Built St. Louis > > Vanished Buildings || Historic Downtown > > The Century Building

The Century Building, seen as a critical piece of a row of fine and historic structures.

With some relatively simple alterations, the broad sidewalks on the south side of the Old Post Office could fill many of the roles envisioned for the "urban plaza", without removing valuable land from productive use.

A view across one corner of the future plaza site -- a void that downtown St. Louis does not need.

The Case Against An Urban Plaza

As of this writing (May 2003), the architecturally and historically significant Century Building is slated to be demolished. A parking garage will rise in its place. The garage's purpose is to provide parking for the landmark Old Post Office, directly east of the Century, when Webster University moves in. Meanwhile, a larger lot to the north of the Old Post Office currently stands vacant. Yet, the garage will not be built on this obvious and far more inviting site. The vacant lot will instead become an "urban plaza", in the name of providing new residents of downtown with a park and green space.

It is a terrible, tragic mistake to believe that downtown St. Louis is in need of green space.

Of all possible uses of a vacant lot at the city's core, any form of "open space" -- a park, a plaza -- is the most wasteful, and the least likely to contribute to the city's future growth, development, diversity, vitality, and attractiveness. Green, open space is absolutely the last thing that downtown St. Louis needs.

Parks do not drive city neighborhoods. This is a simple and demonstrable fact, true when urban thinker Jane Jacobs first brought it to light in 1961 and equally true today. A well-functioning urban park serves a neighborhood that is already thriving. Placed within a neighborhood that does not have a vital, bustling street life, such a park will serve as nothing more than a vacuum. It will become an unloved void, used only as a stopover for transients and the homeless; it will take land that could be used for productive homes and businesses and permanently remove it from use.

One need only walk a few blocks south of the Old Post Office to witness this fact in action. There, the vast green space of the Gateway Mall stands largely unused, a detriment to everything around it, providing a lovely view of the Old Court House but nothing that enhances the life or economy of the city in any meaningful sense. The mall is a chasm that cuts downtown in half, severing the southern blocks from the bulk of the business district. These blocks must struggle to generate enough activity to fill the void they stand next to. They inevitably fail; it is simply an impossible proposition. The "park space" is unnervingly empty, suggesting that future downtown residents already have more than enough open space to use should they so desire.

The Gateway Mall was conceived at a time when the dynamics of urban life and vitality were poorly understood. Such a claim cannot be made today. Urban thinkers now know that density, combined with diversity of uses, scales, and activities, is the key element to filling an urban space with life. "Uses" means buildings, homes and businesses, and the activities that they generate. A park, though it may look nice, is not an inherent generator of activity. At its best, an urban park can function as a pressure valve, a place where one may escape the bustle of a crowded, active city -- yet the best urban parks are those which are constantly filled with people, where one sees a wide variety of everyday citizens going about their business. To achieve this activity, however, requires density -- and downtown St. Louis is nowhere close to the level of density required.

The city is inherently man-made and artificial, and yet when properly nurtured, it has an organic life of its own. Its allure does not come from anything "natural", but rather from the energy and excitement generated by the gathering of many diverse people and activities into a single place. No city resident moves downtown in search of open space or parkland; they move to be close to work, close to cultural activities, to escape from a car-centered lifestyle, and to partake in the vibrant, exciting atmosphere that comes from being at the core of a major city. It is a mistake to offer amenities that are antithetical to the very reason one moves downtown in the first place.

Build up the city, increase its density, make wise re-use of its historic buildings, fill in the voids left by years of demolition with productive use, and the city will grow and thrive in the urbanistic as well as economic sense. Leave the voids, obliterate what remains of the city's history, squander the precious development opportunities in the misguided pursuit of "open space", and downtown St. Louis will never rise above the level of "mostly dead".

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