Gondola Transit in St. Louis?

Post by Steven Dale

St. Louis' Gateway Arch, Image by flickr user Pedro Szekely.

(Voluntary Disclosure: Managers and Consultants associated with St. Louis’ CityArchRiver2015 interviewed me last month to assist them in understanding cable propelled and urban gondola transit. I received no compensation for this interview and the opinions expressed below are my own.)

The Jefferson National Expansion Memorial (also known as the St. Louis Gateway Arch) is easily identifiable as one of America’s most enduring monuments and national symbols. Yet despite being one of the world’s most visited attractions, the grounds on which it has sat for the last 50 years have grown tired, isolated and unused.

In response to this problem, the not-for-profit group CityArchRiver2015 launched a design competition last year. The winning group was Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of Brooklyn, NY and final designs were unveiled at the Ferrara Theatre at 6pm on Wednesday.

Organizers look to complete the project by October 2015, the 50th annivesary of the 630 foot-tall arch’s completion.

Among the highlights? Why, a gondola, of course.

The one mile-long system is meant to ferry riders from the Arch Monument grounds on the west side of the Mississippi and across the river to the Gateway Geyser, the world’s second tallest fountain. An intermediary turning station is planned for east side grounds.

Currently, no information is available about whether or not the turning station will allow riders to board and alight.

Curiously, the gondola was a feature not of MVVA’s original design. Instead, it was a concept developed by German team, Behnisch Architekten – a team that was not the actual winner.

A rendering of the original Behnisch gondola plan. While Behnish Architekten didn't win the competition, the concept was merged into the winning team's plan.

See, the competition allowed for ideas from losing teams to be incorporated into  the final plans crafted by the winning team. In this case, the MVVA master plan (which was the winner of last year’s competition) took the Behnisch gondola concept and blended it into their final designs.

It’s a strange concept.

You win a contest based upon your own ideas but are then allowed to borrow the best ideas from the other losing teams. As the media attention around the plan has elevated (sorry) the gondola component to focal point status, one can only assume the Behnisch team feels somewhat left out in the cold.

Nevertheless, the gondola component is not without controversy.

It seems that many competition jurors balked at the gondola component, worrying that it could “trivialize the project, making it like a theme park rather than part of a stately memorial.” Given that the gondola really serves little transit-related purposes and is unlikely to draw tourists to the site, it’s a hard point to argue against.

At the same time, the actual route alignment and system height are unlikely to interfere with views of the Arch.

The Planned Gondola Route.

While some may question the aesthetics of the concept, others think the gondola is a bold idea and may actually be a revenue generator, suggesting that it could be one of the few elements added to the park that “costs nothing.”

That revenue, however, will come purely from the tourist, not the locals. As Alex Ihnen of UrbanSTL rightly notes “no one out on a run and wishing to do a loop to (East St. Louis) would run to the gondola . . . maybe once, but not as a routine act.”

In other words, this is pure Toy For Tourists.

Regular readers of The Gondola Project will know that I tend to bristle with contempt when it comes to urban gondolas in urban environments that cater solely to tourists. It’s not that I have a problem with tourist-oriented urban gondolas, it just that they rarely ever work. Toys For Tourists are almost always doomed from conception with few exceptions. Many are proposed but almost none are ever built. And when they are actually built, they fail.

The most high-profile of these failures was the Mississippi Aerial River Tram, a system serving a very similar function to the St. Louis concept except the MART didn’t have a popular tourist attraction to piggy-back off of. Instead of serving a fixed and permanent attraction, the MART was built for the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition. Once the Expo closed, ridership on the MART plummeted and the system was closed in 1985.

That’s a key distinction.

Given the spectacular failure of the MART, some might take it as a pretty bad omen to attempt to build a second Mississippi River gondola crossing. But they’d be wrong. It’s important to recognize the difference in fundamentals here. The Gateway Arch already receives millions of visitors per year. And those visitors are unlikely to disappear in the near future.

The MART meanwhile, served only to connect parts of an Expo that was to last for only one year in parts of New Orleans that no one visits. Once the Expo closed, the MART was left to fend for itself. It became an attraction into of itself. No urban gondola in North America can survive such a situation.

Whether the St. Louis gondola is a good idea or not is not for me to decide. But the fact that it’s a supplement to a larger attraction – not the only show in town – suggests to me it’s likely to be a success for years to come.

Assuming it’s ever built.

After all, the entire project is expected to cost over $500 million USD – and no money has been committed to it yet. Where these funds are coming from in this economy is anybody’s guess. As the gondola itself seems to be a last-minute addition, it could even be a red herring; a strategic move to realize the rest of the project.

If agencies, funders and government hesitate at the massive project cost, costly elements (such as the gondola) could easily be eliminated thereby driving down project costs in an attempt to appear to be making concessions and compromises.

This is similar to what real estate developers do. Developers routinely ask cities to build more than they actually want knowing that when their request is rejected by city council, a reduced request is likely to be accepted by a council seeking to appear conciliatory.

Could this be the case here? Possibly. After all, the original jurors didn’t like the gondola concept in the first place.

Meanwhile, the only renderings of the gondolas (like the one above) which are available are those of the losing team, Behnisch. Final designs submitted by MVVA contain only route alignment images, not fully realized gondola images. One should reasonably expect that such a high-profile component would come with visuals. As you can see from the image below, the gondola designs would be easy to create and even easier to eliminate at a moment’s notice. Nothing more than yellow lines on a pre-existing plan:

Submitted final designs include no renderings, just a gondola route image by design competition winner, MVVA.

More flushed out images may exist, but I’ve yet to see them.

And note what Tom Bradley, Superintendent of the Jefferson Expansion Memorial has to say about the gondola component (italics mine): “This is a concept that if this has legs that could be pretty exciting. I think it’s realistic. Ambitious but very realistic.”

Hardly a strong endorsement and commitment.

I’m honestly hopeful for this project. Despite my typical reservations regarding Toys for Tourists, I do think it’s a strong supplement to an exciting redevelopment project. I only hope the gondola component hasn’t been included ex post facto as a strategic bargaining chip leveraged in order realize the wider scheme.

I guess we’ll wait and see. 2015 is coming quickly.

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  1. I think the gondola idea is pretty cool, especially if it allows visitors to get off at the East Side park where the geyser and viewing platform is located. I'm a local by the way, and we here in St. Louis never visit the Arch except when we're kids on a field trip or we're entertaining out of towners. Most people don't even know about the viewing platform (it's still pretty new) and people on this side of the river don't like the idea of driving to East St. Louis just to look at our Arch. We know what it looks like, it's all over the place. BUT, if you're on that field trip, or you're taking your kids to see the Arch...or you're a tourist, then YES a gondola ride to the viewing platform would be great. You can leave your car where it is and not worry about getting lost on the East Side.
  2. the aerial gondola route looks a bit removed. maybe in this case the design should call for Venetian gondolas to go right from the arch to the fountain! or motor boats. c'mon america!
  3. A little over the edge by Behnisch Architects. London is somewhere else.
  4. Maybe I should explain a little: lately I watched a lot of competitions with gondolas inside passing by. Interesting... but also always using the simple MDG form... makes me sort of thinking... Seriously... nobody knows better - if cable industry wants to be taken serious they need to install a great system somewhere with great attitude towards the greater goods. A focus.
  5. Whenever a politician says "Ambitious", what he really means is "Won't happen."
  6. @ Erik, "Whenever a politician says "ambitious", what he really means is "won't happen."" I think we need to create a new law along those lines. Ambitious = Never
  7. @ Denise, As I said, I think because it's a supplement to an already well-touristed site, it's likely to succeed. I just question whether it will actually happen or not. Welcome to the conversation!
  8. FYI on a proposal for Lake Tahoe: https://docs.google.com/fileview?id=0B07oidP0JFDXYTVhMTQ0Y2YtNjVmNi00MmIxLWE5ZGYtNmJhZjA0MDQ1YjAy&hl=en From this website: http://www.tahoetram.com/about-us
  9. Looks like India has a number of potential projects: http://www.tradereader.com/Tenders/Rope-Way Here's a sample RFP: http://2.imimg.com/data2/RP/NR/HTT-848/848_2010-11-10_19.jpg
  10. @ Sam, Thanks! We're hearing a fair bit coming out of India, but gathering data on what's going on there is rather difficult. It's a big county without the degree of reporting that is common in the Western-Euro-Anglo world. The language barrier doesn't help either.

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