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AIA Holds Design Charrette in St. Louis’ The Ville Neighborhood

mlk charrette - 09.jpgSaturday’s design charrette in The Ville neighborhood was a tremendous success. The residents of the area are ready for change and, with a few exceptions, most understand the concepts of recreating a walkable neighborhood. The sheer number of residents participating in the all-day charrette organized by the St. Louis Chapter of the American Institute of Architects was encouraging.

Fourth Ward Alderman O.L. Shelton called the event “historic” and I think he is right, it was a critical step in a long road to returning The Ville to its rightful place as a culturally rich and diverse neighborhood.

I was unable to attend the first few hours of the charrette so I arrived after the seven teams had made their initial goals and had begun working on solutions. I spent the afternoon walking around observing the teams. One team had discussed my prior post advocating for a modern streetcar down MLK and they asked me to talk with them for a bit.

I want to reiterate: the charrette was a huge success. However, I want to offer my own critical thoughts on the charrette as well as the the main street, Martin Luther King Drive. The intent of the critical look is not to take away from the excellent work done over the weekend but to make sure the thought process stays on track.

Here we go…

At one point I saw a resident and architect discussing bike lanes. The architect was working on a streetscape drawing and it was decided they should make provisions for bicycles. The resident, it appeared, was the one bringing up bike lanes. He looked to me like he might actually bike often either out of necessity or simply to stay fit. The architect’s response floored me, she said they should only put a bike lane on one side of the street because traffic engineers probably wouldn’t want to give up that much roadway on two sides. WTF? I told myself going in to the event I was not going to make any attempts to influence the outcome with my own biases but I couldn’t let that one go by. I quickly informed her that it is safest for cyclists to ride with the flow of traffic and that if bike lanes were included they must be on both sides of the road.

The lesson here is just because someone has a degree and license does not mean they are knowledgeable about everything they are impacting. Sometimes architects & planners are wise and hire outside consultants to check their work from a logic and usability standpoint. In other cases they simply think their assumptions are valid without really knowing so. In architecture school we are taught to be confident in our work but sadly this can lead to functional incompetence and unjustified arrogance. A second opinion with respect to urbanity is very wise.

mlk charrette - 11.jpgThat same team included Preservation Board member, Old North St. Louis resident and talented architect John Burse. John was walking myself and Don Roe, St. Louis’ Deputy Director of Planning, through their concepts including some new building types for the street. In one place he was advocating a corner storefront with some attached row houses — recognizing you probably couldn’t line every bit of the street with retail. On a break I scooted up and down the street checking it out and photographing some of the incredible buildings that remain. I happened upon the building you see to the left. This “gem” (to quote John Burse) was located just west of the charrette area. When I returned with photos John was so happy to see a model example of what he was proposing. Using my iPod I was able to transfer the photos of that building to their team for their presentation.

A number of common threads ran through most of the teams. Nearly everyone suggested some form of walk of (local) fame, more recognition of Dr. King, a cultural center(s), slowing down traffic, and educational facilities. Among the teams early brain storming notes you could also see a common theme of simply wanting basic services: dry cleaners, post office, pharmacy, etc…

One of my personal biases is I just don’t get into “cultural” centers. These are often large wastes of money with static displays. The buildings are massive with equally massive parking lots. The idea of taking these displays and spreading them out along the street is far more appealing to me. Make the entire street a cultural center. Some teams had entire intersections designated with buildings for cultural or education uses. Well, these uses typically don’t enliven a sidewalk. One of the best ways to kill an urban intersection is to place internally focused uses on all four corners. If MLK is going to have any museums or educational facilities then these needs to be dispersed rather than concentrated. The static museum needs to be next to the place with outdoor cafe seating so no part of the street becomes a dead zone.

Open space and green space were a couple more phrases thrown around, mostly by the architects (lay folks say parks or playgrounds). The residents were identifying they needed nice park space just for relaxing as well as places for kids to play. I didn’t hear anyone mention a dog park but I did see a woman out walking her cute little dog so as the area increases in population I can see a dog park coming in handy. The real trick is where to place such uses.

The area along MLK is somewhat unique in that North-South street don’t run straight through. Many streets end into MLK. While it may be original I think traffic engineers at some point decided that was simply too inefficient for their taste and cut some angles through a few blocks to make the streets connected (see map of MLK & Sarah). While I love a connected grid I don’t think it is necessarily bad to have the grid shifted slightly from one side of a street to another. The result in a couple of places are some triangular shapes — one too small for any building and another with some modest newer structures (MLK @ Newstead).

One such triangle, at Sarah, is already completed as a small park although it is mostly hard surfaces. Some teams kept this and made other triangles as park space. The problem is these are small and surrounded by streets. Now, I’ve been to some parks of similar size and shape in the middle of NYC and those worked fine. In a high density area like NYC where you are surrounded by 6+ story buildings and sidewalks are bustling with people a little wedge of grass in the middle of some streets is actually quite relaxing. In St. Louis where the streets are wider than those in NYC and the buildings will be maybe 4-stories at best, these little wedges just don’t work as park space.

Park space along more conventional parcels on either side of MLK has some challenges as well. How big will it be and will it have enough users to remain a safe place? Park space cannot simply be the leftover land. Park space, to be considered safe, must be visible and have many users. Placing a small to medium pocket park next to an active building with sidewalk dining is a great way to create a sense of safety. Having the ability to buy a sandwich and drink to take to the park is also a great way to increase the use of park space.

Some teams talked about creating some public squares. A good public square has many of the same issues as a park but requires even greater attention to detail. Still, I love the idea of a nice single square. This could be combined with another idea that came up of having a farmers market space. The building, square and farmers market in the Loop comes to mind as an example of a good meeting place.

More than one team said they wanted the street and/or businesses to reflect the philosophy of Dr. King. I’m not sure what that looks like in literal bricks & mortar. While Dr. King wasn’t really a capitalist I suppose one could argue that many of the businesses in the new MLK should be locally owned & operated by local residents, regardless of race.

I think the way to best respect the memory of not only Dr. King but of the many significant African-American’s from The Ville would be to create a vibrant and thriving commercial corridor. The street should be dense and diverse. The racial makeup of the street should be very representative of St. Louis’ population — everyone represented and welcomed. Same for economic diversity with the entry-level worker living in the same area as the well to do neighborhood doctor or local proprietor. A community serving themselves is probably the closest to Dr. King’s “promised land.”

mlk charrette - 19.jpgOne of the saddest things about the street is not the years of decay but the thought that a cheap and ugly suburban Family Dollar store set back from the street was a good thing. The block store is being constructed across the street from the school where the charrette was held. Parking, typical of the suburbs, will be in front of the building. This is a street that has almost no investment in the last few decades it has actually managed to bypass bad suburban planning, until now. The store isn’t even finished yet and I think it should be torn down. A slightly more attractive building could have been built up to the street with some nice street trees to help conceal it. On-street parking would be convenient while additional parking could have been placed on the side & back of the building. A number of the architects were vocally upset about this new intrusion into the area.

With so many buildings gone it is hard to picture what it was and what it could be. I enjoyed talking with the local residents. Many have lived there for decades and remember the then Easton Ave. as a bustling shopping area. Unlike today’s youth that see the area only as a place to hopefully escape, these residents can see it returning. Their positive outlook was highly contagious.

Related to the idea of reflecting Dr. King’s philosophy was the idea that the district and street should reflect The Ville’s unique identity. Most teams expressed a desire to be different than anywhere else in the country. Bricks & mortar can only do so much. But I like where this desire comes from, a dislike of generic suburbia. We want our urban places to be unique because we know that most suburban streets lined with Lowe’s, Applebee’s, Target and all the other chain places looks pretty much the same in Ohio that it does in Texas or Missouri. The wisdom of the residents is that they recognize that they do not want to live in a common place that looks like it could be anywhere. Unfortunately this gets translated by professionals often as it must be a unique one of a kind place.

The problem with suburban sprawl is not that it looks like it could be anywhere and is therefore the opposite of unique. The problem is that suburban sprawl does not create a sense of place. Sprawl is a non-place which is not suitable for humans unless in an SUV. Trying to achieve a one of a kind street or district is simply an unrealistic goal that detracts from what should be the primary goal:

Create a street & district that is urban, vibrant and feels like a real place.

If people were to confuse MLK in The Ville with Philadelphia’s South Street I’d be quite pleased. If someone were blindfolded and brought to The Ville and they thought they were in NYC, Toronto, Madison or any other active city we will have succeeded.

Washington Avenue’s streetscape took the street & sidewalk design past the limits of good taste with the goal of being unique. Well, it is unique. However, if you were to show someone that had never been to St. Louis a photo of the street they’d not be able to say that was uniquely downtown St. Louis.

Custom designed streetlamps and a dizzying array of sidewalk pavers is not what MLK needs. What it does need are the buildings it has, many of which are beyond spectacular, renovated. It then needs new urban buildings, with a minimum of two floors, built up to the sidewalk. The new buildings should vary in color, massing and use. The street will need storefronts of various sizes, small rentals and ownership condos. Live/work units should be included for good measure. The sidewalks need to be widened which will reduce the street width, slowing traffic (a good thing as Martha would say).

Remember, bricks and mortar can only go so far. The people I met on Saturday are the unique element that brings life and character to an area. They are the treasure that no amount of physical construction can ever hope to emulate.

The following is what I would do as a starting point:

  • Place an immediate moritorium on all new construction until a zoning overlay can be enacted.
  • Develop a form-based zoning overlay for MLK and the adjacent blocks.
  • New zoning should require new buildings to be built up to the sidewalk/property line. Any off-street parking should be at the rear of the building accessed off the public alley. Any side parking or front curb cuts should require massive effort. No parking should every be permitted between a building face and the property line — no amount of PUD or other efforts should be allowed to override this basic rule. Set limits on how much off-street surface parking is allowed.
  • New buildings along MLK should all be at least two stories in height with incentives for building higher and denser. No limits should be placed on density or height although set backs may be necessary after a certain height (4-6 floors).
  • Create a few public parking lots throughout the length of the street with the assumption these will eventually get parking structures with street-level retail (think of the one in the loop across from the Tivoli).
  • Drive-thru establishments should not be permitted unless they can somehow meet the other requirements in terms of building heights and such. This includes banks, pharmacies and fast-food places. Conversely, I would allow walk-up windows to sell food and beverage to pedestrians on the sidewalk.
  • Encourage multiple architectural styles. Go for quality materials with good urban relationships over any certain style. In other words, a well-detailed modern building with vertical proportions can be much better suited for the street than an out of scale red brick attempt at retro architecture.
  • Persuade local chain Panera to open a St. Louis Bread Co in a new urban building or part of a renovated structure.
  • I’ve written before how I believe transit is the key to repopulating much of our city. Specifically I’ve called for a modern streetcar line along MLK connecting downtown to the MetroLink line along St. Charles Rock Rd. I’d still like to see this happen but funds are limited for such capital improvements. I’ve also been reading up on BRT (Bus Rapid Transit) and think this has great potential. I will elaborate on BRT in a future post but in short these lines can be virtually like a modern streetcar complete with high-tech looking vehicle, GPS systems for control traffic signals and inform those at stops when to expect the next vehicle and electric powered from overhead wires. The only thing missing from some BRT lines are the tracks for a fixed rail streetcar. BRT can also be as basic as a current bus line with fewer stops but that wouldn’t do much good. However, increasing frequency of stops from every 30 minutes to every 10-15 minutes would help substantially.

    But we have no money for even a BRT you say.

    True enough. However, talks of funds for streetscape improvements are abounding. Just like MLK East of Grand, money will likely be found to narrow the street, replace sidewalks and install new streetlamps. Here is where we can be really smart about our expenditures. East of Grand the improvements look nice enough but they don’t make any assumptions about a future transit line in the corridor. If we wanted to run a BRT or modern streetcar down the street we’d have to redo what has already been done. Not very good use of limited funds. I propose we assume we are going to do a BRT with the possibility of upgrading at a later date to a streetcar. So when we go to do the curbs, sidewalks and street lights this should all be kept in mind. With the curbs and sidewalks we’d create “bulbs” that come out from the parking lane to meet a transit vehicle. In the meantime these can be bus stops for the current conventional bus service. Streetlamps designed to hold the wires for electric buses/streetcars look just as good as others and will be ready for use when the funding is in place for the BRT/streetcar. More advanced traffic signals that can receive GPS transmissions will need to be installed but the area has few traffic signals. Wiring will need to be placed at the bus/transit stops for future communications as well.

    Spending the money we do have for new sidewalks and streetlamps wisely will build toward what could be. With the street redone and lamps in place for electric BRT/streetcar we’d be ahead of the game. That means the cost to implement a BRT would be substantially less than if starting from scratch. Once we had 5-6 miles of the MLK streetscape done in this manner we could hopefully get the funds to begin the BRT service to the area. Meanwhile as more and more buildings are constructed hopefully the standard bus headways would decrease from every 30 minutes to 25, 20, 15 and eventually to every 10 minutes.

    Limited funds means we must spend every penny wisely. Building a streetscape to meet today’s needs but pre-planned for a future transit system is the only wise thing to do. MLK Drive and The Ville have tremendous potential. Will the political leadership be there to make it happen as it should, who knows.

    See more pictures on Flickr.

    – Steve


    Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

    1. Joe Frank says:

      I’m confused about the bike lanes on MLK then. Great Rivers Greenway is trying to plan for the Dr King Greenway corridor, but its route is still up in the air.

      Maybe you could talk to Nancy Ulman at GRG to see what she knows about their relationship with this Ville planning process.

    2. MKD says:

      This is obnoxious, I know.

      But the word you’re looking for is “disperse.” One “disburses” funds. One “disperses” traffic throughout a street grid, for instance, or cultural centers throughout a neighborhood. Not the first time I’ve noticed this. If writing is your primary means of communication and/or (in this case) persuaasion, it behooves you to use it well.

      Great article, though.

      [REPLY – Thank you for the heads up. I’ve got a list of words next to my computer that I have a tendency to use incorrectly. I’ve added dispersed and disbursed to my reminder list as well as corrected prior incorrect uses. Thanks. – SLP]

    3. Jim Zavist says:

      Don’t rule out BRT as an option. BRT includes many parts, and not all parts need to be included to make it a success. Los Angeles is having great success with their “Rapid” buses using existing city streets. And as with all public transit, it’s truly a “chicken and egg” dilemma. Better service attracts more riders, but it takes more riders to justify improving service. If the need is proven and the will is there, things can change . . .

      [REPLY – I’m warming to the idea of BRT as long as it is more than just our conventional buses with fewer stops. – SLP]

    4. doer says:

      How much market feasibility is being considered in the Ville/MLK planning process?

      [REPLY – Market feasibility sounds a bit like one of those phrases used to justify doing nothing under the idea that the market won’t support anything at all. Some research should be done with respect to prices and unit sizes but most new construction in the city is single family detached houses with the only feasibility being that is what they build in the ‘burbs. – SLP]

    5. Doug Duckworth says:

      “Sprawl is a non-place which is not suitable for humans unless in an SUV”

      Now that is a bit harsh. The suburbs are wasteful, however, some people do also drive hybrids… 70 miles per day.

      [REPLY – I meant more along the lines of the only way to function in the suburbs is if you have a car, don’t try getting around on foot. – SLP]

    6. Dustin says:

      ^To be fair, there are several older inner-ring suburbs that are very walkable — Kirkwood for instance (albeit with some poorly planned areas, i.e. Kirkwood Commons). I think more precisely, though, there a typical pattterns of automobile-oriented suburban development that need to be avoided. As you yourself will argue, Steve, there is a big difference between Manchester Rd. in Ballwin and New Town.

    7. pete says:

      Its nice to see the local folks having a strong interest in their neighborhood but I hope they let the professionals do their job. Allowing major design decisions to be unnecessarily influenced by layman typically has negative consequences. For instance, I don’t want to see any murals painted by the local kindergarten class dotting the neighborhood.

    8. doer says:

      Scoffing at the value of assessing market feasibility doesn’t build confidence in the investor market. Unless the plan is to fill the area with owner-financed developments (not likely), there ought to be a discussion of market driven solutions.

      Funny how some posters in this blog, while discussing highrises in the CWE, are all about letting the market drive things-affordability be damned, yet when looking at a weak market area such as MLK in the Ville, there is much pontification about design with little substance regarding market potential.

      Steve, you were there. Was this more a wish list session, or were participants interested in identifying and serving opportunities in the market?

      [REPLY – The phrase “market driven” has little meaning with me. Everyone tells me that suburbia with little boxes on the hillside and Wal-Mart is in response to the market. I just don’t buy it.

      The design charrette was just that, a design exercise. It was meant as a visioning process. Nobody said we need x-number of rentals or whatever. The main thing was to set a vision for the street which came across clear as a pedestrian focused mixed use area. With that done the city is looking into a zoning overlay for the area which will hopefully establish good urban form while allowing for flexibility of unit types. – SLP]


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