Link Me to St. Louis!

May 8, 2019, Feature, by Vitisia Paynich

2019 May Feature Link Me to StLouis 410

Chouteau Greenway project launches community engagement strategy that emphasizes equitable economic development among neighborhoods.

Thanks to Hollywood, the beloved 1944 musical, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” starring Judy Garland will be forever linked to Missouri’s renowned destination. However, the real-life St. Louis paints a much different picture from its silver-screen version. While it’s a unique city that offers bountiful arts and culture, science and technology, and postcard-worthy parks and trails, it is plagued by decades of racial division and socioeconomic inequality. Yet, despite these disparities, St. Louis’ strength resides in its strong civic pride and the determination among its citizens to envision a better future — one that requires tearing down old barriers, connecting communities and putting health equity at the forefront.

For the Great Rivers Greenway organization, the way to achieve that is by partnering with residents, city officials and the business community to unite neighborhoods and people in the region through the development of more greenways, including Chouteau Greenway.

Following is a partial overview of the planned project along with Great Rivers Greenway’s initial public relations strategy and community outreach efforts. Parks & Recreation magazine will chronicle the Chouteau Greenway project’s progress through a series of articles featured in upcoming issues.

What Is Great Rivers Greenway?
In November 2000, St. Louis constituents voted for a sales tax to generate revenue specifically for the preservation and development of the city’s most cherished resources — rivers and parks. Subsequently, the passage of the Clean Water, Safe Parks and Community Trails Initiative, named Proposition C, created the public agency, Great Rivers Greenway. Today, the agency serves 2 million people across a 1,200-square-mile district comprising St. Louis City, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. Its core mission is “to make the St. Louis region a more vibrant place to live, work and play by developing a network of greenways.” What’s more, the organization collaborates with municipalities, public agencies, businesses and nonprofits throughout the area to advance its efforts.

Forty-five greenways encompass the overall “River Ring” plan, totaling 600 miles. To date, the agency has constructed 125 miles of greenways and is actively developing 16 of 45 planned greenways. Among Great Rivers Greenway’s most high-profile projects is the CityArchRiver project, for which voters approved a sales tax, in 2013, to help fund a transformation project leading from downtown St. Louis to the Gateway Arch to the Mississippi River.

Chouteau Greenway Project
The initial plan for the Chouteau Greenway project dates back to the 1990s, with a proposal to connect 1,300-acre Forest Park with 91-acre Gateway Arch National Park. However, the plan never came to fruition. During the late 1990s to 2000s, Forest Park underwent an initial $100 million renovation project, and in 2018, the nonprofit conservancy Forever Forest Park raised $30 million for urgently needed improvements to the park, as well as a $100 million endowment for maintenance. During the summer of 2018, Great Rivers Greenway completed a five-year renovation project, totaling $380 million, on Gateway Arch National Park.

With the two parks updated, their lack of accessibility had to be addressed. “The idea of connecting them was important,” says Susan Trautman, CEO of Great Rivers Greenway. That’s because Forest Park is located in the central corridor that includes the Cortex innovation district, a hub for bioscience and technology research. The corridor also serves as home to Saint Louis University, Washington University and University of Missouri - St. Louis. Thus, Trautman and Great Rivers Greenway focused on adding a transit stop in the district. The team was also adamant about adding a bike and pedestrian path, linking Forest Park to Saint Louis University and the Grand Center Arts District.

The agency received a TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grant for an early phase of Chouteau Greenway, which was a trail and transit stop covering two blocks. “It’s heavily used, but it’s not [fully] connected,” Trautman says.

Meanwhile, in late 2015, the Lawrence Group paid $6 million for the former Federal-Mogul Foundry located near Saint Louis University and east of the Cortex and, in 2016, announced plans for the first phase of an overall $340 million project to convert the site into commercial offices, residential housing and garage parking.

During that same period, Trautman recalls, “Forest Park Forever started talking about the importance of connectivity over Kings Highway, which is the north-south corridor. So, we brought everybody together in the spring of 2017 and said, ‘You are all talking about the same thing. Do you want to work together?’” With a resounding yes from the group, the Chouteau Greenway project was borne.
In its official report, Great Rivers Greenway describes the project as follows:

Chouteau Greenway is a major public-private partnership to connect Washington University and Forest Park through our city to downtown and the Gateway Arch National Park, with spurs north and south to connect our city’s vibrant neighborhoods, parks, business and arts districts, employment centers, transit hubs, and dozens of cultural and educational institutions. The project is part of the overall network of greenways being built by Great Rivers Greenway and partners.

International Design Competition
In August 2017, Great Rivers Greenway and 10 sponsors launched an international design competition to select the conceptual plan for the Chouteau Greenway project. “At the same time in our community, we were dealing with a lot of issues related to racial segregation,” notes Trautman. She adds that many community members were coming forward to voice their concerns about not only the disparity in the region, but also about “the way that African-Americans, in particular, had been treated.” Thus, Great Rivers Greenway and its partners knew equitable economic development had to be a fundamental piece of the greenway plan.

The first tier of the competition garnered 19 team qualifications submissions in November 2017. A total of 124 firms representing seven countries and 13 U.S. states comprised the team submissions, with 44 of the firms being local to the St. Louis area.

Trautman adds that there was “a heavy artist presence, which was really good because these artists had been working for a long time in the African-American community and had a good pulse on the neighborhood.”

The Design Competition jury selected four of the 19 teams to advance to the next tier.

Community Engagement
With the design competition in full swing, Great Rivers Greenway began the community engagement process in September 2017, to identify the wants and needs of residents. The agency’s overall process includes six key strategies:

  • Know the community
  • Set expectations with the project team
  • Cultivate local advisers and champions
  • Engage at all levels, matching outreach to impact
  • Establish enduring relationships
  • Evaluate success

“There’s a couple of layers to our overall engagement strategy,” notes Emma Klues, Great Rivers Greenway’s vice president, communications and outreach. “One is we created a Community Advisory Committee.” The communications team sent out an open call for community members to assist with the design competition. Klues recalls they had 205 people apply and then whittled that number down to 40.

This select group of people — representing the geographic makeup of the community — helped to create 12 Design Goals and 12 Community Goals, which defined the elements that the greenway must embody in its conception and execution. These goals not only provided a guideline for the competing design teams, but also served as the criteria for the jury to evaluate the submitted design concepts.

“We first started with that community-centric group of people, and that was one way for us to have them give their feedback [as well as] to help process the feedback from the larger community,” she says. The Community Advisory Committee eventually morphed into a Steering Committee and four Working Groups.

The next layer of engagement required a broader outreach to all the different neighborhoods that would be affected by the Chouteau Greenway. Klues says that when it comes to overall community engagement, “think about all the different audiences that the project will impact and then match the level of outreach to the level of impact.”

The team took a multichannel approach, including digital outreach, neighborhood meetings, a listening tour, popup events and mailings. What’s more, 2,062 people participated in a survey via online or in person.

“We had a field team that was out at transit stops, grocery stores, popup events, as well as other organizations’ festivals and community events to gather feedback from people,” Klues says. She stresses that the survey questions were quite general, such as: What are some of your favorite public spaces and why? What makes you feel safe or welcomed in a public space? What are the types of places in this area that you go to on a daily basis?

Although many of the questions were general in nature, she notes the residents’ answers were “very helpful in guiding the core teams during the competition and also provided a basis for us going forward.”

She adds that transparency was vital from the start. Thus, you need to design your outreach process in a way that allows your team to capture meaningful feedback, so you can report back to the larger community about what you heard, what ideas will be incorporated into the plan, and what ideas could not be incorporated and why. Furthermore, says Klues, you’re being very transparent with community members by sharing all the feedback, so they can understand how decisions were made. Her team follows the International Association of Public Participation’s (IAP2) “Spectrum of Public Participation” as a guideline.

Design Firm Selected
By April 2018, the next phase of the design competition required the four teams to submit exhibit boards and full design reports. Community members gave feedback on the four design proposals online, through exhibits displayed in libraries and community centers around town, by attending the presentations from the teams to the jury or by watching the live stream.

In May 2018, the jury selected the Stoss Landscape Urbanism team to design the Chouteau Greenway.

Trautman says that Stoss’ design, titled “The Loop + The Stitch,” won the competition “because they really thought deeply about how to connect the community and not only connecting Forest Park to Great Arch National Park, but to two other regional parks in the city: Tower Grove Park to the south and Fairground Park to the north.” Thus, The Loop + The Stitch connects all four parks and the neighborhoods in between, while offering ample recreational space and flexibility to cyclists and pedestrians utilizing the trail.

Once the design competition concluded, project planning shifted into high gear. Great Rivers Greenway and the Stoss Landscape Urbanism team collaborated with stakeholders and partners to make enhancements to the vision plan for Chouteau Greenway. What’s more, the team gathered more input during stakeholder focus groups, three Design Oversight Committee workshops, planning discussions around civic engagement, as well as a meeting of the Artists of Color Council regarding the greenway’s art program.

These meetings also have included discussions around equity and economic growth and the important role both will play in developing Chouteau Greenway. In addition, the groups pinpointed several current projects in the city that potentially could be integrated into the planning process moving forward.

An Open House
On February 5, 2019, nearly 300 community members attended the Open House hosted by Great Rivers Greenway and its partners to provide an orientation about the greenway project, introduce members of the Steering Committee and Working Groups and share ideas. “We had 25 different partners available to give presentations,” notes Klues. “We had an interactive digital map [of Chouteau Greenway] available and then we had analog versions.”

However, it’s what the Great Rivers Greenway team gleaned from the plethora of input from the community that made the event worthwhile. For example, “people would like for the greenway to help you discover St. Louis, feel more connected to it and get to know it. So, as you leave the greenway, even if you’re just on for a block or two, you’ll feel a sense of place and a sense of the culture here,” Klues explains. Some, she adds, said they value the connections into the neighborhoods but aired their concerns about past development projects that ultimately displaced many neighborhoods — such as those that were once located in the central corridor.

“St. Louis has a history of fragmentation and segregation, and so there was a little bit of wariness about whether we would be able to pull this off; however, not as the Great Rivers Greenway, but just as a region in general,” says Klues. But, she says, people also expressed “optimism and support for the project, recognizing all of the benefits that it could bring to the community.”

What’s Next?
Before the design and engineering process can begin on specific parts of the Chouteau Greenway, the Framework Plan must be developed. The plan will address four topics: Alignment (of the greenway), Design & Identity (look and feel of the greenway), Economic Growth and Equity.

“We need about $12 million: we’ve raised about $9 million so far in private donations just for this Framework Plan effort. Overall, we anticipate that the project will be over $250 million, and we will have to launch a major fundraising campaign to help pay for it, as well as look for federal grant opportunities,” says Trautman. She estimates the Framework Plan will be completed by the end of July.

For now, Great Rivers Greenway will continue the community engagement process by cultivating robust dialogue among its partners, city officials, business owners and community stakeholders to ensure they remain steadfast in their shared goal: building a unified St. Louis.

Vitisia Paynich is a Southern California-based Freelance Writer for Parks & Recreation magazine.