Out of Place Or Right At Home? Either Way, Allowable Under St. Louis’ Zoning Ordinance

by Michael R. Allen

The new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue. Out of place or right at home in the Gate District?

With change coming to the Sixth Ward aldermanic seat, perhaps it is timely to consider the new house at 2838-46 Lafayette Avenue in the Gate District. While the Gate District’s reconstruction has led to many new houses built with non-urban forms for a net decrease in the historic density of the neighborhood, none of the houses built since the Duane-Plater-Zyberk-authored master plan was adopted in 1991 have been quite as, uh, non-urban as this recently-completed one-story house. The house’s floor heights are far too short for it to complement surrounding building stock (which admittedly is somewhat depleted), its width occupies three lots and thus starts an imbalance in the rhythm of its street face and its setback from the street is excessively deep for Lafayette Avenue. The problem isn’t style or age, because there are two new houses across the street that work well enough for the urban setting.
Of course, this house is not worth considering because departing Alderwoman Kacie Starr Triplett had something specific to do with its design or the fact of its existence. Alderowman Triplett had no direct control whatsoever, since the owner sought no tax relief from the public, or any favors from the city government. It is worth considering because both the departing and new alderperson have a fundamental power over construction of this house and any others ever built across the city.

The urban-scaled houses at 2841 and 2843 Lafayette Avenue were built in 2008.

How do aldermen have power over the urban forms of houses? The Board of Aldermen has the authority to adopt the city’s zoning ordinance, a power not used since the city passed a new code in 1948 (a 1992 revision notwithstanding). The little house on Lafayette Avenue, with is gigantic setback, abundant width and economical construction is perfectly in compliance with the 1948 zoning code, which was written at a time when city leaders feared overcrowding. One year earlier, the city adopted a new Comprehensive Plan (again, this has not been replaced) drafted by the City Plan Commission under the direction of Harland Bartholomew. Bartholomew prophesized the city’s population rising to 1 million people, and feared that the density of the city core would lead to unworkable congestion. Thus he recommended clearance of the first ring of urban growth around downtown and a new zoning code that would mandate spacing new buildings apart in the manner of suburban development.

Historic building stock east of the site facing Oregon Place.

Bartholomew and his staff were not enamored of suburban life, but saw overcrowding as a real threat to the city’s future. Much of the city was built om 25′ and 30′ wide lots, which allowed for the density that made the city a true walking city in the early 20th century. Buildings often rose up, especially in the largely unrestricted 19th century neighborhoods in the city core. Three, four and five story multiple dwellings were not uncommon. Single dwellings often were attached in rows. Rather than strike at the poverty that led to excessive occupation of these buildings, Bartholomew took aim at the physical forms themselves, mandating wider lots and lower building heights.

The house at 2831 Lafayette Avenue.

The house on Lafayette Avenue meets the zoning code meted out in 1948. The section on height of single dwelling starts as follows:

No building hereafter erected shall exceed 2 1/2 stories or 35 feet in height unless two side yards of not less than 10 feet in width are provided, in which case a building may not exceed 3 stories or 45 feet in height.

The short house is perfectly legal. Note that attuning heights to the dominant forms of a neighborhood is not part of the code. Also, the code mandates side setbacks — even in areas where row housing may be found. No exceptions are named in the code. Here is the section on side setbacks, which makes one allowance to reduce requirements from four feet to three feet:

There shall be provided a side yard of not less than four (4) feet in width on each side of a building, and the total width of both side yards shall be not less than ten (10) feet; provided however, that lots of record prior to the effective date of the Zoning Code having a width of less than (40) feet, may reduce the total side yard width by an amount equal to one-half ( 1/2) the difference between the width of such lot and forty (40) feet, but in no case shall either side yard be less than three (3) feet in width.

Likewise, the section on front setback actually is disruptive to historic traditions, even in areas of the city where deed restrictions required front lawns:

When 25 percent of any frontage within the district is improved with dwellings and a majority of such improved frontage has observed a front yard line with a variation in depth of not more than 6 feet, no building hereafter constructed shall project beyond the average front yard line so established except that in no event shall the front yard line be greater than 50 feet. In all other cases, there shall be a front yard line of not less than 25 feet.

Some neighborhoods, like Soulard (recommended for total clearance by Bartholomew), have residences with no front or side setbacks whatsoever. Other neighborhoods have setbacks between 5 feet and 15 feet. The 25-foot setback had only been used on private places and in tract housing outside of the city limits when the 1948 code made it the base line requirement. Today, new developments that seek a more traditional setback have to receive an official variance from the city zoning code. While the Board of Aldermen is set to approve an ordinance that will allow overlays of form-based codes across the city, this treatment is not systemic and will result in an uneven use of zoning policies.

The urban center-hall house at 4483 Vista Avenue in Forest Park Southeast.

No matter what, the house on Lafayette Avenue is perfectly allowable under the city’s zoning code — even thought it occupies a site historically occupied by three residential buildings and even though it is located in the core of the city east of Grand Avenue. Honestly, the materials and size are not as improper as the form itself. Above is shown a historic center-hall frame house, built c. 1880, at the northeast corner of Vista and Taylor avenues in Forest Park Southeast.

This Land Reutilization Authority-owned house may not last much longer, but it shows that frame construction historically maintained scale, height, and setback even in areas with mostly masonry construction. The old house is wider than its neighbors, but balances this by combining two lots of the same size as others on the street so that its facade is proportionately suitable to the street. This old form would have been a good model for the house on Lafayette Avenue, but since the zoning code did not require any attempt at doing things differently why would the owner have bothered to look?

Article Global Facebook Twitter Myspace Friendfeed Technorati del.icio.us Digg Google Yahoo Buzz StumbleUpon Eli Pets

This entry was posted in Gate District, Planning, South St. Louis. Bookmark the permalink.
  • http://www.facebook.com/naffziger Chris Naffziger

    I give it ten years, tops.

  • rick

    How do you measure density that goes from (X) to (X-.8X) and then back to maybe (.5X)? Increase or decrease?

  • Ann Wimsatt

    Which is more important to PRO, preserving or mimicking a dead housing style or reviving a dead city?

    One story ranch houses are available all over the city. They are well integrated in inner ring suburbs; see Alexander Drive in Clayton on the City’s border and Clayton Gardens. Presumably, this owner had a fierce desire to develop an inner city lot, yet they are publicly shamed for….(anti-hipster) style?

    In fairness, why not point out that the basic urban house ‘form’ in St Louis doesn’t work for modern living? That beloved St Louis brick townhouse with the wee formal parlor can barely be furnished with a modern sofa. That 19th century room set-up dictates a half dozen 19th century parlor chairs instead.

    In 2012, the antiques business is dead. Antique-loving baby boomers were incredibly sentimental and wanted to live in fantasy houses from the past, but the younger generations live in their IPhones. Face up to the reality that the majority of St Louisans want to live in modern spaces. Pair that with the urgent brain drain problem for the city of St Louis. Citizens are still moving out. The City is dying.

    Part of the reason house-hunters move out is because 19th century housing stock does not accommodate open, modern plan living. Plus, the old brick houses are a bear to maintain. And heat. Is this new ranch was partly manufactured? If so, perhaps this owner should be lauded for their innovation and determination to reuse abandoned lots in the city. If every empty lot were filled with a livable new house and new families, wouldn’t the ‘urban’ issues start to dissolve?

    True, the siting could have been better. As for the two new houses across the street, how do you classify stark, tiny side-facing front porches as urban-friendly?

    Finally, Bartholomew was a hired racist gun. St Louis wasn’t the only city he divided. http://ir.uiowa.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1001&context=urban_pubs

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t disagree more. Look around at neighborhoods in the city. The most stable, sought-after neighborhoods are the ones that are intact and URBAN. If as you say “that the majority of St Louisans want to live in modern spaces”, how do you explain the continued popularity of Soulard, Lafayette Square, CWE, Skinker-DeBaliviere, etc. I’d venture to say that the most sought-after neighborhoods are the ones that have remained intact and true to their urban roots– ones that are not pockmarked with suburban schlock that is pictured above. You wouldn’t find that shitbox in the middle of Brooklyn Heights or Back Bay, that’s for sure. Our historic building stock and urban scale is OUR BIGGEST COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE in the 21st century. It’s why visitors fall in love with the city, and it’s what differentiates us from Indianapolis and Houston and Atlanta. As we continue to squander our urban resources, the lines that separate St. Louis from Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, etc will continue to blur. We are an old city. We must embrace it and protect it. So much has been lost already, but miraculously what’s left is what other cities try so hard to build. The purpose of this post I believe is to remind us that a great city MUST have standards, or else we will continue to fall behind. We as a city need to wake up and realize that as long as we compete against the suburbs, the city will lose. The city shines when it capitalizes on its inherent advantages (again, citing Soulard, Lafayette Square, CWE, etc), and the suburbs can’t touch that.

  • Anonymous

    I couldn’t disagree more. Look around at neighborhoods in the city. The most stable, sought-after neighborhoods are the ones that are intact and URBAN. If as you say “that the majority of St Louisans want to live in modern spaces”, how do you explain the continued popularity of Soulard, Lafayette Square, CWE, Skinker-DeBaliviere, etc. I’d venture to say that the most sought-after neighborhoods are the ones that have remained intact and true to their urban roots– ones that are not pockmarked with suburban schlock that is pictured above. You wouldn’t find that shitbox in the middle of Brooklyn Heights or Back Bay, that’s for sure. Our historic building stock and urban scale is OUR BIGGEST COMPETITIVE ADVANTAGE in the 21st century. It’s why visitors fall in love with the city, and it’s what differentiates us from Indianapolis and Houston and Atlanta. As we continue to squander our urban resources, the lines that separate St. Louis from Indianapolis, Houston, Atlanta, Jacksonville, etc will continue to blur. We are an old city. We must embrace it and protect it. So much has been lost already, but miraculously what’s left is what other cities try so hard to build. The purpose of this post I believe is to remind us that a great city MUST have standards, or else we will continue to fall behind. We as a city need to wake up and realize that as long as we compete against the suburbs, the city will lose. The city shines when it capitalizes on its inherent advantages (again, citing Soulard, Lafayette Square, CWE, etc), and the suburbs can’t touch that.

  • Anonymous

    PS– The city is NOT dying. there are more dedicated residents here than ever who are committed to the St. Louis’ vitality and progress. Today, St. Louis is lean and mean, and I am proud to live in a city of doers.

  • Jenn

    True there are plenty of ranch houses interspersed throughout the city, but why not try to keep the character of our historic districts intact? Would this be allowed in Beacon Hill or Lincoln Park?

  • JAE

    That house makes me cringe. One of the things our realtor suggested we look for was a consistent neighborhood (similar style, upkeep, etc.). We bought a house, in the city, but not in a neighborhood with houses like that beige ranch.

  • JAE

    That house makes me cringe. One of the things our realtor suggested we look for was a consistent neighborhood (similar style, upkeep, etc.). We bought a house, in the city, but not in a neighborhood with houses like that beige ranch.

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    There is no dead city to revive, nor any dead housing style to mimick. Urban architecture that ignores precedent is either going to be extremely visionary and new (not the case here) or very inappropriate (bingo). I am not even addressing floor plans here — those are not governed by zoning and I would never suggest that they should be.

    Yet I doubt that there is much that is modern with this layout, which is more antiquated than the frame house I show in the last figure. For one thing, the windows. One great thing about modern architecture is the use of glass to lighten interior spaces to make them something other than depressing. Whoever designed this house seems to want to imitate the glazing of 18th century New England before plate glass was widely available. Clapboard siding also is completely unnecessary for a brand-new house. Again, the whiff of antiquity is strong.

    If every empty lot were filled with a house like this one, the density of the city would be too low to support many business districts. Or, mass transit — far more important in daily life than the number of cupcake shops or bars. A city of low density is not going to be as sustainable as one with moderately high density. St. Louis can;t aspire to its 1950 population but it can work to ensure that the core of the city (east of Kingshighway) is as densely built as possible, so that the region has a center where people can live on foot. If we take the empty land we have as a chance to spread out in the core, we are not going to be a very viable city when fossil fuel becomes scarce. (Oh, and density makes public assembly easier — a huge benefit in an age where democracy is devolving into armchair retweeting.)

    A new house is better than a vacant lot, sure, but three new houses are better than one. And there are many places where ranch houses are appropriate in the region.

  • Eric

    I don’t always think the strict regulations of a Soulard is a good idea. But unfortunately, because of builders’ like this, who have no clue in taste, the regulations are probably a good idea.

    I’m not against an ultra-modern home in Laf Square or Benton Park. As long as it looks like it’s quality and relatively expensive.

    But this ranch house looks like it came from the poorest part of Maplewood. It looks like what I picture the Katrina trailers to look like.

  • Eric

    Ann, go to any thriving city in the US. (NY, Chicago, San Fran). They all fill up their historic homes quite well. As does STL

    And, even if you (and others) find the historic layout limiting, replacing it with an ugly, out of place, cheap home, is not the answer (even if you could probably fit 2! sofas in the living room).

    There is a time and place for this style home. It’s called Arnold, MO, 1986.

  • Anonymous

    That street is chopped up in that area, but that is a terrible house in this location. City officials just don’t get, do they?

  • Anonymous

    I thought about it today a bit. What the city is saying is that the route along Lafayette, from Soulard Market to the busy urban style intersection at Grand, along a route through 2 Historic Districts and many previous, often partially government funded, efforts to maintain urban style architecture along this route, this building is allowed? It is saying screw transit along this route, screw a walkable city in this area,

    in fact it is saying screw the major investments in Lafayette Square and Soulard, not to mention other adjacent areas. Talk about destroying continuity.

    Who in the city is responsible for this absurd structure? Who, the mayor? or is someone in planning? This is an asinine project in the wrong place and the wrong time, unbelievable.

    Is this just how mediocre the leadership is in this town?

  • http://www.preservationresearch.com Michael R. Allen

    No city officials had jurisdiction over the project save the Building Division reviewers. Those reviewers would have examined compliance with zoning and the city building code, and that is it. The house meets both.

  • Don De Vivo

    Interesting using a Forest Park Southeast house in this way, On tuesday we have a hearing on A new business district for the entire 45 blocks. What looks like the same eminent domain plan we held off over 15 years ago. It will clear that house from existence in a few short years. This is how an alderman has development control, fits perfectly with the community redevelopment act, will be supported by the entire board and many will lost home values under this blight, property values have already been hit by the Trash fee, water bill increase etc. Time to understand the real issues in the upcoming 2013 local elections.

  • Anonymous

    You are citing this building as inappropriate. I could not agree with you more. However, there has to some accountability here. Is it as you suggest city officials from over 60 years ago?

    Issues from global warming to why should St. Louis not try to out suburbanize the suburbs are ignored, it is clear there is no one in City Hall addressing these problems.
    The same problems which are recurring over and over in different forms. SLU at the Grand Ave light rail station, CVS on Lindell and so on.
    The solution is simple, an urban zoning designation that requires developers to build buildings in these zones that are walkable, transit friendly and provide continuity to the surroundings. (Is that asking too much?)
    Let the public know where these designations are located so they can be debated.
    Don De Vivo suggests elections. But instead it only points to the absence of debate in the main stream media and in city hall.

    You bring up a serious issue in my mind. Where is the Board of Aldermen, the Mayor? I’m sure if there was general knowledge of this project in Lafayette Square, the people there would be outraged.
    The City of St. Louis is small enough that the citizens should know ahead of time what future development is acceptable, block by block, this goes for the demolitions in your next post about MLK and the efforts that will go into saving buildings in certain locations.

    Basically you are saying then that no one in city government is accountable then? That’s scary. It is a city planning system running itself by magic.
    Why isn’t there legislation before the Board of Aldermen to change any of this? How is it we can’t have conversations about these issues after 60 years? (except Preservation Research and a few other blogs)