Take Me to the River

After centuries of neglect, St. Louis is slowly coming around to the Mississippi

Paul Gruber has become a river enthusiast, despite initially feeling little interest.
Paul Gruber has become a river enthusiast, despite initially feeling little interest. DOYLE MURPHY

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click to enlarge Munsok So has big plans for Laclede's Landing. - DOYLE MURPHY
Munsok So has big plans for Laclede's Landing.

Munsok So's fourth-floor office has one of the best views anywhere in the city.

The east-facing windows of the prolific restaurateur's building on Laclede's Landing overlook the Mississippi from high above the water, the scene framed in stunning fashion by two historic bridges. He does not even have to turn his head to see the spans of the Eads Bridge to his right and the Martin Luther King Bridge to his left.

St. Louis' riverfront has always been a bit of mystery to So. When he travels to other cities, the hottest properties are along the water, regardless of whether that water is an ocean or creek. He never understood why the same was not true here.

"It puzzles me," he says.

The Landing, with its cobblestone streets and handsome brick buildings, is one of the few riverfront neighborhoods with open views of the water. Yet it has struggled. Over the past several years, So has seen neighboring bars in the once-thriving entertainment district dry up and die. Many blamed construction on the new Gateway Arch National Park for further isolating the hard-to-reach neighborhood. But So survived and is now poised to take advantage of his perseverance.

"The Landing itself needs to move with the times," he says. "All the bars and nightclubs that went out need to be re-concepted. The Landing is not what it was ten to fifteen years ago."

click to enlarge Gently winding paths now connect the Arch grounds to Laclede's Landing -- one reason So plans to open family-oriented restaurants there. - DOYLE MURPHY
Gently winding paths now connect the Arch grounds to Laclede's Landing -- one reason So plans to open family-oriented restaurants there.

For one thing, the renovation of the Arch grounds included demolition of an eyesore of a parking garage that previously blocked the flow of foot traffic between the monument and the historic neighborhood. Gently winding paths curving along the new green space now funnel directly under the Eads onto the Landing's cobblestones. So's building at 612 North Second Street is the first structure pedestrians see upon entering the neighborhood.

"This was a dead-end zone," he says. "Now it's the front entry to the Landing."

He took advantage of the construction years to overhaul the 158-year-old former cutlery factory, focusing on a new clientele and much more river-centric concept. Instead of twenty-somethings arriving for nocturnal debauchery at bars and nightclubs, he sees a future full of families strolling over from the Arch grounds, weekend wedding parties and lunch-hungry employees from the surprising number of office workers in the historic neighborhood.

He is replacing his first-floor Drunken Fish sushi restaurant with a new fast-casual Korean spot called Kimchi Guys, due to open within weeks. A coffee shop called Miss Java will offer Belgian waffles and provide the neighborhood with a rare breakfast option — a nearly unthinkable concept when 3 a.m. bars ruled the Landing.

So's $3 million renovation calls for additional offices for lease and three new event spaces, including a 325-seat hall called VUE at the top of the five-story building. Like his office, the large event space has river views to the east, but the demolition of the parking garage has also opened a clear, southern sight line to the Arch and surrounding green space. Westward-facing windows look out on the city skyline. The newly opened space has already been booked for 40 events and weddings this year.

So sees all this as a natural evolution for the Landing and the city's riverfront as a whole. He thinks the combination of projects might finally bring St. Louis back to the Mississippi.

"Why couldn't we have a river market?" he says. "A thriving river market."

click to enlarge The Arch is now newly accessible to the rest of downtown. - DOYLE MURPHY
The Arch is now newly accessible to the rest of downtown.

The Arch itself remains a marvel. A shimmering behemoth, it catches the light so easily from all angles that it can completely change its complexion within minutes. The site it sits upon, however, was flawed from the start.

Early planners had total and disastrously misguided faith in highways to jump start downtown. As a result, a wide interstate was routed along the western edge of the new monument's grounds. The placement has allowed untold numbers of commuters to call out "there's the Arch" as they cruise past, but it severed the site from downtown foot traffic as thoroughly as if it had been a moat. The ambitious tourist could still find his way from Busch Stadium or the Old Courthouse to the legs of the Arch (and maybe even down to the Mississippi), but the hassle seldom seemed worth it for most St. Louisans.

When the opportunity arose to renovate the 53-year-old monument's home turf, one of the primary objectives was to reconnect the park to downtown. Re-imagining the site has been a $380 million endeavor, with $221 million in private funding — the biggest public-private investment in a national park in history.

On a recent tour, Gateway Arch Park Foundation Executive Director Eric Moraczewski leads the way over a new land bridge toward the mouth of the re-imagined museum.

"You had all these roads you had to cross before you could even think of getting to the park," says foundation spokesman Tom Nagel.

A new land bridge reconnects downtown to the Gateway Arch National Park grounds. - DOYLE MURPHY
A new land bridge reconnects downtown to the Gateway Arch National Park grounds.

The museum, scheduled to open in July, is state of the art. Interactive exhibits augmented by eleven-by-seventeen-foot video monitors will guide visitors through the rich history of how St. Louis shaped the country. Designers have worked to tell the story through a variety of perspectives — "The West was won" versus "The West was stolen," for example.

"It opens discussion," Moraczewski says. "It opens the thought process of how we got here and where are we going."

Visitors will descend through the underground space before re-emerging beneath the legs of the Arch. From there, they have eleven new acres of park to explore, aided by more than five miles of bike and walking trails. A bowl-shaped natural amphitheater has replaced the demolished parking garage, and the eastern edge of Pine Street provides another pedestrian walkway back into downtown.

From the eastern hillside, it is an easy walk down to the riverfront. In anticipation of the Mississippi's fluctuating water levels, which can rise and fall more than 40 feet, the park renovation raised Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard two-and-a-half feet. The move is expected to prevent about 60 percent of the flood days when the river crests the road.

Now, they just need the people. The park foundation has already begun a series of concerts and events to draw crowds as they unveil the project in phases. The main welcome-back party is set for July at Fair St. Louis, when thousands of people are expected fill the grounds. Moraczewski wants people to see it as more than a tourist attraction.

"It's still a beautiful park," Moraczewski says. "We want it to be used like Forest Park or Tower Grove."

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