greenway goes to the community to see if they want a project. For the Chouteau Greenway, the community came to us and said, ‘We want this.’ People are really excited.”
Author: Janice Branham is a regular contributor to Terrain Magazine