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Kunstler’s wrong, St. Louis’ new train/bus depot is not an eyesore

January 11, 2010 Downtown, Public Transit 33 Comments

kunstler eyesore of the month January 2010

I’ve been a fan of James Howard Kunstler for years.  I heard him speak in St. Louis when The Geography of Nowhere first came out – he autographed my copy.  I frequently check out his “Eyesore of the Month.”  This month the eyesore is St. Louis’ Gateway Station.

The above was followed by:

Check out this monstrosity: the new St. Louis Amtrak station, an utterly bewildering piece-of-shit shoehorned under a bunch of freeway ramps behind a UPS depot parking lot. Where’s the Prozac dispenser?
Salutes to reader Laura Louzader out in Missouri who says of this monument: “It is a nasty pocket in the city’s neglected back yard, and the first things you see when you exit the station are the dark parking lot under the overpasses, weed-choked vacant lots, and abandoned, shacky little buildings.”

“What a wonderful introduction to St. Louis! There are only two platforms and four pockets for trains, which tells you how committed Amtrak and St. Louis are to passenger rail.”

Kunstler concludes with a picture of our magnificent Union Station from a similar perspective as this one I took last year:

Union Station, St. Louis
Union Station, St. Louis; June 2008

So because Union Station is no longer used for rail transit our new station is a “piece-of-shit.”   The problem I have is not the criticism of the new station – a few are correct.  The problem is relying on an account/pictures from a visitor from Chicago.  I’m often critical of projects and places but I always visit in person to see for myself rather than be potentially misled by a reader.

Had Kunstler done his homework he would have known it has been more than thirty years since the last train backed out of Union Station.  From 1978-2008 St. Louis’ Amtrak station was in two different portable buildings (#1 1978-2004, #2 2004-2008).  It is not like we stopped using Union Station one day and the new station the next.

Our Gateway Station combines Amtrak and  Greyhound with our MetroLink light rail and MetroBus.  I’d say that is a good combination.  Utilizing  the space under the highway makes sense and bringing these services together in one spot can help visitors.

I spoke with Amtrak spokesperson Marc Magliari by phone to discuss the station.  His district covers 22 stations.

  • Last five years in Union Station were “pretty awful.”  A pod under the shed served a couple of tracks. Trains had to back out.
  • St. Louis is now the envy of many cities because of this combination of rail, bus and local transit.
  • Original 1980s re-developer of Union Station wanted train nostalgia, not actual trains
  • St. Louis is working on developing new structures around the station.
  • Platform capacity at this new station is double what we’ve had for the past 30 years.
  • Number of platforms can be increased as rail traffic increases.

The area where the station is located is not in the heart of our loft district (where I live) but is next to the highway and train tracks.  Locating a train station sorta requires it to be next to the tracks.

AI wrote about the development potential of this  area in July 2006, more than two years before the Amtrak/Greyhound station opened next to the existing MetroLink station:

Between the Civic Center Station (14th) and the Union Station Station (18th) is development nirvana. At the immediate corner of 14th & Clark we’ve got a nice grove of trees leading to the station platforms. I could see a new building design just to the west, facing Clark, that leaves this corner plaza intact. However, I’d get out the chainsaw for the right building(s) on the corner at 14th. The problem here is the big curve is closer to street grade than I’d like and lowering it might be too costly. But, from what was once 15th to 16th you’ve got a clean shot over the tracks. Same for 16th to 18th.

Concentrating more residences near 18th and Clark would create more daily users for Union Station (so it is not entirely dependent upon tourist traffic). Offering downtown residential units without included garage space might also offer affordability to those that want a car-free lifestyle but cannot currently afford to live near a MetroLink station. Of course, garage space could be built on the main and a few upper levels with retail along the street-face and office & residential over the parking. A mix of housing in numerous price ranges might be the best solution.

While I’d have no opposition to a mid or high-rise tower I don’t think it is necessary either, at least not from a design perspective. Clark and the adjacent numbered streets would have had 3-6 story buildings originally. This creates a nice friendly scale along the sidewalk for pedestrians. Even is part of the structures did get taller a shorter height at the sidewalk would still be best.

The cost-effectiveness of construction over a functioning transit line is the big problem with this plan. The cost of the required concrete tunnel may necessitate more floors just to help break even. The concept is certainly worth detailed analysis.

No question the buildings immediately across 15th look a bit shabby as does the numerous fenced parking lots.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "33 comments" on this Article:

  1. anon says:

    This thread gets at a huge pet peeve: criticism done out of ignorance. Want another example? The countless posts on blogs describing how “easy”, “obvious”, or “doable” various possible development projects might be. Before anyone can say something is “easy”, “doable” or “obvious”, they should have done something themselves. Same goes for those proposing elimination of the earnings tax. What's “easy” is blogging about how others should do things or the way things ought to be.

    • markgroth says:

      Anon, what's even easier than blogging about issues improtant to city dwellers is commenting on other people's websites that do an excellent job of bringing these issues to our attention.

      • anon says:

        Let's be fair. UR seldom if ever says anything is “easy” or “obvious”. However, if you follow the blogosphere, you've read plenty of comments about how easy or obvious a rehab of a derelict building, often in an abandoned area of the city would be. The people making these comments “obviously” have never tried to finance such a project.

        • Anon2 says:

          Specific example, please. Generalization is “easy.”

          • anon says:

            A good example is the vacant building, now demolished, that used to sit at the southeast corner of Page and Union. On the blogs there was much chatter about how rehabbable that building was. A church owned it and eventually tore it down for a parking lot. No where in any of the discussion about the rehab potential of the old building was there ever any projection on the development cost, attainable rents, or serious potential tenants.

            There is similar discussion about the rehab potential of vacant old buildings within the footprint of McKee's Northside project area. Again, none of the discussion about saving the buildings gives any serious analysis of development costs, possible rents, or sales prices. Just lots of criticism of McKee for not stabilizing or rehabbing the vacant buildings.

          • Anon2 says:

            Can you point me to specific examples?

            Have you seen McKee's cost benefit analysis on the old buildings he owns? Talk about fuzzy math.

            The city's Cultural Resources Office did a cost analysis of rehabbing the Page/Union building, by the way. You might ask them for a copy.

          • Anon says:

            CRO doing a cost analysis is not the same thing as a bank making a loan. A bank would not base its investment on a city analysis. They would want a) qualified tenant with a financial history, and b) a developer willing to sign a personal guarantee to pay back the loan. In the final analysis, whether or not a building is “rehabbable” has very little do with whether or not a project gets funded. Everything can be rehabbed if someone's willing to put in enough money. The question is, will there be a return on investment and will someone guarantee repayment of the loan? That largely hinges on location, and Page and Union is not going to rank as high as say Clayton and Clarkson. Now, if you're willing to tear the building down and build a new McDonald's, with McDonald's corporate or a rich franchisee signing the lease, well then you might get development at Page and Union.

  2. Terri says:

    I work at a local university and have often dropped students at the former bus station. The neighborhood was rough with very little traveling traffic. There is a hotel/condo nearby as well as the Scottrade Center. They can reach the Amtrak/Bus Station via Metro Bus or Metro Link. It may not be the most beautiful structure, but it's finally here and those without automobiles can easily connect with a taxi or other public transportation.

  3. Adam says:

    personally, i like the design. as steve said, it's located where it needs to be to utilize the tracks, it can be expanded as necessary, and future development can/will alleviate the rough context as ridership increases and the DT population grows. unfortunately, artificial controversy generates hits.

  4. JZ71 says:

    Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's certainly not great architecture in classical terms, but it is a good solution given the constraints of both location and budget. On the functional side, it works wells, if not elegantly, and it's DONE! Other cities have combined two modes well (LA comes to mind), and several are trying to combine three or more (Denver), but most, if not all, are still in the planning and/or financing phases. And, by definition, location will always be a challenge – where Amtrak meets freeway (intercity bus) is rarely the prettiest part of town, plus if you're doing a transit hub, you want it on the fringe of the CBD, not in the heart, to maximize efficiency. We can argue design details all we want (rectangular stained glass?), but modern transit hubs are going to be more airport terminal than Victorian or Romanesque train station.

  5. Brent Jones says:

    Having just taken Amtrak from St. Louis to Chicago over New Year's:

    There's no disputing Chicago Union Station's grandeur. There's also no disputing that the volume of trains it serves makes a change of the magnitude that was done in St. Louis nearly impossible.

    However, every time I go in or out of there, I'm annoyed by a couple things:
    1) The layout is confusing to me. Part of it, of course, is the size. But it's disconcerting to go from the giant great hall into small rabbit warrens of hallways, to one-way escalators, to seemingly unrestricted ramps to the train platforms — which aren't really the way you're supposed to go to board the trains…I'm not a frequent traveler there, only a couple times a year, but nearly every time I go, I get turned around either arriving or departing.

    2) The poor access to public transportation. There are buses, yes. And it's a walkable city, yes. But you have to walk a quarter mile to get to an El station. In the cold or in inclement weather, that's not a fun trek. St. Louis has it beat.

    Not to make an overall comparison of the two places, or even make it a St. Louis v. Chicago thing (they're the only cities I've traveled by Amtrak frequently — Champaign, Ill. is nice too, but not on the same magnitude), but in those two areas at least, St. Louis' center is not deficient.

  6. The real problem with Union Station, which Magliari intimates, is that it was built as a terminus station. The St. Louis Station: A Monograph (1895) states that at the time the station was built “there were no through trains running beyond St. Louis” to the west so the design competition mandated an end station plan. This proved to be incredibly impractical after the consolidation of railroad lines into Amtrak. Amtrack would not support back-in stations for anything less than primary markets. As a result, when Union Station closed we got the trailers. Perhaps if land acquisition in the 1870's were different, and if the naysayers at the time had gotten their way we would be using a rail palace as our multimodal station!

    If anything this whole chapter underscores the need for strategic foresight and a willingness to challenge the status quo before undertaking major projects.

  7. Jennifer says:

    I'm glad you responded to that, Steve, I was so disheartened when I read it last week. I'm just happy to have a multi-modal center in the first place! It's so important to make these kinds of connections if we're going to encourage people to go car-free. Could the area be prettier? Absolutely! That's where development has to step in. The City and Metro (with Amtrak and Greyhound) built the station; now it's up to the private sector to make use of it. This is a perfect spot for a model TOD – some street-level pedestrian improvements, retail and residences (especially some that are affordable to the young professionals who are concerned about locating near transit hubs) would make a great deal of sense here. But in the meantime, we've got it and it works!

  8. bab says:

    I almost got taken in by Kunstler back when I read “Geography of Nowhere”. He quite rightly and succinctly identifies the myriad problems with modern suburban development in America. However, when I got to his solutions, I was disappointed. It became obvious (to me at least) that he was only comfortable with traditional forms of design (urban and architectural). As an Architecture and Planning student, I knew better. I stopped following him after I realized that.

    I looked at some of his 'eyesores' and one of them is a rant about Tatoo parlors needing to be relegated to back alleys. I think he's just a curmudgeon.

  9. jeff707 says:

    while everyone here makes good points, I really don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that this place is an eyesore, even if it is functional and gets the job done.

  10. SillyLocals says:

    It is definitely an eyesore, not well located (it was supposed to be hidden) and NOT well designed, but what is in the Lou? What Kunstler should be writing about is how low community standards have become in a region ruled by the windshield mentality and the ineptitude of public transit agencies. Even bloggers are now promoting bad designs… “it works” mentality, no class, no insight.

    • A better location would have been where? This is one of the few spots were the MetroLink light rail line is not adjacent to the freight/passenger rail lines. Not great architecture but a needed building. The connectedness is more important than a grandiose architectural statement.

      • gmichaud says:

        While the architect is not great, I think a better location is exactly the problem. It would not take much to develop a more effective plan. Rail lines could be extended into a new area(s), so many solutions are possible. (The tracks to Union Station were not through tracks) It isn't the money (we just spent $500 million on a highway).
        There apparently is little understanding of urban planning principles in City Hall. They do not know how to take elements such as this station and include those elements into the flow of life.
        I remember sitting in a cafe across from the central train station in Helsinki designed by Elliel Saarinen, (father of Eero, the designer of the arch). The plaza in front of the station was part of the city. Storefronts surrounded the large plaza on three sides, offering services to travelers and residents alike. From this one point you can go anywhere in the city, the country, or the world.
        It would be akin to putting the multimodal center in Ballpark Village, actually featuring transit for a change, rather than hiding it like a rat in a closet.
        I agree that the standards are so low in St. Louis that failure appears to be a success.

  11. JZ71 says:

    OK, experts, what would be the “better” location? (And yes, anything is possible with an unlimited budget, but in this case, buying land for different access options means the project dies.) “It isn't the money”?! Yes, it is!


    Amtrak – has to be adjacent to the existing main line.

    Metrolink – has to be adjacent to the existing system.

    Greyhound – has to be near a freeway interchange.

    Metrobus – the most flexible – only has to be near existing routes.

    One big reason for looking to create a multi-modal facility is much like an airport, to provide connections and to operate as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, much like an airport, much of the facility consists of boarding facilities. Any “great hall”, for waiting passengers, either waiting to leave or waiting for connections, needs to be sized appropriately. This is 2010, not 1910. We don't need a waiting room for thousands of passengers (like Union Station), we need a facility that will handle several hundred, at most. The vast majority of people making connections here are daily commuters, not intercity passengers. Unfortunately, that means it's difficult to justify making an iconic statement, especially when the players here (Metro, Amtrak and Greyhound) are all on the verge of bankruptcy.

    Yes, “Rail lines could be extended into a new area(s)”. Just show me the money. And, no, because “we just spent $500 million on a highway” isn't a good enough reason. Denver's been trying to put together their multi-modal facility for at least a decade (http://www.denverunionstation.org/), and their current budget is the same as the I-64 project's ($500 million). We can debate whether or not we should have spent the same amount on our facility, but the reality is that Metro hasn't had much luck recently in just getting the funds to keep the system running, much less build anything new.

  12. jon says:

    I think what Kunstler has a problem with is that the main train station for the region of St. Louis is in a poor location under dark highway ramps. Sure that was deemed the best place to locate it but a train station also serves as a gateway to the region and a station in this left over location communicates insignificance of STL and rail travel. Is it better than the old AmShack? yes… but its essentially the same size and model as the previous AmShack rather this is just a permanent building with some better “design.” I've been reading Kunstler's posts and eyesores for awhile, this rant about the station is less about the station's architecture than the decayed state of rail in the US and lamenting the fact that in a city like STL a small station is adequate for its needs. STL should have multiple rail lines to various destinations with trains arriving every few minutes and yet it has minimal service.

    • JZ71 says:

      “STL should have multiple rail lines to various destinations with trains arriving every few minutes . . . ” Huh? What American city does? This is the 21st Century. Our civic gateways are our airports and freeways. The “decayed state of [passenger] rail in the US” mirrors the general decline of public transit, everywhere. Whether it's a chicken or an egg problem, an ever-increasingly-small percentage of our population is choosing it. If your goal is to lure more people onto trains and buses, how big or grand the station is should be the least of your worries. To compete with airplanes and automobiles, you need to be quick, and hopefully quicker, and you need to be frequent.

      The beauty of this facility is not in its architecture, or even its location, it's in how it gets the job done. Meshing the operations of three different systems isn't easy, but doing so increases the possibility that they will prove to be a viable alternative to driving. The same can be said of Lambert. There are parts there that are considered to be good or great architectural solutions, and there are parts that need “improvement”. But the real issue for the city and the region isn't what it looks like, it's how many places we can get to, and losing half of our flights IS the issue. As much as people want to criticize our new “train station”, the reality is that its two platforms can easily handle 30 or 40 trains a day – all we're lacking is the demand!

      • jeff707 says:

        “The beauty of this facility is not in its architecture, or even its location, it's in how it gets the job done.”

        That's not beauty, it's utility.

      • gmichaud says:

        First of all long range planning would be a situation were you established a new transit center surrounded by a viable city. There is something called spurs for railroads that allow trains to be moved into areas that are not otherwise involved with the railroad. Thus it opens up other areas for transit development.
        If this occurred before the new Busch Stadium was built, it might have been in that area to complement Ballpark Village and commercial development, it could go south, but the point is not to try to design another facility verbally, but to call into question the whole planning process which generally leaves the public out of the loop and continues to come up with poor or mediocre solutions.
        You are hung up on a few things, demand, automobiles are only in demand because that is all that is offered. An attractive, usable transit system is not offered, thus sticking the multimodal center into the black hole of the universe is a poor solution and not one that will generate demand for transit.
        It is difficult to explain the urban planning principles of classical cities in this blog. Suffice to say many, many cities skillfully utilize their transit center as focus of their city.
        As far as the money goes, it is clear you imagine that we live in a free market society. The money is misallocated to highways at this point and does not address the problems, current and future of St. Louis and America.
        It is the usual head in the sand approach with no leadership to take St. Louis to the next level. It is not the free market that determines allocation of money, but rather a bought and paid for political system that marginally serves the needs of its citizens.
        Thus a comprehensive transit system, well designed, would in fact generate demand. Who want to ride a half ass system that is incomplete and does not have service as its core? This coupled with a city and region that is not designed to utilize transit effectively spells disaster for mass transit.

        But yes demand designs the city, it is the demand of the insiders that allocates funds for these enterprises, preserving the the status quo and their profitability at the expense of St. Louis.
        I find it amazing, given the hell hole America is right now, with the obvious stealing of Americas wealth at all levels of government with the cooperation of corporate cronies,(legal of course) that any citizen cannot see through the duplicity and dishonesty of business as usual.

        It is not impossible that the current multimodal site could have been designed differently to be more successful, but that did not happen.

        • I believe we can rebuild the area around this station. With local & national transit converging at this point this station could serve to spur development. Form based zoning with minimum height & density requirements and maximum parking requirements this corner of the city could be an ideal TOD area. The jury is out as if this will happen but this station is a good start.

          • gmichaud says:

            Perhaps, but I think a larger problem is concern about piecemeal solutions, ie.a 1/8 cent sales tax here, moving a railroad track there, rather than development of overall strategies that work. It may be the current multi modal site can be redeveloped, although there are many set pieces surrounding it, nor does the multi modal center itself appear to be orientated towards future development.
            It is a piecemeal solution for a patchwork transit system, both locally and nationally.
            This city and this country need major changes in direction; everything from energy usage to conserving scarce resources to global warming to creating high quality environments for people scream for new solutions in the urban environment.
            Yet I just see the same tired, worn rationales, the same mental justifications that a lousy, mediocre, second rate job is okay.

  13. gmichaud says:

    What is the ultimate solution here? What has been discussed or looked at? Instead a transit solution is slapped into place no matter the quality (it works, that's it merit?).
    Why not do it right the first time?
    Then it gets back to the process.
    Who is making these critical decisions? What is the rationale? maybe there is a completely logical reason for the location and disposition of the architecture, and maybe a retail/ urban expansion is possible, did that thinking influence the final design of the Gateway Station? Lets hear the thinking. Otherwise a tremendous opportunity was lost to create an important new center that supports downtown and urban life in St. Louis.
    For such an important space, many other world cities utilize architectural competitions freely, if not heavily, to stimulate discussion and ideas. This helps to establish a process outside political/corporate circles and their many prejudices.
    There is a huge gap between what is needed for environmental and urban success and the public discourse and processes that build the city. Other than the old city, St. Louis continues to fail or fall short by almost every urban measure. The shortcomings of this project are unbelievable. The words “it works” defines just how little it does when compared to what such a space should do for the city. (In essence, a scaled down Union Station, surrounded by city).
    The number of trains coming to visit is in part determined by the destination. A ho-hum destination will not encourage train travel. Strong, positive, forward thinking transit solutions combined with urban planning create a desirable city. That is what St. Louis needs, not some meek, generally anti urban add-on that is the downtown transit center (thank god it at least works).

    • bab says:

      I agree with your approach here, believe me. As someone who studied planning, it kills me to think of the missteps and missed opportunities we have here. However, getting back to the original post, we are responding here to Kunstler's specific criticisms. If the criticism was regarding all our myriad messed-up priorities re: transportation and the place of people in our city (where we are no better or worse really than many of our contemporaries) I would wholeheartedly agree. However, his criticism is specific to the transit center.

      Should we have an elevated expressway through the heart of our downtown? Is the course of metro through downtown and the bus depot where it should be? Of course, changing these was not a realistic option or even on the table to be changed for this particular project. Yes, we can and should question the larger goals here. But, this facility was a long time coming (16 years or more?) and it can bridge the gap until 2030 when we finally reach planning nirvana.

      I think my disagreement with the criticism regards the realistic and timely solutions to our fractured transportation that this facility provides today. It is way better than the prior connections we had between any and all of the following: inter-city rail, inter-city bus, personal automobile, metro, and pedestrians. I think the exterior design is fairly tasteful and well done modernism and it handles the very awkward site reasonably well. The worst part is the approch and entry via automobile, but I'm ok with that because it's rare that the metro/foot people get the better treatment. I wouldn't go so far as to say it is award-worthy or even groundbreaking, but it doesn't deserve the harshness it received.

      • gmichaud says:

        Architecture, especially public architecture has its urban placement as an important component. The building itself, while functional, would look entirely different in response to another site. Cities grow slowly and as comments suggest, it is not always easy to get things like this built. That is why building in a less than optimum location is critical for the city. Nor is there likely to be a rebuild in 30 years or any time soon.
        So now St. Louis is saddled with another so-so project that will have trouble developing the urban infrastructure around it to make it successful.
        Kunstler is off mark in that he criticizes the architecture but the location only in a off hand manner (overpasses, weed choked lots etc). It is not a serious attempt at criticism, his remarks are shallow and almost meaningless, sort of like a Fox news broadcast.
        The real question should be why is the decision making so flawed that we can no longer design timeless solutions to real problems?
        A well designed central station in a valued location would have positively impacted transit, the urban environment and the people of St. Louis. The current site, while functional, lacks the dominating presence that could have helped propel St. Louis forward.
        As Steve suggests, things can be done to the site and surrounding environment to make it a more desirable location, although it is difficult to imagine the site ever living up to the potential vibrancy a true central station could have generated.
        It is just as realistic and timely to do the project correctly. No doubt it was easier to just stick the station at the existing site, but city planning should be planning for the future, not just looking for an easy way out.

  14. JZ71 says:

    The cost of going big and doing it right: http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_14176695

    The most-favorable comparison for our rail advocates is St. Louis to Chicago. Amtrak has 7 departures each day, for a 5.5-6 hour trip, while Southwest has 10 departures, and American has 5, for an hour-long flight, and Greyhound has 5 departures, for a 6-7 hour trip. It would be interesting to see what the real split is in the ridership among the three options, along with just driving, since this is the nearest thing to a free-market option in St. Louis. This would help inform the whole discussion on how big any multi-modal facility should be. (And, yes, I know, the dynamic would change if and when high-speed rail becomes a reality.)

  15. Richard Pointer says:

    I have just finished reading a lot of Kunstler. He is harsh but sometimes very right.

    I also have taken some recent trips across the US and Canada using Amtrak and Greyhound. My last trip was from St. Louis through Chicago to Toronto and back on a Greyhound bus. It originated at the new depot.

    Let me put it straight. That depot is one hell of an improvement over the old stop under highway 64. But frankly Kalamazoo, MI beats us by about a mile. Chicago is alright, and you can walk to Union Station very easily. In terms of transit depots, St. Louis does fine with this one. But that is the problem.

    We “had” a wonderful station. We now have a depot. Actually the depot is the right size for our city. That is a shame, but it was a long time coming. We have painted ourselves into this corner with a long post-industrial decline. It's too bad. Kunstler is right but not for the right reasons. We are just a stop on any transit line; not a destination.

    Modernist or not – I don't really care. Reutilizing Union Station here in St. Louis wasn't and won't be in the cards for a long time, if ever.

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  17. johncharron says:

    the StL station is good for now and we can use it to launc connections ot Omaha, Denver, and East to Indianapolic and Washing dc. this will re centralize St. Louis as a alternte train hub to Chicago. the Centuries old battle.
    the connection Lambert is important and jump off to mideset cites by rail.

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