Take five: Maggie Hales says new Arch vision on course for 2015
In her office on an upper floor at One Metropolitan Square, Maggie Hales works amid two very different views of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and what surrounds it.
Through the window, she gets a bird’s eye view of algae on the ponds, expanding patches of dry brown grass and folks sprinting through busy lanes of traffic to get to the Gateway Arch and park beneath it. Beyond that, she says, “I also see a riverfront that is quiet with little activity and only a few visitors.”
But as the new -- and first -- executive director of the CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation, the nonprofit group pushing to change all that, she works daily with dramatically different views. They’re on the drawing boards and part of a $553 million plan to improve and invigorate the Arch grounds, connect the 91-acre park to downtown, and enliven both the Missouri and Illinois sides of the river.
Despite the continuing sagging economy, Hales said that the massive undertaking is still on course to be largely completed, at least on the Missouri side, by 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping out of the Arch. The Missouri part is estimated to cost $370 million.
So far, more than $85 million has been raised or committed for the project. The largest chunk -- $57 million for the park over the highway and related improvements – consists of $22 million in federal money, $25 million from the Missouri Department of Transportation and $10 million in private money raised by CityArchRiver. In addition, the Great Rivers Greenway District has already committed $15 million to expand its bike trail along Sullivan Boulevard and raise Sullivan so it can stay open longer when floods come. CityArchRiver also raised $2 million for a design competition for the plan, and more than $10 million to pay for on-going design and engineering work.
Construction will begin in fall 2013 on the first major piece -– the already funded, $57 million park over the highway with related landscaping and downtown street improvements, she said. Improvements to the park grounds, the expansion of the museum beneath the Arch, Kiener Plaza and other major elements will come later.
“Our goal” she said, “is to finish all the Missouri components by October 2015.”
The improvements on the Illinois side, along with a gondola-like overhead tramway to carry visitors across the river, won’t be in place until after 2015, she said, “given funding, property ownership” and other issues that need to be resolved first.
Hales, 57, began work at the foundation May 1. Her main task: manage, coordinate and push forward various pieces of the project involving the National Park Service, St. Louis, MoDOT, Great Rivers Greenway and other agencies on both sides of the river.
It wasn’t exactly the kind of job the Kirkwood native envisioned for herself after obtaining a law degree at St. Louis University and starting her career as a legal counsel at May Department Stores Co.
But that vision began to change after she left May to practice law from home in University City while raising two daughters. One day in 2003, she said, a neighbor working on a regional homeland security organization stopped by and asked if she would draft legal paperwork for incorporating the group. She agreed and in the process got the East-West Gateway Council of Governments involved as the new corporation’s recipient for federal money.
The next year, funding came through and Hales accepted a job at East-West Gateway as deputy director of the St. Louis Area Regional Response System. In 2006, she became East-West Gateway’s deputy executive director, a mostly managerial job she held until she moved to CityArchRiver, joining four other full-time staff members.
And now that she’s there?
“I’m excited in the morning when I get up and go to work and glad to be here to help push things forward.
“I work long hours. I think about the work on weekends. Everyone here does. We are all passionate about it,” she said.
The interview with Hales has been edited for length and clarity.
Why did you go for the job at CityArchRiver?
Hales: I got a call from a head hunter about it. I started to think about it, look at it more closely. I started reading more about it, listening to folks working on it, and the more I learned about it, the more excited I got.
To me, it is one specific, defined project with a beginning and an end. I loved my job at East-West Gateway, but we worked on so many projects. I saw this as an opportunity to focus on one and finish it.
I’m a native St. Louisan. I remember when the Arch was topped and I am very excited about downtown and the Arch grounds in particular. In some ways, I feel like I have arrived back home. I feel great pride in helping St. Louis create a legacy like this.
What are your priorities as executive director?
Hales: One is engaging and informing the public about what we are doing, and I see real potential in getting arts organizations and writers involved to help us tell the story as we go along.
We want people to participate to give us feedback about programing and other ideas, and we want to include a broad group of people. They can participate on our new website, on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. We just hired a community engagement coordinator, and we have a list of speakers going out to talk about the project.
My priorities, in summary, are to engage and inform the public, and finish all the Missouri components by 2015 with a high-quality project that is safe and accessible and welcoming to everyone.
What major components on the Missouri side do you expect to finish by 2015?
Hales: Our goal is to have the MoDOT piece finished by 2014. That includes the park over the highway, new landscaping for Luther Ely Smith Square, downtown street improvements and improvements to the Interstate Highway 70 corridor.
Our goal for October, 2015 , includes:
- An expanded museum at the Arch with new exhibits and a new western entrance
- A renovated Old Courthouse with new exhibits
- A new North Gateway area with an explorers garden, an events lawn and other features alongside the Eads Bridge
- New landscaping on the park grounds and landscaping and tree plantings along some downtown streets.
- New walkways on the park grounds to the pond area and along the eastern slope to Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard.
- New landscaping and amenities in Kiener Plaza
What’s the status of the garage on the Arch grounds? Will it be demolished? Will local cultural institutions bring programs and activities to the riverfront as institutions in Chicago have done in Millenium Park?
Hales: A study is being completed to determine if any new parking will be needed if the garage is removed and where that parking might be located.
There is an abundance of parking downtown so we believe some of that will be in existing underused parking within a five-minute walk of the new museum entrance. It’s now about a five-minute walk from the north garage to the north leg of the Arch.
Our goal is to remove the garage and replace it with a garden and walkways to give better views of the Eads Bridge and connections to Washington Avenue, Laclede’s Landing and the river. This will enable people to see into Laclede’s Landing and see from Laclede’s Landing into the park.
We have had some preliminary discussions already with cultural institutions. We think the cultural institutions should be a part of this. They will help make it a fun place to visit and revisit and we can showcase them.
How important is a proposed sales tax increase that would generate a $120 million bond issue for the Arch and other parks through the Great Rivers Greenway District regional parks agency?
Hales: Regarding the potential sales tax initiative, we support it, and we are confident that voters will agree and will continue to support our regional and local parks, and this project. If not, however, the balance of the project will still go forward.
While this local funding is important, it is one piece of a larger funding plan, which includes federal and state funds and a substantial private fundraising goal of more than $200 million. Remember, a large segment of the project is already funded. The first phase, including the new park over the highway, improvements to the Luther Ely Smith Square park and surrounding street improvements are funded and will be under construction in the fall of 2013.