By Bruce Olson
ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - An ambitious proposal was unveiled on Wednesday that would send a swinging aerial gondola across the Mississippi River as part of a $500 million plan to revive and revamp the park surrounding the Gateway Arch, the tallest man-made monument in the United States.
The plan, developed by a Brooklyn, New York-design firm, also includes an expansion of the Arch museum, a new amphitheater, a bird sanctuary, and pedestrian and bicycle connections between the soaring silver structure and downtown St. Louis.
The design was presented by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, winners of an international contest aimed at helping downtown St. Louis attract more tourists and local residents to the area, which has been developed piecemeal since the Arch was completed in 1965.
Designed by famed architect Eero Saarinen, the Arch commemorates the opening of the West and is 630 feet tall. It has been considered a gem of American architecture by many since it was competed.
But "while the Arch is perfect, the grounds aren't as good as the Arch," award-winning landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh told a crowd of about 300 people at the unveiling of the plan.
Critics point to the isolation of the 91-acre park, its empty paths, its proximity to the poverty of north St. Louis. Van Valkenburgh said this would be mitigated by a series of bridges and a grassy lid over Interstate 70 that would lure visitors across it and into the park.
The plan also includes a carousel, a beer garden, restaurants, a fountain, and handicapped accessible ramps that would lead from the downtown through the park and down to the edge of the Mississippi. It includes a proposed 50,000 square foot museum expansion with a futuristic entrance.
The planners also proposed a 60-acre expansion of the area directly east across the Mississippi in Illinois. The aerial gondola would connect one side with the other by a mile-long ride that would take about 10 minutes.
Van Valenkenburg said some of the cars could be glass bottomed, allowing the viewers to "embrace the power of the river. It would be a fantastic ride."
No specifics were presented for how the money would be raised, but Walter Metcalf, an official of the foundation planning the project, said the cost would be $578.5 million. He said funding was in the "early stage" but would use federal, state and local money as well as donations from private individuals.
The foundation, CityArchRiver2015, wants the work finished by October 28, 2015, the 50th anniversary of the topping of the Arch, an event cheered by thousands of St. Louisans.
(Editing by Jerry Norton)