Adaptive Reuse Historic Preservation Mullanphy Emigrant Home North St. Louis Old North Streets

Moonlight Ramble Included the Mullanphy Emigrant Home

by Michael R. Allen

Early Sunday morning, cyclists on this year’s Moonlight Ramble made a north turn to ride by the historic Mullanphy Emigrant Home in Old North St. Louis. The Ramble, organized each year since 1964 by the Gateway Council of Hostelling International USA, is a midnight bike ride held on the Saturday night nearest the full moon in August. Over 15,000 riders participated this year, and each one got to see first-hand what could be an exciting new home for Hostelling International’s local chapter.
While the route of the ride was a secret, word had already spread that this year’s ride proceeds would benefit the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, envisioned as a world-class hostel by the Gateway Council. Hostelling International hopes to continue rehabilitation of the Emigrant Home, hit by devastating storms in 2006 and 2007 and now largely stabilized through the efforts of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.

The hostel plan would both restore the historic architecture of a building built in 1867 from plans by renowned architects George Barnett and Alfred Piquenard and also rededicate the building to housing the itinerant. The Emigrant Home originally housed immigrants headed westward through St. Louis from New York and other eastern ports. Hosteling International would provide lodging for a different sort of migrant — travelers exploring the United States. If the hostel opens it would be a serendipitous revival of the building’s original purpose.

Meanwhile, residents of Old North are enthusiastic about the prospects for the building’s future, and the legions of travelers who might come through their neighborhood as they travel this country. That enthusiasm was on display in full force last night, and a throng of neighbors (including people from the block facing the Emigrant home) welcomed thousands of riders for well over an hour. To learn more about the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, visit

All photographs by Lynn Josse.

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.

Chicago Infrastructure Streets


by Michael R. Allen

This neat feature alerts drivers in an alley headed north toward Ontario Street between Linden and Euclid avenues in Oak Park, Illinois. Embedded tiles form a sturdy, enduring stop sign.

Downtown Infrastructure North St. Louis Streets Transportation

Time is Right for Making Changes to New Mississippi River Bridge

by Michael R. Allen

On February 28, outgoing Missouri Governor Matt Blunt announced that Illinois and Missouri had reached a final agreement for construction of the new Mississippi River Bridge. While actual construction remains a few years away, the agreement brings back to the forefront concerns about the bridge’s impact on the urban fabric of north St. Louis.

While officials long ago shelved a highly destructive initial bridge concept that included a local traffic connector from the bridge to 14th street, the current plan leaves much to be desired. There are many problems

Clearance. The bridge plan still entails clearance of historic buildings and existing business. While the path of the bridge itself is actually one of the least invasive paths possible, the affiliated roadway projects will entail demolition of dozens of buildings. Particularly troubling is the plan to wipe out all of the buildings remaining on the east side of 10th Street north of Hempstead Street. There are many occupied buildings and houses in that stretch. Most important, the part of Old North St. Louis east of I-70 is integral to connecting Old North to the emerging North Broadway corridor.

Bridge planners are more concerned with traffic efficiency than creating infrastructure that respects settlement patterns. While I-70 has some maddening issues related to placing exit ramps in odd spots due to existing buildings, those issues are small concessions to reality. Reality is that cities are what bind people together, and highways are but a means to that bind. Reconfiguring the St. Louis Avenue interchange is economically profligate; the plan entails spending millions on a road project with no economic return. Reconnecting Old North and North Broadway will cost less and maintain an existing building stock with the potential for high real estate values.

A corollary is that the presence of highway noise and pollution lowers real estate values. Why on earth political leaders would want to champion anything that lowers real estate values amid a recession is beyond my comprehension.

Connectivity. The plan still entails closure of north-south streets like 10th Street. Northside residents use these streets to get downtown. Closing the connections will stall pedestrians and add time to drivers’ commutes. Closing the connections could isolate Old North from downtown. There is natural synergy between Old North and downtown, but there are physical impediments caused by a belt of vacant land, industrial uses and monolithic public housing complexes. The bridge exploits that belt, and tightens it.

Short-Sightedness. The new bridge does not address the terrible congestion caused by the poor configuration of ramps on the Poplar Street Bridge. Would the bridge even be needed if the Poplar Street’s problems were fixed? No.

The bridge plan does not include any allowance for public transit. There is no space on the bridge for a street car line. That’s going to seem silly in 25 years when our automobile lifestyle will be in crisis. Oh, well — at least we can still walk across the bridge then.

Avoidance. The bridge path funnels I-70 traffic out of East St. Louis and away from downtown St. Louis. This path is a boon to people wanting to live in far-off Illinois suburbs like Highland but work in St. Louis or St. Charles counties. Sure, long-distance traffic will be well-served by a new bridge, but so will exurb-to-exurb commuters.

The bridge itself seems every bit a done deal. But are the details cast in concrete? No. There is still space to mitigate the bridge’s impact on the urban fabric of the near north side. Since almost every change for the better involves reducing the project cost, changes are not only logical but prudent. In the wake of the agreement, it’s time to make the best of the bridge.

Infrastructure North St. Louis South St. Louis Streets Transportation

Hemmed In

by Michael R. Allen

A resident of north St. Louis is heading south to see a friend. He drives south on Florissant Avenue but then remembers that the section of Florissant/13th/Tucker over the old Illinois Termianl Railroad tunnel is closed indefinitely. So he makes a left turn on Cass Avenue, figuring that he can useBroadway to head south and bypass downtown. oops! The bridge over I-70 is closed indefinitely. So he turns around, heads west on Cass and then south on Jefferson. That is fine until he passes I-64. Jefferson is closed.

In the kind of city where north-south connectivity is easy, this driver would not be having so much trouble. But in a city with fewer than a half-dozen north-south streets that actually connect downtown to the city south of it, he’s in a bind due to some coincidental road repairs.

There is definitely a spatial dimension to our city’s polarization between north and south. I sure hope that Richard Baron is thinking about this fact as he contemplates Chouteau Lake.

Downtown Infrastructure Streets

How About a Big Plan for Downtown Circulation?

by Michael R. Allen

I certainly don’t disagree that the Gateway Mall needs massive reconfiguration. I’m not opposed to drawing more people to the riverfront. I definitely would like to see a better connection between downtown and the Gateway Arch grounds.

However, as someone who uses downtown as a pedestrian up to seven days a week, I can’t say that any of those concerns is high on my mind as I walk around. One of my biggest concerns is the traffic flow. With the traffic lights not synchronized, the flow of traffic downtown is ragged — especially east of Tucker. This creates a somewhat unpredictable environment for pedestrians, and annoyances for drivers. Perhaps the Gateway Foundation or another civic-minded group would like to underwrite a study on synchronizing downtown traffic lights.

Another concern is the prevalence of loading zones and no-parking zones. On some streets, like almost all of Locust east of 9th Street and Washington east of 10th Street, there is no on-street parking at all. No surprise that few street-level uses are found on these stretches, and that pedestrians avoid these speedways. On-street parking would help businesses, slow traffic and create a more welcoming pedestrian environment.

Also of concern is the growing number of signs, benches, outdoor dining areas and other obstructions that impede the public right-of-way. While not devastating, this problem creates hostile spots for pedestrians, who aren’t always equally able-bodied. I welcome outdoor dining, but hope that the city thinks circulation on public sidewalks is a higher priority.

Then there are street and alley closures and cut-offs that force people into unnatural travel patterns. Sadly, the Gateway Mall Master Plan actually recommends new street closures. Such closures are the worst thing that could happen downtown right now. Streets are the mechanisms of urban exchange; they create economic opportunities for developers and merchants. More streets are always a good thing for a downtown.

Sidewalks and streets are our rights as citizens of a city. They create the means of traversing the city, moving people as well as goods. The success of downtown hinges on the usability of its streets and sidewalks, which deliver people to the buildings where they live, work or spend money. Big plans for the downtown area need to examine circulation issues. In fact, I would argue that the circulation issues are far more pivotal than the supposed lack of destinations fueling the Gateway Mall and riverfront plans. I think that many of the problems with people not going to certain parts of downtown is more due to poorly-functioning streets as well as a lack of places to live, work and shop (read: functional urban buildings). Fixing some of these problems will yield bigger results than any of the current big plans could.

Downtown Infrastructure South St. Louis Streets

Median Planters

by Michael R. Allen

Before the new Downtown Economic Stimulus Authority rushes to order new median planters for Tucker Boulevard downtown, its members should make an inspection of the results south on Tucker between Chouteau and Lafayette. There, the new median planters do more than serve the needed purpose of slowing traffic. The planters are too tall, blocking the view across the street and reinforcing the divide between the King Louis Square development and LaSalle Park. Being made of concrete, they are starting to get scuffed by cars — and even without scuffing are bland.

And, while I am sure that downtown plantings would get more care, the median plantings on 14th Street nearby — more sensibly planted on lower, curb-style medians — are decidedly shabby and overgrown. It’s amazing that in three short years the “beautification” plantings on 14th Street would already be so carelessly untended and the pattern of neglect that plagued the Darst-Webbe project would begin to return. Alas, one cause may be that 14th Street has been narrowed and traffic has been shunted west to the barren Truman Parkway. While broad thoroughfares like Tucker are generally disruptive, narrowed streets with obstacles like 14th Street often become dead spaces due to a lack of traffic. That seems to be what has happened to 14th Street, although it does not excuse the lack of maintenance.

A better idea for both the medians on Tucker and the plantings on 14th Street might be fewer exotic plantings and more native plants, and less elaborate plantings in general. Streets need beautification, but their primary purpose is the movement of people and vehicles. Contrary to city-in-a-garden musings, the street is no landscape. Why not focus instead on the quality of pedestrian experience?

Hopefully improvements on Tucker will be sensitive to the needs of street and sidewalk users, and not showy disruptions.

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.

Central West End Green Space Infrastructure Streets Urbanism

Park Space Isn’t All That BJC Threatens

by Michael R. Allen

If BJC gets to lease part of Forest Park, can the city not require them to reopen Euclid Avenue to through traffic? I am very disturbed that the city would contemplate leasing part of a public park to a private entity for new construction, but I am even more upset that the city has already granted BJC de facto ownership of public thoroughfares through their “campus.”

The park space issue raises a huge red flag with the voters, who overwhelmingly seem to oppose it. I suppose park space is obvious community space that people generally value. Street space, much more fundamental to building good neighborhoods, is also public space and worthy of defense. Yet few people defend streets against closures, culde-sacs and such. In fact, some vocal Forest Park Southeast residents oppose the proposed new BJC lease as vocally as they call for making some culvert-pipe barriers permanent closures with gates or walls.

BJC’s rampant expansion is creating a problem far worse than, although reflected in, the proposed lease: the creation of a virtual citadel that will sever connections between the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast (or “The Grove”). This is a terrible thing for FPSE, which is showing miraculous signs of recovery and the resurgence of the Manchester Avenue commercial district. That rebound will suffer if people cannot find FPSE or get to it quickly from other neighborhoods.

If Mayor Francis Slay wants to continue his public-defying embrace of the lease, he ought to demand that BJC provide some thing other than money in return. He needs to make sure that BJC stops closing streets and stops building parking garages that have no street-level retail or office space. Taylor Avenue in particular is a major connector between the CWE and FPSE, yet BJC treats it like their service alley and rush-hour freeway. The worst buildings, garages and lots face Taylor — yet Metro is relocating the Central West End MetroLink station entrance to Taylor from Euclid.

Save our park, and restore our streets!

Downtown Infrastructure Missouri Legislature Streets

Despite Some Flaws, MoDESA is Good for St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

I’m definitely a supporter of the Missouri Downtown [and Rural] Economic Stimulus Act (MoDESA), which permits cities to take up to 50 percent of both state sales taxes and state withholding taxes generated by new development projects. The law gives cities up to 25 years to continue using this share of state taxes, and restricts use to infrastructure needs.

As someone who works downtown and who has been walking the streets of downtown since I was a child, I am excited at the prospect for infrastructure improvements downtown. Beyond Washington Avenue, most downtown streets could use anything from repaving to new sidewalks. All of downtown could stand new street, consistent lighting — the current distribution of new, fancier lights around new projects gives the appearance that the city doesn’t feel that the basics are important for all of downtown. Much of downtown infrastructure has deteriorated past the point of acceptability.

Of course, the city has not had the means to make big repairs. Much of downtown’s current infrastructure dates to 1950’s-era projects that were built when the city still had a residential population of around 856,000 people. The sort of public works consistency possible with that tax base is a distant memory nowadays, although completely necessary to attract new residents and business owners — and retain existing ones.

MoDESA is akin to the State Historic Tax Credit in that it levels things financially for older areas of great cultural importance that have special economic troubles that may otherwise be exceedingly difficult to address. Like tax credits, the MoDESA money is not a subsidy but an allowance to apply revenue generated in these areas to improvement projects — and since it applies to any area in the state that matches certain criteria, it doesn’t unfairly benefit cities or small towns. It just gives them some help.

There are political problems with using the money, and St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has already made moves that are suspect. For instance, the first MoDESA project was originally going to be based entirely on projects by the Pyramid Companies, and was revised to include one other project by another developer. However, this proposal will target the desolate Tucker Boulevard streetscape for improvements — long overdue.

A disappointing move on the Mayor’s part is his appointment of the local authority to oversee the MoDESA money. There are nine voting members and two non-voting members, including the mayor. The roster of the mayor’s eight appointments consists entirely of longtime political players, five of whom are members of city development boards, one of whom works for St. Louis University, and one of whom is Downtown St. Louis Partnership head Jim Cloar. Most glaring is the absence of a single downtown resident. Isn’t this the mayor who mentions downtown residents in every speech about development in the city?

MoDESA, however, is a good thing for the city and state despite the expected flaws in its application.