|FEATURES Spring 2001|
by Candace O'Connor
Exciting changes are under way in Forest Park. Crumbling bridges are being replaced, old roads are giving way to green space, newly linked lakes and lagoons are forming a sustainable, river-like water system. Like skilled jewelers, workers are burnishing this gem of the St. Louis parks system in time for the centennial celebration of the most famous event in the park's history, the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
"Restore the glory" is the rallying cry for this transformation, which has taken place under the guidance of John Hoal, associate professor of architecture and director of the Master of Architecture and Urban Design program. Hoal headed the 20-member design team that developed the blueprint for these changes: the bold, sweeping Forest Park master plan, adopted in 1995. In an equally remarkable effort, he helped convince donors to contribute the $86 million in public and private funds needed to complete the project.
At times, he has also played a hands-on role in the park's reconstruction. Last summer, he spent hours laying rock alongside newly created Deer Lake, which replaces a busy intersection in the north-central section of the park. Even before this space is fully landscaped, people have begun to discover its beauty and tranquilityand animals have too. Recently, Hoal caught a glimpse of a red fox, who has taken up residence nearby.
"This project is more than a job for me, it has become a passion, a vocation," says Hoal. "I live at one end of the park, in the Central West End, and I work on campus at the other, so I am never out of the park. That means I can watch how people are occupying my designs and using themso I know the park at a level of intimacy that has helped how I design it."
The success of his personal mission has attracted strong public recognition. Three prestigious awardsthe 2000 Outstanding Planning Award for Implementation from the American Planning Association, the Catherine Brown Award for Landscape Urbanism from the Congress for New Urbanism, and the James C. Howland Award for Urban Enrichment from the National League of Citieshave gone to the Forest Park master plan.
Best of all, says Hoal, is watching each refurbished area take shape with its own distinctive style and purpose: historic Pagoda Circle with its bandstand near the Municipal Opera (Muny); formal, elegant Grand Basin at the foot of Art Hill; a wildlife corridor joining Kennedy Woods with a new forest near Steinberg Rink; a section devoted to outdoor environmental education not far from the St. Louis Science Center.
Another joy has been the strong involvement of Washington University in this project. Architecture graduates have worked with Hoal on the master plan; each spring, junior-level undergraduates focus on Forest Park for a semester's worth of design work. "There has been a very nice relationship of how this project has filtered in and affected students," says Hoal.
A Park on Life Support
As a young faculty member in the School of Architecture, Hoal accepted a part-time city government post in 1990 after then-Mayor Vincent Schoemehl asked the School for help in establishing the city's first Urban Design Department. Initially, Hoal served as assistant director, then became director in 1993. That same year, Freeman Bosley, Jr. was elected mayor; soon afterward, he spearheaded the passage of a half-cent sales tax for parks' improvements. Since Forest Park represents nearly half of the city's park acreage, Bosley allocated half of the sales tax revenuesome $1.8 million a yearto the park. Then he asked Hoal for ideas on how to spend the money.
Associate Professor of Architecture John Hoal built consensus in the St. Louis community around his "masterful" design for the revitalization of the city's beloved Forest Park.
For Hoal, it was the opportunity and challenge of a lifetime. Forest Park, established in 1876, was "on life support," he says. Not only was the infrastructurebridges, sewers, roads deteriorating, but there were serious environmental issues. The park, made up largely of lawn and trees, lacked the biological diversity of mid-level growth. And the natural water system had long ago been seriously disrupted; in 1930, the free-flowing River Des Peres had gone underground, buried in a combined stormwater/sewer pipe.
"What was needed then was a vision that would sustain the park for the 21st century," says Anabeth Calkins, Forest Park manager, St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry. "It is my opinion that John Hoal was instrumental in providing that vision."
Over the years, many plans for the park had emerged, amid sometimes rancorous debate. Devising a new plan meant that Hoal's team had to work closely with community groupsan average of one meeting every four days over two yearsin a back-and-forth process of education. The public would educate the team about things they valued, while the team would educate them about technical and design challenges. The result would be a consensus, a shared vision for the park.
Social Justice at Work
For Hoal, this democratic process was a welcome example of social justice at work. A South Africa native who grew up during the apartheid era, he has seen design being used against people, to create segregated communities. "That has haunted me and taught me a very important lesson," he says. "So building this kind of shared vision in the Forest Park project was enormously important to me."
The team's analysis quickly showed the importance of enhancing water flow and curtailing the flooding that often occurred in the path of old River Des Peres. "We realized that we could build a new riverjoining all the existing bodies of water, adding in wetlandsand thus control flooding and improve water quality," says Hoal. "This waterway would become the framework for the park; from it we would design all the major spaces and types of landscape, tying specific activities to each one."
They presented these ideas to the community for feedback, and in return learned about the special relationship that many St. Louisans have with Forest Park. They heard stories about life-changing events that took place in the park: the child who listened to toads in a pond and grew up to work with animals or the long-married couple who shared their first kiss under a Forest Park tree.
They also identified three key issues that had to be resolved for the plan to succeed. One question was conceptual: Is the park a nature reserve, a recreational place, or the setting of cultural institutions? The park is all these things, they decided, but any change to the current mix must meet certain general criteria. It had to be ecologically based, sustainable, and achieve a balance.
A second controversy involved the 27-hole golf course near Lindell Boulevard that they were proposing to turn into an 18-hole course. This idea faced opposition from an elderly, largely African-American constituency who were strongly tied to the previous configuration. The design team returned to the 27-hole design.
"John helped navigate through so many different interests and finally came up with a plan that serves the diverse users of the park very well," says Laura Cohen.
Third was a discussion over building expansion in the park: how to meet the parking and space demands of burgeoning cultural institutions, while still preserving green space. The team adopted a "no-net-loss-of-green-space" principle, which meant they could not reduce the total amount of open space, but they could move thingslike parking lotsto achieve a better balance.
In 1995, a master plan emerged from this process that had overwhelming public support. Its hefty price tag$43 million in private funds and another $43 million in public money, plus millions more that the cultural institutions would solicit on their ownseemed daunting, but the fund-raising effort succeeded. The city bonded its sales tax money to jump-start the public process, and Forest Park Forever, a private organization, worked tirelessly to garner the necessary private-sector funds.
"John helped navigate through so many different interests and finally came up with a plan that serves the diverse users of the park very well. I give him a tremendous amount of credit for that. He managed to reach a consensus and still achieve a design that maintained a high level of quality," says Laura Cohen, who was the liaison from then-Mayor Bosley's office to the Forest Park project.
Today, work on the park is proceeding rapidly, and Hoal is actively engaged in new urban design efforts: leading the Downtown Now! planning process; developing an exciting neighborhood design for Lafayette Square; working on Confluence Greenway, a nationally significant park and greenway system at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri rivers; even pursuing a Ph.D. in the philosophy of architecture at Washington University.
Hoal, who resumed his full-time teaching three years ago and left his part-time city post earlier this year, also continues as consultant to the Department of Parks for the fast-moving Forest Park project. "If we get all this done by 2004, it will be the most remarkable park reconstruction project in this country," he says, with excitement. "When it is done, it should be a wonderful legacy for the community."