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Pros & Cons of Saving the 1960s Flying Saucer at Grand & Forest Park

ABOVE: Drive-thru lane at the former filling station, now Del Taco

Uh oh, the modern preservationists are gearing up to try to save another interesting, but highly anti-pedestrian, building.  Yes, the fight is on the save a gas station turned drive-thru taco stand at 212 S. Grand.  With a few exceptions, commercial modernism translates to brutal and outright hostile to pedestrians but lovingly embracing all in single occupant vehicles.

Developer Rick Yackey plans to demolish the distinctive flying-saucer-shaped Del Taco at N. Grand and Forest Park Parkway, near St. Louis University, and replace it with new retail buildings, a city development official said Tuesday.

The St. Louis Land Clearance Redevelopment Authority approved a blighting and redevelopment plan for the building, which was built to be a Phillips 66 gas station. The plan, said LCRA staffer Dale Ruthsatz, is to knock down the Del Taco replace it with a more pedestrian-oriented retail building of 3,500 to 7,000 square feet. (STLtoday.com)

The Del Taco at the SE corner of Grand & Forest Park, is not one of the few exceptions.

ABOVE: 1958 aerial of Grand & Forest Park before highway 40. Click image to see a larger view

You can see from the above photo that razing of buildings in the Mill Creek Valley began at Grand Ave & Forest Park by 1958. Grand Ave had the #70 streetcar starting in 1895 so the length from North to South was very active and designed for pedestrians.  It was the modernists that actively destroyed the pedestrian-friendly city to usher in the auto-friendly city. Why do people want to save that which destroyed the city?

Granted, I love many modern buildings.  Their simple forms, the absence of applied decoration, the use of materials other than red brick, all make forms often pleasing to my eye.  My favorite architect is Bruce Goff (1904-1982), but thankfully the bulk of his work was on private residences. Like his contemporaries, his (unbuilt) commercial projects were an assault on the pedestrian: non-active walls, large setbacks, etc.

When I read  developer Rick Yackey wants to construct “a more pedestrian-oriented retail building” I thought of several things:

  1. More pedestrian-friendly anything is needed around the Saint Louis University campus. You’d think the university has only been around 5 years judging by the adjacent activity level.
  2. It doesn’t take much to be more pedestrian-friendly than the existing Del Taco.
  3. The developer had the opportunity to make the adjacent Council Plaza building more pedestrian-friendly during a recent renovation project but instead the situation is worse, something I didn’t think was possible.

 

ABOVE: recently added fence cuts off the two east towers to Grand, forces pedestrian residents into long auto driveway to reach Grand

Based on the developer’s record with Council Plaza I have little confidence any replacement would be pedestrian-friendly. Before removing a highly unique building I’d like to see controls in place to ensure the 9 acre site becomes pedestrian-friendly.  Saying a project will be pedestrian-friendly and actually delivering a pedestrian-friendly completed project are

ABOVE: A disabled resident uses driveway because fence and lack of curb ramps in new concrete prevent him from using the safer sidewalk

I like the Del Taco building, it makes me smile when I’m in my car driving by or even at the drive-thru window but the entire nine acre Council Plaza site makes me furious as a pedestrian.  It should be noted that the unfriendly site planning that exists can change without altering the historic composition of buildings. We can improve the walkability and accessibility while leaving the buildings intact.

I won’t lose any sleep if the Del Taco is razed but I will be mad as hell if some generic anti-pedestrian strip mall is built in it’s place. We do have a unique collection of five buildings that are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

ABOVE: All retail space at Plaza Council remains vacant, the Del Taco is visible in the background

But hey the developer needs retail space, that’s important too, right? But if the demand is so great why is every retail space in the renovated Plaza Council building vacant?

ABOVE: North facing retail space at Plaza Council is entirely vacant.

I can picture the Del Taco structure gone, replaced with a high-design modernist structure to compliment the other buildings. But I don’t think that’s what we’ll get.  Instead I picture a generic strip mall not connected to the public sidewalk on Grand or to other buildings on the site. The loss of such a great building can only be offset with a great building. Show me the designs, with proof it will be pedestrian-friendly, and I’m willing to listen. Until then not a chance!

If I were developing this site I’d use the Del Taco building as a draw. Renovate the building and accenting it with great lighting, new pedestrian-friendly site design connecting to a new structure to the east on the existing surface parking lot. I can see the building not as a fast food joint but as a pub with a focus on great outdoor patio seating. This could become THE corner where SLU students hang out.

ABOVE: Former entry/exit to below ground parking

Most developers would kill to have such a widely known building to attract customers to their development!  Certainly the 24 hour drive-thru is nice after you leave the bar but let’s face it, the use of the building can easily change.  Thousands on Facebook want to save the building, although some want to also save the fast food chain currently operating within the building. An online petition has been started as well to save the building.

Razing this building makes zero sense no matter how you try to look at it, believe me I tried!  Board Bill 188 (redevelopment bill) has been assigned to the Housing, Urban Development & Zoning committee. I’m sure all 12 committee members would love to hear from citizens via email, fax, text, twitter or phone prior to the hearing at 10am Wednesday morning.

– Steve Patterson

 

Currently there are "18 comments" on this Article:

  1. Anonymous says:

    Keep the flying saucer as the end cap, then add retail headed east, IF more retail is really needed here.  The pedestrian non-friendliness here comes not from the basic architecture, the problem is the use/site design, first as a gas station, then, now, as a drive-thru restaurant.  The parking and drive aisle on the west side, between the front door and Grand, is the real barrier.  But my biggest concern is that the developer hasn’t been forthcoming with what any replacement might be or look like – can you say Ball Pak Village revisited?!

     
  2. JZ71 says:

    Keep the flying saucer as the end cap, then add retail headed east, IF more retail is really needed here.  The pedestrian non-friendliness here comes not from the basic architecture, the problem is the use/site design, first as a gas station, then, now, as a drive-thru restaurant.  The parking and drive aisle on the west side, between the front door and Grand, is the real barrier.  But my biggest concern is that the developer hasn’t been forthcoming with what any replacement might be or look like – can you say Ball Pak Village revisited?!

     
    • What an end cap it would make too! This developer has actively made pedestrian access to the other buildings worse than before so I don’t see him improving on the Del Taco corner.

       
    • Tpekren says:

      Good idea JZ71, I think the biggest failure and what Slay won’t address is having Forest Park going under Grand.  Especially with I64 literally a block over.

      I would get a few more of those foarm blocks they are using to replace Tucker Ave bridge north of Wash Ave and raise Forest Parkway to be at grade with Grand.  Now you start getting some real connectivity in this area. 

       
  3. What an end cap it would make too! This developer has actively made pedestrian access to the other buildings worse than before so I don’t see him improving on the Del Taco corner.

     
  4. Tpekren says:

    Good idea JZ71, I think the biggest failure and what Slay won’t address is having Forest Park going under Grand.  Especially with I64 literally a block over.

    I would get a few more of those foarm blocks they are using to replace Tucker Ave bridge north of Wash Ave and raise Forest Parkway to be at grade with Grand.  Now you start getting some real connectivity in this area. 

     
  5. Mstegeman1 says:

    Steve,

    I agree with your assessment of The Del Taco building’s significance. Architectural oddity though it may be, it displays a degree of originality lacking in many new construction projects, and should thus be preserved unless we can be sure that its successor will truly be a more positive addition to the urban landscape.

    I wanted to comment quickly on the adjacent Council Plaza building. Recently renovated as the Flats at 374, this buillding was fully independent for only a year before SLU took over the management of all rentals. According to anecdotal reports, the Flats had planned to include (among other things) a large bar/dance club and a sandwich shop on the retail level, but both were vetoed by the administration. No matter how bad and inaccessible the bar would have been, I can assure you that SLU students would have gone to it (people walk blocks to Laclede St. Bar & Grill!). So, while the renovation might not have been ideal (at all), the emptiness of 374 S. Grand’s retail space may have more to do with the building’s sole tenant.

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of a building we all love and hate.

    Matt Stegeman

     
  6. Mstegeman1 says:

    Steve,

    I agree with your assessment of The Del Taco building’s significance. Architectural oddity though it may be, it displays a degree of originality lacking in many new construction projects, and should thus be preserved unless we can be sure that its successor will truly be a more positive addition to the urban landscape.

    I wanted to comment quickly on the adjacent Council Plaza building. Recently renovated as the Flats at 374, this buillding was fully independent for only a year before SLU took over the management of all rentals. According to anecdotal reports, the Flats had planned to include (among other things) a large bar/dance club and a sandwich shop on the retail level, but both were vetoed by the administration. No matter how bad and inaccessible the bar would have been, I can assure you that SLU students would have gone to it (people walk blocks to Laclede St. Bar & Grill!). So, while the renovation might not have been ideal (at all), the emptiness of 374 S. Grand’s retail space may have more to do with the building’s sole tenant.

    Thanks for your thoughtful analysis of a building we all love and hate.

    Matt Stegeman

     
  7. Michael says:

    So glad to see someone pointing out the fallacy in this “need to demolish” bill.  Yes it is auto-centric, yes so much of that era led to inner-city destruction in the past, but that doesn’t mean it should be torn down now! And with some much more for the developer to have to do yet on the main plaza building what is the sudden rush?  Walgreens or CVS wants to build one of their metal and styrofoam buildings? Yuck, enough of those all over south city all ready.  Personally, when the city/state come up with a rebuild of the intersection and the developer has finished cleaning up the main building, then maybe they can look at changing this building to a pedestrian friendly location.  Until then any business attempting to go into a redone pedestrian oriented building with no real pedestrian access will just fail.

     
  8. Michael says:

    So glad to see someone pointing out the fallacy in this “need to demolish” bill.  Yes it is auto-centric, yes so much of that era led to inner-city destruction in the past, but that doesn’t mean it should be torn down now! And with some much more for the developer to have to do yet on the main plaza building what is the sudden rush?  Walgreens or CVS wants to build one of their metal and styrofoam buildings? Yuck, enough of those all over south city all ready.  Personally, when the city/state come up with a rebuild of the intersection and the developer has finished cleaning up the main building, then maybe they can look at changing this building to a pedestrian friendly location.  Until then any business attempting to go into a redone pedestrian oriented building with no real pedestrian access will just fail.

     
  9. Magzdove says:

    I’ve lived in 300 South Grand for a few years now and frankly, I think the fate of the Del Taco is only the canary in the coal mine here. One guy, one developer, owns the entire block of buildings here; and if one historically preserved building can get the wrecking ball, that means they all can.

    And that means that a group of very vulnerable, poor, elderly, disabled tenants with zero political power could be unceremoniously evicted from one of the few places in the city where they can live independently and cheaply, in order to make room for condos and more empty retail storefronts with iron bars in front of them. I don’t think I’m blue skying here… I think it’s already started. I hope I’m wrong.

     
  10. Magzdove says:

    I’ve lived in 300 South Grand for a few years now and frankly, I think the fate of the Del Taco is only the canary in the coal mine here. One guy, one developer, owns the entire block of buildings here; and if one historically preserved building can get the wrecking ball, that means they all can.

    And that means that a group of very vulnerable, poor, elderly, disabled tenants with zero political power could be unceremoniously evicted from one of the few places in the city where they can live independently and cheaply, in order to make room for condos and more empty retail storefronts with iron bars in front of them. I don’t think I’m blue skying here… I think it’s already started. I hope I’m wrong.

     
  11. Brian S. says:

    I love the idea of a pub with cafe seating here.  Live music outside even in season.  Awesome.

     
  12. Brian S. says:

    I love the idea of a pub with cafe seating here.  Live music outside even in season.  Awesome.

     

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