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Projects getting done despite the economy

December 18, 2009 Downtown, Economy, Midtown 17 Comments

We all know the economy crashed.  There are signs of recovery but with the unemployment rate at 10% on average (it is up to three times higher for some population segments), a recovery is a long way off.  I know many architects that are either unemployed or with very little work.  If they are not working now that means the construction industry won’t be working in 6 months.

Despite the stark realities of 2009, St. Louis did see some projects move forward.  Presumably most of these had financing in place prior to the financial meltdown.

I present four of many:

SE corner of 20th & Locust nearing completion
1818 Washington Ave. (disclosure: developer is a client/advertiser)
1818 Washington Ave. (disclosure: developer is a client/advertiser)
P.W. Shoe Loft Apartments, 3427 Locust in Midtown
Spring Street Lofts at Spring & Forest Park Blvd.

Hopefully we will see many more small-scale re-use projects such as these begin in 2010.  Financing for projects the size of these is a major challenge but nothing like a project the size of say Ballpark Village or the long-stalled Bottle District.  One building at a time is how you rejuvenate a city.  That can be through renovation or new construction.  I’d much rather numerous small projects spread out across the city than a few big projects concentrated downtown.

– Steve Patterson

 

Successful Northside Job Growth

The first phase of the Northside redevelopment project as proposed by Paul McKee is to focus on the “job centers” and mixed use areas. Numbers are being thrown around as to imply thousands of jobs will be created by this project. I wonder what measure will be used to declare the project a success with respect to jobs by those proposing the plan.

The project will require a lot of construction jobs, which is a fact. These are people that would not have been needed otherwise. The time frame of twenty years implies the jobs will be needed for an extended duration compared to most construction projects. Despite that scope and time frame, do construction jobs truly help grow the area? Even with such a long time frame the jobs are only temporary. It is unreasonable to assume that someone could graduate, make a career of the project, and retire when it is done. Based on retirement accounts requirements they would still have another twenty years of work.  Shouldn’t the expectation for jobs created be that the jobs are permanent? Yes,t his economy has shown that no job is truly permanent, But no matter the time frame  construction jobs are by nature temporary. The 40/64 concrete river project demonstrates that. When 40 is complete construction will continue in the region, but will all those workers stay in St Louis? I doubt it. Some of them will return when the new Mississippi bridge starts up in full. There will probably be projects after that, but I don’t want the fate of the region’s job growth to depend on never ending highway work.  Local restaurants can’t move around the region at will to follow the construction.  They need permanent customers to keep open.

Looking at the McKee track record for development makes me wary, too. He touts his Winghaven and NorthPark projects as examples of what he and his associates can accomplish. The two projects boast two of the regions larger employers in Express Scripts and MasterCard. Unfortunately both these employers were already in the region before they moved into their new offices.  More specifically, they were in the same city. Sorry, Maryland Heights, I hope you didn’t need those taxes. True, Express Scripts was threatening to leave the area and NorthPark help keep them here, along with some tax incentives. Also, MasterCard had outgrown its offices in Maryland Heights and needed new digs. But in the end, McKee merely helped keep jobs from leaving. Preventing negative growth is not the same thing as creating new growth. Who does McKee plan on luring into the north city for this new project? I doubt Edward Jones is going to give up all their brand new buildings along 270.  Do you think InBev is tired of the historic brewery yet?

Additionally, there is the dilemma of existing projects already in work to compete with. Winghaven still has space available for development. NorthPark is basically a field with nice streets. Express Scripts isn’t even in the development, instead choosing to be south of I-70 next to UMSL. The old Ford Plant has been wiped out of existence and Hazelwood is dieing to get some tax base back on that land. The current economy has opened up business space in areas like Earth City and Westport. The occupancy rate downtown offices are not that great. And these are just some examples of places in the region vying for new jobs. What if the Northside development center gets all the new jobs in the coming years and every where else in the metro area remains stagnant?

Finally, the current economic conditions do not bode well for new jobs. Every region of the country is going to fight to keep what they have. Other cities are constantly offering huge incentives to attract growth. Just look at what it took to keep Express Scripts. What exactly does Paul McKee have to offer to convince a company to move to St Louis when it is hard to keep the ones already here? St Louis will be wrangling with every other city in the country for each new job. Not to imply it is a contest St Louis cannot win, but it won’t be as easy as some people are implying. The Lou is not the only place that will be offering new buildings and tax incentives in the coming years. That still leaves the possibility of start-ups as the source of new jobs. Might the next Google or Facebook start up in north St Louis? A future global company setting up roots in the new development could be the pinnacle of the project. Unfortunately, as many failed businessmen will tell you, there are more failures than success with new companies.

How will you measure the success of the project with respect to jobs:

  • For just having jobs associated with it?
  • Having low end retail jobs new to the city?
  • Pulling jobs into the city from around the metro area?
  • Preventing jobs from leaving the metro area?
  • Getting new jobs at the cost of other developments in the metro area?
  • Being the founding location of a future Fortune 500 company?

Permanent new to the region jobs, while not sucking up all growth in the metro area, will be my measure of success.

– Kevin McGuire

 

South Grand: From the Gilded Age to “Great Street”

South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”

South Grand

In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.

It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.

Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.

Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.

The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.

The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.

Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.

The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.

The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.

I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.

So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.

Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.

An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Compton Heights

Several issues remain up in the air. Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet School for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind, have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-district intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.

To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.  Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establish neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys, and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.

Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as a business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.

– Deborah Moulton

 

St. Louis is Low-Profile

October 13, 2009 Downtown, Economy, STL Region 7 Comments

We may get a boost in future convention business because we not a high-profile city like Las Vegas:

What happens in Vegas may be moving to Detroit, Denver or Dallas.

The public backlash against lavish corporate meetings and conventions in cities such as Las Vegas, Palm Springs and Hawaii is becoming a boon for cities such as Detroit and other places viewed as destinations less likely to raise eyebrows.

What some convention bookers call the “AIG effect” — after the insurance giant whose officials traveled to a luxury California resort last year a week after the federal government agreed to an $85 billion bailout — is causing business travelers and organizations across the country to rethink their destinations. (Source, Conventions seek lower-profile cities via USA Today)

Finally it may pay off to not be an “it” destination.

Americas Center
America's Center

We have fun things to do in St. Louis that, as long as you avoid the immediate East Side, won’t raise any eyebrows.  Meanwhile, growth cities such as Vegas have serious problems.  I know plenty in St. Louis who are out of work but St. Louis, it seems, will do better than others.

– Steve Patterson

 

The Port of St. Louis

We all know that St. Louis owes its existence to the Mississippi River.  We’re all well aware of our interstate highways and most of us are aware of the railroads that are an integral part of our urban fabric.

What turned out to be somewhat of a surprise to me, as a newcomer, was just how big a role the Mississippi continues to play in our local economy.  Part of it is “out of sight, out of mind”, part of it is the low profile many of its users keep.  But the statistics are pretty impressive  – the port extends for twenty miles, with 16 public terminals and “over 100 docking facilities”, there are no locks or dams between here and New Orleans (unlike going upriver), and it’s the “third largest inland port in the Midwest.”

Unique resources like this are where we can differentiate ourselves from our economic development competitors, and I’d like to see more of a push to do so.

– Jim Zavist

 

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