HIGHWAYS TO BOULEVARDS BLOG: Interview with Scott Ogilvie, Saint Louis

This post is a part of CNU’s new Highways to Boulevards Blog series, which features interview summaries and insights from some of the best minds at the frontline of our Highways to Boulevards Initiative.

This Spring, Scott Ogilvie, Alderman of Ward 24 in Saint Louis, spoke with CNU about ongoing efforts to replace I-70 with an urban boulevard. Read our previous Highways to Boulevards post with Paul Lecroart on the Projet Berges de Seine in Paris.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie’s political slogan says much about how he has engaged the public around highway removal: “A Responsive Voice for the 24th Ward”. A youthful presence in the community and among his fellow aldermen, Scott is committed to meeting people in their home and neighborhoods and voicing their issues with the Board of Aldermen.

He’s both a representative and reporter, embedded in City Hall.

Since being elected, he’s taken a careful, thoughtful look at development subsidies (especially for retail and sports venues). His goal? To push initiatives that would reform and improve the structure of city government and challenge some of the unwritten rules that govern the Board of Aldermen. We asked him a few questions:

1-70 in Saint Louis. Photo courtesy of WikiCommonsWhat is your vision for downtown St. Louis (and the I-70 corridor)?

The vision for a boulevard conversion of I-70 is based on successful projects in other American cities like San Francisco, New York, and Milwaukee. It was our hope to follow in the footsteps of these model projects.

When did you introduce your proposed I-70 Resolution?

In the fall of 2012 I introduced a Resolution at the Board of Aldermen calling for the conversion of the downtown portion of Interstate 70 into an at-grade boulevard. The Resolution was intended as a vehicle for promoting discussion of this transformation in the context of a large planned public and private investment in the adjacent Gateway Arch grounds and nearby areas. 

I-70 has severed the downtown business district from the Arch grounds and Mississippi River for 50 years. In the context of the aging highway infrastructure and planned investment, it seemed like the perfect time to have a thorough public conversation about the potential to transform the livability of the area by removing the highway. 

I-70 was recognized as a barrier by some forward thinkers even as it was being built in the 1960‘s. The vision for a downtown St. Louis not severed in two by I-70 is one that is shared by many St. Louis residents. The CityArchRiver Foundation, which has spearheaded the planning process for the area, held an international design competition beginning in 2009. Removing I-70 featured prominently in the public comments on the designs.

Unfortunately, CityArchRiver remained agnostic on highway removal and it was not included in the final design. A lid will cover one block of a depressed section of the highway and improve pedestrian access to the Arch Grounds. However, with the highway still in place a real transformation of the area will have to wait.

Why introduce this now?

A highway conversion project is a major investment, even if it is ultimately more cost-effective than maintaining elevated urban highways. A convergence of public and private efforts meant that a significant investment will be made in the area beginning this year. That investment could either be targeted to correct the heart of the problem - the highway - or to work around it.

Unfortunately, the later option has prevailed, and tens of millions of dollars will be spent getting people over the existing highway. The end result will fix some of the present issues but to many of us, it feels like a half measure.

Speaking of major investments, are there other projects in the works?

In 2014 another major public investment will come online - an Interstate 70 bridge north of downtown over the Mississippi River. This new bridge will make the downtown stretch of I-70 relatively unimportant to regional traffic flow, and re-enforce the idea that boulevard conversion is a reasonable endeavor. In fact, the investment in the bridge can be effectively leveraged only by removing the highway downtown, opening adjacent land to development while simultaneously improving quality of life for downtown residents, workers, and tourists.

Do you believe your proposed Resolution will eventually take effect?

The goal of the Resolution was to bring together representatives from The Missouri Dept. of Transportation, the Mayor’s Office, and downtown stakeholders and have an open discussion about the opportunities and challenges of removing the highway. Unfortunately, as a member of the Board of Aldermen without seniority, my resolution was never allowed a hearing. While the conversation didn’t happen in an open forum at City Hall, removing I-70 is still a goal for many residents of the region. My feeling is that it will ultimately happen when key leaders make it a priority.

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