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My Wish List For The Next Saint Louis University President

May 7, 2013 Featured, Planning & Design, SLU 19 Comments

Most likely you’ve already heard the news: Lawrence Biondi has announced he will retire as president of Saint Louis University.

The Rev. Lawrence Biondi surprised supporters and critics alike Saturday evening when he announced plans to retire from the presidency of St. Louis University.

The move follows months of campus strife that included no-confidence votes by faculty and students. (stltoday)

I’ve lived in St. Louis for nearly 23 years, most of Biondi’s 25-year tenure. I’ve witnessed the physical changes to the midtown campus along with everyone else. The public remains sharply divided on these changes. Some of us see the changes during his tenure as highly destructive and anti-urban, others view them as visionary, saving a once-dying campus.

Who’s right? Actually, both views are correct.

Biondi had a vision for the campus and was relentless in making it happen. Unfortunately, his vision was shaped by a perspective shared with many in his generation:

  1. Pedestrians stroll through park-like settings but use cars to actually get from point a to point b, pedestrians should be seperated from roads.
  2. Old urban cities are bad places with bad people, to be safe we must create physical barriers to keep them out of our space and to tell us where we shouldn’t go.
  3. Only poor people use public transit, everyone else has a car. In other words: transit brings troublesome poor folks while parking garages attracts desirable folks.
  4. Open space, with lush green lawns, solves problems.
  5. Residential, office, retail, industrial should all be separate from each other.

These views were formed in their youth, influenced by the General Motors Futurama exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair.

The 1939 GM "Futurama" exhibit imagined intersection of 1960 with pedestrians separated from autos
The 1939 GM “Futurama” exhibit imagined intersection of 1960 with pedestrians separated from autos, click image to view 6 minute YouTube video from the 1939 New York World’s Fair (highly recommended)

My hope is the next president of Saint Louis University will reject the beliefs listed above. That he/she will instead think:

  1. The university should embrace the city, not wall it off.
  2. Supporting public transit will greatly reduce the need to take on debt to build more parking garages
  3. Thriving areas beyond campus will enrich the student experience
  4. SLU is an urban campus, the public rights-of-way (roads/sidewalks) within our boundaries should be highly active
SLU's anti-urban research building on the SE corner of Grand & Chouteau
SLU’s anti-urban research building on the SE corner of Grand & Chouteau

What is the likelihood the Board of Trustees will select someone with a viewpoint radically different from Biondi with respect to urban planning? Right, not very high…

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "19 comments" on this Article:

  1. Scott Jones says:

    I love the summary of his views. It’s spot on and describes so much if planning over the past 60+ years. Hopefully the next leader of SLU is advanced beyond this mindset.

  2. JZ71 says:

    You make a lot of good points. The biggest challenge I see, moving forward, is simple geography. With the current size of the expanded campus, it’s going to take a lot of construction, and a lot more students, to make this a dense, urban environment. From wikipedia, “SLU’s campus consists of over 235 acres” accommodating nearly 14,000 students, or 60 students per acre. In contrast, the Auraria Campus in Denver (where I did my grad work and is somewhat similar in concept, a newer campus on previously-industrial land on the fringes of downtown) is home to three public institutions, with a total of more than 40,000 students on 127 acres, or 315 students per acre. http://www.ahec.edu/campusmaps/

    • kitzbuhel says:

      You too bring up good points. I am familiar with both campuses, and taught at both — at C.U. Denver Center prior to it being termed the Auraria Campus, and at St. Louis University even before that). Of the two, the development of the St. Louis University campus is far superior. While Auraria is bisected with way too much concrete and traffic, St. Louis University has become an oasis of green and flowing water that provides the kind of retreat necessary for college students.

      People should remember that the University campus is there to enhance the environment for study — to provide exactly the type of getaway from urban noise in which the thoughts of Plato or Darwin can be analyzed and reflected upon. It is NOT there for the purpose of being a core energizer of urban development. St. Louis’ problems and challenges are far too great for even a major university to make that kind of transformational difference.

      What St. Louis U. DID do was to save, and then help revitalize Mid-town. It can be argued that this in turn was no little help to the stability of Powell Symphony Hall and the resurgence of the St. Louis Symphony under the leadership of Maestro Leonard Slatkin. (Ironically, I am at present reading Slatkin’s new book, “Conducting Business: Unveiling the Mystery Behind the Maestro.” It is fascinating and gives a superb account of the St. Louis Symphony’s ascendance to the premier ranks of American orchestras).

      I remember St. Louis University’s “campus” only too well during the days following World War II, when the green area of the campus was not much larger than many families’ back yards, and the WW II Quonset Huts still sat in the DuBourg Quadrangle. It was a cold, forbidding place, with a major traffic artery carrying five o’clock rush hour through the heart of campus, and bourgeoning crime-infested areas just outside the small perimeter.

      I’m glad Biondi is gone (one more heavy handed authoritarian leader out on his ear), but for anyone who wants a peaceful setting in which to study or teach the liberal arts, they can forever be grateful that Biondi had the correct vision for the campus. Back in the time before Pius XII Library was constructed, the campus was a disgrace, and few were the students who were not ashamed of it. Now, it is something to be proud of — just in time for SLU’s 200th birthday!

  3. Fozzie says:

    Fact: Biondi embraced the city by not moving the campus.

    • Creating a walled fortress is not an embrace.

      • Fozzie says:


        SLU generates plenty of revenue for the city. Just because you don’t like the aesthetics doesn’t make it any less viable as a economic engine. Choosing to not even recognize this fact show how disillusioned you are.

        • samizdat says:

          I think you may mean “delusional”. Which he isn’t. But I don’t doubt that he is disillusioned.

      • kitzbuhel says:

        Creating a campus with defined boundaries allows it to have a presence. The presence is the embrace.

    • chaifetz10 says:

      Just like he didn’t build the new Ambulatory Care Center in the county either…either the city let him demolish Pevely or he would move the Med Campus to the county. The future of the university depended on it! And we all know how quickly they rushed to build it…
      Wait, they haven’t done a darn thing with that site! What?????
      Biondi hasn’t “embraced” the city, instead he’s tyring to turn it into a suburban area.

    • samizdat says:

      He’s a rank extortionist.

    • tpekren says:

      Or can look at this way. Staying put was more of an economic question for the beneift for SLU itself. For starters, Biondi has bought a large swath of properties on nickels or dimes on the dollar considering the economic position of the city when SLU decided to stay. Nor did he have to follow up with a large upfront land cost with new construction of infrastructure and buildings. The cost of one new building can finance a lot of demos which undoubtly has happend. Instead, SLU has been able to take a phase development approach of its campus, methodically create the desired buffer, landbank a large parcel of property and still had access with I64/I44 that is just as good as anywhere else.


      The problem at the end of day for the city and thus economic loss for the city comes to this question, would you rather have a non-profit institution at 60 students per acre vs 315 students per acre as in JZ’s example when the instituion is not paying propertey taxes and is located within fixed boundaries of the city – every parcel acquired becomes one more non revenue parcel loss to the city? You can argue that it would have a loss for the city if SLU relocated. You can also argued that whatever gain for staying in the city has resulted in just as much economic loss of underutilized/suburban space that has been created by Biondi with his vision. An economic wash for the city at end of day. In other words, SLU didn’t embrace the city. Instead, it embraced the most economical means to rebuild its campus. So happend that it was staying put was the best answer.


      The ironic part, SLU finally embraced the city when it decided to move its law school downtown because of a benefactor. I think you will see a law school that will regain its reputation, embrace downtown and will add to its surroundings. A very different vision that will hopefully convince SLU to actually embrace Midtown & Grand Center with infill and support a central corridor streetcar & Grand Ave BRT instead of defacto sculpture/dog parks as its biggest contribuion.


      As far as its medical campus, everybody might as well admit that it will be a long long time before SLU can fills these voids. Even if they build a new ambulatory center sooner then later.

  4. Paul says:

    I hope the next president focuses on academics and research, the reason the university exists.

  5. Moe says:

    I have the opportunity to help interview incoming students for the MLK scholarship every Spring as well as their parents. Besides the high-quality of students that SLU attracts and continues to attract, I can honestly state that answer I get from all the incoming Freshman and even the parents to Why SLU? is always the same, whether they are from India or San Francisco or New York or even St. Louis: Academics and a beautiful campus.
    Never once have I heard it’s too spread out, it’s suburban, less buildings, etc. I walk away impressed with the students, knowing that, despite our problems as a society, our future is very bright and in good hands.
    And Steve, as an alumni, you have the opportunity to volunteer to screen such students yourself. You should….it just might change your view of SLU.
    Hate Fr. Biondi all you want, but what he has created is a powerhouse of attraction for both SLU and the City of St. Louis.

    • Improving academics and the campus could’ve been accomplished without fencing it off to the outside.

      • Mike says:

        “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors,” or so the poet said. And he was probably right. The nature of the adjacent areas that Fr. Biondi fenced off made “fencing off” an only option. Even today, I wouldn’t send my daughter to SLU because of the adjacent areas. The fences aren’t high enough to convince me that the campus is safe. And as bad as things “out there” are today, just think how it would be if Fr. Biondi hadn’t stepped up to the plate.

        • tpekren says:

          Wow, you might as well as build a moat around your house and call it a day. Sorry, but I’m a father who has been fortunate in life to grew up in a small farm town as well as had the opportunity to live in cities, go to a lot of places, work in a lot of places, and meet a lot of people who are either similiar or very different I do not desire my childern to live a close minded life or in fear because things as bad as “out there”. Fortunately for 14,000 or so students at SLU who show a willingness to life live, keep an open mind that SLU is the right choice even if it as bad as “out there” and better yet, tell Moe that they think it was the right choice. I also think Steve’s post is right on. A lot of grass has created a perception of safety and even though students are their because they like the school as noted to Moe it seems a great waste that a Jesuit institution idea of making things better is to create it own moat around a community. Hopefully, with Biondi retiriing the young bright students of SLU want to become a part of what is “out there” will be listened too.

        • Right now SLU has managed to fence off Harris Stowe State University, Grand Center, and Midtown Alley. Instead the SLU campus should be connecting with each of these.

        • samizdat says:

          My comment on “Reverend” Biondi over at nextSTL:

          “I realize that this may ruffle a
          few feathers, but I am firm in my belief that a significant reason for
          this land clearance, beyond land banking and “campus building” (whatever
          that means), is simple, virulent racism. SLU was embarrassed over a
          decade ago by the reports of rapes and other assaults nearby. (And on
          campus). Something which they neglected to note in any of the recruiting
          literature and in federally-mandated disclosure requirements. It would
          seem that their response, rather than seek improvements in the
          neighborhood (say, in the manner of Washington U.), was to simply raze
          it. Eliminate the perceived source of the problem, and voila, no
          problem. Biondi and the SLU Trustees conducted a pogrom against the
          surrounding residents, most of whom were non-white. I loathe this man,
          and it is only partially because of the loss of the built environment.
          He leaves a shameful legacy.

          Except, of course, this does nothing to solve the problem of student-on-student rape, and other such crimes.”

          I see no reason why such a policy should not negate any perceived positives which “Reverend” Biondi has accomplished during his tenure at SLU. He has provided plenty of management, but no leadership. He has walled off–ghettoized–SLU, to the detriment of its moral and ethical responsibility as a University, a Catholic school of higher learning, and as an institutional citizen of the City of St. Louis. Moats are medieval devices structured to keep out undesirables. So, we come to the question of the day: Who does SLU consider undesirable? And why?

          Some say that a school should not be compelled or required to stabilize or in any way contribute to the betterment of its neighborhood. What sort of neighbor is that? Who wants that kind of neighbor, one who sees or hears of distress, yet does not take action beyond turning their back to something with which they are uncomfortable? Especially a Catholic institution, one which I am assuming (as an ex-Catholic I should know), is compelled to minister the teachings of the Christ figure to its students and faculty. Pardon my sarcasm, but I’ve heard nothing in the Christian gospel which suggests that Jesus wanted everyone to ignore one another to the detriment of society. Where is it that Jesus said turn your backs on your brothers and sisters, for therein lies the Kingdom of Heaven? Where is Jesus quoted as saying deny your fellows, and ignore their plight, lest you seek not the right hand of God?

          There are so many lessons in the Christian cannon which could have provided guidance to SLU, in its efforts to engage the neighborhood it saw as a threat to its effectiveness as an institution and a leader of minds. It chose, to its lasting shame and loss of moral authority, to treat those in its surrounding neighborhood as lepers, pariahs, and criminals. But it didn’t treat them as Christians should, with the love of God and Christ shaping their response. Oh, to be sure, it was, I suppose, a sensible business decision, but where in the hell does Jesus say that in all things, be guided by your love of money and maintaining the PR message? As has been noted, SLU has provided for sound (barely) physical surroundings in which to educated its students and staff. However, on moral grounds, its leadership in the community and the City is woefully lacking in sound judgement. It is one thing not to engage your neighbors in conversation. It is another thing entirely to turn a blind eye to the societal conditions present when SLU first began to drive residents from the neighborhood. An arena and some green space are not really what Christ was speaking of when he said, “whatsoever you do to these, the least of my brothers, so you do unto me.”

          Shame on “Reverend” Biondi, and shame on SLU.


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