Downtown East St. Louis, Illinois Green Space I-70 Removal JNEM Laclede's Landing Planning Riverfront

Drawing the Connections

by Michael R. Allen

Robert W. Duffy’s article “To connect the Arch to the city (and the river), find the middle” in the Beacon broadcasts the good news from this weekend: a group of concerned citizens forged a coalition to address the issue of reconnecting downtown St. Louis to the Arch grounds and the riverfront, and vice versa.

The meeting and consensus for forward movement potentially could tie together many disparate strands of thinking:

  • Former Senator Jack Danforth’s call for improving access to the Arch grounds and making the setting more attractive.
  • The notion of removing I-70 downtown advanced by Rick Bonasch, myself and others, which is enabled by construction of a new Mississippi River Bridge north of downtown.
  • The National Park Service’s release of a draft General Management plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.
  • The call from open space advocates and preservationists to refocus public discussion from the museum prospect on connecting the Arch grounds to surrounding urban fabric.
  • The outpouring of many good ideas in the recent student charrette on the Arch grounds and riverfront.
  • Mayor Slay’s recent attempt to focus planning energy on the St. Louis riverfront.
  • Chivvis Development’s efforts to revitalize Chouteau’s Landing.
  • Plans by Great Rivers Greenway District to develop a South Rivefront Trail that would connect to the North Riverfront Trail in front of the Arch.
  • Plans for new development at the Bottle District and a second phase of Lumiere Place north of downtown.
  • Ongoing efforts to redevelop the North Riverfront Industrial Historic District north of Lumiere Place.
  • Efforts to improve the East St. Louis riverfront, including construction of an architectural museum.Finally, there is the very real prospect that the Obama administration will look for an initial wave of federally-funded public works projects and will push for long-term funding for urban infrastructure projects.

    All of these ideas and plans are in various stages of reality. Most have yet to move beyond talking points and renderings. Isn’t the moment ripe to link these plans together through a master vision for the central St. Louis riverfront? The people who came together on Saturday think so, and will spend the next few months trying to link the many ideas for making the city’s front entrance a beautiful one.

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    Abandonment Housing JeffVanderLou LRA North St. Louis Planning

    Side by Side on Sheridan Avenue

    by Michael R. Allen

    Left: 2944 Sheridan Avenue, abandoned and owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. Right: 2946 Sheridan, privately owned and well maintained. Left to right: one historic building in the city’s JeffVanderLou neighborhood.

    Historic Preservation North St. Louis Planning St. Louis Place

    Big Picture View

    by Michael R. Allen

    This view is one of mt favorites in St. Louis Place. the view west toward St. Liborius church from Florissant Avenue is framed on the north side of Monroe Street by a row of lovely brick vernacular houses. I framed this shot to exclude the more troubling context across the street: empty lots, with vinyl-clad houses to the west. However, even in a broader view the beauty of this row, shining through decay of two of the buildings, and the church overpowers the unsightly surroundings.

    However, the view is a fragile thing. The three-story Italianate style corner building built in 1876, an imposing building that is one of Florissant’s last corner anchors here, has suffered intense roof damage. Three years ago, the building retained a rusty but intact standing-seem metal roof. This was perhaps the last such roof in St. Louis Place or Old North, even though the metal roofs used to be common on buildings of many roof types. Then, in July 2006, heavy winds vitually peeled the roof back and removed a lot of the sheathing. The owner, a limited liability holding company called KGA Properties LLC, draped blue tarps across the hole. The tarps themselves were destroyed in a few months, and the building’s interior remains unprotected. What damage is transpiring would probably break a heart.

    What is KGA Properties? This is a north side LLC name that is not part of any blogger litany. Well, the LLC’s registered agent is Delores Gunn, director of the St. Louis County Department of Health. Redevelopment efforts are stalled.

    Next door to the west, a classic side-entrance, three-bay house at 1507 Monroe Street is owned by Paul McKee’s VHS Partners. People do know that three-letter LLC. Next door to the west is an owner-occupied home; beyond that, where Monroe bends, is a double house that is privately owned. We can see what those owners want to do with their historic homes — keep them occupied and maintained. The plans of their neighboring corporations remain uncertain. I’m sure that the owners of the occupied houses sigh each time they pass by the empty buildings next door.

    The near north side is full of pockets like this one, with amazing historic architecture, some abandoned, surrounded by vacant land and new buildings. It’s the urban patchwork quilt few want to mend due to the difficulty of repair. Owner occupants hang on hoping for the best, while developers might also be hanging on in a different way, waiting for a political process in which redevelopment can happen. If the homeowners and the developers are both to be happy, we need leadership that represents the best interests of the near north side and its future to open the dialogue that will lead to redevelopment. Private interests get discussed a lot when people talk about the near north side, but what about the public interest?

    There is more than just the future of individual owners and buildings at stake. After all, each of the buildings in the first photograph are privately owned, but they compose a lovely urban view free and accessible to all. Each homeowner is part of a neighborhood made of many people. Step back, and there is a big picture view of the near north side. I hope that our political leaders see it.

    Downtown Green Space I-70 Removal JNEM Planning Streets

    The Greening of Memorial Drive

    by Michael R. Allen

    I count on my readers’ intake of other blogs on the same subjects that I cover, which is why I rarely link directly to the excellent posts made by other local urbanist bloggers.

    Still, sometimes a post elsewhere is so intriguing that I just want everyone in the world to read it. Rick Bonasch’s post “Yin, Meet Yang” today on STL Rising is one of those. In June, Rick introduced a plan for reworking Memorial Drive that is daring, bold and intelligent — take out the depressed and raised sections of I-70 and Memorial Drive, and put in an at-grade parkway that is both friendly to pedestrians and inspiring to drivers who get a great view of the Gateway Arch. This idea trumps the “lid” plan that offers little change to the ugly mess of roadways that detract from the Arch grounds’ western edge and prevent real access between downtown and the grounds. The “lid” is showy but also expensive, ineffective and unsustainable. For less money we could have a real urban design solution; for more, we can have a band-aid that covers about ten percent of a big wound.

    Today, Rick offers a new reason why the idea of reworking Memorial Drive is a good one — it can be very green.

    Downtown Green Space Parking Planning

    Thompson Coburn Garage and the Economics of Parking Downtown

    by Michael R. Allen

    Today, the St. Louis Business Journal is reporting that giant law firm Thompson Coburn announced today that it has signed a 12-year lease to remain in the US Bank Tower at 7th and Washington downtown. The lease comes with city incentives totalling $700,000 and, most interesting and unusual, a state-financed $15 million parking garage on the site of the Ambassador Building at 7th and Locust streets, currently a lifeless and unattractive “plaza.”

    The announcement comes after speculation that the law firm would relocate to the planned Brown Shoe Company campus on Maryland Avenue in Clayton. Clayton is still luring major businesses out of downtown, and snagging some that have also looked at moving downtown. Thus, the announcement is good news for a downtown that is seeing a decline in residential projects and a small, hopeful rise in the creation of rehabbed office space.

    The parking garage component is predictable, although undesirable in terms of planning. Sadly, we live in a city with a parking economy built on an inverse ratio of supply and demand. Downtown St. Louis has more parking spaces than residents, and probably more spaces than daily workers. Parking is cheap and easy. Parking is not quite free, like in the suburbs, but in this dense urban core, it barely costs anyone to park at all. In these cirumstances, any major employer who wants copious and adjacent parking gets it — either by building a new garage, leasing existing spaces or moving out of downtown where parking doesn’t cost employees at all.

    Obviously, downtown has an excess of parking. Lots are obvious visual blight, but garages aren’t much better. Even with street level retail, a garage doesn’t generate the same level of activity, visual interest and use as a building. That a garage on the Ambassador site is an improvement over the plaza says little about the new garage and a lot about the inadequacies of the protected private plaza.

    Pine Street suffers from a glut of parking garages, and has little to recommend it as an attractive street on which to do muchy more than park or grab a quick lunch. Locust Street is much better, although the recent addition of the Ninth Street Garage chips away at its urban character. The Thompson Coburn garage will be two blocks from the Nonth Street Garage, and only one block from one of downtown’s ugliest garages on Seventh Street, the so-called Hubcap Palace at Seventh and Olive streets.

    This proximity is not good for developing a downtown that is a compelling, lively, architecturally distiguished place. The economics of parking and land values downtown allow such proximity, while the planning apparatus of city government remains weak. Rather than examine the health of street life or even desirable land uses for downtown, all decisions are subsumed by economic logic. That’s well and good for function, yet we must remember downtown is not simply a series of useful structures, but also the core of our city that defines its architectural character to the world.

    Obviously, we need Thompson Coburn and other employers downtown. The firm needs parking. But we all need a downtown that compels the world to respect the great city of St. Louis. (In other words, this had better be the best damn parking garage in the world!)

    Downtown Green Space JNEM Parks Planning Streets

    Time to Revise Memorial Drive

    In my latest commentary for KWMU, I join what is becoming a bandwagon call: “Time to Revise Memorial Drive”.

    Kudos to Rick Bonasch, whose STL Rising blog post “The Case for a New Memorial Drive” served as my inspiration.

    Media North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Planning

    City Hall Meeting Opens Dialogue Between Near North Residents and Officials

    by Michael R. Allen

    On Wednesday’s near north side group Neighbors for Social Justice met at City Hall with Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford, Building Commissioner Frank Oswald, City Counselor Nuisance Property Attorney Matt Moak and Urban Solution President Marvin Steele. (McEagle Properties hired Urban Solution to implement a maintenance program for its over 700 properties in north St. Louis.) The long-sought meeting was productive if only the start of dialogue with city officials on how to shape the McKee project.

    The meeting has spurred media coverage, where details can be found (my commentary can be found in the Pub Def videos):

    North side residents continue to question McKee plan (KWMU)

    Developer Paul McKee Topic of City Hall Meeting (KMOX)

    Is Paul McKee dropping his plans for Old North? (Pub Def)

    More Accounts of Blairmont Meeting (Pub Def)

    Mayor Slay North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Planning

    Develop With Dignity

    by Michael R. Allen

    The rancorous discussion about development on the near north side of St. Louis seems without end. Often, we residents seem stuck between a rock (current conditions, which we do need to overcome) and a hard place (Paul McKee’s clandestine plans). Yet there is a better path than the status quo, which almost everyone will admit is not leading to enough development to transform our area, or a totally privatized plan, which could wipe out large parts of what we call home.

    Develop With Dignity is a coalition working to achieve a balanced vision. The group of north side churches, organizations, businesses and individuals have offered a clear set of positive principles for guiding future development:

    1. Engage area residents and their elected officials in formulating a redevelopment plan.

    2. No use of eminent domain on owner occupied property.

    3. Maintain current properties so they do not become a nuisance or a danger to the community.

    4. Every consideration must be given to developing diverse communities.

    These are simple and direct statements of what residents expect in future development. The principles cut through the mess of what McKee does or does not have planned with a platform for development that does not displace. we will have many heated discussions about the scope and form of new development, but we first need to set base standards for process.

    At a community meeting last night, Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) stated that she endorses these principles. Many organizations have already signed on, from Sts. Teresa and Bridget Parish to North Grand Neighborhood Services to St. Louis Crisis Nursery. Here is a working coalition for consensus-based decision-making. Some residents who have met privately with Paul McKee have reported that even he has been favorable to the principles, although he has not signed on. What if he did? Or what if Mayor Francis Slay signed on? What kind of dialog about development could we then start?

    Please consider signing on yourself:

    Agriculture land use Missouri Planning Regionalism

    Factory Farming in Missouri

    by Michael R. Allen

    The Joplin Globe published an excellent article on confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs) in Missouri: “Study: CAFOs affect neighbors’ property”. These operations have been replacing traditional animal farms for years — bringing with them debilitating conditions for animals, food packed with growth hormones with unresearched effects on consumers and now problems for neighboring human and animal populations through waste-water run-off. This is not to mention the number of family farms lost through factory farming.

    In the St. Louis region, there are many CAFOs in Illinois counties like Monroe and Missouri counties like Jefferson and Lincoln. Urbanists often talk about stopping sprawl through growth boundaries and form-based zoning, but there is a much less frequently-addressed part of the sprawl question. If we stop the creep of the suburbs, what do we want the rural lands surrounding St. Louis to look like? What sort of land uses are sustainable and acceptable, if large subdivisions, strip malls, office parks and the like are out of the question? What jobs will people have?

    Healthy agriculture is key to sustaining open land around the metropolis. Currently much of the land within our Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area is devoted to farming. As the energy crisis mounts, that amount of land may not change much. Yet “farming” as we know it has been altered to an unrecognizable world of factory farms, hormones, chemicals and corporations. Does agriculture in current practice serve the interest of a sustainable St. Louis region, or do we want to adopt a model that conserves our rich soil, sustains open space, preserves what’s left of family farms and prevents the poisoning of surrounding land?

    Infrastructure Lafayette Square Planning South St. Louis Streets

    More Evidence That Street Closures Are Stupid

    by Michael R. Allen

    A friend who lives in the Eden Publishing Building at Chouteau and Dolman streets in Lafayette Square shared the following anecdote. Dolman Street is needlessly closed just south of Chouteau, allowing access to the parking lot behind the Eden building but no through traffic. Last week, landscaping crews came out and planted shrubs in the little grassy area formed between the cul-de-sacs created by the street closure. Since the shrubs went in, a truck that once drove through the street over the closure must be taking a more delicate route. Deep ruts caused by truck tires since have appeared slightly to the right of the shrubs, forming a curve that avoids the new plants.