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David Linzee

Could The Trestle Spark Needed Urban Renewal In St. Louis?

March 08, 2017
Yesterday I went to the near North Side in search of something. I drove past beautiful, collapsing old townhouses, derelict schools, parking lots, industrial buildings, new residential developments, churches alive and dead. After an unexpected trip to Illinois when I blundered onto a road leading to the beautiful Stan Musial bridge, I returned and found what I was looking for.

On a lot that had been vacant so long a grove of tall trees had grown on it, I spotted a trail through the woods. Leaving the car, I walked up it until a bright green bridge came into view crossing I-70. It bore the name of Great Rivers Greenway, and the words The Trestle: Our Proposed High Line, the subject of this column.

All this driving around had not been necessary. The affable and enthusiastic folks at Great Rivers would have been happy to tell me about their plans for The Trestle. But I hadn't wanted to go to them.

In my years as a working journalist and PR man, I spent a lot of time with urban renewers, hearing about their visions for the city. They never found it hard to infect me with their enthusiasm. I wrote glowing accounts of their plans to bring life back to our battered city. Years have passed. Some of those plans have become realities. Most haven't.

So for this piece, I wasn't going to get carried away by anyone's enthusiasm, even my own. I planned to eyeball the site, read the plan and coolly consider its feasibility.

Great Rivers hopes to turn an old elevated railroad into a walking/jogging/biking trail with gardens and concert space at a cost of $60 million. The project is on hold, awaiting the surge of optimism and funding that is expected to come to the North Side when the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency moves there.

El train tracks converted to walkways are very fashionable now. I love them. They put the urban stroller above car traffic and offer improved views of the cityscape.

The first one was the Promenade Plantée in Paris, opened in 1993. It's a three-mile long walkway lined with gardens of every type and looks out over boulevards, parks, fountains and statues. The view of the city's famous roofline with its cupolas, dormers and chimneys is especially charming. Of course, this is the city the whole world loves. Nothing remotely similar is conceivable in St. Louis.

Closer to home, there's the High Line on the lower west side of Manhattan. This is the model cited by Green Rivers, and it's a stirring story for urban renewers. When I lived near New York in the '80s, I often passed under the elevated track, black and spindly and overgrown with weeds, a sad piece of urban detritus, manifestly still there only because it was too expensive to tear down.

Then a couple of neighborhood residents got a vision. They caught the interest of celebrity billionaires who made donations or even moved their businesses to the area. Finally, the city put up some money, and in 2006 the High Line opened. It was an immediate success. It didn't just attract people to the area – it remade the neighborhood. In 2009, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that 30 construction projects were in the planning or building stage along it.

Last time I visited, the High Line was packed with people, mostly tourists like me, strolling, shopping, admiring the gardens and views, waiting their turn to lie down on a small lawn. What a scene! The urban paradise. Why can't we have that here?

Well, because St. Louisans have their own lawns at home. Because tourists are rather thin on the ground here, as are celebrity billionaires. The Trestle is unlikely to become another High Line.

Let's move even closer to home. Chicago has recently opened The 606, its own converted el track. At this stage, it lacks the pizzazz of its older siblings. Gardens are modest, views are only of the houses and small apartment buildings of a typical neighborhood. I was there on a brisk and sunny Sunday morning. No strollers or tourists, but there were quite a few joggers and cyclists.

Could The Trestle work like The 606 as an urban fitness track? Again, not likely. The 606 runs through dense, well-populated neighborhoods, and The Trestle doesn't.

What does seem feasible? The Trestle could be modeled on something in St. Louis and quite nearby: the Riverfront Bike Trail. I've never seen that trail crowded, but there were some cyclists on it. Great Rivers would like to connect the trails at the Chain of Rocks Bridge. That would be nice, but worth the $60 million cost? I don't think so.

It pains me to say this. I'm a native. But I have to remember that when I was born, St. Louis was the eighth-largest city in the country. It's now 58th. We have to accept that there are wonderful urban amenities we just can't afford.

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