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The people’s park

The people’s park

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    The Grand Basin—part of the "heart" of Forest Park in St. Louis—features the St. Louis Art Museum. Photo: H3 Studio Inc.

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    A statue of St. Francis looks over the Jewel Box planting area, maintained by the Flora Conservancy. Photo: St. Louis Parks and Recreation

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    Weathered Wisconsin limestone with naturally occurring holes form the riffles east of Deer Lake. Photo: H3 Studio Inc.

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    A popular park feature, this restored Victorian footbridge is in Forest Park's Steinberg area. Photo: H3 Studio Inc.

When St. Louis mayor Chauncy F. Schultz dedicated Forest Park on June 24, 1876, he promised his citizens it would exist for the "enjoyment of yourselves, your children, and your children's children, forever... all without stint or hindrance ... and there will be no notice put up, Keep Off the Grass."

To citizens of St. Louis, Forest Park represents the soul of the city. At 1293 acres, it is 500 acres larger than New York's Central Park. In 1904 its defining feature— the River des Peres—was routed underground to make room for the World's Fair. After disastrous flooding in 1915, voters approved a bond issue to move the entire 18 miles of river within city limits underground. When construction concluded in 1930, the river flowed through two permanent horseshoe-shaped tunnels. However, moving the river left lakes and lagoons with no hydrological connection to one another or to the river.

Hosting as many as 12 million visitors a year took its toll on the infrastructure of the park and its five cultural institutions. To deal with years of neglect, in 1993, St. Louis voters passed a half-cent sales tax, with half the funds (estimated at $1.7 million annually) going to improvements and maintenance at Forest Park.

But that wasn't nearly enough. In 1993, the city of St. Louis decided to undertake a major restoration of Forest Park to reconnect the lakes, revitalize the park's historic center, restore native species, and improve the gardens. St. Louis issued $17 million in bonds to begin work on the lakes, roads, sidewalks, and infrastructure. The city committed to raising half the cost of the restoration in public funds, and Forest Park Forever—a private, not-for-profit organization—is raising the remainder in private funds from individuals, businesses, corporations, and foundations. As of 2005, the city has raised $63 million and Forest Park Forever $69.5 million. The $100 million restoration, substantially complete by 2004, has returned Forest Park to its former glory as an oasis in the heart of the city. Management and maintenance of the restoration is ongoing.

The Master Plan

For two and a half years, John Hoal of H3 Studio Inc., St. Louis, led the design team and the public involvement process to develop the master plan. The public input and planning kicked off with hundreds of citizens attending a three-day Forest Park Summit.

"The challenge in our planning process was everyone absolutely loves the park and has fond memories but couldn't agree on a vision for what the park could be," said Hoal. "When we laid out a vision of rebuilding the waterway as the basic park infrastructure, that galvanized public opinion and people bought into the vision."

Hundreds of public meetings and the formation of a 67-member Forest Park Planning Committee followed. For two years, Hoal met every four days with a community group of stakeholders. A group of 20 technical experts and consultants, directed by Hoal, supported the planning process. The group's goals included transforming the park's lakes and lagoons into a river, planting trees, preserving historic areas, improving facilities, and public education.

"The master plan gave the public the confidence that we had done our homework and would be good stewards of the money," said Anabeth Weil, Forest Park manager for St. Louis Department of Parks, Recreation, and Forestry. To date the master plan has received 18 awards from various national, state, and local organizations.