The St. Louis region has an opportunity to "create one of the iconic national parks of America" with revitalization around the Gateway Arch, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said Friday.
Salazar was joined by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., in a tour of the Arch and the area around it. They spoke to the media from a park directly across the Mississippi River in East St. Louis, Ill. The park could also fall under National Park Service operation as part of a sweeping project to remake the area around the 630-foot tall monument to westward expansion.
LaHood agreed the revitalization effort could set a standard for other urban parks to follow.
"We will be full partners in fulfilling a big dream, in creating a legacy project for the people of the Midwest," he said.
The Arch was completed in 1965 and is part of the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial that also includes a museum beneath the legs of the Arch, the "Old Courthouse" where the Dred Scott slavery case was heard, and a large expanse of park land.
Civic leaders have long argued the grounds were underutilized, and that the area around the Arch is too hard to get to from the rest of downtown St. Louis. Interstate 70 separates the grounds from the rest of downtown. Pedestrians have to cross a bridge and cross busy streets to make the walk.
The project isn't limited to the Missouri side of the river - it aims to better incorporate East St. Louis. A small park there offers perhaps the most majestic view of the Arch, and that park could also eventually fall under operation of the National Park Service. Plans also call for consideration of a transportation system to help visitors shuttle between the two sides of the Mississippi.
"The river is is not a wall - it's a ribbon," East St. Louis Mayor Alvin Parks said. "It's a connecting piece between the two communities."
In September, the design firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of New York was chosen for the project. Van Valkenburgh said he will release an updated plan on Jan. 24.
The goal is to complete the project by October 2015. Salazar said he is confident a public-private partnership will provide enough money to fund the project, estimated at roughly $300 million. He declined to speculate on how much of the funding would come from the Department of the Interior.
McCaskill said that wherever she goes, when people learn she's from Missouri, they ask about the Arch.
"We all think it belongs to us," she said. "If you live near the famous Arch, you feel like you own it. That's why it's so important that we preserve it and improve it."