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We Need A Form-Based Code

December 22, 2011 Featured, Midtown, Planning & Design 42 Comments

On Monday the St. Louis Preservation Board approved the demolition of some buildings at the Pevely Dairy site but denied the two most critical, the corner structure and the smokehouse. Facebook & twitter were on fire afterwords with people celebrating. This is a victory but much work remains to be done to win the war. I’m personally tired of fighting small battle after small battle yet feel like we are losing the war on urbanism.

Saint Louis University President Lawrence Biondi has demonstrated for decades he doesn’t respect the public street. Under his leadership SLU has invested in millions on turning it’d back to public space. Green grass, fountains and sculpture are offered as a consolation prize for creating dull & lifeless public space. To me this is unacceptable. People I consider friends think the Pevely building should be razed — they see it as vacant and useless. I strongly disagree.   If they want vacant and useless they just need to look at the vast expanses of high-maintenance lawn across Grand.

Urban streets are defined by buildings on both sides with doors, windows and activities adjacent or near the sidewalk. When St. Louis was built this was the natural way of building since everyone was a pedestrian. Today we need to recognize that most are motorists and build in a way that works for both pedestrians and motorists. It doesn’t need to be one or the other, we can accommodate both.

ABOVE: Non-urban building proposed by SLU for the urban Pevely site.

If St. Louis had a form-based code in place for the city, or at least midtown, SLU wouldn’t have planned new construction set behind a lawn. They would have realized since they had to maintain the building line that it made sense to retain the corner structure all along. To move our city forward and become more urban and friendly to both pedestrians and motorists we must completely replace our zoning which was written to support urban renewal through the destruction of all things urban. The 1947 plan called for leveling & reconstruction of Soulard!

We must determine which corridors should be reurbanized and which, if any, will be allowed to be suburbanized. Let’s stop this continual piecemeal battle over individual buildings and properties.

– Steve Patterson

 

Currently there are "42 comments" on this Article:

  1. Rick says:

    What’s the next step?

     
  2. Rick says:

    What’s the next step?

     
  3. Anonymous says:

    I think that you may be mixing two separate issues here.  Most preservationists are way more invested in saving old buildings than in adopting form-based standards for new construction.  Even if SLU’s new building had “respected the corner”, the loss of the Pevely structures would not have been acceptable to the preservation community.

    I also think that you’re way too optomistic in assuming that switching to form-based zoning would “stop this continual piecemeal battle over individual buildings and properties”.  St. Louis has both a tradition of aldermen inserting themselves, often poorly, into planning and zoning issues and a lack of significant investment in major new projects.  A move to successful form-based zoning, as I experienced in Denver, requires a whole lot more citizen involvement, consensus among the elected leaders, a strong planning department and, most importantly, a lot more development and redevelopment.

    Whether it’s the Bottle District, Ballpark Village or McKee’s plans for the Northside, it’s not so much that we’re lacking in better plans, what we’re really lacking is good, built, profitable examples.  People do what they do because they know it will work, at least marginally well.  SLU is doing their gated suburban community plan because that is what apparently sells for them.  Most parents want their kids to have a safe college experience on an attractive campus.  What SLU is doing isn’t that much different from what its competitors are doing, be they Wash. U, Webster, UMSL, Mizzou or SIUE.  (And, as an alumnus, you’re a part of the problem, since your tuition dollars went here and not somewhere more urban-respecting.)

    Even in Denver, institutions of higher learning are not paragons of great urban design.  The best examples are found in the private sector, where developers are building dense, mixed-use projects, based on market demand (http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_19582135).  In St. Louis, we’re getting all this autocentric, low-density, development because we can do it (land is cheap and the permitting issues are minimal) and because IT SELLS!  If people weren’t buying it and shopping at it, it wouldn’t be being built, period.  Conversely, if downtown lofts were selling, if downtown storefronts and offices were full and commanding premium rents, guess what, more would be being built!  BPV hasn’t happened for one big reason, no one is, literally, buying the concept.

     
  4. JZ71 says:

    I think that you may be mixing two separate issues here.  Most preservationists are way more invested in saving old buildings than in adopting form-based standards for new construction.  Even if SLU’s new building had “respected the corner”, the loss of the Pevely structures would not have been acceptable to the preservation community.

    I also think that you’re way too optomistic in assuming that switching to form-based zoning would “stop this continual piecemeal battle over individual buildings and properties”.  St. Louis has both a tradition of aldermen inserting themselves, often poorly, into planning and zoning issues and a lack of significant investment in major new projects.  A move to successful form-based zoning, as I experienced in Denver, requires a whole lot more citizen involvement, consensus among the elected leaders, a strong planning department and, most importantly, a lot more development and redevelopment.

    Whether it’s the Bottle District, Ballpark Village or McKee’s plans for the Northside, it’s not so much that we’re lacking in better plans, what we’re really lacking is good, built, profitable examples.  People do what they do because they know it will work, at least marginally well.  SLU is doing their gated suburban community plan because that is what apparently sells for them.  Most parents want their kids to have a safe college experience on an attractive campus.  What SLU is doing isn’t that much different from what its competitors are doing, be they Wash. U, Webster, UMSL, Mizzou or SIUE.  (And, as an alumnus, you’re a part of the problem, since your tuition dollars went here and not somewhere more urban-respecting.)

    Even in Denver, institutions of higher learning are not paragons of great urban design.  The best examples are found in the private sector, where developers are building dense, mixed-use projects, based on market demand (http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_19582135).  In St. Louis, we’re getting all this autocentric, low-density, development because we can do it (land is cheap and the permitting issues are minimal) and because IT SELLS!  If people weren’t buying it and shopping at it, it wouldn’t be being built, period.  Conversely, if downtown lofts were selling, if downtown storefronts and offices were full and commanding premium rents, guess what, more would be being built!  BPV hasn’t happened for one big reason, no one is, literally, buying the concept.

     
    • A good form-based code would mean many historic buildings with the correct form wouldn’t be purchased for demolition. We don’t have any good examples because nobody has been forced to do good urban design. Stuff like Loughborgough Commons is good enough to most. Our low standards are killing us, our creative residents leave for cities that get it.

       
  5. A good form-based code would mean many historic buildings with the correct form wouldn’t be purchased for demolition. We don’t have any good examples because nobody has been forced to do good urban design. Stuff like Loughborgough Commons is good enough to most. Our low standards are killing us, our creative residents leave for cities that get it.

     
  6. Rick says:

    So is there a next step?

     
  7. Rick says:

    So is there a next step?

     
    • There are many next steps. For other cities the process takes a number of years. We were heading in this direction under Rollin Stanley but political forces pushed him east. With our political climate I don’t see replacing our antique zoning having a chance.

       
  8. There are many next steps. For other cities the process takes a number of years. We were heading in this direction under Rollin Stanley but political forces pushed him east. With our political climate I don’t see replacing our antique zoning having a chance.

     
  9. Rick says:

    The process is in the works in the 17th ward.  Maybe this will happen incrementally, like so many things in STL? Not a bad way to go  for a 250 year old city.

     
  10. Rick says:

    The process is in the works in the 17th ward.  Maybe this will happen incrementally, like so many things in STL? Not a bad way to go  for a 250 year old city.

     
  11. Piecemeal approach to zoning is horrible. STL is too small to deal with urban design 28 ways.

     
  12. Anonymous says:

    Steve I think this is an excellent post, you pretty well hit all of the major issues on the button. I am not convinced form based code is the answer. Transit has to be, absolutely has to be a component to a comprehensive solution. The shape of urban space is formed by use, by transit. SLU, if they were open minded capitalists, would understand they sit at the corner of some of the richest land in the region.
    But if it does not use the architectural and urban design potential of site it is costing them money. The capitalist potential of the site is preservation, transit, housing, walkability, commercial functions that are central to both profitability and aesthetics. The building design SLU presented is flamboyant, but ugly and totally unprepared for capitalism or urban success.
    Ultimately your call for ending the piecemeal battle of individual buildings and properties is the soul of the problem.   Does preservation or complete demolition contribute to success for SLU or the City of St. Louis?
    Ultimately the solution presented is mediocre and lacks under understanding of the corner. A major rail is a mere 600 feet away, where is that reflected in the SLU solution?
    SLU has an extremely poor architect, probably well connected of course, but totally unable to see the function of the site.
    I can go on, but the bottom line is that Rev Biondi is failing the community, he is not displaying the leadership needed today. right now. I’m not sure who his architectural advisers are, but they don’t know what they are doing.

     
  13. gmichaud says:

    Steve I think this is an excellent post, you pretty well hit all of the major issues on the button. I am not convinced form based code is the answer. Transit has to be, absolutely has to be a component to a comprehensive solution. The shape of urban space is formed by use, by transit. SLU, if they were open minded capitalists, would understand they sit at the corner of some of the richest land in the region.
    But if it does not use the architectural and urban design potential of site it is costing them money. The capitalist potential of the site is preservation, transit, housing, walkability, commercial functions that are central to both profitability and aesthetics. The building design SLU presented is flamboyant, but ugly and totally unprepared for capitalism or urban success.
    Ultimately your call for ending the piecemeal battle of individual buildings and properties is the soul of the problem.   Does preservation or complete demolition contribute to success for SLU or the City of St. Louis?
    Ultimately the solution presented is mediocre and lacks under understanding of the corner. A major rail is a mere 600 feet away, where is that reflected in the SLU solution?
    SLU has an extremely poor architect, probably well connected of course, but totally unable to see the function of the site.
    I can go on, but the bottom line is that Rev Biondi is failing the community, he is not displaying the leadership needed today. right now. I’m not sure who his architectural advisers are, but they don’t know what they are doing.

     
    • JZ71 says:

      The blame at SLU does not lie with SLU’s “archiectural advisers”, the blame lies with the client (Fr. Biondi, the Jesuits and the SLU board).  Architects can and do provide a range of potential solutions, but the client is the ultimate decider.  SLU has apprently decided, like many other universities, to focus their campus inward, and to distance themselves from the adjacent community (the classic town-gown tension).  And, unlike both Wash U and UMSL, SLU has chosen to ignore Metrolink, as well, although the plans for BRT along Grand may change that mindset . . . .

       
      • gmichaud says:

        Ultimately the architect is the salesman. In this case the architect did not care or was not willing to challenge the limited thinking they encountered. The fact is this urban site at Grand and Chouteau should reflect a major and vital mass transit intersection, connected to major institutions, hospitals, universities, arts complexes and more. The fact the city does not demand this type of urban form indicates a complete lack of understanding of the importance of good city design.
        This is a prime site for transit in the city, if the architecture does not compliment the urban situation then decades of human existence are lost.
        The City of St. Louis fails, gets an “F” just like the Rams in the Monday paper. The city failure is in their management of critical city sites.
        Should we grade the Mayor, the Aldermen and other city officials every week, like the Post does the Rams? Well probably, but why doesn’t the Post do the same ratings for government every week?
        II guess the Rams are more important than our fucking lives.

         
  14. Rick says:

    Does a form-based code limit the creativity of architects?

     
  15. Rick says:

    Does a form-based code limit the creativity of architects?

     
    • No, it simply dictates things such as where the building must be located relative to the property line (build to vs setback). Issues such as architectural style & materials aren’t part of the form.

       
    • JZ71 says:

      Any zoning code, form-based or traditional, places limits on an architect, as do governmental design reviews, developer design reviews, historic districts, ADA, MSD, FAA and on and on.  Most architects accept that you need to know which codes apply, and then you and your client need to decide if you’re going to comply or if you’re going to challenge any of the requirements.  Creativity can encompass designing a project within the established limits or creativity can assume that limits can be ignored.  The better question would probably not be whether form-based codes limit creativity, but whether form-based codes result in better actual, built designs, or not?  We know the track record of the current zoning regulations here, but what’s been the track record in other cities?  (Denver’s new FB zoning code has only been in effect for less than a year.)

       
      • Chris says:

        Architects exist to serve their clients; they are restricted in their designs the second their client tell them what type of building they need designed.  Did the 19th Century St. Louis interest in the street wall limit creativity?  Of course not.  Who cares what the architect thinks; the client is all that matters since they’re paying for it and will use it.

         
        • JZ71 says:

          Exactly.  Wash U. is building / has built new lab buildings at Skinker and Forest Park Parkway.  They have a very traditional look on the outside.  That came from the client, not from any governmental requirement.

          “The 19th Century St. Louis interest in the street wall” did not originate with the government, it was a practical response to how people lived their lives 100 years ago.  For local travel, people walked or took the streetcar.  Advertising was either in show windows or newspapers.  Up close and dense made sense,  Today, people drive their cars and get their advertising through digital media.  Architecture has evolved in response to these significant changes – show windows are no longer important, while convenient parking (at 300 sq. ft. per vehicle!) is.

          As Gmichaud argues, transportation drives architecture.  For dense, urban architecture to be embraced by the general public, we need to (re?)create a public transit system that attracts many more riders and we need to be willing to walk more and further.  Today is “the busiest shopping day of the year”.  Where will most of the shoppers be around here?  At the malls and the big box stores, not downtown or on Cherokee Street . . . . money talks . . . .

           
  16. No, it simply dictates things such as where the building must be located relative to the property line (build to vs setback). Issues such as architectural style & materials aren’t part of the form.

     
  17. Anonymous says:

    Any zoning code, form-based or traditional, places limits on an architect, as do governmental design reviews, developer design reviews, historic districts, ADA, MSD, FAA and on and on.  Most architects accept that you need to know which codes apply, and then you and your client need to decide if you’re going to comply or if you’re going to challenge any of the requirements.  Creativity can encompass designing a project within the established limits or creativity can assume that limits can be ignored.  The better question would probably not be whether form-based codes limit creativity, but whether form-based codes result in better actual, built designs, or not?  We know the track record of the current zoning regulations here, but what’s been the track record in other cities?  (Denver’s new FB zoning code has only been in effect for less than a year.)

     
  18. Anonymous says:

    The blame at SLU does not lie with SLU’s “archiectural advisers”, the blame lies with the client (Fr. Biondi, the Jesuits and the SLU board).  Architects can and do provide a range of potential solutions, but the client is the ultimate decider.  SLU has apprently decided, like many other universities, to focus their campus inward, and to distance themselves from the adjacent community (the classic town-gown tension).  And, unlike both Wash U and UMSL, SLU has chosen to ignore Metrolink, as well, although the plans for BRT along Grand may change that mindset . . . .

     
  19. Chris says:

    Architects exist to serve their clients; they are restricted in their designs the second their client tell them what type of building they need designed.  Did the 19th Century St. Louis interest in the street wall limit creativity?  Of course not.  Who cares what the architect thinks; the client is all that matters since they’re paying for it and will use it.

     
  20. Anonymous says:

    Exactly.  Wash U. is building / has built new lab buildings at Skinker and Forest Park Parkway.  They have a very traditional look on the outside.  That came from the client, not from any governmental requirement.

    “The 19th Century St. Louis interest in the street wall” did not originate with the government, it was a practical response to how people lived their lives 100 years ago.  For local travel, people walked or took the streetcar.  Advertising was either in show windows or newspapers.  Up close and dense made sense,  Today, people drive their cars and get their advertising through digital media.  Architecture has evolved in response to these significant changes – show windows are no longer important, while convenient parking (at 300 sq. ft. per vehicle!) is.

    As Gmichaud argues, transportation drives architecture.  For dense, urban architecture to be embraced by the general public, we need to (re?)create a public transit system that attracts many more riders and we need to be willing to walk more and further.  Today is “the busiest shopping day of the year”.  Where will most of the shoppers be around here?  At the malls and the big box stores, not downtown or on Cherokee Street . . . . money talks . . . .

     
  21. Tj9638 says:

    You obviously view buildings differently than the average St. Louisan. Your perspective is from a wheelchair. I personally see no advantage to a building constructed at the street line. I personally enjoy seeing green grass, with well-designed landscaping, separating the building from the sidewalk. I personally feel that, when a building no longer serves the needs of its owner, the building’s owner should have the right to determine if he wants to demo or modify the building. In the US, money talks. Money dictates ownership. An owner should have the exclusive right to determine the best use of his property. And when he no longer has that right, his freedoms are being denied. And who are you to deny his freedoms?

     
  22. Tj9638 says:

    You obviously view buildings differently than the average St. Louisan. Your perspective is from a wheelchair. I personally see no advantage to a building constructed at the street line. I personally enjoy seeing green grass, with well-designed landscaping, separating the building from the sidewalk. I personally feel that, when a building no longer serves the needs of its owner, the building’s owner should have the right to determine if he wants to demo or modify the building. In the US, money talks. Money dictates ownership. An owner should have the exclusive right to determine the best use of his property. And when he no longer has that right, his freedoms are being denied. And who are you to deny his freedoms?

     
    • When a community invests in mass transit they should commit to urban form to make the transit investment worthwhile for all pedestrians. I’ve advocated urban long before I was disabled.

       
    • Held Over says:

      By that logic, a land owner could put up a shoddy building that proves a nuisance to the community and defend it by saying, “It’s my land and my building, I’ll do as I wish.”

       
  23. When a community invests in mass transit they should commit to urban form to make the transit investment worthwhile for all pedestrians. I’ve advocated urban long before I was disabled.

     
  24. DoubleJ says:

    “An owner should have the exclusive right to determine the best use of his property.” Until that owner is your neighbor and wants to build something gawd awful. SLU and the architects knew the building was listed on the registry, but think they should be given carte blanche to erect whatever they so choose. Architects should be creative types and find adaptive reuses for the building. Housing is one that comes to the top of mind for lots of people, but other examples are possible. Ground floor retail/dining seems like an obvious choice given the lack of choices around the area. If SLU can take a run down building and turn it into a boutique hospital on the main campus, they certainly have the money and hopefully the vision to do something creative with this building.

     
  25. DoubleJ says:

    “An owner should have the exclusive right to determine the best use of his property.” Until that owner is your neighbor and wants to build something gawd awful. SLU and the architects knew the building was listed on the registry, but think they should be given carte blanche to erect whatever they so choose. Architects should be creative types and find adaptive reuses for the building. Housing is one that comes to the top of mind for lots of people, but other examples are possible. Ground floor retail/dining seems like an obvious choice given the lack of choices around the area. If SLU can take a run down building and turn it into a boutique hospital on the main campus, they certainly have the money and hopefully the vision to do something creative with this building.

     
  26. Held Over says:

    Most people actually think a strip mall looks nice?

     
  27. Held Over says:

    By that logic, a land owner could put up a shoddy building that proves a nuisance to the community and defend it by saying, “It’s my land and my building, I’ll do as I wish.”

     
  28. Anonymous says:

    Ultimately the architect is the salesman. In this case the architect did not care or was not willing to challenge the limited thinking they encountered. The fact is this urban site at Grand and Chouteau should reflect a major and vital mass transit intersection, connected to major institutions, hospitals, universities, arts complexes and more. The fact the city does not demand this type of urban form indicates a complete lack of understanding of the importance of good city design.
    This is a prime site for transit in the city, if the architecture does not compliment the urban situation then decades of human existence are lost.
    The City of St. Louis fails, gets an “F” just like the Rams in the Monday paper. The city failure is in their management of critical city sites.
    Should we grade the Mayor, the Aldermen and other city officials every week, like the Post does the Rams? Well probably, but why doesn’t the Post do the same ratings for government every week?
    II guess the Rams are more important than our fucking lives.

     
  29. someoneelse says:

    While the owner doesn’t have carte blanche to do whatever s/he wants, a vacant building is serving no one’s interest.  I would say that if a building has been vacant for, say, ten (twenty?) years, then the owner gets wider latitude than otherwise would be given. 

     
  30. someoneelse says:

    While the owner doesn’t have carte blanche to do whatever s/he wants, a vacant building is serving no one’s interest.  I would say that if a building has been vacant for, say, ten (twenty?) years, then the owner gets wider latitude than otherwise would be given. 

     

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