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The History of the Ubiquitous Building Setback Line

October 30, 2008 Downtown 4 Comments

Today the “setback line” is codified in zoning ordinances from small rural towns to big cities. This was not always the case, the setback line had origins in the 19th century but it became standardized in the mid-20th century.

In the 19th Century we’d see setback lines used by developers of fancy residential streets, such as Lucas Place (now Locust). The Campbell House Museum website offers information on the use of an early setback line:

In late 1850 or early 1851, siblings James Lucas and Ann Lucas Hunt laid out a residential neighborhood on a section of the farm they had inherited from their father. The main thoroughfare was aptly called Lucas Place.

Lucas and Hunt developed the Lucas Place partly in response to a demand for new housing away from the congestion, noise and coal pollution of the city center and where there was less of a danger of fire and disease which had recently been so devastating.

Originally Lucas Place (now Locust Street) extended between 13th and 16th streets when the city limits were just one block to the west between 17th and 18th streets. When established, Lucas Place was west of the developed portion of the city, making it St. Louis’ first “suburban” neighborhood. Lucas Place was also the first clearly defined wealthy neighborhood in St. Louis. However, it was a neighborhood for new money–none of St. Louis’ old wealthy families lived on Lucas Place.

As in many of St. Louis’ later private streets, Lucas Place properties also had deed restrictions. All buildings had to be set back 25 feet from the street. No commercial enterprises of any kind were allowed, however churches and schools were not restricted. These restrictions expired in the 1880s

Cities did not yet have zoning. Deed restrictions were up to each individual developer. In the case of Lucas Place the buildings had to be set back 25 feet. After these restrictions expired and the city grew and developed Westward new structures such as the YMCA at 15th & Locust were built to the street.

I need to clarify terms before going any further, street and road are not the same. A street refers to the entire public right-of-way — road plus sidewalks. The road or roadway is that portion of the street between the curbs.

At the start of the 20th Century is when we saw the building setback line come into universal use. Before this time every bit of the building lot could be built upon. Streets – both sidewalks & roadways – were becoming quite crowded with pedestrians, streetcars, carriages and such. The private automobile made matters worse. The introduction of the Ford Model T in 1908 made the automobile affordable to more of the population.

But in cities all over the country you had rights of way of 60ft-80ft for most streets with a few up to 90 feet in width. Again, this is the road plus sidewalks. With the streets lined with buildings at the property line the options for increasing the width of the roadway were few. The simplest was to take the space from the adjacent sidewalks by moving the curb line back.

Cities began the expensive process of using eminent domain to take additional property along streets to increase the overall width of the right-of-way. Throughout St Louis and in cities all over the country front sections of buildings were cut off and given new front facades.

Above:  From the back of the image, The writing on the back of the photo says Franklin Ave.  In process of being widened from 50 to 80 feet between 3rd and 9th streets.  View looking east from 9th street in 1928.  The photo was taken by the City Plan Commission. From the collection of The Landmarks Association of St Louis
Above: From the back of the image, "Franklin Ave. In process of being widened from 50 to 80 feet between 3rd and 9th streets. View looking east from 9th street in 1928." The photo was taken by the City Plan Commission. From the collection of The Landmarks Association of St Louis

In the above image you can see one building on the left side of Franklin (now MLK) that doesn’t yet have the new facade built. Everything in the above image has since been razed, the 1977 Cervantes Convention Center was built here.

Above: 1909 Sanborn map showing the North side of Franklin Ave between 7th & 9th.  Franklin Ave was 75ft wide West of 9th but only 50ft wide East of 9th (left side of above).
Above: 1909 Sanborn map showing the North side of Franklin Ave between 7th & 9th. Franklin Ave was 75ft wide West of 9th but only 50ft wide East of 9th (left side of above). The South side of the blocks were equally as dense.

Having gone through this costly process cities began to require a new building setback from major streets in anticipation of them being widened in the future. In 1923 city voters approved an $87 million dollar bond issue for a number of projects including street widening.

The 1928 St Louis Directory indicated St Louis had “1,007 miles of streets, 766 of which that are paved” plus
1,500 miles of sidewalks. So at the time the city was undertaking the expense to tear off fronts of buildings to widen some streets other streets still remained unpaved.

In the 1947 Comprehensive Plan street widening was listed as top among planning accomplishments in the city to date:

1. For Establishing, Opening and Widening Streets – $8,650,000
Ten great new thoroughfares created
Gravois Avenue-S. 12th Street
Market Street
Olive Street
North 12th-Florissant-Natural Bridge
Vandeventer Avenue
Hampton Boulevard
Chippewa Street
Watson Road
Delmar Boulevard (3rd to Spring)
Easton Avenue (Franklin to Spring)

The 1947 plan went on to advocate the adoption of building lines:

St. Louis has never established building lines on major streets to require new building construction to set back to future street lines. Numerous American cities established such building lines many years ago for purposes of economy and to assure sufficient street capacity to meet future traffic needs. Building lines should now be established on all major streets of inadequate future width.

The head of the city’s Plan Commission, Harland Bartholomew, and his firm Harland Bartholomew & Associates was responsible for “Major Streets” plans in hundreds of cities where the building line was implemented to make it easier to widen streets in the future. Less than a decade after the city adopted the 1947 plan, President Eisenhower signed into law the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act.

Highways sliced through cities. Streets that were widened a few decades earlier now saw less use. But the building setback line stuck. More from the 1947 Plan:

840,000 people in St. Louis owned 165,000 automobiles and trucks in 1946. By 1970 it is estimated that there will be about 230,000 automobiles and trucks. This figure does not include streetcars and busses or the many thousands of new cars and trucks in suburban areas, all of which are potential users of city streets. The annual traffic in St. Louis will be increased from 1,531,000,000 to 2,403,000,000 vehicle miles by 1960 (Estimate by Missouri State Highway Department, Highway Planning Survey.). This is a lot of traffic. It cannot be accommodated on our present street system. It will require new and enlarged adequate flow channels as well as a high degree of regulation and control.

Traffic originating in residential areas throughout all parts of the city moves: (a) to the central business district or (b) to numerous objectives in various parts of the city, such as industries, parks, business sub-centers, schools, or to other residential areas. Traffic from various parts of the metropolitan area and from more remote points moves to the central business district of St. Louis and to numerous other objectives within the city. More than 100 truck terminals surrounding and closely adjacent to the central business district are points of origin for motor truck lines which daily carry large volumes of freight. These are but examples of a multitude of daily traffic movements in the city.

Since 1916 St. Louis has expended over $40,000,000 in opening, widening, connecting, and extending the system of major streets. Much has been accomplished in converting a horse and buggy street system to automobile needs. As the total volume of traffic increases, however, certain new needs arise. An example is the desirability of grade separations at extremely heavy intersections, such as at Grand and Market and at Kingshighway and Lindell. Likewise there is a need for complete separation of grade where traffic volume is sufficiently heavy to justify the cost involved. The Federal Government, which has helped finance our splendid system of national highways, has recently revised its policies and Congress has appropriated substantial funds to aid the cities in the construction of express highways and for facilitation of traffic flows from certain selected state highways through metropolitan areas to the central business districts of large cities. Past and present experience reveals the need for four types of major streets and trafficways as follows:

So highways were already being discussed and planned but planning for more and more traffic on surface streets continued. Setback lines became the norms. Grade separations were discussed for intersections such as Kingshighway & Lindell – thankfully that never happened!

Over the years planners included the setback. As newer major roads were built this meant the commercial buildings would be set back from the sidewalk as in the older sections of town. It is only natural then that someone decided to start parking their cars in this space. Evolve that over a few decades and you end up with Loughborough Commons – massive parking with big boxes which don’t relate to the public sidewalk along the street.

Again the setback is now standard everywhere. Civil Engineers & Planners have ensured that it is in the codes of every city. Suburban Creve Coeur, Missouri, for example:

Section 26-26 Setbacks and Building Lines.

26-26.1 Purposes
The purposes of the setback lines provided for in this Chapter are to establish safe and clear rights-of-way and to provide adequate light, air and open space in conformity with buildings now in existence.
26-26.2 Setback Requirements on Certain Streets and Rights-of-Way
(a) No building or structure shall be located further from a major street or highway in the City of Creve Coeur than provided for by the standards specified below:
1. Arterial street or highway (Ballas Road, Lindbergh Boulevard and Olive Boulevard): Forty (40) feet setback from the center line of said arterial street or highway plus the permitted setback distance established in the zoning district. The Planning and Zoning Commission may increase the distance measured from the centerline of an arterial street or highway to ensure a consistent right-of-way along such a thoroughfare or if a road expansion is projected in an adopted land use plan.
2. Major collector streets (Conway, Ladue, Old Olive Street, Warson, Spoede, Graeser, Mason, Mosley, Shulte, Craig, Emerson, Old Ballas and Ross Roads, and Cross Creek, Decker, Trojan and Tempo Drives): Thirty (30) feet setback from the center line of said major collector street plus the permitted setback distance established in the zoning district. The Planning and Zoning Commission may increase the distance measured from the centerline of a major collector street to ensure a consistent right-of-way along such a thoroughfare or if a road expansion is projected in an adopted land use plan.
(b) In every instance, the first ten (10) feet of the front yard setback from the right-of-way shall be provided with and maintained with sidewalks, unless sidewalks exist in the abutting public right-of-way, and with landscaping including, but not limited to deciduous street trees at regular intervals. (Ord. No. 2030, § 3, 10-25-99)
I personally like the scale of the old “horse and buggy” street system. It still exists in places:
Above: Philedeliphia, PA in 2001.
Above: Philadelphia, PA in 2001.
Above: Bostons North End in January 2008.
Above: Boston's North End in January 2008.

I’d much rather walk in Boston’s North End neighborhood than along a widened street like Natural Bridge in St Louis. So there you have it, planners saw streets as too limiting for auto traffic so they opened them up and put setback lines in place on other streets to ensure when the time came to widen the street buildings would not be in the way — not that buildings would stop them.

  • Jim Zavist

    Before I left Denver, one member of City Council was pushing Planning & Zoning to implement “build-to” lines in some zone districts, along traditional retail corridors, specifically to bring back more of an urban feel and to force parking behind the buildings. Progress has been slow, but I’m pretty sure at least one zone district now includes them.

  • southsider

    I wonder if we are making a mistake by shrinking our major arterial roads from 3 to 2 lanes. These large roads were build over the years at great expense (as your article shows) and now we are closing them down. Bike friendly is great but perhaps this should be done using say Comton Ave instead of Grand.

    I suspect the deal is done with Federal funds so no body really give a dang but is happy to take the coin. It just strikes me a bit similar to some of the urban renewal projects which get implemented with not much public discourse.

  • GMichaud

    Even with street expansions I can remember an intact Franklin Avenue before wholesale demolition, the original Tony’s (5 star restaurant) was in the same area, around the corner from Franklin Avenue. It is a continuation of the same mindless politics that are designed to benefit a few as happens on the national level.
    The crap continues unabated, whether it be major financial giveaways to insider Paul McKee on the Northside or simply the ongoing demolition of St. Louis.
    A few insiders benefit enormously from this disease. Whether a new president will change direction is doubtful. Neither candidate is talking about comprehensive changes on how we approach the environment, even though it is a central issue involving the control of the wealthy over daily urban policy and by extension adversely affecting the daily economic and social lives of American citizens..
    That is the issue, locally and nationally: everything is managed to benefit the wealthy few. Wealth redistribution goes to the wealthy. It is Socialism, Marxism and Communism for the wealthy. It does not matter if it is TIF monies, Proposition A for the casinos or tax credits for Paul McKee. These people run the government for their benefit, thus half ass urban planning decisions will continue to be made until the fundamentals are changed. Don’t believe me, look at the results, continual decline of the city, mass transit is a failure, energy problems are not being solved, suburban malls in decline, highways congested, wars are the only solution and on and on.
    The real evidence is stark, and the democrats are as much a party to the decline as the republicans. On the local level the democrats bullshit is in fact well ahead of any asinine policy George W Bush has concocted, and he is the worst president in history.

    The setbacks are absurd of course, but since Franklin Avenue doesn’t exist anymore, the real question is how to ride American citizens of the vultures who pretend to have the interests of the people at heart.

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