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Normal: Razing Indoor Mall for Outdoor Shopping

collegestationYesterday I stopped in the greater Bloomington-Normal area along I-55 while returning to St. Louis from Chicago. I happened upon something quite interesting, a former mall that was razed to create an outdoor shopping area. Nobody is going to confuse the ‘Shoppes at College Station’ with say the outstanding Country Club Plaza in Kansas City but it is clear some attention was paid to pedestrian connections.

Let’s start with the original mall (image at right). The mall had three anchor stores — a Target (upper left with light roof), a Von Maur department store (upper right) and a Hobby Lobby (bottom, center). In the remake, all three of those remained but the middle mall section was removed entirely. This is a highly suburban and auto-centric section of Bloomington-Normal with Veteran’s Parkway serving as the Business Loop for I-55. I passed another mall not 3 miles down the road and just about every chain you can imagine in countless conventional strip centers. The headquarters for State Farm Insurance was maybe a mile or so away. (See map of mall)

The remaking of suburban mall sites is increasing of the last say 10 years, making it more and more “normal.” Sadly they did not go far enough in Bloomington-Normal as an upscale strip center basically replaced the old mall. In many other places, the former mall sites get parceled out with real streets (aka public streets) and a mix of uses including office and residential. These will often connect to adjacent residential areas.

But they did one thing right (sort of) in Bloomington-Normal: internal pedestrian connections.

IMG_6328.jpgNew meets old with the new Ann Taylor connecting to the old Target store which appears to have received a face-lift. You’ll note the large sidewalks and pedestrian crossings as well as the city bus in front of Target. Many private properties like this, especially those with more upscale stores like Ann Taylor, don’t like public transportation within their borders so that was a pleasant surprise. I guess this also prevented them from having to make connections to non-existant sidewalks on the main public streets.

IMG_6339.jpgThe “brick” pedestrian crossings are in fact just stamped concrete, but these provide a nice visual clue to motorists as well as a strong suggestion to shoppers to consider walking from store to store rather than get in the car to drive within the property.

IMG_6337.jpgThe center of the former mall contains a large planting area with sidewalks on both sides — this helps you cross the large parking area without having to walk in the auto drives. While this has many flaws, it is certainly better access than most of our suburban style shopping centers such as Loughborough Commons, Gravois Plaza, and Southtowne Center in the city and a mile-long list in the suburbs themselves.

What are the flaws you ask? Well, the landscaping is treated as a decorative element rather providing shade. I personally would have created a strong allee of trees to provide shade for the pedestrian as well as a major visual element. As it is you feel a bit exposed out in the middle and I doubt we’ll see anyone sitting on the benches in the middle of the area despite the attractive “public” art that is provided.

IMG_6330.jpgIn this view you can see how the pedestrian areas are clearly delineated. These were not an afterthought but planned as part of the project.

I don’t want to give them too much credit as the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) requires connections between buildings:

4.3.2 Location.

(1) At least one accessible route within the boundary of the site shall be provided from public transportation stops, accessible parking, and accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks to the accessible building entrance they serve. The accessible route shall, to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public.

(2) At least one accessible route shall connect accessible buildings, facilities, elements, and spaces that are on the same site.

So clearly the mandate from the feds is to connect buildings via accessible routes, so the above may not be out of great concern for creating a good environment but simply a desire to comply with ADA requirements. Yet when I look at the shopping centers mentioned above I do not see attempts for compliance with the standards.

At the Rail-Volution conference in Chicago I met a “Transportation Accessibility Specialist” who works for the U.S. Government in helping to write the ADA guidelines. I will be corresponding with him in the future to determine if some of our recently constructed shopping areas past muster or not. Enforcement of the ADA requirements does not fall to the local jurisdictions such as the City of St. Louis which is why projects may get built that do not meet the standards. No, the enforcement falls to the U.S. Department of Justice. I will seek out accessible advocacy groups to help file complaints against local projects that appear to fail to comply with the accessible route requirement of the ADA.

IMG_6331.jpgThis image is the opposite view of the one above, again showing how the path is clearly marked. This is beneficial to pedestrians of all types — those on foot and those in wheelchairs. My visit was prior to 10am yesterday morning so many of the stores were not yet open but I did see a number of people already walking between buildings that did have open stores.

We can make pedestrian connections even in highly suburban contexts and especially in our urbanized neighborhoods and commercial streets. The car is not banished to provide for a walkable route. The lesson is that if you provide a clear path people will use it and the better the path the more traffic you will see.


An Urban Plan for the Grand & Gravois Schnuck’s Site

Architect, fellow blogger and friend Steve Wilke-Shapiro continues to focus his attention on the city’s 15th Ward on his blog, 15thWardSTL. His latest post looks at the aging big box Schnuck’s bounded by Grand, Cherokee, Gravois and Potomac.

A bit of background: The total area, including a couple of properties owned by others, is roughly 6 acres. The current store was built in 1989 and is listed by the city records as having just under 74,000sf. This refers to the total building area whereas when we hear talk of say, their new location in Loughborough Commons being 63,000sf, that refers to the sales floor only and thus excludes storage and prep area.

Wilke-Shapiro has re-examined the site from an urbanist perspective and is suggesting ways in which DESCO/Schnuck’s could rebuild in the future to maximize their land value, improve the feel and character of the area and add to the diversity of uses in the area. Where this is different than say the McDonald’s drive-thru battle down the street is there is no plan for the area for which this is an alternate in protest. No, this is a design exercise to show how the urbanist thinking can be applied.

Hopefully by focusing on an area not being debated over a current plan the doubters and naysayers of urbanist planning can see the potential for these ideas. Click here (or the thumbnail image) to view his excellent post.


Loughborough Commons On Par with Most Development, Speaks Poorly of Our Standards

Today I’ve got a somewhat random collection of thoughts on the sprawl-centric Loughborough Commons development in south city. If you are tired of this subject, just stop reading now. Otherwise, here we go.

Loughborough Commons, for all its many faults, is on par with most newer development in the city and region. That is both reality and a sad statement of fact. What does this say about us as a region that we care so little about creating worthwhile public spaces, not just private developments with literal acres of asphalt with as much as a tree to break it up. Instead of being happy about a new grocery store we should be concerned, as tax payers, that our government has failed to deliver a project worthy of the incentives given.

The city has a Planning & Urban Design Agency but if they were involved in the project they failed miserably to guide the project to a point where they should not all be fired. If they were not consulted on such as massive project (30+ acres, $14 million in tax incentives) then I would wonder why Ald. Villa didn’t bring in their expertise. Either way something is wrong with how this got built.

The one difference in Loughborough Commons and all the other poorly planned projects is this: I personally spoke face-to-face with Ald. Matt Villa and engineer Dennice Kowelmann prior to starting construction and voiced my concerns about the design and pedestrian access. While I can (and likely will) criticize other projects such as the new 58-acre Dierberg’s development in Edwardville IL, I feel more connected to this one because I tried to make a difference before a single bit of dirt was moved.

This week’s Suburban Journal article on Loughborough Commons read more like a press release than a balanced article. Not addressed is the lack of pedestrian access from the entrance closest to neighboring houses, off Grand. Here is the headline, subheading and relevant quote:

Lowe’s to open in month at Loughborough Commons: Pedestrian access planned after Schnuck’s demolition.`

A spokesman for The DESCO Group, developer of the shopping center, said sidewalks will be added after the old Schnuck’s and its parking lot is torn down. The sidewalk will be where the old Schnuck’s entrance is.
“The development’s not finished yet,” Steve Houston said. “There will be a sidewalk for pedestrian access to that development.”

Sidewalk, singular. As I mentioned on a post on the 1st of the month, their site plan does show a sidewalk abutting the east side of the new entrance off Loughborough. This will be useful to those coming from the current bus stop (assuming it doesn’t get relocated, and those walking from the east side of I-55 along Loughborough. This will do little for those that live west of Loughborough Commons and nothing for those that live near the southwest corner of the project, arguably the greatest number of potential pedestrians. See the next segment for more on this issue.

lc_area.jpgThe red section in the middle of the image at right is Loughborough Commons. The two green dots along the edge represent the two entrances to the site. The blue section in the upper left is the old public school greenhouse site that will soon be developed by Rolwes Homes and C.F. Vatterott and containing a total of 125 units. These will be comprised of 33 detached single family homes, 44 attached townhouses and 48 condos. I will do a review of this project at another time.

As we can see, four streets dead end at Loughborough Commons. Rather than connect to the adjacent neighborhood the projects turns it back to the neighborhood so that it can face the highway. Drivers speeding by at 70mph are seemingly more important than someone living a block away. With only two entrances into the 30+ acre site those walking from adjacent residences have limited choices. The DESCO Group and Ald. Matt Villa are doing damage control by saying they will have pedestrian access but that is only for half the entrance off Loughborough. Those near the south entrance off Grand get squat.

In the world of sprawl development a single token sidewalk is usually sufficient in the minds of the developer (and Ald. Villa in this case). It is clear that careful consideration was not given to bringing in pedestrians from the surrounding area. With the new development just two blocks away is it shameful they will not have direct access to the local grocery store via a short walk down Blow, Roswell or Robert.

It should be noted that Loughborough Commons is in the 11th Ward (Ald. Matt Villa) while the old greenhouse site is in the 12th Ward (Ald. Fred Heitert), Eugene Street is the dividing line. Aldermanic courtesy would have prevented Heitert from questioning the development in an adjacent ward even though it is only a block away from his ward.

IMG_5334.jpgThis morning carts were completely blocking the sidewalk heading to the south toward Lowe’s. We could argue, I suppose, the Lowe’s is not yet open but there is parking in use in that direction. I’ve also seen workers from Lowe’s attempting to walk to the Schnuck’s having to navigate around the planned obstacles (planting areas) and unplanned obstacles (excess shopping carts). These carts are chained together and locked.

IMG_5281.jpgAt other times I’ve the carts have been gone from the same area, most likely when the store is busier and more carts are needed. Still, pedestrian circulation within a project should not be dependent upon something like how many shopping carts are in use. This picture and the one above are both off the south entrance to the new store but the same situation is happening on the other side.

IMG_5333.jpgThis morning a few carts were partially blocking the walkway that right now along connects to a number of accessible (ADA) parking spaces. This walk, however, will at some point be continued as part of The DESCO Group’s planned pedestrian access. So, it is fair to say this bit of sidewalk is part of the main and only planned pedestrian access point to get to the grocery store. And today it was being used for cart storage.

You might say these carts were simply left overs from those using the accessible parking. And such an argument may have some validity. However, this would demonstrate a lack of good planning to anticipate that those using these parking spaces would have carts and need a place to put them out of the way of the main pedestrian path to the nearest grocery store.

IMG_5278.jpgThe other day, when the south walkway was open, the north walkway was completely blocked. Carts are cabled together and part of the chain is on the sidewalk creating a potential hazzard. Toward the end of the walk, more carts completely close off the end. I watched as a woman parked on the other side of the white van had to walk in the development’s main driveway to get to her vehicle.

Again, this little bit of sidewalk is part only planned pedestrian path from the public street (Loughborough) to the entrance of the Schnuck’s store. Ald. Villa and The DESCO Group can say “it’s not finished” all they want to but their actions speak volumes. Pedestrian movement, even those using ADA spaces, are given very little to no consideration.

IMG_5343.jpgOne of the items cited as a reason for blighting for this project was the site of the Schnuck’s store, built as a National store, was used for industrial purposes. From the report:

The site of the Schnucks grocery store was previously utilized for decades for industrial uses. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s the site was occupied by the St. Louis Machine Tool Company. In the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s it was occupied by a paint manufacturing company. As a result, site remediation will be necessary.

That is interesting since immediately following the opening of the new store workers began removing the old asphalt and transferring tons of dirt from another area of the development site. the image at right was taken earlier today. The old parking lot lights, still working, are simply being buried. Was the contamination limited of this site limited to strictly where the current building is located? Did they manage to decontaminate overnight? Or was site contamination simply a smoke screen to get tax incentives. You can be assured that I will be requesting proof from various local agencies for documentation on the remediation efforts.

These pictures and a few more can all be viewed as larger images in a set on my Flickr account.

As stated at the beginning, Loughborough Commons is really no worse than most development in the city or balance of the region. This is quite unfortunate as we deserve better development, especially in areas where you have existing walkable environments that could greatly benefit from a locally owned grocery store an easy walk down the street. What we got, instead, was an expensive project where you are expected to drive even though you can see if from your front sidewalk. Such practices should not be permitted to continue.


St. Louis Suffers Due to Lack of Urban Design Guidelines

Whenever I speak of making St. Louis’ neighborhoods and commercial streets more “urban” I think people have visions of turning St. Louis Hills into Times Square. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really has to do with how we plan our areas and seek to accommodate people as well as their cars. Pedestrian-friendly is about making it easier for people to walk from A to B to C and back to A. These principals transcend scale and work in a town of 2,000 as well as a city of 2 million.

The conflict I’m having with so much recent development is that it is happening in a system void of planning thought. The developer meets with the Aldermen and they negotiate a few things while trying to keep the public from knowing what is going on out of fear they might sabotage the whole thing. It is the St. Louis way. The problem is that I know this can be done differently and is in cities all over North America.

Our zoning, dating to 1947, says what cannot be done. It basically encourages sprawl development and makes good design an exception rather than the rule. What it doesn’t say is what we, as a community, are seeking. It does not articulate a vision. So how do we communicate what we want? Urban Design Guidelines.

Cities that are actually seeking to improve their physical environment through well-planned development create “Urban Design Guidelines” to help guide the development process. These are most often in the form of non-legal phrasing and graphics that are easily understood by everyone. Typical zoning, on the other hand, often requires an attorney that specializes to help determine what can and cannot be done. Form-based zoning, on the other hand, uses graphics to help illustrate what is sought for that particular portion of the community.

It should also be noted that Urban Design Guidelines are different than “plans” for an area. Cities, including St. Louis, have stacks and stacks of unrealized plans. In some cases, this is a good thing as earlier plans called for the razing of Soulard & Lafayette Square to be replaced with low-density housing on cul-de-sac streets. Plans are usually grand visions for an area that lack funding. They are created, everyone gets excited about what may be, no funding is given to implementation and the plan sits. In the meantime poorly executed development that prompted the need for a plan continues through the outdated zoning. UDG look at the vision different — setting out goals for an area such as walkable streets. The guidelines then indicate how this is to be accomplished. Guidelines help guide new construction and renovation projects so that, over time, an area is improved. It is a smart and realistic way to guide physical change in a community.

Below are some examples of Urban Design Guidelines and related documents from a variety of cities in North America. This is only a tiny fraction is what is out there. I’ve only scanned each at this point so I am not making any claims we should adopt any of these for St. Louis. What I am saying is we need to be creating guidelines for future development and have debates over what we seek as we develop the guides — not over each and every proposed project.

City of Denver:

Denver Guidelines by area
Commercial Corridors
Streetscape 1993 (excellent!)

City of Ottawa:

Large-Format Retail
Gas Stations
Traditional Main Street
Outdoor Patios

City of Toronto:

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines

Various Cities:

Lawrence KS – downtown guidelines
Scottsdale, AZ – Gas Stations
Huntington Beach, CA
Mankato, MN
Niagra, Ontario
Niagra, On — Large Format (big box)
Mississauga, Ontario
Tampa, FL

City of Madison, WI

Best Practices Guide (an amazing document — a must read)
Inclusionary Zoning (for affordable housing)

Madison even did a study called, “Grocery Stores in City Neighborhoods: Supporting access to food choices, livable neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities in Madison, Wisconsin”. From the executive summary:

Guiding the decisions of food retailers- and providing support for them- in order to ensure equitable access to food and promote livable, walkable neighborhoods is a difficult task faced by non-profit organizations and local governments in cities across the nation. Since all people require food on a daily basis and shop for it frequently, food retailers should be recognized as far more than simply another retail establishment. However, even as many municipal governments realize this, there are limited ways for cities to intervene in support for grocery stores when particular parcels of land are owned and controlled in the private realm. Market forces and consumer behavior all too often work against the success and proliferation of small grocery stores distributed equitably across the City.

Click here to read the full report.

City of Houston:

As I was working on this post a regular reader sent me an article about how good development in Houston’s midtown is lagging behind because the city’s zoning encourages auto-centric results.

Like explorers hacking a path through the jungle, a small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has
struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown.

Much of what they are trying to achieve —a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. Leaders of a civic group have dipped into their own pockets to pay for alternative design plans for a proposed Main Street drugstore that clashes with their Midtown vision.

“Unfortunately,” said developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, “the Houston way is slow and painful.”

Read through these Urban Design Guidelines and you will see how the community is indicating its desires for a more walkable and cohesive environment yet none of it is designed to force businesses out or create cities without cars. Cities have been working on guidelines for a good 15 years or so but St. Louis remains way behind the curve. This places us at an economic disadvantage when it comes to attracting both new residents as well as potential employers. What would it take to get us working toward community design guidelines — probably the one thing we don’t have enough of: political will.


Some Reasons for Blighting for Loughborough Commons Remain Unchanged

Today I ran across the city ordinance establishing a CID (Community Improvement District) for Loughborough Commons. Through taxes this will account for about $3 million in improvements for the area. Click here for the 5mb PDF file. Ignore the last few pages as those pertain to another bill wherein Slay Bulk Terminals leases some riverfront land from the city, headed by Mayor Slay. Hmmmm….

What I found interesting in the CID file was an October 2004 report prepared by local firm Development Strategies to justify the blighting and establishment of the tax incentives.

This report describes and documents those conditions that, without TIF will continue to erode the Redevelopment Area’s economic vitality and hasten its transition from an economic asset to an economic liability for the City of St. Louis, its residents, and the taxing districts that depend upon it as a revenue source. The existing I-55/Loughborough Redevelopment Area suffers from a multitude of physical and economic deficiencies including defective and inadequate streets, unsanitary or unsafe condition of site improvements, deferred maintenance, a large soon to be vacant structure, improper subdivision or platting, conditions which endanger life or property by fire or other causes, and economic obsolescence.

Man, that is a lot. Good thing this was passed and everything razed. But what are some of the details behind the report leading to blight?

Well, how about “defective and inadequate street layout resulting from… interupted [their spelling] grid street pattern.” I also like, “Unsanitary and unsafe conditions resulting from: lack of sidewalks, dangerous vehicular movements.” Continuing down the list they cite “deteriorated site improvements resulting from: deteriorated parking areas, deferred maintenance” and “improper subdivision and obsolete planning.”

The report talks about the street grid that once existed many years ago:

As part of the grid, Blow Street and Robert Avenue ran uninterrupted form the west of what is now I-55 to the east of the highway. In addition, Colorado Avenue ran north-south from Robert Avenue to the north. This pattern of streets provided good access and circulation for the property in the Redevelopment Area.

It then explains how the railroad and the highway changed that and how some streets went away. No mention of putting back the grid that was removed for Nordyne and Schnuck’s (formerly a National store).

Lack of sidewalks is a whole section. This is the best part:

Many of the streets in the Redevelopment Area lack sidewalks or have inadequate sidewalks. This creates a hazardous condition for residents, employees and visitors. Specific problem areas include:

1. Lack of sidewalks on both sides of Blow Street
2. Lack of sidewalks on the east side of S. Grand to the south of Blow Street.
3. Cracked and uneven sidewalks along the east side of S. Grand Avenue between Loughborough Avenue and Blow Street.
4. Cracked and uneven sidewalks along the south side of Loughborough Avenue to the east of S. Grand Avenue.

So how did the crack team of Desco, Kowelmann Engineering and Ald. Matt Villa solve each of these blighting conditions? No sidewalks on each side of Blow Street? No problem, lets just remove the street entirely! That took care of number 1 on the list. For number two, the lack of sidewalks along the east side of Grand, they did nothing. Presumably this blighting condition remains. And those cracked and uneven sidewalks between Loughborough and Blow? No problem either, they simply removed them and do not intend to replace them. The final item, poor sidewalks on Loughborough will be fixed through the logical solution of replacement. The fact remains an unsafe condition due to lack of sidewalks along the east side of Grand Ave is unchanged. The blight cited as reasons for tax incentives and the use of eminent domain has not been solved after $40 million of expense. Sad.

The section on “Improper Subdivision or Obsolete Planning” is a propaganda gem:

This subdivision has produced lots that are inappropriate for residential use and are very inefficient to service. Some of the lots are as narrow as 25 to 35 feet wide and 283 feet deep. This is clearly not a desirable lot dimension for residential use. The depth of other lots have been reduced to 100 to 150 feet, but the narrowness of these lots and the lack of an alley create conditions where must of the lot is consumed by driveway and parking area and servicing of the residence must be done from the street in front of the house. These conditions represent a deviation from the typical residential pattern in the neighboring residential blocks and are not representative of good residential planning.

Yes, and they are all about good planning at Loughborough Commons! It appears five residential properties had this amazingly long yards which is a bit unconventional although certainly appeal to some. Such oddities exist all over this city but that is reason to wipe it clean and start over. Furthermore, three of the long properties faced the now removed Blow Street. Their combined width and depth would have ben an ideal candidate for an in-fill townhouse or condo project much like those we might see in the West End.

Stand-alone grocery stores, like the Schnuck’s store in the Redevelopment Area, are becoming increasingly difficult to economically sustain in a competitive retail environment where shoppers prefer to have all the convenience of multiple purchasing or service options at a single location. All of the major competing grocery stores that are closest to the Redevelopment Area have the benefit of being part of a strip center or a concentration of retail offerings.

This argument falls flat when examined. First, I think this holds true in suburban ares where people don’t want to navigate the family minivan from one parking lot to another on say a hellish road like Manchester in Ballwin. While this report cites a number of grocery stores attached to some sort of strip center they failed to mention the closest store — the former Schnuck’s on South Grand near Holly Hills.

The residential properties represented maybe 4 acres out of a total of roughly 30 acres. This land was at a far corner and in no way represented a block to redeveloping the remaining 26 acres. The city represented by Ald. Matt Villa and Mayor Francis Slay failed to do due diligence and correct all of the reasons the area was blighted in the first place.

We need new and better representation at City Hall or such fleecing will continue. This is incompetence at all levels of the development design and approval process.

– Steve