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St. Louis Suffers Due to Lack of Urban Design Guidelines

September 11, 2006 Big Box, Books, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy, Suburban Sprawl 15 Comments

Whenever I speak of making St. Louis’ neighborhoods and commercial streets more “urban” I think people have visions of turning St. Louis Hills into Times Square. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really has to do with how we plan our areas and seek to accommodate people as well as their cars. Pedestrian-friendly is about making it easier for people to walk from A to B to C and back to A. These principals transcend scale and work in a town of 2,000 as well as a city of 2 million.

The conflict I’m having with so much recent development is that it is happening in a system void of planning thought. The developer meets with the Aldermen and they negotiate a few things while trying to keep the public from knowing what is going on out of fear they might sabotage the whole thing. It is the St. Louis way. The problem is that I know this can be done differently and is in cities all over North America.

Our zoning, dating to 1947, says what cannot be done. It basically encourages sprawl development and makes good design an exception rather than the rule. What it doesn’t say is what we, as a community, are seeking. It does not articulate a vision. So how do we communicate what we want? Urban Design Guidelines.

Cities that are actually seeking to improve their physical environment through well-planned development create “Urban Design Guidelines” to help guide the development process. These are most often in the form of non-legal phrasing and graphics that are easily understood by everyone. Typical zoning, on the other hand, often requires an attorney that specializes to help determine what can and cannot be done. Form-based zoning, on the other hand, uses graphics to help illustrate what is sought for that particular portion of the community.

It should also be noted that Urban Design Guidelines are different than “plans” for an area. Cities, including St. Louis, have stacks and stacks of unrealized plans. In some cases, this is a good thing as earlier plans called for the razing of Soulard & Lafayette Square to be replaced with low-density housing on cul-de-sac streets. Plans are usually grand visions for an area that lack funding. They are created, everyone gets excited about what may be, no funding is given to implementation and the plan sits. In the meantime poorly executed development that prompted the need for a plan continues through the outdated zoning. UDG look at the vision different — setting out goals for an area such as walkable streets. The guidelines then indicate how this is to be accomplished. Guidelines help guide new construction and renovation projects so that, over time, an area is improved. It is a smart and realistic way to guide physical change in a community.

Below are some examples of Urban Design Guidelines and related documents from a variety of cities in North America. This is only a tiny fraction is what is out there. I’ve only scanned each at this point so I am not making any claims we should adopt any of these for St. Louis. What I am saying is we need to be creating guidelines for future development and have debates over what we seek as we develop the guides — not over each and every proposed project.

City of Denver:

Denver Guidelines by area
Commercial Corridors
Streetscape 1993 (excellent!)

City of Ottawa:

Large-Format Retail
Gas Stations
Traditional Main Street
Outdoor Patios

City of Toronto:

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines

Various Cities:

Lawrence KS – downtown guidelines
Scottsdale, AZ – Gas Stations
Huntington Beach, CA
Mankato, MN
Niagra, Ontario
Niagra, On — Large Format (big box)
Mississauga, Ontario
Tampa, FL

City of Madison, WI

Best Practices Guide (an amazing document — a must read)
Inclusionary Zoning (for affordable housing)

Madison even did a study called, “Grocery Stores in City Neighborhoods: Supporting access to food choices, livable neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities in Madison, Wisconsin”. From the executive summary:

Guiding the decisions of food retailers- and providing support for them- in order to ensure equitable access to food and promote livable, walkable neighborhoods is a difficult task faced by non-profit organizations and local governments in cities across the nation. Since all people require food on a daily basis and shop for it frequently, food retailers should be recognized as far more than simply another retail establishment. However, even as many municipal governments realize this, there are limited ways for cities to intervene in support for grocery stores when particular parcels of land are owned and controlled in the private realm. Market forces and consumer behavior all too often work against the success and proliferation of small grocery stores distributed equitably across the City.

Click here to read the full report.

City of Houston:

As I was working on this post a regular reader sent me an article about how good development in Houston’s midtown is lagging behind because the city’s zoning encourages auto-centric results.

Like explorers hacking a path through the jungle, a small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has
struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown.

Much of what they are trying to achieve —a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. Leaders of a civic group have dipped into their own pockets to pay for alternative design plans for a proposed Main Street drugstore that clashes with their Midtown vision.

“Unfortunately,” said developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, “the Houston way is slow and painful.”

Read through these Urban Design Guidelines and you will see how the community is indicating its desires for a more walkable and cohesive environment yet none of it is designed to force businesses out or create cities without cars. Cities have been working on guidelines for a good 15 years or so but St. Louis remains way behind the curve. This places us at an economic disadvantage when it comes to attracting both new residents as well as potential employers. What would it take to get us working toward community design guidelines — probably the one thing we don’t have enough of: political will.


Currently there are "15 comments" on this Article:

  1. jdstl1977 says:


    Last section on that first page. Has anyone been talking about this?

    [UR The issues of logos and signs, such as the Amoco sign on Skinker are interesting topics but not something I want discussed within this post.]

  2. Marti says:

    Another great post!!!

    Two things occur to me – This one is just a theory – The history of our governmental structure here may not believe in urban design because it might mean they would lose ‘control’ and thus the ability to make their own personal statement on the city as well as line their campaign treasure chests… it just seems to be a pattern of how St. Louis city political leaders work so, that is my guess for why no persuit of the bigger picture design.

    Second, (this one is not a theory) the plans sitting on the shelves have cost the taxpayers possibly millions of dollars over the decades. What else could we have done with that money?? I suspect it is spent to put up a front to show a willingness by the powers that be that they are doing due dilligence when in fact they have no gut-level core belief in genuinely doing so.

    I am not saying it is that well thought out, I believe it is a consequence of core planning values by our leaders… or lack thereof. Unfortunately, we as voting citizens accept this.

    How many times have some of us been to public hearings done just to satisfy the legal requirement of doing so…. knowing full well that it was a bogus hearing with decisions already having been made behind closed doors???

    Need to get my cynical self back to work here….. Thanks, Steve!


  3. Your Virtual Alderman says:


    Thank you for your suggestions. However, here is the challenge we face.

    First, what I need in my ward is different from what other wards need. It would not be fair to my ward – or the other wards – to have us all follow the same rules. We need to flexible. We do not want a cookie cutter approach to development!

    I talk to other aldermen, and we are all working very hard to improve our wards. Let me be totally up front with you: it is not easy to get developers interested in the city!

    Under our current system, every alderman has the opportunity to pursue the development plans he or she has for his or her ward. And you have to agree things are going very well.

    There is new housing development in every city ward. Property values are increasing and our population is growing.

    One thing developers always tell me is that we need to find ways to reduce red tape and lower development costs. Thanks for your ideas, but I am afraid they will scare off my developers.


    [UR I just love the virtual alderman putting up the standard pat answers that you might here from an elected alderman. Somehow the needs of a pedestrian on the site walk on say the west side of Grand in the 15th ward different than the needs on the east side of Grand in the 8th Ward? Of course not.

    Will developers flee due to good design guidelines? No, we might actually attract more developers and educate the ones we have.]

  4. Mike says:

    Here are a couple of Riversfront Times articles on planning in St Louis, featuring Rollin Stanley, St Louis’s head of planning and urban development. He sounds like an interesting man, but I wonder if city/aldermanic politics play too large a role in development decisions. I mean, “duh!”, right?



  5. Your Virtual Alderman says:


    Here is my issue: As alderman, I am accountable to the voters who elect me.

    My residents want local control over development.

    With aldermanic courtesy, we respect the right of other neighborhoods and aldermen to control development in their wards. It would not be right for me or my residents to tell another ward what to do in their ward.

    With neighborhood oversight over development, we manage urban design where it matters most: at the ward level.

  6. Marti says:

    Dear VA –

    Be a leader. Listen, answer questions, inform, educate, listen again. Your constituents will listen to you, too. You can help them understand the value of good urban design if you do.

  7. Worried Citizen says:

    Steve, if the St. Louis way is so antiquated why don’t you mark up some suggestions, and send them to your Alderman, or the Alderman of your liking. I would bet if you could give them a reason why the the change(s) should be made they will consider it and maybe try and change it. Some times it is the system not the people. Since most of the Alderman are not urban planners, they may not know how cumbersome the rules are, they just know there are rules and if people live by them than it is OK. Make an appointment and talk to your electeds. This blog though helpful just talks about a need for change, it doesn’t address the bad rules in the system.

    [UR Oh gee, thanks but it is just a bit on the naive side. First, I have addressed the “bad rules” here in numerous posts. But more importantly I don’t believe many of them care and actually function as obstructionists to change despite sound advice from professionals in the field.

    Some that I have talkd to about this are receptive but are hesitant to be the first to suggest such a planning overlay in their ward or parts of their ward. Aldermanic courtesy has such a strangle on this city that one alderman attempting to bring better urban design would be viewed as trying to cause trouble for the other 27.

    You go talk to your alderman about creating urban design guidelines and let me know how that goes.]

  8. Your Virtual Alderman says:


    Even if YVA wanted to take more of a “leadership role”, YVA must be careful to avoid self-inflicted political damage. And as much as I appreciate the support of your urbanists, I have learned very well that self-preservation in St. Louis politics is best managed by maintaining good relations with my seniors.

    And here’s the bottom line: My seniors really don’t care much about things like urban design, walkable neighborhoods, density, or demolitions.

    You see? Your virtual alderman is caught in the middle of a time warp. In order to succeed politically, YVA must follow the historic rules and traditions of the Board of Aldermen.

    However, in order to be supported by progressives, YVA must also be sensitive to the concerns of the new urban elite.

    Here’s what I can do. If you find me things to lead on which won’t alienate my base, you can count on my support.

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    Perhaps St. Louis is still in a shell-shocked mindset – “Any development after 50 years of losing jobs and residents just has to be good”.

    Or, to put it another way, many, if not most, of the cities listed are blessed with robust economies and a fair amount of growth and new development. It’s a whole lot easier to be picky when you’re not having to chase after crumbs . . .

  10. jdstl1977 says:

    Jim Zavist,

    Unfortunately, now is the time to start laying down a foundation for best practices which include design guidelines. But this, of course, all starts with our public officials and how they organize land use and do public improvements.

    Worst case scenario, we see lots of redevelopment in the future all characterized in a suburban style. Hopefully, we can end that type of development before it gets way worse.

  11. The logrolling in St. Louis is due to the Ward system. People that criticize logrolling are often fans of centralization which concentrates on “the city as a whole” as compared to “neighborhood issues.” This centralization creates objection for those who want greater neighborhood control, since this is what the Ward system provides. Theoretically with the Ward system it will be extremely difficult for everyone to agree on this unified urban zoning code. Many citizens will not see a problem with the current system, and some politicians might like the decentralized “leeway” present in the current system. Ambiguous language allows for greater range of acceptable development. Yet it also allows for exploitation of areas without an actively engaged electorate.

    This is really a complex issue. Do we want a centralized representation system without Wards or do we prefer decentralized representation of “neighborhood issues.” Also how do “neighborhood issues” become resolved when the neighborhood is not engaged or ignorant? Say a new unified zoning code is actually in the interest of St. Louis. It will serve to protect the urban walk-able environment and create development continuity across Wards. In effect, poorer areas with less engaged populations will be under the same standard as the engaged affluent areas like the CWE. This means one could see more urban design in poorer areas (since it is the law), which will obviously increase their property values and reduce criminal activity. Yet how do we get this plan implemented? Who composes the plan?

    A counterargument could be that urban design is more expensive, and that we Alderman should not be making criterion for development when our neighborhoods are so downtrodden. Development is better than no development.

    A counter-to-that-counterargument would be to look at suburbanization over history and how it did not revitalize the City. Strip malls, wider streets, more parking, and less pedestrian walk-ability did nothing to improve the urban core. Look at development in St. Louis City and the poorer suburbs and one will see abandoned strip malls or vacant lots where they once stood. Why did this happen? Urban environments cannot “do suburban development” better than suburbia! Any attempt to attract suburbanites to the City through suburban development will fail because the result is a hybrid which alienates the suburbanites and the urbanites. A clear contrast between the two systems must exist so that the homeowner can decide which is better. It seems in St. Louis that this contrast becomes blurred as time passes.

    I am a big fan of new zoning codes, however the process of establishing new zoning is simply staggering. The best solution is to look to other cities and study how they implemented their plans. Since we have no experience, outside advice is best in this instance.

    Thanks Steve for a great post!

  12. Jim Zavist says:

    Hey, I’m not arguing against design standards, I’m trying to explain why they’ve been (more) successful elsewhere!

    [UR – Wouldn’t we actually have to have some Urban Design Standards in St. Louis for them to be more successful elsehwere?]

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    Another good Denver link is: http://www.denvergov.org/eastcolfax/

  14. Jim Zavist says:

    St. Louis is like a lot of cities – the zoning ordinance provides some direction, as do Historic District regulations and the ones the Planning Dept. develops and attempts to apply.

    There’s a big jump between having standards and having them implemented. Denver has applied their standards selectively, primarily in areas where major redevelopment is happening. There remain plenty of areas that need help, and like St. Louis, the standards are “creatively applied” (or not!) when the specific project either has a limited budget (public project) or is going into a distressed area (private project), where the developer has more leverage.

    Are standrads good? Sure – they give city planners and elected officials SOME leverage to push for better design (that precedent thing). Their application still remains primarily an economic issue – someone has to pay for the enhanced amenities, and if the “money’s not there”, in reality or as a negotiating tool, the amenities are the first thing to go in the “bigger” interest of geting a project built.

  15. travis reems says:


    Not being an urban planner, I don’t the technical terms, but I firmly agree with you that we do need an updated comprehensive plan and updates to the zoning ordinances. Steve Wilke-Shapiro of the 15th ward is calling for overlay plans. Not being a planner, I don’t know how they or what you have specified here fit into the overall scheme of planning and zoning, but I do know there are receptive ears in the BOA willing to listen and talk about updating the planning in our city. If you work with the elected officials, you might actually be able to get some of what you want accomplished. Keeping in mind, of course, that planning and zoning is not a core competency for all Aldermen. You may have to do a bit of educating on the subject and lobby those that can’t see your vision.


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