Historic Preservation North St. Louis Old North Streets

Reconnection in Old North, and a Suggestion for McEagle

by Michael R. Allen

Days that came, years again
Came in here once again

— John Cale, “Big White Cloud”

One of the highlights of this gloomy week has been a look at one of the north side’s biggest development stories: the removal of the failed pedestrian mall on 14th Street in Old North. As part of the $35 million Crown Square project, the city has removed the street closures and is working on reconstructing both the two closed blocks of 14th Street between St. Louis Avenue and Warren Street and the two closed blocks of Montgomery Street between Blair Avenue and 13th Street. While work on the 27 historic buildings being rehabilitated has been underway since September 2007 and is nearing completion, delays forced the actual street work to this fall. The streets should be reopened in the spring.

Already the removal of the mall’s pavement, trees and light posts has opened views around the now-rehabilitated historic buildings. The sense of connection to the surrounding neighborhood slowly lost after the pedestrian mall opened in 1977 has returned. All that awaits are actual sidewalks, street lights and the centerpiece street.

People are already there. Headhunters Salon has remained open on the mall during construction, and Peter Sparks has been working on his building at the northwest corner of Montgomery and 14th. Sparks envisions a gallery and art studios. More recently, residents have moved into many of the units in the buildings on 14th Street. For now, they enter through rear entrances. In the future, the residents will be able to walk up and down 14th Street.

One of the first storefront spaces to be occupied is the new office of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group at 2700 N. 14th Street. Built in 1925, the one-story commercial building had been robbed of its shaped parapet and clad in enamel panels in 1955. Through design by Rosemann Associates and historic research by Matt Bivens of the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (RHCDA), the building has been returned to historic appearance. Inside is both the office of the Restoration group and a large community exhibit and meeting space, shown below.

The office features sliding doors made of slavaged floor boards and a reception desk made of timbers that once were part of the floor system in the building.

The view from that desk shows the fruits of the organization’s hard work. The Restoration Group is a development partner with RHCDA in Crown Square. The community development corporation spent over a decade trying to spur redevelopment of the pedestrian mall area. Now that the redevelopment is almost done, the organization appropriately has moved into a new space in the heart of the project and at the center of the neighborhood. Once the street reopens, the office will be easy to find. Large windows provide a visual connection to neighborhood.

Another north side development story this week involved the formal announcement of a redevelopment agreement for the Northside Regeneration project. That project’s developer, McEagle Properties, has a long way to go before it completes its first $35 million is actual redevelopment. Meanwhile, McEagle needs the support and good will of the north side residents and businesspeople its project aims to serve. Why not open a field office like the new Old North St. Louis Restoration Group office? McEagle’s physical presence has been limited to vacant buildings, orange construction fencing and hired lawn mowing crews. That’s quite a contrast to a pleasant office and community space with big storefront windows, a friendly staff and a welcome mat. Presence in the community doesn’t happen at press conferences, on Twitter or through fancy websites — it happens on the street, where eveyone can find it.

North St. Louis Old North Streets

Progress on 14th Street

by Michael R. Allen

The mall is dead! Crews finally have removed all of the raised pedestrian mall on 14th Street in Old North. Work is underway on reconstructing the streets and sidewalks that will connect the neighborhood to the rehabbed buildings in the two-block stretch between St. Louis and Warren avenues.

One block north of the former mall, the Urban Studio Cafe opened last week at 2815 N. 14th Street next door to Crown Candy Kitchen. The cafe offers coffee, pastries and (starting tomorrow) lunch items.

The Urban Studio Cafe is open from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. daily. What a huge difference it makes for Old North to have a spot for residents to gather and hang out away from home! This is the type of “commercial development” that the north side needs most — development that builds up the social capital of neighborhoods.

Downtown JNEM Laclede's Landing Riverfront Streets

Making a Difference on the Riverfront

by Michael R. Allen

The southern flank of the mighty Eads Bridge has received a major landscape upgrade, due to the efforts of Metro, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial and the Laclede’s Landing Redevelopment Corporation. That is to say, the strip between the bridge approach and Washington Avenue actually now is landscaped! The difference between the formerly part-mulch, part-dirt terrain and the new verdant tree-planted, grassy, flowery setting could not be more stark.

For years, this area was a disgraceful disarray in an area marred by many such urban design problems, including the intrusive elevated section of I-70, the parking garage barrier on the northern edge of the Memorial and the lackluster riverfront itself. The “Washington Avenue Beautification Project” does not resolve these larger issues, but vanquishes the terrible appearance of a very-visible area. Pedestrians on the Eads Bridge can now look out at the Gateway Arch and grounds, and look down and see an extension of that inviting park setting.

I do have a quibble with the project concerning the lack of sidewalk on most of this side of Washington. (The other side of the street has a continuous sidewalk.) The photograph on the left shows the sidewalk running east from Second Street to First Street, while that on the right shows the strip running west.

Between Second Street and Memorial Drive, the trees are planted far out from the bridge, making addition of a sidewalk in the future difficult without removing a lane of the street. However, here Washington has four overly-wide lanes, and narrowing is highly desirable. The sidewalk would ultimately connect to the Eads Bridge pedestrian lane, allowing for an easy walk from the Landing up to the bridge deck.

Addition of metered parking here — something that Metro, operator of the garage, would likely oppose — would be desirable. Meters would relieve parking problems on the Landing and calm traffic. However, a continuous sidewalk would be needed. Perhaps this issue can be explored in any design competition that the National Park Service (NPS) undertakes for the Memorial. NPS’ draft general management plan for the Memorial identifies the parking garage site as potentially worth repurposing, so this corridor could be transformed at some point.

Of course, the sidewalk would lead westward walkers out into the morass of the Eads Bridge/Memorial Drive/Washington Avenue intersection. This intersection may be the most confusing in the city! Hopefully any design competition will lead to resolution of this problem, which plagues one of the Memorial’s key entry points. Removal of the interstate is the most direct way to clarify traffic issues here, but that removal is probably on a slower track than the design competition timeline. Who knows? Perhaps the design competition will be the impetus for grad civic thinking on urban design, and our political leaders will embrace a visionary change downtown like those who laid out the Memorial did so long ago.

For now, the most-traveled pedestrian path between downtown and the Landing is right here. Can’t see the path? Well, look carefully. There is a gate-sized opening in the fence of this parking lot on Second Street. People walk back and forth across this lot all day long, because it remains the most direct link between the Landing and downtown. It does not require much imagination to recognize that there is a major connectivity issue here. A sidewalk on Washington would have helped, although the larger disconnect between the riverfront and downtown remains the big problem.

The Washington Avenue Beautification Project points the way to a realistic way to implement changes to the riverfront that will add up to transformative action. While we need visionary leadership on the riverfront design challenge, we also need resolution of glaring quality of experience problems whose resolution is obvious. This space on Washington needed landscaping, and now it is landscaped. Laclede’s Landing needs a better pedestrian connection to downtown. Perhaps a sidewalk on the north side of Washington is the way to go — narrow the street, build a sidewalk along the new plantings. Perhaps the path already being used could be formalized through reconstruction of Lucas Avenue west through the parking lot. Let’s follow one change with another and keep the momentum rolling.

Downtown I-70 Removal JNEM Streets

Memorial Boulevard

by Michael R. Allen

Yesterday evening I happened to be driving south on I-70 through downtown St. Louis. Often this drive passes by and barely registers in my mind, but this time I could not help but vividly see something — something that was not there. As I rode the elevated lanes that divide and conquer the area between downtown and the riverfront, I looked south at the point where 4th Street comes close to I-70. There, the highway and the street form a wedge shape filled by overabundant sidewalk space, a parking lot and the Hampton Inn.

I imagined that instead of being elevated ahead of a descent, I was driving at grade from Cass Avenue all of the way to the Poplar Street Bridge. The highway became an urban thoroughfare allowing for easy local access and great views. I could foresee stopping at traffic lights as pedestrians walked from the casino over to restaurants on Washington Avenue, or from downtown apartments to the river for a stroll. Instead of a gravel lot, I saw a completed Bottle District with modern mid-rise residential buildings. Lumiere Place presented an attractive face to downtown.

Straight ahead, I did not see the weary concrete sidewalks and parking lot ahead of the Hampton Inn, but a new flatiron office building with a fountain in the middle of the plaza where traffic between the boulevard merged with Fourth Street. The sensation was akin to the view of downtown Chicago offered at the point near the Drake Hotel where Lake Shore Drive meets the north end of Michigan Avenue. That view always gives me a giddy feeling, because the essence of the entire urban density of Chicago seems to come into view there. The options there are staying on Lake Shore Drive for the breathtaking view of the lake or turning off onto the Magnificent Mile. There is no mediocrity in sight.

Yesterday, I saw a similar picture. I could make a right turn and veer off into the excitement of downtown, lured by the refined architecture of the Missouri Athletic Club, or head straight for that section of downtown that is right at the Gateway Arch. Either way I was going to see our urban core at its best. When I was right at the Arch, instead of dangerously looking up through aging concrete infrastructure, I caught a red light and had at least 20 seconds to take in the glistening sheen of the Arch skin reflecting the golden sunset.

Demolition DeVille Motor Hotel land use Midtown Streets Urbanism

Dead Zone

by Michael R. Allen

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to spend some time at the site on Locust Street where the livery stable demolished by St. Louis University in 2007 once stood. The site would be located at the northwest corner of Locust and Josephine Baker Avenue, except that the university requested that Josephine Baker be removed.

The occasion was the filming of This Was the Future, a short documentary on the efforts to save the DeVille Motor Hotel (more on that film later). For the film, interview subjects were invited to select a site where a historic building once stood that is now an empty hole in a vibrant area. While it is hard to choose from some of the harsh empty lots we have in this city, I settled on what has to be one of the worst urban planning disasters in recent years.

The two-story livery stable building was a bridge between the emergent renewal in the Locust Street Business District and the more established revitalization of Grand Center. Grand Center’s motto is “the intersection of art and life,” an acknowledgment of the power of crossroads. Here stood a building that was a crossroads, and now we have an asphalt chasm, and not even a literal crossroads since one of the two streets here is now gone.

Even as a warehouse, the livery stable exuded more life than the parking lot on a busy night. On a Saturday afternoon, not a single car was parked on the lot, and few were parked at nearby meters. Clearly, the lot is there for special events. However, trading the potential of daily urban activity in a rehabilitated building for the occasional overuse of a parking lot makes no sense in a central city location. Not at all.

The side effect of the livery stable debacle is the spatial segregation (through building density) of Grand Center from the emergent area on Locust and of Renaissance Place (through removal of Josephine Baker) from St. Louis University and Locust Street. Human-scale urban renewal has finally come to Midtown on Locust Street and at Renaissance Place, and a potential connection between those successes is lost, and replaced with a land use that not only divides but is totally alien to the surrounding urban fabric. We could have done so much better.

Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis Streets

MLK Clean Up

From State Senator Jeff Smith:

Closer to home, I’m organizing our second annual Martin Luther King, Jr., Day Cleanup of MLK Jr. Blvd in the city, on Monday, Jan. 19 – the state holiday honoring the civil rights leader. This is a great opportunity to honor the life and memory of Dr. King, and last year, (in spite of the weather), we had a great time doing it. I invite any of you, along with your friends, friends, neighbors and any organizations to which you belong, to meet at the corner of MLK Jr. Boulevard and Union at 12 p.m. on Monday. Gloves, trash bags, donuts, and hot chocolate will be provided!

If you can make it, just call my district aide Johnny Little at (314) 601-4252, or reply to this email (

2009 St. Louis Election Infrastructure South St. Louis Streets

Pointless Change at Grand and Chouteau

by Michael R. Allen

At last night’s candidate forum sponsored by the 15th Ward Democrats, Comptroller Darlene Green received applause for an issue not directly related to her campaign. When asked about red light cameras, she said that she definitely knew of a camera that needs to be removed: the red light camera at Grand and Chouteau. Mayor Francis Slay arrived during this time, so Green directly addressed the mayor from the podium.

The problem with the light, Green said, is that it is part of changes to the intersection that forces the three lanes of southbound traffic on Grand into two with a left-turn-only lane at Chouteau. Past Chouteau, the road is back to three lanes. Rarely do left turns clog the southbound lanes, and there are always vehicles in the inside lane that have to move over at the last minute to avoid getting a camera ticket from running straight in a turn-only lane.

The audience burst into applause, for good reason. That intersection reconfiguring is one of the silliest in the city. Before the camera went up, I joined many drivers in ignoring the changes. Since I am not an alderman, getting a red light ticket fixed might be difficult, so I now reluctantly obey the pointless changes there.

All of the red light cameras violate the spirit of the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and any sensible view of law enforcement. I hope that Comptroller Green’s recommendation is followed, but we need to pull them out completely. The changes at Grand and Chouteau are blatantly revenue-driven, and impede smart traffic flow there. They need to be undone. Then we need to get rid of the remaining red light cameras and find a more dignified, constitutional way of enhancing city revenue.

Infrastructure St. Charles County St. Louis County Streets

St. Louis Area Makes a List for Obama Administration

by Michael R. Allen

An article in the December 26 edition of the St. Louis Business Journal reported that the City of St. Louis has created a 400-page report on its federal infrastructure funding priorities, while St. Louis County has created a 200-page document of the same. The governments will deliver these reports to the incoming presidential administration of Barack Obama in response to his promise to channel federal dollars into public works programs across the nation.

The city’s report outlines some big-ticket priorities: $900 million for the North/South MetroLink line, $219.5 million in streetscape improvements, $160 million in public school building improvements, $80 million in airport improvements and $59 million to implement the Gateway Mall Master Plan. According to Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman, all of these projects are ready to start as soon as they are funded, but full funding is unlikely immediately. Still, the city’s placement of MetroLink expansion at the top of its list is smart, since that is a crucial component of building a strong city economy and connecting citizens to jobs. The city’s list carries some basic but crucial needs: street and transportation improvements and school renovation. (The Gateway Mall project is another story, but something does need to happen to the mall area.) These are important to stabilizing our neighborhoods, and Geisman should be commended for placing a high priority on these things.

Moving beyond the ready-to-go ideas, perhaps the city would consider a future request for an urban homesteading program. The program could find funding to stabilize and market the Land Reutiliation Authority’s thousands of vacant homes across the city, generating hundreds of construction jobs and getting tax-free property back on city tax rolls where it can generate money to fund roads and schools.

St. Louis County’s list starts with a $200 million, 3.3-mile expansion on Highway 141 at the top followed by the $105 million needed to retain existing Metro public transportation in the outer county. A significant and less costly item on the St. Louis County list is $24 million to fund a Midwest China Trade and Commercialization Center at NorthPark. While the China cargo hub prospect is not a done deal, it has the potential to bring more jobs to the St. Louis area in the next decade than any other prospect.

Other requests headed to the Obama administration are a predictable $510 million highway spending request from the Missouri Department of Transportation and a $66 million request to extend Page Avenue farther into St. Charles County, so that one may have a straight drive from downtown St. Louis to Mid Rivers Mall Drive. These requests are the usual pave-it-and-they-will-come junk.

Obviously, the disparate requests show the problem of regional political fragmentation. Inevitably, there will be partial funding of many requests rather than full funding of something big and transformational. Imagine what might happen if the regional governments pulled together with one request for the North/South MetroLink line this year, and further extensions in the future, rather than place the burden solely on the City of St. Louis. Imagine if the Missouri Department of Transportation put some of the needed Metro funding in its request.

Remember when we imagined that Obama could become president? Now that the dream is real, it’s time to imagine other changes closer to home. Or, we can all fight over the pie for the next eight years, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess where that will get the St. Louis area.

Architecture Downtown Streets

Locust Street Canyon

by Michael R. Allen

The view east from 11th Street of Locust Street in downtown St. Louis is encouraging. The differentiation of building heights, materials and styles gives the scene a truly urban complexity. Changes are in store as the Roberts Brothers prepare to rehabilitate two buildings (913 & 917 Locust) and demolish two buildings (921 & 923 Locust) in this scene. On the site of the demolished buildings will rise an addition to 917 Locust that will be part of a Hotel Indigo. How will their new building fit in this scene?

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.