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South Grand: From the Gilded Age to “Great Street”

South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”

South Grand

In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.

It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.

Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.

Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.

The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.

The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.

Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.

The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.

The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.

I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.

So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.

Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.

An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Compton Heights

Several issues remain up in the air. Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet School for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind, have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-district intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.

To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.  Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establish neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys, and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.

Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as a business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.

– Deborah Moulton


Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. Brian says:

    Just as they say, “build it and they will come” for capacity-adding projects, you can also say “life goes on” for road-diets. As a general rule, be it closing Highway 40 or reducing lanes on South Grand, traffic will adapt and dissipate.

    So area leaders, how about seriously considering removing that highway barrier to the Arch, Landing and Riverfront?

  2. Jimmy Z says:

    Sounds like a real win-win – just make sure it goes all the way south to Gravois in its final iteration.

  3. It should go all the way to Chippewa — not Gravois.

  4. Brian says:

    Per the “Great Streets” project, curb extensions and other significant construction is only slated for the segment from Arsenal to Utah. But I’d agree that more of the same should be considered to at least Gravois, if not Chippewa. And if the budget isn’t there now for bigger-ticket items now south of Utah, then do something for now beyond the streetscape project boundaries with paint (or re-striping).

    In other words, extend the road-diet south of Utah to Gravois or Chippewa on the cheap. And if it meant more parking meters for the Treasurer, then it might even more than pay itself off in the short-term. Besides, regular maintenance, such as resurfacing and striping comes every few years anyway, meaning a different striping plan design costs little to implement.

  5. Adam says:

    “Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.”

    is that bad? i thought that was the whole point of a street grid – multiple routes to the same destination. if speeds become excessive on other streets then take traffic calming actions on those streets as well (e.g. speed bumps, bulb-outs, etc). this had better not become an excuse to can the s grand project.

  6. Jflo will be pushing to get it to Chippewa and we should support those efforts by going to neighborhood meeting.

  7. GMichaud says:

    I went to the Great Streets meeting at St. Elizabeths Academy, and appreciate the attempt to include the public. Not perfect, but far more exemplary than anything else I’ve seen. That does not always mean they will listen to the citizens, but it is encouraging to see the effort.

    I do think a major gap revolves around the question about the bike lanes and the lack of planning for streetcars or other mass transit, Grand Ave being a natural route for such a venture. Does this mean work built now will have to be torn out to accommodate streetcars in the future?

    Mass transit should proceed planning for Great Streets, or ideally evolve along with Great Streets. Otherwise the city will never truly rebound with Great Streets alone: without transit to reach the Great Streets. A comprehensive idea of future transit, or the lack of it, if that is the decision, should be included in the planning and building Great Streets anywhere.

    Without such a plan, an idea of what can happen, what is possible and what is desirable puts the spending of funds at risk, and then either transit won’t be considered because they don’t want to look like fools, or else part or much of the money will be wasted because work completed had to be redone.

    Serious attempts at public inclusion is welcome.

    I must agree about extension of the lane restrictions to Chippewa. I live near Schnucks and crossing 5 lanes at Fairview where everyone thinks it is important to go fast as possible is treacherous. When I am with my 11 year old daughter it seems even worse. Just move the temps right down the street. The city did a great job in setting that temps up, made a few corrections, but the test works well. That is the advantage of temps, you can think things over a bit, evolve ideas and experiment with public involvement.
    The intersection of Grand and Gravois is an interesting one to solve. One problem is many of the business owners near that intersection may mindlessly look at it such a change negatively. That is why they call it a test.

  8. Jimmy says:

    I’ve been thinking that this project needs to be extended to Gravois or Chippewa too. I’m glad that others agree!
    The intersection at Gravois in particular needs it. The area has so much potential, but is failing to attract the retail tenants it needs. This project could help the process while making the area safer.

  9. Alissa says:

    It’s so good to see others advocating for the extension to Chippewa! I firmly believe that it would make a huge difference in the character of that stretch of road.

    I would also like to see some similar streetscaping efforts start to take shape along Gravois in the future.

    [slp — I think it is fairly obvious to most that giving more of Grand would be a good thing overall. Let’s just hope the decision makers have a tiny bit of common sense like so many of the rest of us.]

  10. II can tell you for a fact that drivers are bypassing the test area; I'm one of them. Returning home from work at 4pm traffic backs up at arsenal, some times up to the grand entrance to the park. Thou recently i've been using tower grove-arsenal-gustine to get home, much less congestion. Another change that need to be made is eliminate or lower the planters dividing grand. their elevation coupled with the height of the plants makes it impossible to see oncoming traffic especially when tring to make a left. 2 months ago i was driving north when a city ambulance nearly cut in front of me while tring to make a left. we couldn't see each other till it was almost to late (less than 10ft)


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