St. Louis Primps for World’s Fair Centennial

Fri September 12, 2003 - Midwest Edition
Kathie Sutin

Forest Park, the crown jewel of St. Louis parks, is being spiffied up in anticipation of the city’s big celebration next year marking the centennial of the 1904 World’s Fair.

Visitors who haven’t been to the park in a while will be wowed by what they see —roads that have been repaved and in some cases re-aligned, new sidewalks, a new boathouse, a renovated golf course, new multi-use paths and a new waterway system connecting the ponds and lakes.

The Grand Basin area, centerpiece of the World’s Fair, has been restored and provides a stunning foreground to views of the St. Louis Art Museum perched high on a hill above it. The Museum is the only remaining building from the Fair. Most of the other structures were built of staff, a temporary building material, and were destroyed following the fair while buildings representing other states were moved out of the park and often out of Missouri when the Fair ended.

After a round of major renovations that has spanned almost seven years, construction is winding down to give residents and visitors a chance to enjoy the park and for the city to mark the 100th anniversary of the Fair that was its finest hour.

Work started on the 1,300-acre park, third largest in the nation, almost seven years ago in 1996 a year after the park’s master plan was adopted.

When work on Phase I is completed in November, it will be “the first time in almost seven years that all the roads will be open,” said Sean Devoy of USR Corp. Devoy is program manager for the project.

Phase I involves a series of projects — some public, some private — at a cost of $86 million, which was shared by the city and the non-profit “Forest Park Forever.” The projects have restored the park to its former glory by replacing crumbling bridges and roads, rebuilding outdated buildings and restoring the series of lakes.

“This is an incredible accomplishment for the city of St. Louis and for the partnership they formed with Forest Park Forever,” Devoy said. “Both of these organizations have done wonderful things for this region.”

Completion of Phase I is right on schedule. “Our goal all along was to finish in the fall of 2003,” Devoy said. Phase II will be done after the centennial celebration as funding permits. Until then, users of the park will enjoy a major break in construction.

“I don’t see a lot of construction going on in 2004,” Devoy said. However, construction of sidewalks and sewers will continue through the year, he added.

Devoy said the massive restoration/renovation project was achieved by the unique partnership of the city, the private sector and Forest Park Forever. At a time when public funds are tight, the partnership provided the means to achieve the massive project.

“You’re seeing a lot of this right now,” Devoy said. “In fact, if you’re watching around the country, you’re seeing this with large riverfront developments,” which lend themselves to the public-private collaboration, he said. This approach was used in recent improvements in Central Park, he added.

As with most construction projects, the Forest Park Renovation had its share of surprises. One was the discovery of stokes mortar shells on the park’s golf course.

“We did the original research looking at what we could anticipate, and there was some concern that we would run into some historic findings but, in fact, what we ran into were mortar shells. That was not what we were looking for,” Devoy said.

Years ago the U. S. Army used live mortar shells for practices on Aviation Field on the side of the park along Interstate 64/40, Devoy explained. “Some of them actually ended up on the golf course. The way the military dealt with them in that day and age was essentially to dig a hole and bury them.”

Construction crews found three or four of the shells while grading, he said.

“The first one we encountered, we brought in the Army Corps of Engineers and the local bomb squad which verified what it was,” Devoy said. “They were stokes mortars, developed in the First World War. The Army Corps of Engineers actually assigned a person to the project and the contractors were trained what to watch for and how to deal with it.”

The shells were not explosive.

The construction crews did not find anything interesting in the soil, Devoy said. Records indicate that the hub of the Fair’s giant ferris wheel was buried in the park, but crews did not uncover it, Devoy said.

With multiple projects being conducted over so large an area, scheduling was tricky and aimed to keep the cultural institutions open as much as possible, Devoy said.

Operation of institutions had to be considered, he said. “When we set up the program originally, we looked at the logistics of getting the work completed and getting it completed while we worked around institutions.

“The Muny is a good example. When the Muny went out of season in August, we started work. The idea was to have the improvements in front of the Muny completed in preparation for the Muny to come on line again in June of the following year.”

To minimize disruption to use of the park, projects were packaged in “bite-size pieces, something that we could accomplish in a given time frame,” Devoy said.

“You could break the park into zones, trying to do all the work in one zone before moving on to another. The downside of that is the construction timeframe in which to complete that goes from being a three or six-month period to an 18-month period.”

That required some adroit maneuvering where crews could “step in and step out,” Devoy said. “We would sort of leap frog around the park—jump into an area, complete the improvements and then move out and let the institution come back in. After their season is over, we would come back and finish the rest before moving out again.

“It’s an involved process because in a 1,300-acre park, you’ve got a lot of driving forces going. If you were to close everything down and come in, you could complete the improvements in a shorter period of time. In the real world, things don’t work that way.”

Unique features of the park also presented challenges.

In some cases, crews would be building unique features, Devoy said. "We wanted to be assured that the craftsmen working on these features had the relevant experience to be able to perform this work.” To do that, the city used a pre-qualification process to assure that subcontractors bidding on a given project were, in fact, well qualified to do the work.

“They established a set of qualifications and allowed companies to submit their qualifications to demonstrate in advance that they have the experience and the competence to take on so significant a project,” Devoy said.

Prequalifying subs is a method used more often in the private sector but it is used in the public sector but typically on very large projects such as construction of the new federal courthouse in St. Louis, Devoy said.

“There are not a lot of people out there who have the expertise to take those types of projects on,” Devoy said. In large, multimillion dollar projects “you want to be assured that the people coming in understand and can manage large and complicated projects,” he said.

One example of where prequalificaton was used was the stonework features in the hatcheries area, Devoy said.

“This will be a highlight in the park,” he said. “When people come into the park and find these features, they’ll go, ’Oh, wow, what a finding.’ They’re a part of the landscape. People will see them and enjoy them but not necessarily realize they are all man-made, that someone can in and actually designed and built these things.”

Since stonework is an important design element, it was imperative that a company with expertise was awarded the bid, Devoy said.

“You want to ensure that the person doing the work has that experience and that this is not how they’re going to gain their experience,” he said. “In the public procurement process, work is awarded to the lowest responsive bidder. If the contractor gets bonding and they give you the price and they are the lowest bidder and they meet the other checks and balances, the project is awarded to them.

“That can be risky if you have something that’s unique. These are times when you look and ask, ’How can we assure success in these areas?’ One way is to develop a criteria to help qualify people. You ask, ’Has this person had three to five years experience in working with stone? Have they worked on similar projects? Can we get reference from other clients?’”

In the case of the stone work, subs were prequalified before they could bid. “They are able to competitively bid but at the same time you’re taking that extra measure to help assure the success of the project,” Devoy said.

Devoy said there were also “concerns over being able to complete the larger projects on time.” The Grand Basin/Post-Dispatch Lake and the Boathouse were $12.9 million worth of work, he said.

To be able to complete them on time, FPF hired BSI as construction manager. “They were able to expedite getting contractors in quickly,” Devoy said. “They have a little more control than you perhaps would have in the public sector.”

For Tim Hudwalker, BSI project manager , which managed six projects in the park for FPF, the most challenging aspect of the project was construction of the walls at the Grand Basin.“It was so muddy, and most of the work we did was in swamp conditions,” he said. “We drained the lake but it never dried up real well. It was a struggle to get around that. To get the footings dry enough to pour, we had to do some work around them.”

Hudwalker said although some of the challenges of the project were expected, “you never know what’s going to happen until you get out there.” He added of the work at the Grand Basin and Post-Dispatch Lake: “The problem was we were at the bottom of the park so whenever it rained, we just got water and kept getting more while we were trying to keep the thing dry. Everything in the park drained there. We’d keep getting water for three or four days. When everybody else was drying out, we were still soaking wet.”

He commended several subs’ work on the project.

“We had some good sub-contractors, particularly Frank Mitchell, the plumber who did real well on the fountains. CFI poured the walls for us, and they did a real good job,” he said. The concrete walls were special and have a “lot of radiuses and a lot of detailed layout,” he said. “On top of them was cast stone. That was installed by Leonard Masonry which did a fine job as well.”

Anabeth Weil, park manager, said most parts of the projects have been on time and on schedule. And, she said, the funding methods worked out very well.“We’re all just delighted with public-private participation,” she said.

“We anticipate having everything that’s under construction complete in November,” she said. “Then we will reassess—the city with Forest Park Forever—and prioritize what project will move forward in the future and redefine the relationship and how this will work in the future.”