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Should St. Louis Become a ‘Suburb’ in the Region?

November 20, 2006 Downtown, Planning & Design, St. Louis County, Suburban Sprawl 16 Comments

You may have heard about the city’s infamous “Team Four” plan from the mid 1970’s. If not, read Antonio French’s report here. This comprehensive plan was in response to a series of research reports from the Rand Corporation on behalf of the National Science Foundation. I am in the process of reviewing these for a school project but I wanted to share part of it with you now.

From Rand Report #R-1353 St. Louis: A City and its Suburbs published August 1973:

The analysis suggests that, among the alternatives open to the city, promoting a new role for St. Louis as one of many large suburban centers of economic and residential life holds more promise than reviving the traditional central city functions.

This is not necessarily suggesting the city taken on a highly suburban form (streets & buildings) but the role of a supporting player in the region but not the core. The center, presumably, would fall to Clayton and the central corridor. In reality, our region and today’s society functions without a single core. Today many people have suburb to suburb commutes.

So what do you think of this idea of giving up on focusing on St. Louis as the core of the region and instead make it simply one of many economic and residential areas? What is the difference?

The first difference, in my mind, is transit. All the planning being done around future transit is focused on trying to reclaim St. Louis as the core from which everything else radiates. For example, the new North & South mass transit studies for the region are trying to connect via the city’s CBD to the county. It would seem to me that getting folks from the county into mass transit can be accomplished much easier by connecting to the end of the new line at Shrewsbury for south county and off the original line for those in north county. There are also several options for connecting the employment hub of Westport into the system.

People are often critical of my belief that neighborhood scale transit in the form of streetcars or guided trams (similar to a modern streetcar but with rubber tires and a single track to guide it) can help increase development and create dense and thus walkable neighborhoods. Perhaps they are right. But my belief in this idea is nothing compared to the utopian notion that by bringing light rail to a former major core we can somehow undo 50 years of change and sprawling development patterns in our region. I’m not convinced.

Would it be so bad for the city to concede that our downtown will never once again be the hub for commerce that it once was? That doesn’t mean it can’t be a great place. In fact, I’d argue that without the pressure to regain its role as the region’s major employment center and commerce hub that downtown and the city might actually be free to focus on creating great places where people want to live and work. This means enjoying out quick light rail connection to the east side, Clayton and the airport but focusing the balance of our transit attention on the neighborhood scale — not how to get more suburbanites into downtown for their day jobs. If anything is a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario it is the thinking light rail to downtown will return jobs downtown.

When the Rand reports were written in 1973 they looked at the population drops in the city, down to 600,000 in the most recent census. Today we are just under 350,000. All of our attention is focused on reclaiming the former glory of the region’s center but how has that worked for us over the last few decades? Sure, we’ve got more residents and investment in downtown but is that really shifting things? The U.S. population is trending back toward cities which may account for much of downtown’s rejuvenation of late. But what is the likelihood of reshaping our sprawling region back to a core with radial suburbs? Very slim in my eyes. I’d like to see us shift to making downtown not the core of the region but one of a number of business centers in the region — the most dynamic of them all. The city should focus on increasing population not by a thousand here and 500 there, but by tens of thousands.

With office parks spread out all over the region, a convention center in St. Charles and performance venues everywhere I just don’t know that we can successfully reverse the damage that has been done. Other regions, such as Chicago, never lost their place as the core. However, many industrial cities, like Detroit, did lose their place in the core. Does anyone know of an example where a former core city regained its place as the center of commerce in a region?

So what do you think? Should we “stay the course” with attempting to maintain St. Louis as the core or accept that in the auto-centric times a region may no longer have a true core and simply work to make St. Louis a pedestrian-friendly urban “suburb” within the region?


Currently there are "16 comments" on this Article:

  1. Expat says:

    Someone posed the question to me sometime back; What if downtown St. Louis became a popular residential neighborhood and less of an office/job center for commuters? At first I cringeded, but, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. What if 50,000 or 60,000 (or more) people lived downtown? And many of them took Metrolink to Clayton and elsewhere to jobs. Would St. Louis be a more interesting and inviting city? Could St. Louis be more like some European cities, with a vibrant, living, historic core, but modern business taking place elsewhere? The irony is that this popular residential core, would make the central city all the more desirable for business. Steve, I don’t know if this is where you meant this to go, but this is something that has crossed my mind before. I am still for a North/South Metrolink, but open to sound ideas based on reality. Maybe this needs to be discussed.

  2. If St. Louis is not going to be the center, then what are we going to do with all of our vacant land and buildings? Being a suburb basically means less dense, regardless if we have urban design. If St. Louis is not the center of attention, then people and business will not seek to relocate, thus much of the vacant land and buildings could be underutilized, thereby lowering our overall density. We must be the center of attention as we already have the street grid to support residential and commercial development. We are already in a much better position for service delivery. The only thing missing is the tax base, or willingness of the existing base, to pay for the services. We could have City Wide streetcars with more residents or a push from existing residents/business. Research shows that streetcars are development tools which will benefit the City.

    The bottom line to me is that there will always be suburban areas, yet many of these residents would prefer to live in the City if we can make some improvements. I am not talking about St. Charles or the exurbs, but the inner ring suburbs like University City, Clayton, Kirkwood, Webster Groves, Olivette, or Overland. If we improve or existing draws while fix our drawbacks, then we will be on the right track. These smaller munis simply do not have the cultural or recreational draws nor the capacity to compete with the City. Some do not want to compete and would rather let the City provide while they enjoy without paying the taxes.

    To me the only solution is for St. Louis to work with State Representatives for local control of Police Department and the consolidation of our government. We would need home rule. There must be pressure to fix the SLPS schools and it must happen now. Veronica O’Brien needs to decide if she supports any superintendent or if she is simply a critic of everyone. If the SLPS cannot clean up its act then the someone needs to take control, whether the Mayor or the State of Missouri. Our politicized school board is able to autonomously take whichever action or inaction they see fit. Their only accountability is on election day, however when only a small percentage of residents vote, it is not a high level of accountability.

    There must be a consolidation of County governments as this would decrease the cost of services and enable regional comprehensive planning. The fractured nature of the County governments makes it nearly impossible for decisions to be agreed upon, and it also makes for a lack of central decision-making authority. If everyone cannot agree upon, or be forced to accept a future, then we are going in many conflicting directions, or nowhere.

    St. Louis must not be a subservient suburb to the County. The great Cities of the United States do not bow to the will of their suburban neighbors. If we are able to *market through advertising* our draws while pressing reform in our problem areas, then we will be the center hub of the region. If we continue to make small yet important improvements like the Downtown Loft District without stressing the big problems like the Police, SLPS, and comprehensive planning, then we may become a less important City. Some would say we are already weak and only a fun place to see a Ballgame or baby elephants.

  3. Arch Proud says:


    You’re getting your wires crossed, dude.

    DT is the center of the region. Why would we want to forego that status?

    DT is the largest employment center in the midwest outside of Chicago, right?

    The City of St. Louis is the hub for all of the region’s major attractions.

    DT is the region’s hub of transit, the connector of the region with Illinois, the riverfront, and primed with additional development potential.

    The city of St. Louis is the face of region to the world.

    We own that identity. This is St. Louis.

    You point out that appreciation of urbanity is a growing trend. We are coming into our own.

    We are succeeding. The Slay vision is succeeding!! We are becoming a great city again!

    We are winning. We are St. Louis!

  4. Expat says:

    This isn’t about giving up on St. Louis or turning St. Louis into a tract house/back office suburb.

    Truth be told, I don’t know how I feel about it. But, it makes an interesting discussion and I would like to take a realistic look at what would happen if downtown shifted roles. The role of downtown has shifted many times in the history of St. Louis. It is shifting again. I don’t advocate forcing a shift, but a discussion of where it could be headed and the impact is valuable.

    Pride won’t let many people consider it. But, I wonder if it is already happening. Historic office towers (Marquette, Chemical, Union Pacific, etc.) as condo buildings. Restaurants, hotels, shops, rather than work a a day business and industry.

  5. SMSPlanstu says:

    A book for all to read is Mike Davis’s “Ecology of Fear.” The book talks about how our new metropolis model is that of a Metro Sea with major commercial, retail, office, and residential areas bobbing up and down unpredictably like a sea. All of a sudden O’Fallon could become the next Chesterfield or former Kinloch takes off or maybe Arnold takes over the industrial center. Population shifts from the suburbs to the City and back or not. Even Vancouver our poster child for planning done right has succomed to its downtown being a hip residential market but not being the major center of employment. More people leave downtown Vancouver for suburban jobs than those who work downtown. New York City is looking to create major job centers in the other buroughs outside of Manhattan or decentralize.
    St. Louis is not alone in this North American shift to the Metro Sea. Of course, this is a theory from a book and not necessarily my belief but it’s fun to discuss.

  6. john says:

    Just as I was preparing my response to the “value” of parking, you throw this issue into the mix. Businesses have already voted with their feet on this issue and they too have left the City for greener patures, as have the populous.

    Elated that you’re now thinking on a grander scale. This region has to be addressed as one and not as numerous separate entitities with divided government. Duplication of governmental services here leads to exploding costs/budgets and inevitable debates about merging. The primacy of constituent services, a long held tradition here, over broader social/philosophical issues has created a lower standard of living, less debate and expensive bureaucracies in place of leadership.

    However, this migration was not well planned and thus supporting infrastructure is lacking and related issues need to be addressed. One example is the transportatiion system which makes getting to Clayton dependent on neighborhood streets which is bad for commuters and residents.

    Chicago also was damaged by the migration to the suburbs. The difference in defining its success, relative to St. Louis, were these: leadership, infrastructure and vision. The City of Chicago is part of Cook County and therefore there is a more diverse and balanced governmental proceedings. Here the City and County are two separate legal entities still trying to find a way to make home-rule work. More similar to a divorced set of parents arguing over who should determine their childrens’ future rather than setting common goals and working together on solutions.

    Hey, where did you go to high school?

  7. Jim Zavist says:

    Density supports transit. It doesn’t matter whether it’s residential or commercial, as long as you have enough riders to justify frequent service. As long as downtown stays dense, transit will work. And yes, downtown Clayton is approaching a critical mass in density to justify viable public transit there, as well.

    The real challenge lies in the low density of the suburbs, be they northside, southside, inner ring or outer ring – you simply don’t have enough potential riders in any one area to justify viable public transit investments (and you’re right, that ain’t gonna be changing anytime soon). The two solutions that I have seen work in the ‘burbs that do help transit is creating density through large park-n-rides (and hopefully, TOD) with frequent rail services and shifting from trying to provide fixed-route services to providing call-and-ride services for all riders, not just the disabled community. Together, they provide a new paradigm that responds to the predominance (and the choice) of the single-occupant vehicle and the existing built environment.

    To justify an increased transit tax, public transit needs to “make sense” to the average voter and needs to give them a better option than driving. Local, fixed-route service in suburban areas (be they bus or streetcar) are fighting an uphill, and likely losing, battle to attract riders – it just doesn’t make sense if you access to a car. You have to walk to a stop. You have to wait. The service isn’t very frequent. It likely doesn’t go directly to where you want to, either. And it’s stuck in the same traffic as every single-occupant vehicle (SOV) is.

    Call-and-ride services avoid many of these issues. They come to your home or office. They usually can take you directly where you want to go locally. And while theyÂ’re stuck in the same traffic, at least theyÂ’re not stopping every few blocks. While the cost per ride is significantly higher than typical fixed-route service in more-urban areas, the net cost of providing service is less than the cost of providing little-used fixed route services just because you need to provide something to justify the taxes youÂ’re collecting (it gives voters a more-attractive solution / reason to support transit taxes).

    Suburban residents who will never ride a bus will drive to a Metrolink station to ride a train IF they (believe they) can find free parking and IF they can be assured they can get a train back home even if they work late, party late or the game goes into extra innings, sudden death or overtime. Large park-and-rides create virtual density – the suburban rider drives themselves through the least-dense areas and Metro provides an alternative for the major, likely more-congested, portion of the trip. Virtual density also helps support transit-oriented development (TOD), a concept that has yet to catch on in most suburban areas around here.

    Combine the two and you have a viable model for “selling” increased public transit to a skeptical public. In an ideal (better?) future, on Saturday, Chip & Missy Chesterfield can hop in their SUV, drive a few miles to Metrolink and park in a large, secure parking structure. They take a train downtown to have dinner and see the Blues. Surprisingly, the trains run every 15 or 20 minutes until 2 am, so they’re not worried about getting back home. On Monday morning, Chip drives his BMW to the same garage, and catches a train out to West Port, where a call-and-ride shuttle drops him off at the front door of his office 1½ miles away. At the end of the day, he calls the driver of the shuttle 15 minutes before he needs to be picked up, and makes the return trip home, avoiding the ongoing I-64 construction.

    Bottom line, there is no one, right answer or solution to the public transportation puzzle. While a streetcar may make sense for a circulator downtown, it makes absolutely no sense as a shuttle along Manchester in Ballwin. The needs are different and the solutions need to reflect that. And IF and when the needs start to / are being met, the electorate will be more inclined to support the higher taxes needed to pay for this vision. Until then, public transit here is fighting a losing battle for support in most suburban areas since it simply does not work well nor meet most peopleÂ’s needs. (And if you think this is pie in the sky thinking, the future is now in Denver, where this is the first week for service on their new Southeast light rail line, a line that incorporates many of the components described above . . .)

  8. awb says:

    Tens of thousands of residents will be better for street life than the drones who appear in their cubicles and disappear at 5 pm–never stepping on a sidewalk to taste the urban life.

    It’s sad to think that employers would prefer a place away from healthy mass transit, but many do. A good balance between residential and business is healthy and efficient–restaurants open all day and evening, parking spots for businesses by day and residents by night, services with hours that cater to employees and residents–but too many of our “leaders” don’t seem to see the benefit of the balance and always push for the mega project.

    McGowan and the other developers are on the right track. Find the market and build for that market. Push the boundaries of established development, like in the McGowan Walsh parking plan for Cupples. They know that residential development spurs other development which spurs residential development. A healthy downtown, whether it’s the region’s financial/cultural/employment center or not, is better for the entire region.

    And I really think employers will see the benefits of locating to such a neighborhood, ultimately. I think many know that now.

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    The Rand Report, on page 43, identifies a big reason for St. LouisÂ’ decline after WW II and concisely and eloquently states the fundamental barrier to consolidation forty years ago, the same issue that needs to be resolved now:

    “St. Louis City’s earnings tax is a case in point. In the short term, it captures as much revenue as possible in an equitable way. The city cannot afford to eliminate this revenue source until a very different municipal financing system is in place. Nevertheless, in the longer term, the earnings tax falls most heavily on the use of land in the business districts and can be escaped by removing the activity. It falls most heavily on residents who work outside the community and can escape the tax by leaving the city. It creates a systematic incentive to live and work outside the city.”

  10. tax on parents says:

    City parents face a similar predicament: the hidden, non-deductible tax of private school tuition.

    It, too, can be similarly avoided by moving out of the city.

    Yes, there are disincentives to staying in the city. They add up in terms of big $$$$$.

  11. Jim, the Earnings Tax is a way of capturing revenue from those who don’t live here. Property Taxes and Sales Taxes do not meet the fiscal needs of the City.

    If people move back then the Earnings Tax can be eliminated or reduced. Until then the Earnings Tax will not be leaving.

    If we give incentives to live in the City, such as SLPS improvements, forgivable rehab loans, historical tax credit, abatement, and finally cultural draws, then the earnings tax will not matter.

    Honestly, 1 percent is small when weighed against the other forms of subsidy and cultural incentives available. The only drawback is the SLPS.

  12. GMichaud says:

    It is not a question of staying the course. Downtown and the city are a natural center for the region. There are many factors that contribute to that fact, but two main ones are transit and population density.
    Rail lines, bus lines and local transit lines will radiate from a central point. That natural point is downtown. Clayton, St. Charles and other communities can only become secondary transit centers.
    Density is also a major factor. St. Louis has become less dense in recent decades, but that does not preclude that new, higher urban densities will not occur. In any case the density of the City of St. Louis is still much higher than surrounding suburbs. That density creates a center and supports the transit hypothesis stated above.

    However, the real concern is the inability of local government, especially EWGCC and city planning, with the Board of Alderman and the Mayor to capitalize upon these natural advantages.
    At this point I would trust the posters on this site to do a better job of governance than the current administration.
    A perfect example is the northside, southside transit study. They have had a few public hearings and now have crawled back into their hole. We will hear from them again pronouncing a solution that will be second rate and not service the city in a meaningful way.
    At the same time the solution will counteract the City of St. Louis and its ability to act as a natural core to the region. IÂ’m not sure why, whether it is the influence of the highway builders, MoDot or other reasons. But the bottom line is that these people (at EWGCC) donÂ’t know what they are doing.
    St. Louis City is and should be the core. It is the natural core. It is only the incompetence that has been ongoing for 50 years that prevents that from happening. Until the citizens yell and scream and kick these people out, nothing is going to change.

  13. Jim Zavist says:

    I agree, “the Earnings Tax is a way of capturing revenue from those who don’t live here.” So are taxes on rental cars, hotel rooms, meals at restaurants, increasing rates at parking meters and/or charging admission to the Zoo. The earnings tax can’t, however, be sacrosanct when it’s encouraging both businesses and their employees to relocate to the suburbs. Anheuser-Busch is just the latest example: (http://stlouis.bizjournals.com/stlouis/stories/2006/08/21/story5.html).

    And if “Property Taxes and Sales Taxes do not meet the fiscal needs of the City”, either our (perceived?) needs are too great or our tax rates are too low. A city with 350,000 residents does (should?) not need the same number of employees as a city with 600,000 or 800,000 residents. A major component of any city’s budget is salaries and benefits – maybe we need to look for ways to operate more efficiently with fewer (well-paid? union?) employees? Maybe (gasp!) we need to look at adjusting city pay scales downward to more closely match the private sector? Maybe we need to quit giving away so many tax incentives to new businesses, while piling taxes on existing ones? Operating a budget on autopilot is an answer, just not a viable one for the long haul!

  14. Adam says:

    i’m sure i sound like a broken record but i think that efficient/frugal use of resources should be a primary concern here. DT is a logical center for the region because so much infrastructure is already in place (not to mention a couple of centuries worth of history and craftsmanship). it’s wasteful to build more and more stuff further and further away and let the existing stuff crumble. whether DT becomes a big-business center or a residential/small-business center is not as important in my mind as just maintaining the population density needed to maintain the existing infrastructure.

  15. Jim Zavist says:

    And for something waaaay out of the box (and probably not PC) . . . . What if the city reinvents itself as three (or more) smaller cities (and school districts) and becomes just another one of the multitude of cities that make up St. Louis County?!

    To start the discussion:

    South St. Louis – south of I-44 west of I-55, Geyer between 55 and the river.

    Forest Park – north of I-44, west of Vandevetter / Prairie.

    Old? North? or just plain St. Louis – north of I-44, east of Vandevetter / Prairie.

    All three would get some “good” and some “bad” areas and each could have more control over their own local destinies . . .

  16. joe b says:

    As a 12 year resident of s st l, I recently got fed up with the city and moved to St Chs county. Life is good but I miss being close to the attractions.

    Public transport is not going to get me back to the city more often.

    Forget about it.

    I may take the Metro when I feel nostalgic or know that I’m simply going to a Blues or Cards game. Personally, a Rams game would require tailgating, ergo a car.

    I’m 35, recently married and while wife doesn’t share passions for sports, she likes Fox and attractions at Savvis. (As a side note, it will be the Savvis in my head for quite some time).

    The reason we left was crime.

    In my younger days, I wasn’t scared of the punks. Getting married changes that.

    We looked around several other “better” neighborhoods but, boy, oh boy, dollar for dollar they didn’t really match up to St Chs county when factoring everything in.

    Wife’s at Boeing and I’m at Monsanto so the drive was kind of a wash.

    Talk all you want about transit and density folks.

    The challenge at this point is retaining the baby stroller factor


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