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Readers Want the Impossible: Amtrak Trains at St. Louis Union Station

November 21, 2018 Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Transportation, Travel Comments Off on Readers Want the Impossible: Amtrak Trains at St. Louis Union Station
Grand Hall in St. Louis Union Station

In the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll readers overwhelmingly indicated they’d consider using Amtrak if trains departed/arrived at St. Louis Union Station.

Q: Agree or disagree: I’d consider taking Amtrak if trains arrived/departed at St. Louis Union Station

  • Strongly agree: 22 [53.66%]
  • Agree: 6 [14.63%]
  • Somewhat agree: 2 [4.88%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 5 [12.2%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 0 [0%]
  • Disagree: 3 [7.32%]
  • Strongly disagree: 3 [7.32%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

Well, to the nearly 75% who agreed I have some bad news for you. Amtrak trains will never use Union Station again. Ever.

For more than 28 years I’ve lived in St. Louis I’ve heard people suggesting the return of Amtrak to Union Station and for 28 years I’ve just been struck by a complete lack of understanding about rail service and station design.

The decline of trail [rail] travel began following World War II, as traffic dropped significantly, even while railroads began to update their passenger fleets with new equipment in the 1950s hoping to retain passengers and ward off ever increasing competition from the automobile and airplane (the development of jet propulsion only worsened the situation).  Technically, passenger rail travel peaked in this country during the first two decades of the 20th century and slowly declined thereafter, particularly with the onset of the Great Depression.  However, it also did not help that President Dwight Eisenhower enacted the Interstate Highway System in 1956 (also known as the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act).  By that time railroads were beginning to see the writing on the wall and cutback their services, with most giving it up altogether by the start of Amtrak in 1971. (American-Rail.com)

By the time the stock market crashed in 1929 St. Louis Union Station had been open for 35 years. This was a poor time to be the largest U.S. railroad station. The last train pulled out from the huge train shed 49 years later.  The main building (from “Headhouse”) hadn’t been used for nearly a decade. With only a few trains per day having such a huge facility made no sense. It would’ve happened sooner if another option existed.

Under the big shed in 2012

You might point out the Kansas City still uses their Union Station for Amtrak service. Yes, yes they do.  It’s a through-station, not an end-station.

Through-stations and end-stations are completely different design and planning problems.  They generate completely different kinds of space and completely different sensations of arrival and departure.  It’s pointless, for example, to compare New York’s dreary Penn Station, a through-station, with magnificent Grand Central, an end-station.  They are apples and radishes. (Human Transit)

In the 19th century when 22 railroads built Union Station they correctly saw St. Louis’ population computing to grow. They wanted a facility they wouldn’t outgrow like the original St. Louis Union Station on 12th (Tucker).  They decided their station would be an end-station, not a through-station.  Half a century later the decline of rail passengers, the failure of passenger rail companies, and the fact Chicago beat St. Louis as the midwest end city meant St. Louis Union Station, a beautiful design, was incredibly obsolete for rail travel.

Kansas City’s Union Station has been able to reutilize most of the building to other uses, with Amtrak using a small part for ticketing and waiting, It’s a short distance out to the platform at the through tracks. From the back of the shed at St. Louis Union Station it’s still a very long distance to the tracks — plus office buildings and the closed movie theater block the path.

In the 70s Amshack was built at the tracks. I recall using this in the 90s. Then a slightly nicer Amshack 2 was built, I used this in the aughts. The station I’ve used the most opened a decade ago…today. Yes, it took until November 21, 2008 to open a proper station. I was there for the ribbon cutting ten years ago, and I’ve been back many times since as a traveling customer.

Comptroller Darlene Green speaking at the opening ten years ago

Over the last decade the maintenance was allowed to get behind, prompting me to label it Amshack 3 in 2017.  Thankfully it was improved on my last train trip, in February 2018.

Please understand Union Station is a magnificent asset to St. Louis — but it was last useful as a train station about 75 years ago.  Embrace the current station, or use the new Alton Station if you’re headed North on Amtrak. The rail improvements started during the Obama administration have greatly improved the St. Louis to Chicago experience.  Stop waiting for trains at Union Station — use the station we’ve had for the last decade.

— Steve Patterson

 

Opinion: Urban Design Only Works If Both Sides Of The Street(s) Are Also Urban

November 14, 2018 Featured, Planning & Design Comments Off on Opinion: Urban Design Only Works If Both Sides Of The Street(s) Are Also Urban

When I started this blog over 14 years ago I was of the belief that all corridors in the city should be urbanized as new development replaced old. Gradually the corridor would slowly become more urban — with newer buildings up to the street rather than set back behind a sea of parking. This has become the reality in a few places, mostly in the Central West End — but also in other places.

Arlington Grove has two 3-story buildings facing MLK in North St. Louis

The form is good, with active uses at the sidewalk level. So this helps to restore an urban feel to Martin Luther King Drive, right? No, because across the street is a typical suburban gas station & convenience store.

With this across MLK it’s impossible to create an urban street.

This came to mind Friday when Board Bill 157 was introduced for the redevelopment of the SE corner of Chouteau & Jefferson.

Looking East along Chouteau from Jefferson. The sheet metal workers building, on the left, is in Downtown West. The proposed redevelopment site, on the right is in Lafayette Square.

Lafayette Square has strict guidelines foe new construction, but given the suburban nature of both Jefferson & Chouteau it’s kinda hard to see the point of having only one of four corners be urban. Across Jefferson had some urban buildings until a few years ago.

Former buildings on the SW corner of Chouteau & Jefferson, in The Gate neighborhood.
A suburban QT now occupies a large site on the SW corner of Chouteau & Jefferson.

In the above image you can see the NW corner is no longer urban either. That corner, by the way, is in the Midtown neighborhood.

So we have a major intersection that’s mostly suburban in design — each corner in a different neighborhood. Only one of the four has urban design guidelines — but what’s the point in enforcing them when the other three corners are urban holes?

The recent non-scientific Sunday Poll asked about development along major corridors such as Jefferson, Chouteau, etc:

Q: Agree or disagree: St. Louis should accept most major corridors, with the exception of a few, are largely auto-centric/suburban and will never be re-urbanized.

  • Strongly agree: 1 [4.17%]
  • Agree: 1 [4.17%]
  • Somewhat agree: 2 [8.33%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 1 [4.17%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 7 [29.17%]
  • Disagree: 5 [20.83%]
  • Strongly disagree: 7 [29.17%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

Most disagreed with the statement, I used to be a “strongly disagree”, but now I’m barely a “somewhat disagree.”

Living in St. Louis foe 28+ years I’ve seen so much potential wasted as we constantly shoot ourselves in the foot with suburban development directly across from acceptable urban development. I just don’t see the political will to set guidelines that’ll eventually create great urban corridors. With this reality, it’s hard to be optimistic about St. Louis’ future.

— Steve Patterson

 

Alley Retail Can Work…In The Right Conditions

September 24, 2018 Downtown, Featured, Planning & Design, Retail Comments Off on Alley Retail Can Work…In The Right Conditions

Alleys are one thing that attracted me to St. Louis in 1990, we didn’t have them in the 1960s suburban subdivision where I grew up in Oklahoma City. Interestingly, my grandparents each had alleys behind their homes in the small Western Oklahoma towns of Weatherford & Clinton. I spent a lot of time in the alleys behind their houses. Everywhere I’ve lived in St. Louis has had an alley, though for the last decade the alley has technically been St. Charles Street.

In April 2012 I posted about the streets that are really alleys parallel to Washington Ave.; St. Charles Street to the South & Lucas Ave to the North.  A year later New Brewery Improves Alley-Like Lucas Ave.

A recent “Where am I?” photo on Facebook raised interesting issues about alleys, and led me to ban someone from commenting on the page. Let me explain.

I posted the photo to the right on Facebook (blog’s cover image) with the caption “Where am I?” There were right & wrong guesses as to the location — it’s off of Locust St. between 10th-11th. One of the comments was “A sketchy alley about to get mugged by a homeless guy with a shank.  Also next to the Urban Shark.” Yes, Urban Shark is attached to the Bike Station on the left. No, not at any risk of getting mugged, but many think that way about alleys.

One person commented we need to turn alleys into pedestrian-focused retail like other cities have done, citing San Francisco & New Orleans. I recall experiencing one in Vancouver years ago — great space. However, I replied that retailing has struggled downtown even on well-populated streets like Washington Ave. Later I asked him to name just one alley downtown that would make a good candidate for retail. He, we’ll call him GB, said I was bashing St. Louis and he’s seen it work well in other cities. I’ll post more on our interaction in the future, right now I want to stick to GB’s assertion we should enliven our alleys.

Our alleys, like in many cities, were planned as ways to keep unsightly business like trash disposal out of view from primary streets. Also, most of downtown’s alleys have been privatized. Certainly those who own to the rights to formerly public alleys could try to market an alley as a pedestrian-friendly retail & restaurant hub, though ownership is often split down the middle between property owners on each side.

Yes, this has worked well in other cities. So why not downtown St. Louis? First, this has been used in areas lacking vacant street-facing retail spaces.  When retail vacancy is near zero rents go up. By expanding into alleys building owners can make retail spaces in unused/unleased portions of buildings. The rents received isn’t what they get out front but it helps the bottom line. Retailers get spaces that are more affordable in their business model.

If we look at the immediate area around the alley I posted we can see lots of available storefront space. Lots.

The corner space on the building to the East is vacant. Same for the corner space on the building to the West.
Diagonally across 10th & Locust from the above, the corner of The Syndicate remains vacant.
Stefano’s former space at 504 N 10th has been vacant for 3+ years.

The South side of Washington Ave between 10th & 11th recent became fully occupied, but the North side has lots of vacancies.

The Dorsa building was renovated more than a decade ago but ground floor retail remains vacant.
The other storefront in the Dorsa is also vacant. Years ago the St. Louis convention people made the windows look nice at least.
Two months from now will mark 3 years since The Dubliner closed, the space remains vacant.
One bright spot is someone will soon be reopening Bella’s Frozen Yogurt at 1021 Washington Ave. Yay! Click the image to open their Facebook page in a new tab.

I’ve tried to think of an alley in Downtown or Downtown West that might be a good candidate. Laclede’s Landing — can’t think of one, North of the Arch/Ead’s Bridge, has done ok with an alley or two to gain access to buildings. The best local example I can think of is the Maryland Plaza alley in the Central West End.

The property owner(s) did a great job welcoming you to the back of the buildings.
A restaurant patio occupies the West end of the “alley” behind the buildings. This photo was taken on a hot Thursday afternoon, I’d imagine it’s hard to get a table here at certain times.
Looking East toward York Ave., we see a living wall to disguise the parking garage on the right.
Approaching York Ave.

This example was never a public service alley, but it does show how a small sliver of property behind a building can become an asset rather than a liability. Former service alleys can be given this same treatment, the results are often amazing.

Still doesn’t make it a good idea for downtown St. Louis. It might, if you can think of the right location.

— Steve Patterson

 

Accessibility Details: Soap Dispensers & Trash Receptacles in Public Restrooms

September 10, 2018 Accessibility, Featured, Planning & Design Comments Off on Accessibility Details: Soap Dispensers & Trash Receptacles in Public Restrooms

Before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 there was Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973:

Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act was the first disability civil rights law to be enacted in the United States. It prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities in programs that receive federal financial assistance, and set the stage for enactment of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Section 504 works together with the ADA and IDEA to protect children and adults with disabilities from exclusion, and unequal treatment in schools, jobs and the community. (Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund)

Section 504 was added to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 four years later, in 1977.  It has been over four decades since we first began to construct buildings accessible to the disabled, and more than three decades prior to my becoming disabled due to a stroke in February 2008.  Though significantly better than they were decades ago, things still aren’t quite right.

Today a few of minor examples: public restroom soap dispensers & trash receptacles.

After using a public restroom the ability of me to use soap to wash my hand depends on access to the soap dispenser. At the Culinaria grocery store downtown the two soap dispensers are wall-mounted very high in corners. When I’m in my wheelchair it takes a lot of stretching to reach the one on the right. Not everyone who uses a wheelchair can stretch that far.

DuPont, formerly Solae

At Solae (now DuPont) at CORTEX, the soap dispenser is on the side of the sink — much easier to reach — but I still can’t get any soap from it.

This dispenser is very long, it’a designed for use with two hands — one to press down so soap comes out on the other.

I have two hands, but use of my left remains very limited. Shorter dispensers of this type I can use one-handed, pressing down at the back while getting soap on part. Long dispensers like the one at Solae/DuPont is completely useless to me.

Soap dispensers are, generally speaking, specified when buildings are designed/constructed.  My other issue is with trash receptacles, this is either because a good location wasn’t part of the original design or the occupants moved them to be in the way.

BJC’s recently completed Center for Outpatient Health on the NW corner of Forest Park & Euclid
I love how the main entrance off Euclid is a very wide ramp, with steps off to the side — the opposite of so many older buildings with wide steps and a narrow ramp on the side.
I also love how inside they have touch-free “buttons” to open bathroom doors.
Thankfully the first floor bathroom has two sinks & paper towel dispensers, because the trash receptacle prevents me from reaching the left side.  These soap dispensers are mounted low enough to be usable.

In the restroom above there really is no other spot where a trash can could be located. This might have been a good candidate for one under the vanity with the hole in the center, or a wall-mounted paper towel/trash unit.

To make matters worse, what doesn’t work for me may work great for another disabled person. And vice versa.

The take away from this post is details matter. Architects, designers, facilities managers, occupants, and owners of public buildings need to think about the little things. Hiring a disability expert  to review projects during design can reduce user issues.

Still, I’m grateful for the ADA, building codes, etc. that have made public restrooms significantly better than they were decades ago.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

Parking Lot Change Resulted In Cars Encroaching On 11th Street Public Sidewalk

August 27, 2018 Downtown, Featured, Parking, Walkability Comments Off on Parking Lot Change Resulted In Cars Encroaching On 11th Street Public Sidewalk

The Louderman building at 11th & Locust includes restaurants, offices, and residential. Most parking is underground, but they’ve always had a small surface lot

The fenced surface lot is over the underground parking for Louderman Lofts building. A few years ago I used this image in a post suggesting a small retail kiosk/building at the 11th/Olive corner. The developer confirmed it was built to handle that.

Change did come to this corner in June 2017, but not in the form of an urban building to establish the corner. The parking lot was reconfigured — possibly without city approval.

June 22, 2017: A Jeep is pulling out of the one fenced-in parking lot.
A new curb cut was created. This is just East of their basement garage drive.
Looking toward the lot we see the South fence section removed.
A more direct view
Closer up we can see the old fence leaning in the background.
The removed section was installed out at the Olive sidewalk, but a gap remains along 11th Street. September 6, 2017
Parking stops weren’t used so vehicles can pull forward to allow others to be able to exit. This means vehicles are parking on the public sidewalk — as defined by a tire on the sidewalk. May 16, 2018

Either the Louderman condo association did this without the city’s blessing/permission OR the city ignored their own parking lot requirements regarding minimum space size and fencing. This lot once used the existing alley for access, now we have an exit onto Olive. It was bad enough watching for cars entering/exiting their underground garage, not pedestrians must watch for vehicles exiting this surface lot as well. The sidewalk is narrowed by the cars encroaching.

Either way it’s annoying, ugly. I’ll be sending a link to this post to numerous people to find out A) was permission granted for the curb cut change and B) if there’s anyway to require parking stops &/or continuous fencing to keep cars from encroaching on the sidewalk.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

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