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From Design to Construction: The Making of Citygarden in St. Louis

Blogging about the 2010 American Society of Landscape Architects Annual Meeting and Expo, September 10-13, held at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C.

“We never thought we’d get the job,” admitted Warren T. Byrd, Jr., a principal of Nelson Byrd Woltz Landscape Architects (NBWLA). “We were concerned by our lack of experience with sculptural gardens.” 

But after being narrowed down to seven finalists, and rescheduling their interview due to a crippling snow storm, the Virginia firm managed to fly to St. Louis, meet with the panel of judges and win the bid. 

Their challenge: develop a three-acre “urban oasis that is a hybrid between a sculpture garden, a botanic garden and a city park” on two of the 15-block Gateway Mall. Located between Eighth, Tenth, Market and Chestnut Streets and within walking distance of the Gateway Arch, the site was once dotted with buildings. These buildings were torn down 20-30 years ago and the site was vacant. After studying wind direction, sunlight, pedestrian access, and topography, NBWLA decided to draw on local and regional hydrology and geology, particularly the presence of the Mississippi River, and incorporate all these elements into their final design. 

Big White Gloves, Big Four Wheels. Credit: Gewel Maker (Flickr Feed)

The tricky part was incorporating the 23 sculptures already purchased by the Gateway Foundation as a gift to the city. The sculptures had to be open and accessible; there were not to be any “Do Not Touch” signs. 

The land is owned by the city of St. Louis; the non-profit Gateway Foundation owns the sculptures and provided the funding for the design and construction. 

Some highlights of the final design include a green/grey black granite meander wall, stones with multiple finishes, pavement that can withstand lots of water at a less than 5% grade, ramps imbedded into stairs, a giant TV displaying “video art,” a 2,000 square-foot café that seats 80 people inside and out, and the fountains. 

Split Basin. Credit: Gewel Maker (Flickr Feed)

Three fountains were incorporated into the park: the entry basin, 34 feet in diameter with a thin sheet of water sliding off the Eros Benato sculpture; the split basin – named for a waterfall that “breaks” the basin into two parts – 190 feet long, 20 feet wide and 16 inches deep (the upper part turns into a reflecting pool and became such a popular swimming hole for youngsters that lifeguards were hired); and the spray basin, with 104 jets – the most spray jets in any active fountain in the country – that is choreographed to 10 different musical selections, running three-fourths of the year. Nearby are plenty of seats for parents wishing to stay dry. 

The horticultural elements incorporate almost 80 percent native plants and 32 large trees. The trees line an urban promenade along Market Street and mark the old property and foundation boundaries. 

The final price tag for the project came to just under $30 million and took about 28 months to complete, from design and construction phase to opening day. The project incorporated sustainability strategies into the design, with green roofs for the café and maintenance building, rain gardens (internally imbedded and on street level), LED lights for security and safety, and porous/pervious pavement. 

Citygarden will be permanently endowed and long-term maintenance plans are in the works. St. Louis’ newest park has been a big success and truly transformed the downtown. For more information about Citygarden, go here.

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