ST. LOUIS — The throngs of pedestrians that once roamed the sidewalks and thoroughfares here have long since given way to automobiles, red lights and potholes. But an ambitious $245 million plan to build a network of trails connecting four major parks in St. Louis aims to change all that.
The Great Rivers Greenway Regional Trail District offers the Brickline, an approximately 10-mile stretch of cycle and walking paths that would connect Fairground Park in the north to Tower Grove Park in the south, and Forest Park to Gateway Arch. District leaders say the Brickline will improve safety, help break down racial barriers and bring economic development to the roads.
The Brickline would pass organizations like the Boys & Girls Club of Greater St. Louis on North Grand Avenue and the new National Geospatial Intelligence Agency on Jefferson and Cass Avenues, as well as connect to the new Major League Soccer and City Stadium. Foundry STL, Midtown’s entertainment district.
People also read…
It’s an ambitious plan for a region long criticized for being big on promise but short on delivery. Great Rivers Greenway, known as GRG, has yet to complete the designs in addition to fully funding the Brickline. And perhaps his biggest hurdle will be persuading enough locals to travel to a part of town that gets more attention for homicides than biking.
But regional leaders say it will transform sections of the city, entice young workers and entrepreneurs to settle here, and possibly even land some CEOs and big companies. City officials tout Brickline’s potential to connect historically white and black neighborhoods and, perhaps, break down long-standing barriers. According to its designers, the greenway, which will be positioned along the busiest bus line, will provide residents with more ways to get to work.
“It would bring light to the area and some people would naturally associate the Greenway with the Fairground neighborhood,” said resident Lillie Clay.
And Brickline supporters said GRG’s mix of private and public revenue streams and its 20 years of experience building 128 miles of trails so far are proof enough the organization will deliver on its promise.
Connecting the city north to the central corridor is what the city needs to grow, said Alderman Brandon Bosley of the 3rd District, where part of the greenway will be laid.
“St. Louis is a tale of two cities, and it shouldn’t be like that,” Bosley said.
With the greenway, he said, “we are ahead of the future”.
A network of trails
Great Rivers Greenway is a tax agency established in 2000 by the voters of St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Charles County. It levies a sales tax of one-tenth of 1 cent in those counties and an additional sales tax of three-sixteenths of 1 cent in St. Louis and St. Louis County. GRG receives about $20-25 million a year in taxes, one of the few greenway developers in the United States to collect taxes.
The rest of its funding comes from federal grants and private donors – Enterprise’s Taylor family is funding the 1-mile stretch of the Brickline that will pass the new Major League Soccer stadium, currently under construction, which is also a project of the Taylor family.
GRG’s greenways are already cobwebbed across the region, from Kirkwood to River Des Peres; Legacy Park in Cottleville to Dardenne Park in St. Peters; and from Chouteau Avenue to the edge of the Mississippi River to the Chain of Rocks Bridge. He was also involved in the recent renovation of the Gateway Arch grounds.
More than 3 million visitors used the trails in 2020, a 70% increase from 2019, the agency said. Usage dropped last year to 2.5 million – but that was still up 40% from 2019, GRG said.
The agency relies on community feedback to develop its regional plan, updated every five years, to help it decide which trails to build next. (The public has until Sunday to vote on the new plan, which will be released later this spring.) It also examines data such as population, walkability and access to public transport. Some desired paths do not work; others take years to build. It took GRG a decade to gain control of the land to build a long-requested road from Kirkwood to River Des Peres in southern St. Louis County, CEO Susan Trautman said.
And it can cost between $4 million and $6 million to build a mile, she said.
Greenways have paid off for other metropolitan areas, according to GRG. Indianapolis saw $1 billion in new real estate development when it opened its Indy Cultural Trail which it built for $63 million. Atlanta saw $4.1 billion in new development due to its $800 million Beltline Trails.
They can also have benefits that are harder to measure, like environmental and public health improvements, said Patty Heyda, professor of urban design at the University of Washington.
“Greenways are never bad,” Heyda said. “But that’s just one piece of what neighborhoods need.”
The brick line
The Brickline, part of which was formerly known as Chouteau Greenway, would connect major landmarks: the new National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency campus, the new football stadium, St. Louis University and City Foundry . When complete, it will be at least 10 miles long and possibly up to 15, officials said.
The section through the football stadium, which will include art installations honoring the former black neighborhood called Mill Creek Valley, will be completed with the first game of MLS in the spring of 2023.
Other parts are in the design phase. The northern segment that will connect Fairground Park — a 130-acre former racetrack that once served as a Union encampment during the Civil War — to Page Avenue received a $15 million federal grant late last year to help finance the construction. The Des Peres-based financial services company, Edward Jones, and other private donors are providing matching. Penny Pennington, managing partner of Edward Jones, called the Brickline “the most important investment in the St. Louis area.”
GRG relies on the private sector for funding. Of Brickline’s $245 million prize money, $155 million will come from corporate and private donors.
The city will not be solely responsible for maintaining the Brickline; GRG sets aside about $15 million, or 2% of all private fundraising, for a maintenance fund.
“You have to actually do what you say you’re going to do,” Trautman said. “We are absolutely committed to not starting a project that we cannot complete.”
The prospect has organizations like the Boys & Girls Club excited for the future. President Flint Fowler, involved in the development of Brickline, said he sees it as a catalyst for neighborhood development.
This area of North Grand has seen a high homicide rate, a symptom of decades-long divestment that has also led to decrepit brick buildings and few opportunities for growth.
“We need an opportunity like this to invest in our communities,” Fowler said.
Trautman said the Brickline could be a strategy to help deter crime: When the neighborhood takes ownership of the trail and more people use it, the area will likely become safer, she said.
The Boys & Girls Club, which has operated there since 1967, is partnering with the Gateway PGA Reach Foundation to redevelop the nearby Carter Carburetor plant into a golf activity center. The project and the greenway could be mutually beneficial.
“I used to talk a lot about the psychological impact the Carburetor building had on kids’ minds with its broken windows and trash,” Fowler said. “Invert that, and imagine trees, music, artwork, and people engaged in the community, and what that does to their mental well-being.”
The Brickline could also bring grocery stores, cafes and other amenities that make a neighborhood attractive, he said.
Yet urban planners are wary of gentrification: public projects attract the attention of outside developers, seeking returns on investment, who could crowd out long-time residents. “It’s all becoming a land grab,” said Heyda of the University of Washington, who has worked on greenways. “That’s just the story of St. Louis.”
City leaders have the ability to create the rules for developers, ensuring there is affordable housing, she said.
Trautman said the agency was considering a community investment trust that could subsidize neighbors’ investments or a community development corporation that could help lower taxes for homeowners.
It’ll take a village, she said.
Fairground resident Clay has previously worked to improve her neighborhood as president of the nonprofit organization Fairground Neighborhood Revitalization.
Fairground Park is a highlight — residents use its 131 acres for fishing and for hosting parties. And they would like to see more amenities here, like a bigger pool. The green lane, Clay said, would be another bright spot.
Current designs require the Brickline to begin at the south corner of the park. This means he would miss most of Clay’s neighborhood to the north and east.
“It won’t have a big impact on our neighbors, per se,” Clay said. “But it’s nice to have.”