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 Loweâ€™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 Steveâ€™s blog know, St. Louis doesnâ€™t even have sufficient sidewalks leading to its newly subsidized Loweâ€™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, todayâ€™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. Itâ€™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 â€œwedges.â€
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 â€œOld Urbanismâ€ 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 hadnâ€™t been mothballed during those â€œdark agesâ€ 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 donâ€™t get it and still push for suburban development as the fix-all solution. Iâ€™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, Iâ€™ll now work in a largely suburban environment seeking to build the currently fashionable â€œNew Urbanism,â€ while my hometown continues to ignore the vast amount of â€œOld Urbanism,â€ for which we have had the dumb luck to inherit. But you see, Charlotte also has the dumb luck of geography and climate. Itâ€™s close to the mountains, a dayâ€™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 itâ€™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 itâ€™s our most under-appreciated asset.
Over the years, Iâ€™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 regionâ€™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.