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Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist

 

Suburban Sprawl Descends Into Uncomfortable Middle Age

Most would agree that West St. Louis County is the poster child for urban sprawl. Over many decades, St. Louis development has crept westward through St. Louis County and into St. Charles County, the current epicenter of unrestrained sprawl. As time has passed, much of central and western St. Louis County have begun the inevitable cycle of aging and renewal that is associated with older urban areas.

My focus of interest is primarily on what urban planners refer to as the “second-ring western suburbs” of St. Louis. They are a microcosm of multiple older rural communities from the mid-to-late 1800s that have been folded into larger, newer cities over the past 50 years. They are all facing the need for urban redevelopment in the face of overwhelming evidence that many of the ideas embraced by the original suburban developers have not turned out so well.

In my city, Maryland Heights, this means a city without a town center. If asked, most people would cite either the Dorsett-McKelvey Road commercial district or Westport as our gathering places. One is a basic commercial crossroads and the other is an aging mixed -use development. Both are modestly successful and neither one represents a true central nexus for residents.

Part of the problem is that Maryland Heights is an anomaly in suburban development: it hosts over 80,000 workers during the day and houses only 26,000 residents at night. The reverse of a bedroom community, it often finds itself beholden to business and commercial interests at the cost of the residents.

This was clearly present in the 2008 fight that residents waged against development in the Howard Bend area of Maryland Heights. This area contains the flood plain around Creve Coeur Park and land on either side of the Maryland Heights Expressway from I-70 to the Page Avenue extension. Residents didn’t want to see a massive development (initially arranged around a proposed Walmart) that would back up against Creve Coeur Park. Maryland Park, as the proposed development was called, was set to build a bland suburban mixed-use project that was fully oriented toward cars.

The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend that is the embodiment of urban sprawl focused on building commercial warehouses and one (or more) large-scale developments for big-box stores and retail. During the Howard Bend fight, residents became fully aware of what was contained in the comprehensive plan. While the process was public, the lack of effective public engagement by the city over 20 years had the unfortunate outcome of surprised residents visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan. In fairness, residents also neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known.

Citizens who fail to monitor and influence their city governments are likely to be surprised and angry when the businesses who do engage with the city are given top priority. To combat this usual state of affairs, a group of concerned citizens originally organized under the flag of SaveCreveCoeur.com has developed into a more permanent organization called Maryland Heights Residents for Responsible Growth. As part of the steering committee, we have launched a new website for the community development organization at MarylandHeightsResidents.com

In the future, I will be contributing posts about the more universal aspects of the issues facing second-ring, western St. Louis County suburbs. Issues I intend to cover include:

  • Cities without town centers
  • Stagnant population growth
  • Diminishing open spaces
  • Flood plain development
  • Aging apartment complexes and housing stock
  • Public-engagement successes and failures
  • Community-development issues and specific projects being pursued
  • The role of residents in guiding city development

I look forward to hearing from you. Please use the comments section below or email me directly with topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts.

– Deborah Moulton

 

A Shift to Smaller Grocery Stores?

The new Culinaria grocery store downtown is a delight.  It is stocked with everything one needs all in 20,000SF of space — a third the size of a typical new suburban big box grocery store.  But it has been the big box suburban store we’ve been getting in urban neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.  These chains knew only one thing — bigger is better.

Loughborough Commons Schnucks Grand Opening, August 2006
Schnuck's Grand Opening at Loughborough Commons, August 2006

Finally, a different model, a smaller new store.  I’ve enjoyed smaller stores for years: Straub’s, Aldi’s, Trader Joe’s, Wild Oats/Whole Foods, Local Harvest, City Grocers, etc.  Some of these are now approaching the size of the big box stores while others are still too small to get everything you need.

The trick is being big enough to have all the items for a meal but without an motor oil, clothing or patio furniture.  The fact is the race to have the biggest store in town didn’t always mean the best place to shop for groceries.  With everything inside a third the size of a big box has me wondering if we’ll see a return to the well stocked smaller store?

Schnuck’s, family owned & privately held, got it’s start in the City of St. Louis:

Founded in north St. Louis in 1939, the family-owned grocery company has grown to include more than 100 stores in seven states: Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, Tennessee and Mississippi.  (Source: Schnuck’s)

The early stores were the traditional corner store that was common in walkable urban neighborhoods.  But as people left walkable urban areas to driveable suburban areas the concept of a market changed.  Refrigeration made it possible to keep food longer.

In my hometown of Oklahoma City the dominate grocery chain is now Walmart Neighborhood Market.  I’m not talking about a giant Walmart with a grocery section but a dedicated grocery store selling groceries.  These stores, at 40,000SF, are between the typical new Schnuck’s (60,000+SF) and Culinaria (20,000SF).  These Walmart markets are everywhere.

I’m a foodie.  My Facebook friends can confirm the many pictures I’ve posted of meals out as well as meals I’ve prepared at home.  If you’ve seen Julie & Julia you know Julia Child’s love of eating got her interested in cooking.  As someone that enjoys cooking, I’ve visited many grocery stores in many cities.

Bring out the “foodie” in you!

Culinaria is using the term foodie in their marketing.  With a growing emphasis on fresh and local I think we will see a shift away from the massive stores pushing groceries for a month.  I like going to the grocery store but I don’t like walking through unnecessarily large stores.  With a few exceptions, since my stroke a year and a half ago, I have avoided big box grocers.

Toronto, July 2006
Toronto, July 2006

Loblaws is a big chain in Toronto.  The store above is located in their suburbs along their subway line.  You exit the subway and the grocery store is right there so you can pick up items for dinner on your way home.

New York City, 2001
New York City, 2001

A right sized market, such as the above Whole Foods, can be located in older buildings.  You need high density to eliminate the need for parking.

Under NYCs Queensboro Bridge, 2001
Under NYC's Queensboro Bridge, 2001

In New York City wasted space under the 59th Street/Queensboro Bridge was put to use for a nice market.

Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003
Vancouver market in walkable neighborhood, 2003

The above market was in new construction in a new walkable dense area of Vancouver.  I do not recall seeing any parking although it may have had a garage.  I was a pedestrian.

Seattles international district, March 2009
Seattle's international district, March 2009

These stores don’t have their own parking.  But I’ve been to plenty that do — a Whole Foods in San Diego with parking on the roof to Safeway & Trader Joe’s in Seattle with structured garage parking just for their store – in neighborhoods — not just downtown.  The idea of driving into a parking garage to go grocery shopping is not that odd.  I’d like to see it become commonplace in the core of our region.

Many of Culinara’s customers will walk there.  Others will use MetroLink which is only 2 blocks away (8th & Pine).  Many, however, will drive from within downtown or from nearby neighborhoods.  Those that do will get 1 or 2 hours of free parking, depending upon the day & time of the visit.

I’ll have to drive there one day to see how it works.  The unmetered 15-minute parking on 9th Street seems like it will become an issue with cars parked longer than 15 minutes.  Doesn’t seem right that this business would get free street parking for it’s customers.  I say put in meters and make the limit 30 minutes.

The new Culinaria is the grocery store we need not just downtown but throughout the core of the region.  A smaller footprint store for walkable neighborhoods where a big box and surface parking are out of character.  Hopefully we will see more of Culinaria here and in the other states where Schnuck’s has stores.

The above was written Tuesday after the grand opening of Culinaria.  Yesterday (Wednesday) I made a second visit.  This time I drove my car  – I wanted to see how the whole parking garage experience worked. They have a few issues to address.

Parking starts on level 3 of the garage. It seems like the first parking you get to is reserved for monthly parking permit holders who are assigned a numbered space.  When I got to 5 I crossed the middle point and headed downward to find disabled parking near the elevator.  I’m still not clear how far up the able bodied would need to go to find non-reserved parking.  I’m not sure how people will feel, on the weekend say,  about passing 2-5 levels of empty reserved parking before reaching spaces where they can park.

After I bought my 3 items I discovered the other problem, the shopping carts can’t leave the store.  So even if you drive to the store it is purchase what you can carry.  An associate got another associate to carry my canvas bag for me.  I had only 3 items but it weighed 7 pounds — 5 lb bag of flour plus two pound bags of dried beans.  It was too much for me.  I can understand not allowing the carts out onto the sidewalk but they really need to allow the carts into the garage.

The customer base for a store this size is larger than downtown dwellers & office workers.  Residents from nearby neighborhoods will be driving here to stock up.  And with the huge selection of items it would be very easy to purchase more than you can carry.  The carts have the sensor that locks a wheel if it goes too far.  They need to move the sensor to the outside door so that someone can get to the elevators.

When the associate and I got off the elevator at level 3 I realized that floor doubles as the employee smoking lounge.  Two employees were smoking in the semi-enclosed area off the elevators while three more were smoking adjacent to the disabled spaces.

When I left I handed the parking attendant the ticket I got when I entered the garage as well as the voucher portion from my receipt.  The $2 fee was covered by Culinaria.

As has been pointed out on other posts, this Culinaria store has been heavily subsidized.  It does not represent the free market at work.  What I hope will happen is that it will perform well to the point the Schnuck’s family will question the logic of building bigger & bigger suburban box stores.  We need more frequent stores that are easier to walk to and through.

– Steve Patterson

 

Walkable Retail in Suburban Locations, Part 1

While in Seattle my hosts and I ventured away from their walkable Capital Hill neighborhood to a more suburban environment in the northern part of the city.  We drove past an urban-ish project that I reviewed in April 2005 featuring a 2-level Target store, others stores and structured parking:

But the above was not our destination.  Northgate Mall across the street was (map).  According to Wikipedia, Northgate first opened in 1950 and was enclosed in 1974.  Eclipsed by newer retail options the owner, Simon Malls, had a few choices.  Raze the mall and start over like the Galleria or West County Center have done.  Change the focus to more mundane uses like back office operations.  They chose to create a more walkable experience.

The indoor mall still exits but along the West face (I-5 side) they attached new structures that in many places would be individual buildings on parcels in the vast parking lot.

The bottom row above (B&N through P are newly attached structures. In the parking lot (below) bioswales absorb water runoff and offer greenery to soften the harshness of the plantings.

The new structures present a more friendly face to both traffic on I-5 as well as approaching customers.

The backside, shown above, is very original and dated.

To the South a parking garage was built.  In the background you can also see new multi-story housing.

Throughout the property walkability became a focus with new sidewalks along the roads at the edge of the property as well as leading into the property.  Would I want to live/work/shop here?  No way! But for those who do this is a huge step over what has been here for nearly 60 years.

South of the parking garage and West of the new residential is a major bus stop.  To the East a hospital.  The North is a Target store.  One could live in a apartmet here and work downtown and do it all without owming a car.  The bus would take you to/from work and you could walk everywhere once you got home.  Couples could easily go to a one car lifestyle to save money.  Again, any form of suburbia is not for me personally but fore those who don’t want to live right in the midst of the old core of regions this solution is a good one.  More dense use of the land provides housing for more without having to go to the edges of the region. Transit & retailers are supported by the new residents. The old mall was updated without filling a landfill. A large suburban area is now much more walkable.  Tomorrow we’ll look at a walkable development on the site of an old big box hardware store.

 

Urban Walgreens of Seattle

March 10, 2009 Big Box, Travel 18 Comments

Walgreens stores in the St. Louis area are no different than ones in Dallas or Tulsa. Big & boring. Their designs are the same pretty much everywhere. Except in cities where the typical auto-centric doesn’t cut it.

In October 2005 I did two posts about interesting Walgreens stores in suburban Seattle. One in the South suburbs was very standard except for the coffee shop that was built out at the street corner of the property (view post) . That Walgreens I first spotted on a 2002 visit. In 2005 I spotted another I liked built up to the public sidewalk (view post).

Jump forward 3-1/2 years to yesterday and I’ve found two more interesting atypical Walgreens stores. First up is the Walgreens going into a vacant 1950 modern bank building. When I was here in ’05 we walked around this tasteful modern building, appreciating its massing and detailing. The branch, originally a SeaFirst and later a Bank of America, closed in 2006.

The area around this mid-century modern gem is rapidly developing. The developer of adjacent apartments had bought the building a secured a local historic designation for the structure. It is nice to see Walgreens reuse an existing structure. See story from the Seattle Weekly.

In the Capital Hill neighborhood another Walgreens is already open at the corner of Broadway and Pine (map). This time the Walgreens is in the base of a new multi-story building. No huge parking lot, no drive-thru.

Corner pedestrian entrance, street trees, and bike parking distinguish this Walgreens.

This new building is across the street from a community college.

The overhead wires are for the electrified bus system.

I’ve been visiting Seattle now for 15 years. I’ve seen many areas urbanize in that time. It just doesn’t happen . Seattle has deliberately changed zoning on certain corridors to allow and encourage dense mixed use properties such as the above. Developers can begin to see how building more building on a small site can give them a greater overall return. The first step is on the city to change the zoning for an entire street rather than waiting for a developer to possibly ask for a zoning change to do something more urban. As a city we must be proactive to get more urban development.

 

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