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Parting Thoughts from St. Louis Urban Planner Heading to Charlotte

July 13, 2007 Guest 22 Comments

A guest editorial by Brian Horton

Next week, this lifelong St. Louisan moves from the rustbelt to the sunbelt. I have found a great job for my combined interests in transportation and land use planning. The only drawback is that this strong career-building opportunity is not within or closer to my beloved hometown, but 700-plus miles east of here in rapidly growing and increasingly progressive Charlotte, NC.

In Charlotte, developers are already building multiple, mixed-use projects in anticipation of their first light-rail line opening late this year, with additional light rail, bus rapid transit, modern streetcars and commuter rail all planned as an extensive, multi-modal system. Most importantly, Charlotte has adopted a coordinated land use strategy with the goal of targeting forty percent of all new development into their planned transit corridors, supporting growth in the form of more compact, walkable development. Steve would likely love how Charlotte agreed to a new Lowe’s not far from the new South Corridor line nearing completion, only on the condition that the big-box wrap itself with dense housing. Sadly, as most readers of Steve’s blog know, St. Louis doesn’t even have sufficient sidewalks leading to its newly subsidized Lowe’s in Loughborough Commons.

In Charlotte, it’s frankly easier to get things done than in St. Louis. Even though Charlotte is significantly smaller than St. Louis, they’re growing, have money to build, and local government controls key planning decisions, including transit, roads, sidewalks, development review, and land use strategies. As a result, Charlotte has the impetus to shift gears, the resources to fulfill their plans, and little excuse for any disconnect between its land use and transportation decisions.

Of course, today’s Charlotte, having exploded into a major metropolis only in the last twenty years, still resembles a large suburb. But the policies are now in place for change. Likely aided by their growth pressures (perhaps a fear of becoming like nearby Atlanta), Charlotte now supports rather smart growth strategies. Still, Charlotte will be far from another Portland. Their pro-transit Republican mayor, banking-dominated corporate culture, and largely suburban-living electorate all support the bold plan for how it was sold. It’s about choices, and frankly, urban is again chic. If the fastest growing major city east of the Mississippi is to continue attracting people, it will be more marketable to have urban choices within a largely suburban looking place. And with the coordinated transit-land use plan calling for Corridors, Centers, and Wedges, low-density living will still very much persist in the largest designation areas of “wedges.”

Compared to Charlotte, I will immediately miss St. Louis for its unique neighborhoods and architecture, but certainly not its politics. The feel of an older city is something clearly missing in the largely post-1980 sunbelt boomtown. Here, we have the dumb luck of living in a place with a glorious past built largely when cities were still built for people instead of cars.

Sadly, too many locally bred leaders fail to see what an asset we have in the expansive “Old Urbanism” we have inherited. The best parts of St. Louis were largely built prior to the large-scale planning and auto-dominated development in the mid-to late-twentieth century. If Washington Avenue warehouses hadn’t been mothballed during those “dark ages” of planning, I doubt we could have ever quickly returned to such urban critical mass in the near future.

I would argue that leaders like Mayor Slay are more so riding the wave than leading the way. The market has already shifted towards urban living. Even suburbs now get it and are pursuing more urban development. What is so sad then is when the leaders of our urban core still don’t get it and still push for suburban development as the fix-all solution. I’m sorry, but a Winghaven in North St. Louis will be no more sustainable than Pruitt-Igoe. Locals should never forget that even big projects like Laclede Town and St. Louis Centre were briefly successes too initially. However, as Jane Jacobs had the street sense decades ago to observe before urban again became chic, urbanity will always thrive on organic relationships, which are possible in the hodge-podge blocks of city living. The resulting mix of street life found in blocks with a mix of new and old uses creates more sustainable vibrancy, whereas the overly controlled environments found in big projects risk failing as quickly as the next fad.

So ironically, I’ll now work in a largely suburban environment seeking to build the currently fashionable “New Urbanism,” while my hometown continues to ignore the vast amount of “Old Urbanism,” for which we have had the dumb luck to inherit. But you see, Charlotte also has the dumb luck of geography and climate. It’s close to the mountains, a day’s drive from the ocean, and enjoys a mild winter in exchange for summers no more humid than here. Of course, St. Louis will never have mountains or beaches. But what we do have more than any other city, especially for such low cost, is an amazing urban environment. Enough inherited mass is already here that we only need to now carefully ensure that proposed infill remains urban. Despite the context with which we are blessed, our local leaders continue to still mess it up.

Sure, critics may say Charlotte has the luxury to be picky since it’s growing, but it takes a positive-thinking culture to grow. Until we stop settling for mediocrity, we will never grow. Other cities would die to have the inherited urbanity we take for granted, and yet it’s our most under-appreciated asset.

Over the years, I’ve noticed more optimism among transplants than natives. Those moving here from elsewhere, often lucky themselves to stumble on a place not selling itself, outsiders not hung up on what high school they went to, they tend to get it right away. Coming from other areas, outsiders quickly realize what an urban gem and great buy St. Louis is. Thus, I think too many of our region’s leaders are natives, an ironic observation from this native. Thus, our leaders fail to sell St. Louis to others, when they are not entirely sold themselves, taking their inherited place for granted.

Ideally, I hope to someday return to St. Louis and help my home region finally pursue similar strategies. For the moment though, I will move to a place that already gets it. I fear if I stay here, I will grow cynical fighting the good fight, ever pessimistic about a local culture that settles too quickly, or at least questions how great of a place it already is, let alone how much greater it could easily become.

From KDHX Radio:

At 7 p.m., Monday, July 16, Collateral Damage will feature Brian Horton, an urban planner at East-West Gateway Council of Governments, along with Steve Patterson of www.urbanreviewstl.com. Horton, who worked on plans for the next MetroLink extension, is about to move to Charlotte, North Carolina. Patterson, an avid watchdog on local urban issues, will discuss with Horton how St. Louis and Charlotte take different approaches on mass transit, transportation and urban development. The two will join co-hosts D.J. Wilson and Fred Hessel with end-of the-show commentary by Barroom Bob Putnam.

We are losing a great thinker in Brian Horton, his contributions will be missed — Steve. Share your thoughts below and tune-in Monday evening at 88.1.


Currently there are "22 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jim Zavist says:

    Good luck – sounds like you’re off on a great adventure. And, as a relative newbie here, I have to agree with nearly all your observations about St. Louis. I’m betting that change will also happen here (slowly) – the only question is when . . .

  2. Joe Frank says:

    Brian and I first met during Youth Leadership Saint Louis more than 10 years ago. He was a student at Lindbergh, me at Metro, but both living in South County and both fascinated with the urban environment.

    Good luck Brian! I hope you make it back someday … as a high-priced “out of town” consultant!


    Joe Frank

  3. stlmark says:

    You say: “Even though Charlotte is significantly smaller than St. Louis..”

    That’s not accurate, based on census data, it’s the other way around (from Wiki):

    As of 2005, census estimates show there are 610,949 people living within Charlotte’s city limits.

    STL: As of the censusGR2 of 2000, there were 348,189 people, 147,076 households, and 76,920 families residing in the city.

    Charlotte is waaaaay bigger than STL, and getting bigger.

    Good luck in NC.

  4. Max... says:

    Well you know you will have plenty of other St. Louisians heading that direction as well. All them folks from A. G. Edwards and the crew from The Sporting News (my brother being one of them) will be around to yak it up about Toasted Rav’s and Imo’s Pizza 🙂

    Good luck Steve and watch them inland heading Hurricanes.


  5. Brian says:

    ^I meant metropolitan area, for which is Charlotte is still about one million less than our metro. But Mark is right in that Charlotte is much larger in its city population and growing. In fact, my future boss was already using a picture of the St. Louis skyline in his slideshows to illustrate the magnitude of how the City of Charlotte is projected to grow by another 350,000-plus people in the next 10-20 years.

    Of course, Charlotte is one of those cities like Missouri’s own Kansas City, that is not landlocked and covering a very large land area. With 75% of its county’s population (a county with only six municipalities) and 40% of its metro’s population, it’s no wonder this “central city” of the Southeast can dominate regional planning decisions. It makes sense then too that the transit agency there is essentially a city department. Overall, Charlotte is blessed with much less political fragmentation than our very parochial Greater St. Louis area.

  6. Adam says:

    if anyone is familiar with the magazine “Fast Company,” they rated saint louis one of the 5 SLOWEST cities in the WORLD (along with detroit, budapest, new orleans, and two others that i can’t recall at the moment). i don’t remember all of the criteria, but the major complaint seemed to be that our economy and population growth has been consistently stagnant/slow, and we are BORING (apparently we ranked dead last on some wierdness survey – the name of the survey escapes me at the moment). NOT good publicity. anyway, i’ll take another look at the article and get back with the details. yay, saint louis leadership.

  7. Hilary says:

    I think it’s an apples-oranges comparison. Charlotte is all about “good governance” – a laudable goal certainly – but it’s an entirely different set of issues. Charlotte “gets it” with regard to providing lean and mean services – something St. Louis should certain ascribe to, but Charlotte doesn’t have remotely the same kinds of urban social and infrastructure issues that St. Louis has. By virtue of its relative newness, Charlotte has the luxury of not having to deal with what a couple of hundred years (figuratively) of an entirely different governance model has wrought.

    I’m an urban planner by education and training, and I worked for the City’s CDA in the 80s. It depresses me terribly to see that some of the same players from back then are still around, making their back room deals. I can only conclude that success in the City happens despite them, not because of them. Add on top of that, there are so many political and institutional layers to obstruct positive development, it’s a wonder that anything happens at all. So yes, good for Charlotte. They have a completely different set of circumstances from political, to physical, to geographical – to compare them to us doesn’t do any good except to continue to make us feel bad about our community.

    But – if I were Queen the one thing I would do that many fast growing communities throughout the US have done, is to adopt a “One Stop” model. You want to rehab a house? Build new housing? Open a store? Here’s your own personal City Employee. That person will guide you through the tortuous permitting and approval process. As Queen (Or mayor. Whatever.), I guarantee this person will help you and stick with you until ribbon cutting day.

    Yes, I’m being glib and there are of course many details and ‘yes, buts’ to what I just wrote – but it’s still an important process that I wish would be considered by the City.

    Now from Queen to Pollyanna. Our self-loathing permeates to the outside world. I sat on a plane the other day and listened to a couple of Boeing employees (from Seattle) tell their seatmate (from Scotland) how terrible St. Louis was, and how they hoped he wasn’t staying here for his vacation. He was, as it turns out. First, I got p*ssed (how would you like it if I randomly criticized the place you live?), then I got sad. I don’t understand why we do this to ourselves. Yes, there’s no question there are problems – but this is a good place to live. Otherwise we wouldn’t live here. I left for almost 10 years, but came back – because St. Louis has wonderful things to offer that make it appealing for me and my family. Why can’t we compare ourselves to other communities and see our positives, rather than our negatives?

  8. GMichaud says:

    The problem is hanging on to the positives. As Brian points out there is a city leadership that doesn’t understand how to build cities. Their solution is to hand everything over to well connected developers, who in turn care nothing about the community, only how much money they can make.
    Yes it is sad that people from Boeing dislike St. Louis, but Seattle is a vibrant city, and Scotland also has cities that value the urban environment. However I don’t think it is self loathing as much as reality.

    When you arrive in St. Louis you see the leadership of the city is actively destroying what has made St. Louis great. This along with the same back rooms deals that have been going on for decades, it is hard for a visitor not to see the damage inflicted to the urban fabric and become disenchanted with its prospects.

    Until urban planning in St. Louis becomes an inclusive process that involves the citizens these problems will continue. The creation of urban form is a far too important to be left to the developers and the government alone.

    Compare this one instance of the Seattle Department of Planning involvement with the community. Here is a quote from their website about public involvement in a Neighborhood Main Street Mapping Project. “Over the past few months, planners have been meeting with community groups and neighbors in the northwest and central/east areas of Seattle to discuss where Pedestrian Overlay Zone (P Zone) designations might be appropriate.”

    In St. Louis its screw the public, “this is what we are doing.” Public discussion is off limits, but the handouts to wealthy developers are limitless. The built environment in St. Louis reflects this attitude and this reality.

    Meanwhile Brain points out that Charlotte has plans for “additional light rail, bus rapid transit, modern streetcars and commuter rail all planned as an extensive, multi-modal system. Most importantly, Charlotte has adopted a coordinated land use strategy with the goal of targeting forty percent of all new development into their planned transit corridors, supporting growth in the form of more compact, walkable development.”

    So which city is going to grow and prosper do you think? St. Louis with its self serving leadership, or Charlotte with its forward thinking application of traditional city planning principles?

    However St. Louis will have a Walgreens and massive parking lots on every corner. In fact soon St. Louis will be known as the parking lot city. (Lets tear down those historic buildings, who needs them?) What is left is a chaotic urban environment that requires a car for every task and that resembles one of the far flung suburbs that surrounds St. Louis.

  9. Margie says:

    “For the moment though, I will move to a place that already gets it. I fear if I stay here, I will grow cynical fighting the good fight …”

    Amen, brother. Good luck to you.

  10. Matt says:

    i agree, good luck to you as well.

  11. Kara says:

    I moved away from St. Louis 5 years ago, and now I’m looking into moving back. There are many things that I miss about St.Louis, amenities that it has that other cities in this country do not have. However, the poor leadership and the continual bad decisions from the leaders concern me. St. Louis is so close to being great, it could be well on the road to greatness in 5 years if a few basic priorities were recognized by the leaders. But the energy on this blog and on other St. Louis blogs gives me hope. I haven’t found another city that has so many blogs that focus on these issues and that show evidence of so much passion. Apparently the current leadership doesn’t care, but you guys do. So, my question is, when are you guys going to take back the city? I know many of you aren’t native to St. Louis, and I think that’s what St. Louis needs, a big breath of fresh air. In with the new, it’s time.

  12. creative says:

    It’s a strange dichotomy, isn’t it? How do you explain a place with, as Kara notes, “so many amenities”,yet such “lousy leadership”? Did these things just happen?

  13. Adam says:

    well, nobody built the mississippi. and our recent leaders certainly didn’t build the historic neighborhoods, nor the zoo, nor forest park, nor the botanical gardens. perhaps some of them were around when the arch was built … and the historic riverfront demolished. in any case i can think of several amenities that are not attributable to our lousy leadership.

  14. parochial says:

    The leadership we have today is a reflection of the culture we’ve had here for over 100 years. Our parochial, old school, neighborhood/ward based, Catholic, charitable, Lebanese, Jewish, Irish, German, African-American, union, private-schooled, sprawl/laissez-faire/pro-demolition mindset, city/county divide, and other St. Louis traits were all around when these great amenities were created. The only thing different is the internet.

  15. Kara says:

    I would say that most of the problems have arisen in the last 60 years, after the amenities in St. Louis were built. I don’t even really fault those who made bad choices 50 or 60 years ago. Large scale demolition and car centeredness were new approaches and the negative consequences could not all have been predicted (though Jane Jacobs sure had the foresight). But we have known since the 70s what bad choices these were, so why are our leaders so late to catch on? I’m greatful that there has been a lack of investment in recent dacades because who knows what other wonderful things in St. Louis would have been demolished due to the empty minded decisions of the leaders. Big money and promise of development will not create a great city. The leaders and the citizens need to have a vision and a plan before anything is built, demolished, or transformed. Then when money is waved and proposals are given, we will know if it is worth it, if it fits into the greater vision.

  16. metropolitan says:

    There seems to be this consensus that St. Louis can only prosper if it follows some grand vision. However, such following such a broad based vision has never been the culture here. Instead, we have valued the rights of individuals to make their own choices.

    Ours is a culture and place where the efforts and voices of millions of individuals for over 200 years have combined to make a decentralized, diverse, complicated, and fascinating community.

  17. Matt says:

    “However, such following such a broad based vision has never been the culture here.”

    sure thing, that’s not what i see when looking north and south over the olive blvd overpass @ I-270 around 5 PM. like it or not, we *are* following a broad based vision.

  18. Matt says:

    excuse, me, rather a *narrow* vision, which is what i think you were implying we don’t follow here…of which i’d disagree.

  19. Matt says:

    who i see in st. louis-

    people who have thought long and hard about this city (and metro) who are trying to bring forward good ideas…

    people trying to defend themselves from what they see as an increasing annoyance and eventual threat to their stale vision of how to conduct business in the city and region…

    and (in the city) leadership that is trying to keep the boat from being rocked too hard to so things can “progress as usual…”

  20. Josh L says:

    I have lived in St. Louis for 2.5 years, coming from New York City, and am about to move to Champaign-Urbana to get a graduate degree. I have seen some positive energy starting here (and in some small way maybe I made a contribution), but have also seen the kind of negative trends that are so often discussed on this blog. I have not been there in the trenches, so I don’t feel I can comment much — but I am not so hopeful that the culture can be changed.

  21. statusquo says:

    Observation: The rift for the young academes and the “creative class” in St. Louis is that this place doesn’t base decisions on the approvals of urban planners. If you came to plan, it’s frustrating.

  22. Gene Stowe says:

    I grew up near Charlotte in the 1960s, worked for traffing engineering in the 1970s and was a reporter for The Charlotte Observer in the 1980s until moving to Indiana in 1993. It’s a great city, and I’m glad to hear that its development will have this kind of leadership. I am very familiar with New Urbanism, writing often about the University of Notre Dame’s architecture school. I can vouch for the horror we have always felt at the thought of Charlotte’s becoming another Atlanta. Keep it safe.


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