Shaky Grounds: Congress may consider putting the Arch's riverfront park in private hands

The St. Louis Arch grounds may have moved a step closer to local control. On October 3, U.S. Congressman William "Lacy" Clay introduced H.R. 7252, a bill that paves the way for a private trust to take over the publicly owned and operated property.

The legislation calls for the Department of the Interior and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial Trust to enter into an operating agreement in order to plan and develop the "riverfront," defined as the area between the Old Courthouse and the river, from the Poplar Street to the Eads bridges.

The property is currently controlled and managed by the National Park Service. The control could shift to a trust run by Walter Metcalfe, a Bryan Cave attorney and Danforth Foundation board member; Peter Raven, Missouri Botanical Garden director; and Bob Archibald, Missouri History Museum president.

Clay's bill would also authorize the trust to build a new "cultural facility" on the grounds devoted to "American migration."

Clay, whose district includes the Arch grounds, introduced the legislation as Congress was considering the emergency bailout, on the last day before the election recess. In a written statement to Riverfront Times, he describes the bill as a "technical placeholder" for the 111th Congress, which begins in January.

"The potential loss of a portion of a national park, even for a worthy public purpose, is a very serious matter," Clay writes. "And it will require extensive public input and community engagement before anything happens."

Preservationists believe such an act of Congress is extremely rare. "It would be potentially damaging to the preservation of the landmark, and it creates a dangerous precedent that could really negatively affect hundreds of national landmarks throughout the national park system and beyond," says Lynn McClure, the Midwest regional director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The legislation is the latest chapter in a showdown between the park service and the Danforth Foundation, two entities that agree the riverfront needs to be upgraded, but differ vastly on how changes should be made and who should be in charge.

In August 2007, the family foundation of former U.S. Senator John Danforth released a report stating that the long-neglected riverfront could not be improved without new construction on the Arch grounds. Danforth himself spoke forcefully about seeking congressional action for local control to transform the area, if necessary.

"You cannot have this great treasure – that's the Arch — and surround it by junk," he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The highway is junk. The riverfront is now junk. The grounds of the Arch are zilch. There is nothing there."

The last blueprint created for the 91-acre site was in the 1960s; Danforth's maneuvering prompted the National Park Service in May to undertake a new plan. The agency received more than 2,000 written public comments, most of them stressing the need to better connect downtown with the riverfront.

At the same time, the Danforth Foundation has continued lobbying for support of an Arch grounds museum that would open for business by 2015 — in time for the 50th anniversary of the Gateway Arch.

The long list of civic leaders on board includes Urban League president James Buford, Convention & Visitors Commission president Kitty Ratcliffe, Civic Progress executive director Tom Irwin, St. Louis American publisher Dr. Donald Suggs, along with the mayor and the president of the board of aldermen.

On June 11, Metcalfe, Raven and Archibald incorporated the trust. Four months later, Rep. Clay introduced his legislation. "Senator Danforth and I have a good relationship," says Clay. "The bottom line is that any change in the status of the Arch has to go across my desk. That's a huge responsibility and I'm keeping an open mind."

Tom Bradley, the Arch grounds superintendent, says he cannot comment on the pending bill, but says the park service is moving forward with its own site proposal.

"We keep coming back to the fact that this is a national historic landmark, which has a high degree of protection," says Bradley. "It belongs to the American people. That's a legal fact."

The park service plans to release a draft plan for the site in December or January. The public will have 45 days to weigh in before a final plan is released next spring or summer. At that point, an international design competition could be held.

Meanwhile, Bradley says he has a line of advocates at his door. "I'm worried that people in this region may not understand how important this site is to everybody in this country," says Janine Blaeloch, director of the Seattle-based Western Lands Project, who called on Bradley last week. "It is not just a piece of St. Louis."