Matthew Bernstine, MUD ’14
Associate Director, Office for Socially Engaged Practice, Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts
Lecturer, Master of Urban Design
Broken pavers catch the sun. Worn foundations peak through the grass. A brick path still marks the alley between now-demolished properties.
In College Hill, the ground is layered with history.
But last summer, on a sloping, 1.5-acre parcel known as Peace Park, new layers were taking shape. Small flags, marking utility rights-of-way, sprouted like dandelions. Spray-painted lines delineated a future orchard, an amphitheater, an exercise circuit, a playground, a rain garden.
“Residents told us they want this to be a beautiful place,” says Matthew Bernstine, associate director of the Office for Socially Engaged Practice (OSEP). “They want a place that’s healthy. They want a place —Peace Park — to demonstrate their pride in their neighborhood.”
Set on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, College Hill is home to Bissell Mansion, St. Louis’ oldest surviving residence. The Grand Avenue Water Tower, built in 1869 and still the world’s tallest freestanding Corinthian column, parts traffic like a stone in a stream. But the 20th century brought hard times. Today, College Hill has some of the city’s highest vacancy rates.
Peace Park dates to the late 1990s. After his home was destroyed by lightning, local activist Otis Woodard (1936–2015), a former associate of Martin Luther King Jr., took to dispensing food and clothing from a concrete table on what had been his own front lawn. A grassroots resource was born.
In 2014, Jason Purnell, associate professor in the Brown School and president of the James S. McDonnell Foundation, released a report about regional health disparities. Soon, Purnell’s Health Equity Works and the Grace Hill Settlement House (now the Urban League), engaging with College Hill residents, identified upgrades to Peace Park as a neighborhood priority. More than a dozen local organizations and the City of St. Louis are now aiding the effort.
In 2019, Bernstine — who serves as WashU representative to the core Peace Park planning group — and OSEP outreach coordinator Emily Coffman led a Sam Fox School seminar to brainstorm design strategies. “The charge to students was to think about the entry plaza,” Bernstine recalls. “We also worked with residents to develop an overview aesthetics of the park. What would residents like to see and do in Peace Park?”
Bernstine’s seminar also helped to inform a 2022 studio, led by Wyly Brown, assistant professor, in which students designed, proposed and constructed a bamboo entry pavilion that will be installed at the park’s southwest corner. Meanwhile, Arbolope Studio, the celebrated landscape architecture firm led by L. Irene Compadre, AB ’08, MLA ’12, a visiting assistant professor, completed the final site plan. Penina Acayo Laker, assistant professor, is developing wayfinding and graphics.
“This is an incredibly meaningful, community-led project,” Bernstine says, noting that construction and planting should be completed by the spring. “I’m proud of all the people and institutions that have rallied behind it.”
The original profile appeared in “In and For” in the December 2023 issue of Washington magazine. For the complete article, click here.