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St. Louis’ Planning a Mess on so Many Levels

Paul McKee’s NorthSide project may, eventually, be a good thing for the City of St. Louis and the entire St. Louis region.  But by that time most of us won’t be around.  We’ve had a 60+ year decline (1940-2000) and it will take at least 60 more to recover (2010-2070) from numerous past mistakes.

Looking at unused land (Pruitt-Igoe, 22nd Street Interchange, etc) as potential job centers connected by tree-lined boulevards and transit is sound urban planning.  But good urban planning in the community is best done by the community, not the private sector.

Famed planner (engineer actually) Harland Bartholomew guided much of the destruction of the city during his tenure, 1916-1950.  He rejected everything Jane Jacobs valued in cities.

The destruction continued after he retired his city job in 1950, guided by his 1947 Comprehensive City Plan.  Big picture planning basically stopped after he left.  Planning became seeking federal Urban Renewal & Model Cities money. In 1973 the Rand Corporation issued the report St. Louis: A City and Its Suburbs:

A summary statement of the research findings and policy implications of a series of studies conducted under the St. Louis project of the RAND Urban Policy Analysis Program. Three possible futures for the city are posed: continued decline; stabilization in a new role as an increasingly black suburb; and return to a former role as the center of economic activity in the metropolitan area. The analysis argues that without major policy changes beyond the local level, the city will most likely continue to decline, and suggests that, among the alternatives open to the city, promoting a new role for St. Louis as one of many large suburban centers of economic and residential life holds more promise than reviving the traditional central city functions. However, new resources, available to the city from sources outside the city, are essential to any improvement. Several mechanisms are offered for consideration: (1) a more substantial federal revenue-sharing program; (2) a state revenue-sharing program to support selected public goods; (3) a metropolitan revenue program, sharing revenue generated by industry in the metropolitan area; and (4) a metropolitan earnings tax.

This report shocked city leaders. The planning commission hired a consulting firm to update the 1947 Plan and to reverse the decline cited in the Rand Report.  The draft 1975 INTERIM COMPREHENSIVE PLAN was the city’s response.

The Interim Comprehensive Plan was introduced to the public as a replacement of the 1947 Comprehensive Plan . The City Planning Commission claims that the planning needs of St. Louis had changed over a period of thirty years and therefore the comprehensive plan for the City should change as well. This draft document was written for citizen review. The overall focus of this comprehensive plan was to provide citizens with the highest quality of life, socially, economically, and physically. The plan contains policies and recommendations for land use, transportation, public facilities and housing, all of which are aimed at establishing a quality residential environment, job opportunities, economic development, and expanded opportunities for the disadvantaged.

This never adopted draft plan is best known for the firm the wrote it, Team Four. The Team Four plan was urban triage — cutting off municipal services to those areas deemed too far gone.  Save what can still be saved.  Today this approach is applied to shrinking cities.   Back in the day it was viewed as a plot to drive black citizens out of the city. Many still feel that was the intent or would have been the result if the plan would have been officially adopted.

After the backlash against the Team Four plan the City of St. Louis got out of the big picture planning business kicking off the second 30 year period without a plan.

We look to the government to provide services where the private market has failed or those for the common good, such as fire protection.  But three decades of government being out of planning the primate market reversed the roles and developed their own plan.  Of course the private market’s main goal is profit.

Today’s residents, many not born when the city gave up on planning, are not willing to turn over community planning to a private business.  I don’t blame them.  So the first part of the mess is the city’s abandonment of planning.  Next is the realization that a businessman from St. Charles County wants to do the planning the city should have been doing.  Of course, the city has a poor track record of planning.

But the citizenry had an ideal of community planning so when McKee purchased thousands of properties people naturally got suspicious of his intentions.  Numerous meetings this year announced those intentions but poor community & media relations has made a bad situation even worse.  Myself and others of the media were barred from a meeting, a discussion board was set up by McKee’s company only to be taken down due to a mountain of criticism.  Uh, duh.

Tonight McKee is asking for public TIF funds to help finance his project yet a few days ago, at a public meeting, he objected to his statements being recorded on video.  In decades earlier deals could get done without such documentation by the public.  But it is 2009, not 1959.  Cameras are a fact today and public meetings are subject to being recorded.  Holding meetings in private to circumvent this reality is even worse.  Our elected leadership is not equipped to manage the conflict.

Parts of McKee’s plan are sound: developing the vacant Pruitt-Igoe site, using wasted land at the 22nd Street Interchange, planning for jobs at the landing of the new Mississippi River bridge, narrowing Jefferson Ave, and building a streetcar to tie the near North side into downtown, filling in gaps in the urban fabric.  Had these ideas come out of a community planning process most would be on board today.  Instead we have a huge mess with a substantial section of the city hanging in the balance.

I’m not sure which is worse; Harland Bartholomew’s highly planned destruction of 19th century neighborhoods, a 30-60 year gap in planning, or planning serving private interests.  None will lead to the city I envision St. Louis becoming.

See Matt Mourning’s excellent post With NorthSide Project, the Villain is in the Process for more thoughts on process (this sentence added 9/23/2009 at 7am.)

– Steve Patterson


New Crown Food Mart Strip Center Lacks Required ADA Acess Route

Just North of downtown at Cass & North 13th (map link) an entire block has become a Crown Food Mart strip center with gas station & car wash.  Food choices are very limited in the immediate area so this will serve a need.  The problem is the auto-centric/suburban design.

I’m not talking about the design of the building.  I’m talking about the site design.  The site is surrounded on all sides with streets.  At one time buildings were built up to the street.  A modern example is the strip at Grand & Arsenal — store in front, parking in back.

The sidewalks are generous and have street trees.  They’ll see lots of use too because the area is surrounded by residential with residents that don’t all have cars.  Besides, why drive to a place you can see just a few blocks away?

The problem for the pedestrian is the sidewalk is great if you want to walk around the perimeter of the site but not actually approach any of the stores.  Like so much new construction, this development completely ignores the concept of an ADA access route.  In the short time I was taking these pics I saw a woman walking North and a man heading toward the development in a wheelchair.  He was on Florissant Ave because the area’s sidewalks are in such poor condition, if they exist.

But the incompetent designers of this development wrongly assumed that all customers would arrive by car and that real pedestrians would not use their new sidewalks to get to the businesses.  You may recall the wheelchair bound woman who was struck & killed by a motorist on Delmar at Jefferson after leaving the Crown Food Mart at that intersection.  The city was to blame in that case because the sidewalks were non-existent or not passable.  But like this new location, that location doesn’t have provisions to get from the public sidewalk to the front doors of the businesses. Pedestrians are subjected to enter/exit in the same spots as cars.

Cars & pedestrians are not mutually exclusive, or at least they shouldn’t be.  The way we do it here is we design for cars at the exclusion of pedestrians.  Good design designs for both pedestrians and motorists.  It is possible.  It just takes that as a goal — or a requirement by the city.

– Steve Patterson


What Does a Neighborhood Center Look Like?

Perhaps a public square or park as a neighborhood center?  Or a commercial district?  Not if you live in Carr Square urban renewal area:

All the natural neighborhood centers were razed along with the rest of the neighborhood during the dreadful years of Urban “Renewal.”  With community centers that evolved over time the planners & architects created faux versions.  View the above on a Google Map.

The basketball and tennis courts, adjacent to the center, are quite sad.

Carr Square Village was one of the earliest  clearance projects in the city.  It was completed in August 1942.  The 24.3 acre development consisted of 53 2 & 3 story buildings with a total of 658 units.

The above center was not in place as of a 1971 aerial photo of the city.  The building appears to be from the 1970s or perhaps as late as the mid 1980s.  By then the renewal area would be been 30-40 years old.  The “neighborhood center” was likely another attempt to renew the area.

At some point after 1971 much of the housing was razed from the two green sections in the bottom left corner.  The remaining buildings have also changed considerably since 1942.  With enough time and money we will eventually reverse all the mistakes of the past.  But will this neighborhood ever have a real center again?  Doubtful.


McCormack Baron Salazar Gets ADA Curb Ramps All Wrong at Renaissance Place

The old Bluemeyer public housing project was a combination of high-rise and low-rise buildings, all fairly disconnected from each other and the adjacent public streets.

October 2006
October 2006

The entire complex was razed( in a few phases) and the replacement project is nearing completion.  The map below shows the project area:

Everything inside the shaded area is new.  Everything from underground infrastructure to the buildings to the street grid, curbs sidewalks and curb ramps.  McCormack Baron Salazar had a clean slate to work with.  Here is how they summarize the project:

Renaissance Place at Grand | St. Louis, MO
402 units
Total Development Investment  $68,792,300

The Arthur Blumeyer public housing development, constructed in 1968, consisted of four high-rise and 42 low-rise buildings and housed 1,162 families, including 585 elderly. The development is located north of Grand Center, the mid-town arts district in Saint Louis.

The Federal Omnibus Consolidated Reconciliation Act of 1996 requires that viability assessments be performed for public housing projects of 300 or more units with vacancy rates of 10 percent or higher. This law requires units to be removed from the housing stock within five years if public housing costs exceed the cost of housing vouchers and if long-term viability of the subject property cannot be assured through reasonable revitalization plan. In 1999, Blumeyer’s two elderly high-rise buildings, 174 of the family townhouses and both of the family high rises were declared non-viable by HUD.

The St. Louis Housing Authority took the opportunity to collaborate with the larger community, and elected to pursue a strategy of transformation through HUD’s HOPE VI program. The application submission was successful and the Blumeyer public housing site was awarded $35,000,000 in HOPE VI grant funds.

Overall the new project is quite nice.

Above is one of the new street intersections, Franklin Ave & Josephine Baker Ave (map).  I’ve drawn lines to show the path at the intersection that an able-bodied person would walk — a straight line.  No surprise.  While walking with my cane I’d follow the same path as well — dealing with the curbs is preferable to the longer distance required to use the ramps.

But what if you use a wheelchair or mobility scooter?  Keep in mind that the 1st floor units are accessible.  The other day I saw two different residents using mobility scoters in the area.  So the disabled are expected in the immediate area.

Above is the same intersection with one path for wheelchair/scooter users shown in red.  Rather than being able to continue in a staright line the disabled must angle out and cross one street while being very close with traffic going parallel.

This intersection needed twice the number of ramps so that a straight path could be maintained.  Rather than a single ramp out at the corners each quadrant would have two ramps – one per direction of travel.  Keep in mind that the entire intersection is new.  We are not talking about the expense to retrofit the intersection with 8 vs 4 ramps.  The additional cost would have been minimal when this was done from scratch.

Same situation at another intersection
I just love the mis-match of ramps crossing Theresa parallel to Delmar.

In St. Louis and other cities retrofit ramps are often placed at the corners.  As cities were retrofitting ramps following the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 they had limited budgets.  Doing four ramps per corner was faster and cheaper than eight.  Additionally, obstacles like sewer inlets prevent more ideal placement of ramps.  The corner ramp was a valid retrofit compromise.

But in new construction the corner ramps are unacceptable.  There is no excuse for the way the ramps were placed in the above project.  None.  I’d like to see a public flogging of the engineers that designed these streets, sidewalks and ramps.  Better yet, they should have to live here and use a wheelchair to get around!

It may be too late but the city should not accept these streets from the developer.  Someone’s Errors & Omissions insurance policy should pay to correct these ramps.


Sullivan Place Still Horribly Suburban/Disconnected

With details of Paul McKee’s NorthSide emerging there is concern he will bring suburban design to the city.  But developers have been doing that for years — often encouraged by elected officials that don’t get urbanity.  Three years ago I reported on one such suburban project — Sullivan Place.  I started the piece:

Pyramid, the company proposing a highly suburban McDonald’s for South Grand, has dumped an atrocious housing project on the city’s north side. Forget the high-profile loft projects downtown, Pyramid is making a name for themselves with suburban rubbish throughout our once urban neighborhoods.

Full post from March 18, 2006: Pyramid’s Sullivan Place Senior Housing An Anti-Urban Monstrosity.

Nothing much has changed except the fact that Pyramid collapsed in April 2008.   Oh yeah, the project can now be seen in satellite views via Google Maps:

[From Google Maps]

Gee, can you figure out which structure is Sullivan Place?

March 2006

Makes me cringe.   It borders 3 streets but doesn’t relate to any of them.  I’d love to see McKee’s project take this heep and restore the street grid.  The project gets its name from the street that was closed — Sullivan.  We are likely stuck with this place until it falls apart.  See my 20+ photos of Sullivan Place from March 2006 here.

Update 6/10/09 @ 9:10am — Headline alaborated.