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Pyramid Construction, A Year Later

April 18, 2009 Downtown, Economy 12 Comments

Last years collapse of Pyramid Construction is a tragic story on numerous levels, fortunes lost, promises broken, etc.  Last month came the worst news out of this continuing story.

A former employee, who was suddenly out of work when Pyramid folded, committed suicide.  He and his widow had both worked at Pyramid and had not found new employment as the economy worsened.  My heart goes out to her, their family and friends.

It was one year ago today that I broke the news that Pyramid was ceasing operations (see post).  I was still in the hospital at the time, about four hours from St. Louis.  My post indicated the news of the collapse was a “rumor.”  I knew, based on my source, that it was true.

The fallout continues.  Lenders have taken back preoperties. A few projects, like the senior housing center on South Grand, have been completed.  Most remain no further than they were a year ago.

 

St. Louisans Want More Street Vending!

This past week I asked a simple question in my weekly poll (see post):

Many cities have active sidewalks with: numerous street vendors selling hot dogs and such. What are your thoughts on allowing more street vendors downtown?

I’m never sure what the sentiment among the readership will be.  I just put it our there and see how people vote.  Here are the final results for the above question:

This poll was not scientific.

Out of 161 responses only two indicated either to retain the status quo or eliminate the little bit of vending that is permitted.  Overwhelmingly you the readers want more street vending.

So now what?

Legal permits are severly limited in number.  I’d never advocate just setting up shop on the sidewalk illegally.  I also don’t want to see all barriers brought down so we have chaos on the sidewalks.

Like valet parking, I think we need to review best practices from other coties so as to allow, but not stifle, the activity while not infringing on neighboring brick & mortar businesses.

My guess is that several decades ago well meaning men thought it best to restrict street vending to protect restaurants hurting from downtowns dwindling role in the region.  Your elected officials at city hall need to understand you want the current politically imposed limitations eased.  We, as consumers, need to support street vending if we hope to see more street vendors on the sidewalks.

 

Catching Up, A Potpourri of Topics

You go away for nine days and you miss stuff.  Plus I had some major technical issues for a week. Adjusting to the time changes from the West coast and central time zones has not been easy.

The following is a potpourri of topics:

Ballpark Village softball field and parking lot:

OK, I was back for this exciting news.  Where we thought we were going to have a mixed use village we will instead have a softball field and a surface parking lot.  I understand the economic conditions today but this dragging started years ago.  Current conditions are simply a cover.  It has been said this solution is temporary for the July All-Star game.  My guess is it will still be there a decade from now.

Treasurer’s Office and the Post Office:

Parking revenue contractor ACS forgot to pay the Post Office $53 for a P. O. Box so hundreds of payments got sent to a dead letter office.  Thus, payments people had mailed in were not received.  Not good.

Graffiti downtown:

The vacant building across the street from my loft got tagged with graffiti on three floors.

Graffiti in windows of unfinished Leather Trades building at 16th & Locust
Graffiti in windows of unfinished Leather Trades building at 16th & Locust

This was a project started by the now defunct Pyramid Construction.

Madoff:

Organizer of the biggest scam on Wall Street is finally in jail.  Yesterday his accountant was arrested on charges of fraud for rubber stamped audits.  Many more folks had to have been part of the ponzi scheme.

Natasha Richardson:

Actress Natasha Richardson died as a result of a head injury from a ski accident.  Richardson had bleeding between her brain and skull.  13 months ago I had a stint to drain bloody fluid from my brain after my stroke.  We can’t walk around wearing helmets  but after deaths like this we may want to consider it.  Certainly when bicycling, riding a scooter or other such activity please be sure to wear a helmet.  Story on CNN.

Economy:

Newspapers ceasing print.  More layoffs.  Bankruptcies abound.  AIG pays bonuses.  Earmarks are demonized while bigger budget items go undebated.

Software & Hardware:

On my second day of my vacation my blog encountered major issues.  The problem was hard to pinpoint.  All is well now.  In a weird way I’m sorta glad I couldn’t post new posts.  It gave me more freedom to enjoy my vacation.  At least until the last day.  I took over 1,100 photos and I backed them all up to Flickr as soon as I pulled them off my camera.  Good thing too because the hard drive on my Mac notebook (12″ G4) gave out.  I have some good video clips I hope to recover.

 

Downtown Bookended by Delayed (Dead?) Mega-projects

Acres and acres sit idle on the edges of downtown awaiting promised new development.  On the South edge we have Ballpark Village and just North of America’s Center and the Edward Jones Dome we have the Bottleworks District.  Both have made news over the past few
years, lately for not going anywhere.


Above:  blocks sit vacant awaiting the proposed Bottleworks District
The latter was in the news again this week for a settlement on one of the blocks the city took from its rightful owner:

A St. Louis jury awarded $2.8 million on Friday to the former owner of two acres just north of the Edwards Jones Dome downtown in a fight over eminent domain.

The city’s Land Clearance for Redevelopment Agency condemned the two-acre tract after the owner refused sell it in 2005 for $523,000.

The property, a city block bordered by Sixth, Seventh, Carr and Biddle Streets, was included in the “Bottle District” redevelopment plan for a $226 million entertainment destination including a restaurant, concert venue and bowling alley. It has not yet come through.

Today the entire site remains covered in gravel with much of the intact street grid blocked by Jersey barriers.

The surrounding blocks could have been developed without taking this one block from the owner.  But assembling larger and larger tracts for larger and larger projects is what proponents say must be done to get development.  Judging from the broken sidewalks and vacant blocks of land  think perhaps it is high time we questioned this practice.

Granted creating the ideal urban building on a single narrow parcel surrounded by vacant blocks is going to be an island for a long time.  Development does have to be large enough to build both excitement and a sustainable level of visitors.

An alternative to the single developer mega-project is to create a zoning overlay district that outlines the urban design qualities that future buildings must have.  This allows different property owners to participate in the redevelopment.  It also allows the business owner to build their own structure without being tied up in an increasingly complicated and difficult process of financing the mega-project.

This city was built one building at a time — each fitting into the grid.  I think we need to return to such a scale to finish filling in the gaps in our urban fabric.

 

The St Louis Region Over The Next 50 Years

The last 50 years saw our region (and most regions nationally) flee the inner city, and eventually inner ring ‘streetcar’ suburbs for the newly developing auto-centric sprawl of suburbia. The coming 50 years will be radically different. The following are my thoughts on the changes we’ll see by the close of the first half of the 21st Century.

We already know that by 2050 the U.S. is expected to grow by a third, going from 300 million to 400 million. We have no reason to believe the desires and values of the 1950s will be the same in the 2050s, the 1950s were certainly different than the 1850s.

The decision makers in 1950 were likely born around 1900. The cities of their youth were a polluted places. Many cities in the first half of the 20th century could be as dark as night due to think smoke from coal fired furnaces. Cities were literally dirty places. All the jobs & retail were in the city so one had little choice but to go to the city.  That generation changed everything to get themselves away from the city center.
The American dream of the single family detached home surrounded by a lush lawn and two cars in the garage will cease to be the dream for most Americans by 2050. The further we get into the period of high energy costs the more people will realize the folly of hoping in the car to head 3 miles to a big box supermarket, or anywhere for that matter. Of course in the future that big box supermarket may not exist.

Agribusiness, I believe, will collapse as the cost to produce and ship food great distances will cripple their business plan. Food will become more local out of fiscal necessity.

As we transition from a world a cheap energy to one where energy is very costly much will change.  Wal-Mart too will collapse as they struggle to offer consumers cheap goods shipped from halfway around the world.  Their vast parking lots in suburbia will be increasingly empty, just like their shelves.

Alternatively I think by 2050 we’ll see the 200,000sf Wal-Mart Supercenter break up and be replaced with the Wal-Mart main street. One walkable street connected to adjacent residential and lined with a number of Wal-Mart specialty stores such as pharmacy, grocery, clothing, electronics and so on.    This won’t happen in some corn field but along an arterial currently lined with fast food shacks and cinder block & dryvit strip centers.   Municipalities will see this as the only way to create main street type retail to serve their residents.  It may be Wal-Mart or it might be whatever retailers come along after they crash & burn.
Rolling blackouts to deal with demand for electricity will shape generations being born now.  They will also be shaped by the high price of gas.  Just as the generation from 1900 looked with envy at the wealthy who had large homes in places just outside the city like Webster Groves the generation being born now but raised in car required sprawl will be envious of those with the option to walk a few blocks to work, or to get daily goods & services.  Indeed it will be the wealthy who will first place themselves in the new emerging urban enclaves.
Over the next half century manufacturing will return to the U.S. As transportation costs mount we will begin to see that the cheap item made in China or the head of lettuce grown in Southern California will be more costly than the same thing made or grown closer to home.

As a future Urban Planner this is an exciting time. The next decade or so will be rough but beyond that we’ll see the re-urbanization of the St Louis region and in regions across the country. I’m not suggesting the entire population of the region will live & work with the boundaries of the City of St Louis. What I am suggesting is that in addition to the city our inner-ring suburbs and a few after that will add population and will take on new forms to reflect the market demand for “walkable urbanism.” The single-family detached homes may remain but the commercial arterial roads, now littered with fast food joints, will get mixed-use urban form buildings.

The large vinyl-clad McMansions of suburbia may get reconfigured to house more than one single family.  Lawns will become vegetable gardens.  Those places farthest away from a main street and/or transit (ie: requiring a drive to get there) will be unwanted.   Children raised in these conditions will long for urbanism when they seek places on their own.
The municipality of Dardene Prairie in St Charles County is already taking the right steps to stay relevant.  They are in the process of creating a walkable downtown on vacant commercial land between existing cul-de-sac subdivisions.  When built out in say 20 years that will serve to connect now disconnected subdivisions.  Creve Coeur is also working on a downtown plan.  Much of what Urban Planners will be doing over the next few decades is retrofitting sprawl with mass transit and walkable urbanism.  These places won’t have 10+ story buildings for blocks but they will have 2-5 story buildings opening directly to the street.
Future road projects will not center on how much traffic volume can be accommodated but how to make stretches of road more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, the opposite of today’s big projects like I-64.

In 2050 I will turn 83 years old.  Thus I may only see the start of this transformation.  Hopefully I will play a role in the process from suburbia to urbanism.  In 2050 my great-niece will be 52 and her younger brother will be 46.  Their adult lives won’t be about driving everywhere.   They may never need a car.

The problem is that today’s leadership is stuck on fulfilling the dreams of their grandparents generation, only making it bigger and more sprawling.  The mounting energy crisis is going to test everyone’s idea of the ideal built environment.  Those municipalities that embrace the increasing demand for urbanism will fare better than those that don’t.  As a region our growth will depend upon the actions within tons of small municipalities on both sides of the river.  How we are perceived by those outside our region will become important as we try to get manufacturing jobs that return stateside.

The City of St Louis divorced itself from St Louis County in 1876 and in the coming decades that may prove to benefit the city.  If, in the coming decades, we rebuild much of our now-vacant areas in a dense urban model we can repopulate the city and attract great new jobs.   Not being part of a county will give the city the freedom to go its own direction while ignoring potential sprawl holdouts in the balance of the region.  Of course I’m afraid the pro-sprawl holdouts may still be in charge in city government.

As we face an uncertain future regarding energy I’m nonetheless optimistic about the future and the role I may play in shaping cities over the next 40 years or so.

 

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