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Public Realm Attacked in SW St Louis City

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

The attacks continue . . .

On the public realm, that is . . . Watson Road in SW City is not downtown or the CWE. It’s an older four-lane arterial lined with residences, both single and multi-family, churches, banks and small business. It bisects some very walkable neighborhoods and has a well-developed and well-maintained sidewalk system on both sides, mostly with a small tree lawn/planting strip (example below).

Patio dining is something many diners like, and vote for with their feet and credit cards. I like patio and sidewalk dining, especially on weekends like this past one (Saturday night, at Chava’s, for instance), so I’m not a NIMBY. I’m even coming around to the concept of sharing the sidewalks with tables and chairs, as is done by many places on Washington. Where I draw the line is when permanent encroachments are made into the public right-of-way, especially when other alternatives exist.

In response to this demand, more and more restaurants are creating outdoor spaces. In my area/along Watson and Chippewa, both El Paisano and Aya Sophia have recently completed outdoor spaces, and both seem to be doing well. We’re also home to that St. Louis icon, Ted Drewes (013 jpg), and as we all know, they’re heavy users of the public sidewalk.

El Paisano:

Aya Sophia:

Ted Drewes:

It now looks like one of our old-line places, Pietro’s, wants to join the crowd.

This week, the public sidewalk was ripped out and concrete foundations were poured, exactly for what, I’m not quite sure, yet.

My best guess is that we’re getting a permanent deck (on the circular concrete footings) enclosed with a brick wall (on the rectangular footings with the rebar sticking out). I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s covered, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes enclosed, when cooler weather hits. And since it sits smack dab in the middle of the existing pedestrian path, guess what, pedestrians will now be taking a permanent detour.

I guess I’d be more sympathetic and less upset if there were “no other options”. This simply isn’t the case here. The restaurant abuts the public sidewalk (a good thing) on the north and the east. It’s also surrounded by a generous parking lot on the west and south. Why not use the parking lot? I can guess the answer, it’s simple – “We don’t want to/can’t afford to lose any parking.”

Who’s to blame? The owner, for wanting to use what they see as either an extension of their property and/or wanting to put the the public right-of-way to “better use”, as in “Nobody walks there, anyway”, plus “We’re leaving 4′-5′ to squeeze by”? Their architect/designer/contractor for drawings up the owner’s plans and asking the city (been there, done that – sometimes you gotta push the envelope”, plus you’re getting paid to ask, beg and/or plead the owner’s case)? The city for saying yes? Ding, ding, ding! Ultimately, it’s the city’s responsibility to just say no, you’re simply going too far. It won’t make you popular, but it’s your job! Whether it’s the planning department or the public works department or the alderman, somebody (everybody?) needs to be doing their job (better?) and looking at the bigger picture. We have rules for a reason, to protect the public, and there’s no valid reason for making any exceptions here.

I don’t care if you’ve been in the neighborhood for nearly fifty years. I don’t care if you have new competitors and you’re losing a few customers. I don’t care if you’d lose a few parking spaces – your competitors have made that choice. What’s happening here is permanent. It’s not like a few chairs and tables blocking the sidewalk (and can be moved). This will degrade the pedestrian experience in an area and a city that should be encouraging more walking, and it’s another hit on our fragile urban fabric. And, unfortunately, it’s most likely a done deal and won’t/can’t be changed . . .

Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Update 6/26/2008 2:20pm:

Steve here, thanks Jim for bringing this to everyone’s attention.   Some of the comments reflect the attitude that they likely have a permit so all must be well.  One such example of work having a permit was the construction of an ADA ramp into a renovated building on Olive (see post).  In this case the ramp was allowed to encroach on the public sidewalk in order to provide an accessible entrance for the building.  The problem is the ramp was being constructed too far into the right of way.  So far that someone in a chair trying to reach this entrance would not have been able to do so.  By posting about it midway it gave everyone a chance to review the situation and make corrections before it was too far along.  Wednesday morning I had a nice face to face meeting with the new Commissioner on the Disabled, David Newburger.  He will be looking into this situation on Watson.  As we discussed sometimes projects are allowed to encroach on the public space.  The task is to ensure the minimum clearance is protected.  But the minimum is just that, minimum.  To create walkable neighborhoods we need to strive for more than the minimum.


Currently there are "20 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    Nothing more “permanent” than a new highway marketed as the best and largest expenditure by MOdot in any county. Destroying neighborhoods so the area can be not only a flyover but also Drive-Through too? Many better alternatives were in the original designs but eventually rejected to save a few dollars. Our pedestrian bridge across the highway was PERMANENTLY removed and entrance/exit ramps serving everyone, including EMS rescue operations, also permanently removed. At least you still have a path…

  2. Craig says:

    Do you have any proof as to where the public right of way is? Have you talked to the owner or seen the plans? The way things are now, it looks like the possibility exists that, along with a new patio, there will be a regular size sidewalk when this gets rebuilt.

    [slp— The last picture shows the adjacent property and the typical property line between the private space (asphalt) and the public right of way (concrete).  What remains might be a very minimal sidewalk.  Reducing the width of sidewalks down to the bare minimum is not where we need to be.] 

  3. Hanrahan doesn’t do anything. Don’t even email her about this issue. You might get a response, but will something actually be done?

  4. Webby says:

    Even if the tree lawn area is used for a sidewalk (which appears to be the only option, as the footings are in the sidewalk area), there’s no way it can be ADA compliant. There will be a streetlamp pole right in the middle of the sidewalk, with just a couple feet of clearance on each side.

    Or does the ADA not apply in this case, for some reason?

  5. keep it positive says:

    omg. the owner must have received a permit to do this work, so show me what is proposed and then let’s talk. geez. you don’t even know what is proposed for crying out loud. you shouldn’t bash a project until you know all the details.

    [slp — These folks had a permit too but they were still taking up so much of the sidewalk it would have made it impossible to pass.  Plan reviewers are not looking out for these issues.]

  6. Craig says:

    After looking at the pictures and google earth, I think its highly likely that the area being built on belongs to Pietro’s and was never intended to be a real sidewalk. If that is the case, this post is a real shame. But of course I could be wrong. How about some basic fact checking before something like this is published.

  7. Chris says:

    Woah guys, regardless of where the frickin’ property line is, one fact remains the same: a person who is physically disabled is going to have a hell of a time getting by this section of Watson. How about a little empathy?

    [slp — not to mention a couple out walking the baby(s) in a stroller and walking the dog.]  

  8. dude says:

    So those plans were approved? Yikes. I guess we have to wait and see what it’s supposed to be but it doesn’t look good. I get pretty annoyed along Manchester west of Hampton. There is a car dealership frequently, though not the last time I went by, using the sidewalk to park cars for sale. I am all for entrepreneurs making their way in the world but you’ve got to have a minimum of civic cooperation.

  9. Maurice says:

    What also is not addressed in this post is how the internal layout figures into the patio placement. If the parking lot faces the front entrance, then yeah, some spots could be taken. If not and the parking lot is behind the kitchen, then putting a patio there is not an option.

    I would have asked or called and talked to someone first before jumping the gun.

  10. Jeff says:

    What you need is someone with a wheel chair to knock on the door and claim that they will sue for ADA access issues. I am sure that will get their attention!

    This really doesn’t surprise me here in St. Louis. Most people now days don’t walk to work. Plus the owners drive to their work place. Another reason why they don’t think about sidewalks.

    Hope things get better…

  11. Jim Zavist says:

    The reality is that the public sidewalk needs to be on the public right-of-way – there are simply too many liability issues for a private property owner to allow the public to use their property without any restrictions (“public”) – that’s also the original reason for eminent domain laws. Private property owners may invite the public, or certain individuals, to use their property, but if you’re not invited, you’re trespassing. A more common assumption/misinterpretation is that one’s private property starts at the back edge of the sidewalk. While many times this is true, it’s surprising how many times it’s not. And yes, I have not seen plans for this project or a survey, but I’ve been in this business long enough to be confident that my assumptions are accurate, plus, it’s a whole lot easier, for all involved, to “fix” an error at this stage than when the project is further along or completed. I also accept that there are cases, locations and situations where dedicating a portion of the public way to a private use (like adding a ramp to a store’s entrance to improve access) is appropriate. In this case, I see no compelling reason – there are other places where a deck can be constructed or the deck can be constructed here if it’s made 2′-3′ narrower. The deck isn’t the problem; the loss of the existing sidewalk is!
    Bigger picture, and as expected, I’ve struck a nerve here, when it comes to the assumed “rights” of property owners to use the adjacent PUBLIC right-of-way. Few of us would presume that we could build a deck or park our cars on our neighbor’s property without asking, but, around here, it seems that more than a few people have no qualms about doing the same thing with public property. Whether it’s “claiming” the parking spot(s) on the street in front of one’s residence or business or completely blocking the sidewalk with vehicles or merchandise or tables and chairs, the idea of truly public space seems to be a bit fuzzy. It may be a legacy of the private streets in the CWE or it may be a legacy of a “traditional” political structure, but it does seem to be pretty common.
    As others have pointed out, urban living is messy. We need to learn to share, and both sharing the public realm and using it more intensively can be a good thing. But there is a difference between sharing and grabbing more than your fair share. Yes, we’re going to have to wait and see what the final product may be, but I have my doubts . . .

  12. Referencing the Target on Hampton, when leadership, as in depute mayor for development Barbara Geisman, believes that we won’t either park in a garage (what? ever been downtown) or walk (pedestrian accessible shopping is why I live there), what can be expected? When the pedestrian right of way or even pedestrian travel becomes an afterthought in the mind of leadership, urban design and planning which promotes walk ability, except in incremental fashion, becomes absent. This arbitrary decision making occurs due to our imperialist ward based system where aldermen have autonomy independent of any city wide design code or planning commission. Absent of a PAC or lobbying organization pushing for actual City Design, preservation, and honest government, we will continue to see these horrible occurrences. If the business wants it done and they contribute to the alderman, while citizens are ignorant and others are not educating both the ignorant masses and officials, what’s to stop this from happening?

  13. andy says:

    I’m from Missouri. Show-me the plans.

  14. Jerry says:

    Still more room there than at the old Mosaic downtown.

  15. Joe Frank says:

    Funny, I was just across the street from there at the Watson Road Vet (a great vet, by the way!) picking up meds. I thought that was an odd amount of pavement to rip up. Also I noticed it’s Stika doing the work, the same firm that did my sidewalk under the 50/50 program a few years back. I didn’t notice those footings, so I just assumed it was a routine sidewalk replacement project, such as that also being done along Chippewa in front of the Hoffmeister Colonial Mortuary (or whatever they’re calling it nowadays).

    Anyway, I would assume based on casual observation that those footings mentioned are in the public right-of-way, but I may be wrong about that. If they are, then BPS and possibly even CRO (assuming Ward 23 is a Preservation Review area, which it may not be) would have to approve the planned encroachment.

  16. Matt says:

    A quick check of Geo St. Louis permit data shows a permit issued 4/25 for a $30,000 patio. I’m a big fan of sidewalk dining, but I much prefer the tables on the public sidewalk set up like one would see walking along Washington Ave. This patio appears pretty ridiculous to me.

  17. john says:

    Maybe the public just has no right of way unless it’s a highWAY. Thanks JZ for the data and pictures. It certainly illustrates, once again, that the rights and safety of pedestrians are ignored and/or deeply discounted in the Lou.

  18. Mark says:

    D. Duckworth, I share your opinion regarding Ald. Hanrahan. She’s up for re-election this year. Any chance we get a viable, alternative candidate?

  19. Mark, I have no idea. The guy who owns the car wash is apparently going to run and I think the guy that owns Malles? Word on the street is that R. Slay is not going to support Hanrahan either.

  20. equals42 says:

    I inquired inside Pietro’s and they said it was going to be a covered patio. It will also be enclosed during Winter as we all know how that works. So it won’t be the open sidewalk seating people may have envisioned. I leaves almost no room to get by where the street lamp is placed near the south corner of the new patio. I can’t imagine someone really gave them a permit for this.


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