Home » North City » Recent Articles:

Ald. Troupe and Planning & Urban Design Agency Teaming Up

Recently 1st Ward Alderman Charles Quincy Troupe and Planning & Urban Design Agency Director Rollin Stanley presented concepts for a modern in-fill project near Union & Labadie. At the meeting Stanley said the project “would be simple, low maintenance and urban.” He described the project as “very modern.”

It is nice to see an Alderman working with our talented planning staff as well as presenting ideas to the community before they are done deals.

– Steve


Pyramid’s Sullivan Place Senior Housing An Anti-Urban Monstrosity

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

Sullivan Place, named for Sullivan Street closed for this project, will be a 190-unit 55+ affordable housing project when completed. Half the project has been open for a few months yet lots of units remain available. No wonder, these “affordable” apartments run $511/month for a one-bedroom and $631/month for a two-bedroom. The income limit for a single person is $27,660 and $31,620 for a couple. Still, $511/month isn’t too bad depending upon what you get.

Well, the six one-bedroom floor plans range in size from 461 sq. ft. to 515 sq. ft. Both two-bedroom layouts are 634 sq. ft. Laundry facilities are down the hall — two per floor. Units have very basic finishes and do not include a dishwasher. The only luxury are two call for help devices — one in the bedroom and one in the bathroom. Residents are treated to a fortress-like security setup designed either to keep others out or the them inside.

These units range from $0.99 per square foot per month to $1.10 per square foot per month. The only thing making these even remotely affordable is the fact they are so miniscule in size. Not that everyone needs massive places to live but I have to wonder about the total project costs and how much we, as tax payers, underwrote this project.

Aside from the question of affordability is the suitability of the design for the neighborhood. In fact, I question the design for any location, even the most sprawling of suburbs. I will say, however, I have no objections to the material choices. I actually like that they didn’t try to make this some trumped up retro project (like Pyramid’s own King Louis Square at Tucker & Lafayette). No, the material selection and detailing is actually quite nice. It is the overall massing and site planning where this project goes into the unacceptable territory.

The project is massive, occupying a block and a half. Based on dimensions from Google Maps I estimated the site to be roughly 5.4 acres. With 190 units that works out to a low density of less than 36 units per acre. I might be willing to accept a low density if much of the parcel was some sort of monumental park or other community asset. But that didn’t happen here. Instead we have an X-plan with the east & west triangles for parking and the north & south triangles as sort of left over green.

sullivan_place - 09.jpgThe building is not an asset to the neighborhood. With its street setback, high fence, security gates and surveillance cameras it is clear Pyramid’s designers didn’t want to engage the area. Instead, the building retreats from having anything to do with the adjacent residences. Add some barb wire across the top of the fence and one might mistake this for a minimum security prison.

In other parts of the city developers are creating new housing which makes connections with the public sidewalk, thereby contributing to a sense of connectedness. Not here. Clearly, the folks at Pyramid simply don’t understand what a city and urban neighborhood are about. And based on the rents vs. size, they have a warped view of affordability.

The sad part is Pyramid wants to move the McDonald’s at Grand & Chippewa to the old Sears so they can build an 87-unit senior housing project on the current location. Where is the demand for those 55+ that earn less than $28K and want to pay $511 for a tiny place? I fail to see the logic here.

The Sullivan Place project is one of the most horrific projects in recent memory. In my mind, thought not even complete, this project will need to be razed if we hope to rebuild the neighborhood. I can’t imagine someone wanting to build or live adjacent to this generic geriatric penitentiary.

One can only assume that 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin approved of the plan. Perhaps she is having a contest with 15th Ward Alderwoman Jennifer Florida to see who can get away with the most suburban sprawl before getting recalled by voters? If so, Ford-Griffin will get lots of points for this one. Of course, Florida already has a rebuilt White Castle, a new Walgreens with excessive parking and the Gravois Plaza strip center under her belt without the proposed McDonald’s. They better watch out because 11th Ward Alderman Matt Villa’s Loughborough Commons project may trump them both. And they’re off…

But it is not the Aldermen that are designing and building these projects. For Sullivan Place the blame lies solely with John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies. I know many talented people that work at Pyramid but they are not the ones calling the shots. It seems Pyramid has a complete lack of leadership where it counts. I couldn’t sleep at night if I was the decision maker that determined this was what St. Louis needed.

Matt O’Leary, whom I’ve know for a number of years, is a Senior VP for Development but his territory is confined to downtown’s loft projects. Desiree Knapp, presumably another VP, is the person in charge of Pyramid’s neighborhood projects such as the nearly abandoned Keystone Place, the ugly King Louis Square, the proposed Grand McDonald’s and now Sullivan Place. In May of 2004 I met with O’Leary to see about working for Pyramid (taking Knapp’s place) but I don’t think he wanted to get involved in that side of the company so I never got a meeting with John Steffen. From the look of the resulting projects, O’Leary has kept a hands off approach. Too bad because I would have enjoyed doing some nice urban neighborhood projects with Pyramid. If by chance this post should make its way in front of Pyramid’s President, John Steffen: I’m available as an hourly consultant to help your staff evaluate future projects. Trust me, you need my help!

Pyramid enjoys a favored position with the Mayor and others. But their track record leaves much to be desired. Now is the time to unite and fight Pyramid’s anti-urban sprawl projects. Additional photos of Sullivan Place can be seen on Flickr.

– Steve


New Website Launched for Northside-Southside Mass Transit Study

A new website has been launched for the Northside-Southside transit study. From the site’s homepage:

From January 2006 for the next 18 months, this is where you will find the latest information on planning MetroLink and other major transit improvements for the City of St. Louis, Missouri.

In reality the locally preferred routes selected a few years back were routes through the city to get to both north & south county. Plus, as I’ve said before, I don’t think light rail in the middle of the street is a good urban solution. Check out the site yourself and be sure to use the comment form!

The site is visually attractive and easy to use. However, it fails to include an RSS feed for updates. Those of us that use feeds to know when a site has been updated must now manually check the site. Not smart!

Click here to view the new site.

– Steve


Possible Modern Streetcar Routes for St. Louis

It is no secret I want modern streetcars in St. Louis. For those not familiar with the concept of modern streetcars, they are new high-tech vehicles quite similar to light rail vehicles. They have a low-floor design which allows for easy entry/exit from a curb. Unlike light rail systems, the modern streetcar runs in “mixed-traffic” with cars. Where vintage trolley/streetcar systems are more nostalgic than functional, the modern streetcar is highly function for local transit while The only example in North America is in Portland although a number of cities, such as Tucson, are considering such a system.

I’ve been reading up on Porland’s system, now a few years old, and they’ve had an amazing amount of development around their line. This is largely due to development being the initial goal, the line was designed to connect two vacant (or nearly vacant) industrial brownfield sites. Zoning was changed to require minimum density. Developers have been able to get a good return on their investment. From the Development Report dated January 2006:

The Portland Development Commission (PDC) negotiated a Master Development Agreement with Hoyt Street Properties, owners of a 40-acre brownfield in the heart of the River District. The Agreement tied development densities to public improvements with the minimum required housing density increased incrementally from 15 to 87 units per acre when the Lovejoy Viaduct was deconstructed, to 109 units/acre when the streetcar construction commenced and 131 units/acre when the first neighborhood park was built. The developer has stated that without the Streetcar and the accessibility it provides, these densities would not have been possible. The agreement was a unique and essential piece of the public/private partnership that catalyzed development of the River District and serves as a model for the agreement established for in South Waterfront.

Those are some serious densities. The kind of density that makes a neighborhood vibrant and a transit system that is highly viable. With the idea of placing transit where it could be coupled with new development I have prepared a few possible modern streetcar routes. I have intentionally placed the routes so they intersect or come close to the existing MetroLink line.

Basic Assumptions for all Concepts:

  • Streetcar line would be modeled on the Portland Streetcar with modern low-floor vehicles (not “vintage” or “heritage” vehicles). Streetcars would operate in mixed-traffic but would be given signal preference over cross-street traffic. Lines would run in the outside travel lane (not center) and would stop at curb bulb outs every 1/5 of a mile or so.
  • Eminent domain (or even threat) should not be used to assemble land for development within streetcar zone.
  • Form-bsaed zoning overlay should be enacted for the area served by the streetcar (three city blocks on each side of line). Zoning overlay should set out minimum units per acre (gradually increasing at certain benchmarks) and maximum parking spaces.
  • Care should be given to ensure the streetcar zone offers a wide mix of housing options
  • Federal funding is not likely so local support is needed.
  • As with Portland, the City of St. Louis will likely need to own the system and hire out the management from Metro or another organization.
  • … Continue Reading


    Preservation Board to Orchard: Move Those Meters!

    The Preservation Board had many agenda items on their plate last night. The following is a run down of each item and how they voted. If you want to know about the Lafayette Square gas meter issue scroll down, it is the last item.

    The first item up for review was approval of an encroachment on the public right of way for a sculpture along the riverfront (agenda item A). The sculpture titled, The Captains’ Return, depicts the “arrival of Captains Lewis and Clark and their dog Searnan, at the St. Louis Levee after the completion of the ‘Corps of Discovery’ expedition of 1804-1806. The idea is to have the sculpture installed by September 23, the date in which Lewis & Clark returned from their expedition.

    Two guys off on a journey with their dog, how very Brokeback Mountain. The Preservation Board unanimously approved the temporary encroachment with conditions as noted in the agenda.

    Next up was an encroachment at 2028 Lafayette Avenue, a new gazebo/pergola in Lafayette Park. This structure would be attached to the west side of the Park House and visible from Lafayette near Mississippi. From the staff report:

    Staff has worked with the designer of the proejct to make the pergola smaller in scale and more compatible with the adjacent historic Park House. The columns on the pergola are still too neo-classical and should be simplified, and the cupola on the roof is still too tall and ornate for the period.

    The Preservation Board approved the encroachment with conditions as noted in the agenda.

    In an attempt to dress up one of our many new parking garages a piece of public art, entitled Walking Figure, is proposed for the corner of Olive & 7th. The sculpture is owned by the Gateway Foundation. Rollin Stanley testified about how great our sidewalks are but that we need more public sculpture — I agree on both accounts. He also said the sculpture is not liked by all, but that is what makes good public art. Anything to take your eye off the wheel cover motif on the parkign garage is a good thing in my book! The Preservation Board approved the encroachment

    A very vocal resident spoke passionately against this sculpture, saying “this is a scheme, who is getting the tax write-off?” He indicated this sculpture has been shopped around quite a bit with the last location where the sculpture was placed was in Europe, but “nobody wants it.” Speaking of the artist, this resident said “he can’t draw, he can’t sculpt.” The Preservation Board approved the public encroachment by a vote of 4-2.

    The St. Louis Zoo is proposing a plaza & prominent sculpture (Animals Always) at the corner of Wells and Concourse Drive (basically the entrance from Hampton). HNTB is the engineering firm on the project. This will not be a new pedestrian entrance to the zoo so I am a little confused who will actually use the plaza. The sculpture looks pretty cool, it is made of core-ten steel which will intentionally rust. PB member Luis Porrello abstained from the vote since he works for HNTB. One interesting note, when the I-64 project is done this intersection will become a roundabout. The Preservation Board approved the encroachment with one abstention.

    Fourth Ward Alderman O.L. Shelton requested the city expand the boundaries of The Ville local historic district, including the historic design standards. The process to research and recommend the approval was about a two year process. The Ville is the only historic district that currently doesn’t qualify for tax credits. This was due to the fact the that when the district was first approved in the late 80s it was thought nationally that districts of varied architecture shouldn’t qualify. Cultural Resources director Kathleen Shea indicated expanding the boundaries should help qualify the area for tax credits.

    A couple of residents spoke in favor of the expanded district, including one woman that rehabs properties in the area. She indicated she has lived in The Ville since 1964. PB member Richard Callow moved that the board approve the petition to expand the district, request staff to prepare legislation to submit to the board of aldermen and that one member of the PB speak at the public hearing in favor of the bill.

    The Preservation Board unanimously approved the motion.

    Another district was up for discussion, this was an expansion of the Benton Park local historic district. A number of residents were present to speak in favor of the expansion although a couple left early because at this point we are already two and a half hours into the meeting. Preservation Board Chair Tim Mulligan recused himself as he lives in the area to be affected.

    Todd Brandt,VP of the Benton Park Neighborhood Association, spoke in favor of the expanded boundaries. He mentioned renovated and newly constructed homes that are of questionable aesthetics. They are seeking some control to protect the value of the neighborhood. Some examples shown by the staff in their report

    A number of residents spoke in opposition to the expanded district. One has lived in the neighborhood for 42 years (since birth). She was very passionate in her testimony. Her basic concern was the standards would force out low income residents such as herself.

    This is a common problem where you are trying to get design standards implemented. She said people “try to make their properties presentable.” My view is often it is the people trying to “make improvements” that end up spending lots of money destroying the historic character of their homes. The Preservation Board unanimously approved the petition to expand the boundaries. Like The Ville previously, this goes next to the Board of Aldermen.

    As an aside, I plan to look at some of the recent rehabs and new construction in the near future.

    It is now three and a half ours into the meeting and the next issue is a proposed new home at 1419 Dolman in the Lafayette Square Local Historic District. Staff had issues with a few items in the design such as the building width and some window placement. The foundation material was unknown.

    The applicant indicated a willingness to address concerns of the Preservation Board and the neighborhood. The building is on the Lafayette Square agenda for March 7, 2006. The Board gave preliminary approval.

    A very interesting project was next on the agenda. The applicant is seeking to purchase a city-owned property that is a serious state of deterioration. The building is a short two-story structure with not much left. The applicant is seeking to add a third floor with a second empire mansard roof. The staff feels this building never had a third floor and it should not be added.

    I see both arguments. A good question came up, do the remaining brick walls indicate brick pockets for a level third floor or a sloping roof? Nobody seemed to know. I’m torn on holding to what would have been built vs what makes sense today.

    Discussion among board members centered on making sure the renovated structure “blended in.” But staff’s point is that it didn’t blend in when originally built and therefore we should not re-write history a hundred years later.

    The Board gave preliminary approval as indicated in the agenda.

    Must have food…

    One of my favorite subjects began shortly after 8pm, replacement windows in a historic district without a permit. Basically the owner replaced a two wide double hung with some awning windows.

    Time for this owner to go back to the window company that should have obtained the proper permits because the board denied approval of the non-conforming replacement windows already installed.

    A new in-fill project is Soulard looked good but had a couple of small issues with the staff. The biggest issue was a request for a new curb cut on the side street. This odd site only has 14 ft along the alley.

    Board approved the project with two conditions, one being that the project have a “Baltimore Chimney” on the south elevation as indicated on the north elevation. The other is that it not have the curb cut.

    Another Soulard project is the expansion of Molly’s at 816 Geyer. The board approved the project with the condition the east elevation either be all brick or have windows.

    This project has additions to two sides of an existing structure. It is intended to give the appearance of several buildings. However, the new facades do not have any front doors, either useable or fixed for appearance sake.

    More new construction, this time in Lafayette Square. Staff had no major issues with the design. However, the neighborhood spoke against the project simply on the basis that neither the architect or owner submitted their proposal to the neighborhood.

    The board gave preliminary approval.


    And finally, the gas meters in front issue!!!! Take a look at the last item on the agenda (linked above) for more info and photos. The project, called Lafayette Walk, includes 37 units in a total of six buildings. Building #1 is the first built, located at the corner of Mississippi and Chouteau. Building #2, not yet built, will be the other one facing Mississippi.

    This item took a lot of time and I’m not going to go through all the points. Here are the highlights:

  • Staff indicated the issue of utilities has never come up before but will require utility locations on future drawings. Laclede Gas would not return their calls. Front doors & transoms are possibly not as indicated on final approved drawings but it is hard to tell because the drawings were photo reduced.
  • Developer admitted they could have done a better job in working with utility companies to locate the utilities. Sought to create a compromise by modifying the front stairs to help hide the electric meters. Gas meters, while still located in front, would be lowered and the pipe into the house would go through the foundation wall and not the more visible brick wall. They indicated they would have the electric installed on the side of the buildings on those not yet constructed. I felt the developer made a very professional presentation and took appropriate blame.
  • Discussion and debate from staff, the board members, developer and area residents focused on the electric and natural gas utility companies, AmerenUE and Laclede Gas, respectively. Mary One Johnson kept harping on “the law” requiring utilities in front even though that is most likely not the case. Building codes will indicate what cannot be done such as running utilities through units but otherwise it often comes down to what the local utility company is willing to do. Based on my experience this can come down to who you talk to from the utility, how you ask them, how insistent you are about a better solution and finally it often comes back to money in the form of paying additional fees to get the best look. Staff admitted they are not aware of all the rules regarding utility requirements but in their defense I’ve known utilities to make up frequent new rules.
  • About four Lafayette Square residents spoke on the issue. They were adamant the situation be corrected, not just allowed to remain. They were organized and concise. Basically they said the neighborhoods design standard (which are a city ordinance) should be strictly enforced. They also asked that city building inspectors be aware of historic standards and not approve mechanical work such as these utilities that do not comply with historic standards. The neighborhood indicated a willingness to look at compromises.
  • One of the best points made by the neighborhood regarding the developers, “they are big boys, this is what they do for a living.” Ouch. Sadly I think this is a valid point. They indicated the developer screwed up and therefore they should be required to correct the mistakes, regardless of cost.
  • Density came up as an issue with this project. The neighborhood said a number of times, “too much in too small a space.” Well, yes and no. I don’t think 37 units on that site is too many, it just depends upon how you arrange the units. In this case they went for two-story row houses and as a result you’ve got some narrow alleys and many units face a pedestrian walkway rather than a public street. A mixed-use plan with a 3-4 story corner building would have allowed for as many units (maybe more) without the feeling of being a bunch of row houses wedged into the space. Remember, density is not the issue. We need density and lots of it. It just has to be done right.
  • “Forgiveness should not be easy,” said one resident. Well, it was not. The Preservation Board took the most strict route they could. Anthony Robinson, an architect, moved they require all utilities (including those already installed on building #1) to be relocated to a semi-public facade. This sets up a conflict between the city, developer and utilities. Perhaps if Laclede Gas wants to serve this site they’ll now have to return a few phone calls.
  • The other piece of the picture was the front doors to the units. They were thought to be too short (standard 6ft 8 in) rather than a better proportioned 7ft tall. The transoms over the doors were also thought to be out of proportion to what is acceptable for the standards. The motion also requires the developer to change the doors and transoms, even on the completed units.
  • A stop work order was discussed but I’m not quite clear if they are allowed to proceed or not.
  • Interestingly the grand open house for Lafayette Walk is Thursday 3/1/06 from 4pm to 8pm.

  • The meeting concluded at 10:25pm. This is way too long. As the amount of development in the city continues to rise and as more and more historic districts are established something needs to give. A 3-minute policy may need to be implemented for all speakers or they may need to meet twice per month if they have many items to review.

    – Steve