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Gateway Mall Wishes It Was Boston’s Commonwealth Mall

January 17, 2008 History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Travel 16 Comments

St. Louis’ Gateway Mall was an afterthought — a way to clear away buildings and people thought to be too seedy for downtown. However, in clearing the blocks for the Gateway Mall and numerous other later projects in the urban renewal era all the people were removed as building after building were razed. Businesses and residences were lost by the hundreds if not thousands.

Boston’s Commonwealth Mall, however, was planned from the start. Dating to the 19th Century, not the 20th Century, it has a quite different feel. I visited the Commonwealth Mall this morning.

The mall is technically a wide median but it is sufficiently wide enough that you don’t feel endangered by a passing motorist nor do you feel so isolated that you fee unsafe. Surrounded on both sides by stately masonry buildings which, combined with the trees, creates a wonderful scale. There are no parking garages or blank walls, just varied architecture with entry/exit points (aka doors) highly frequently. There are no follies or other tricks to get you to be in this space, it was designed to be an integral part of the city.


Frequent sculptures break up the linear pathway while retaining a formal feeling. Despite the cold and snow, many in Boston walk to their destinations and the Commonwealth Mall provides a beautiful way to do so.

What planners in the 20th Century failed to understand is that you cannot simply cut a slice through a city at any point and expect it to succeed. Furthermore, destroying activities and interest along the edges is critical to the overall feel and ultimately will help determine if the public will use the space or not. St. Louis’ Gateway Mall has no reason for the general public to walk along it. Regardless of the attractions contained inside the space it will remain lifeless and disconnected from the city, the opposite of Boston’s Commonwealth Mall.


Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    Absolutely correct and what a great way to enjoy a community and its surroundings. People in StL though care little for these finer things in life as proven by the design of Gateway and the New 64. Or is it in your opinion that they haven’t been enlightened?

    [SLP — I think the ones who are enlightened find it easier to leave than create positive change.]

  2. Brian says:

    What, no fancy sculpture park donated by a suburban arts foundation?! Why then would anyone walk here? Obviously, as Jane Jacobs pointed out nearly a half-century ago, the vitality of the private edges make a park. Elsewhere, many planners finally understand the importance of active street walls, but evidently not in St. Louis.

  3. Brad Mello says:

    Of course those stately homes along commonwealth mall are out of the reach of most Bostonians — most Americans – it is beautiful, but who can afford it?

  4. john w. says:

    The Back Bay and Beacon Hill (behind the capitol building) are remarkable urban districts of late 19th century vintage, and the city has always recognized its significance. These neighborhoods are significant not only because of their beautifully ornate and stately architecture (Federalist, 2nd Empire Baroque and Romanesque townhomes of exceptional quality) but because of their urban forms. Setting aside degree of density (approximately 50 DU/Acre in this example) as this is of less importance, the boulevards and clear edges of large parks (Boston Common and the Public Garden) add the inviting quality and legibility that you want every city to have. It would take quite a lot to transform even the smallest area of St. Louis into a latter day Beacon Hill in these modern times, but I can imagine that neighborhoods like St. Louis Place once had very similar qualities. This precedent does at least provide the inspiration to revitalize our old city.

    [SLP — Good example, St. Louis Place Park probably at one time had a similar feel along with a large number of pedestrians.]

  5. Adam says:


    fortunately you don’t have to be able to afford one of those homes to enjoy a walk along the commonwealth mall. that’s not really the point. i can’t afford any of the homes along lindel between kingshighway and skinker but i can enjoy the environment they create while walking along the edge of the park.

  6. john w. says:

    As small pockets of St. Louis history that are intact enough to give us visions of its vibrant urban past, neighborhoods like St. Louis Place and the emerging Crown District are perfect places to start the process of revitalization. They are small enough to be captured and quantified by real development costs, and could set the stage for other areas (like the many blocks to the north of and including the Pruitt Igoe site) that have far less proud vestige and much more dilapidated ruin. Maybe Paul McKee will visit Commonwealth Boulevard sometime soon.

  7. DeBaliviere says:

    Steve, that can’t be a mall – I don’t see any parking garages facing it, and there don’t appear to be any office buildings built in the center of it.

  8. john w. says:

    it’s more of the strip mall variety.

  9. Brady Dorman says:

    Looks like a great urban environment. I love historical urban parks, like the numerous circles and small triangle parks in Washington DC. Steve – did you get a chance to see any of the Big Dig’s Rose Kennedy Greenway?

    [SLP — Yes, I will do a post on the old Central Artery, the Big Dig project and the Rose Kennedy Greenway.  In short, I cannot imagine how devastating it was to have so many blocks of homes & businesses cleared in the 1950s and what a horrible dividing line that highway must have been.  Boston seems to either do things really right or really wrong — no middle ground.  Commonwealth Mall is an example of being done right.]

  10. Brady Dorman says:

    Don’t forget the really wrong of Government Center! Although I find it very interesting it certainly wasn’t an appropriate style or (especially) scale for that part of Boston.

  11. Lisa says:

    I realize that it pales in comparison, but nearly 20 years ago it was an urban greenspace that led me to settle in what became my favorite place to live, ever (well, at least until St. Louis wakes up and expands mass transit, for starters…). XH and I scientifically chose to relocate to New Haven, CT from NYC when I was transferred – based on taking the MetroNorth line to its last destination (mass transit was a must) and getting dumped out at New Haven Union Station. We happened into town on a beautiful summer evening when the Green was teeming with people, were chatted up by strangers, and utterly charmed by the city. No sculptures, LOL, but Jane Jacobs still would have approved I think. New Haven had a few hundred years of people conditioned to gathering and commisserating in the center of town, intact period architecture on the perimeter, pedestrian-friendly, local independent businesses (retail with a couple floors of high-density residential above) providing services as well as goods ringing the Green with a reasonable sub-30mph speed limit on the streets that bordered it. It was close enough to NYC to enjoy the Big City within an hour, and was a city with a conscience and strong cultural identity, thriving arts and all the rest that comes with being a college town (Yale) along with the downside/opportunities of having some pretty challenging parts of town still reeling from a mish-mash of successful and not-so-successful progressive policies for social services.

    I was a very jaded transplanted-to-St.-Louis-against-my-will resident 14 years ago. Only in the last three years have I come to appreciate both the potential and the strides that the city has made even in the years that I’ve lived here – parts are coming back, maybe too slowly, but there is still visible progress. Enough so that even a cynical east-coaster like me wants to get involved in the revitalization .

    When I see the urban opportunities in St. Louis, it does take me back to the cities out east that I loved – Boston, New York, New Haven, Providence and all the rest – and hope that we can have even a smidgen of the urban space conducive to community that other cities have done so well.

    Thanks for the blog, Steve – stumbled on it when my consciousness got raised to a point where I wasn’t willing to be a silent bystander anymore and was ready to dive in and get involved with urban activism, along with finally being able to say (without wincing) “I’m from St. Louis…”

  12. John W. says:

    I studied in Europe on exchange many years ago, and my experience was just as Lisa had described hers in the northeast, and it was because of the vastness and reliability of the mass transit network. There are many urban opportunities here in St. Louis, and I look forward to being a part of the future of old St. Louis.

    [SLP — Agreed, the physical potential is great.  The leadership, however, is poor.] 

  13. john w. says:

    I’m assuming you are referring to not only the mayor’s administration but also the aldermen and of course, the developers who force these issues into the public realm. I was in attendance at an event recently where a representative of the mayor’s administration was explaining that the city does not entertain proposals for development, but rather is only in reactive mode when proposals are presented. It seems that the creation of a protectorate-of-sorts in the holdings of the LRA would lead naturally to at least some kind of RFP process to generate development ideas, but apparently not. Someone in attendance at the same event had asked the city representative about the possibility of the city hosting a competition or a series of competitions in lieu of issuing RFPs to developers. The representative had replied that the idea of an open competition process was certainly palatable, but that substantive reward for winners was not possible, and then stated that defining scope of development projects was not the business of the mayor’s office. This response indicates to me that the mayor’s office and the city at large is either powerless to create planning initiatives, or would rather independent developers determine entirely through free market interest what takes place. It seems a vigorous process of planning/design/development competition hosting would help the city to moderate the concerns of urbanists like those who post in blogs such as this, and perhaps mediate between citizen ideas and private developer intent. I’m an advocate of this approach.

  14. John W. says:

    There is a design charette being held today to generate ideas for the usage of the open and public spaces associated with the 14th street mall in the emerging Crown District. I cannot attend, but would like to hear from anyone who posts in this blog who attended.

  15. Sean says:

    Since John W. asked about Saturday’s charrette in Old North, you can get a good synopsis of the day at ONSLRG’s blog (http://newoldnorth.blogspot.com/). I may be a bit biased, but I found the energy and ideas shared by participants to be very encouraging — and a good demonstration that interest in neighborhood development extends well beyond each individual neighborhood’s own residents.

  16. john w. says:

    Thanks Sean. A coworker was there on Saturday, and she said the event was well attended and that some good ideas were generated. I think there should be a high frequency of events such as this so that momentum isn’t lost, and so that people with common interests have a chance to join forces. Hopefully, the eventual success of the 14th Street Area will migrate northward to I-70 and westward to Jefferson.


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