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Opinion: Razing Vacant Buildings A Short-Term Strategy With Negative Long-Term Consequences

July 26, 2017 Featured, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Opinion: Razing Vacant Buildings A Short-Term Strategy With Negative Long-Term Consequences

Razing buildings might seem like the answer, but the unintended consequences shouldn’t be overlooked.Sure, no vacant building but then you’ve got a vacant lot unlikely to be developed. Dumping, high weeds, etc are all nuisances that can happen at vacant lots. While rehabbing an old building is more expensice than building new, it’s also more likely than new infill construction — especially in marginal (low demand) neighborhoods.

Obviously St. Louis doesn’t have the population it had in 1950 — but that was a time of severe overcrowding. The number of housing units didn’t meet the need. As, mostly Northside, neighborhoods continue to empty out it becomes harder and harder to support these areas. What does that mean? Sparsely populated areas with few remaining structures should likely be cut off so limited resources can be focused on more populated areas. However, doing so will have a huge impact on low-income/minority neighborhoods.

This was part of the 1970s Team Four plan, still widely criticized today. From 2014:

Some corners of St. Louis still have hard feelings over the so-called “Team Four” plan of the early 1970s, which studied that approach. And a similar effort to “right-size” Detroit was scuttled a few years ago amid sharp resident opposition. (Post-Dispatch)

You can’t tear down buildings indiscriminately all over the city and not expect consequences.

When I travel throughout neighborhoods I think about many buildings that people, including the Alderman, wanted razed. Many of these are now rehabbed and occupied. Holding onto these structures until a plan could be put together helps bring a positive vibe to struggling neighborhoods.

This building on the NE corner of MLK & Marcus once had a huge hold in the West facade, but it was saved.
This long-vacant building was rehabbed as part of the same project.
Buildings on 14th Street crumbled fore decades but most survived to be rehabbed, Spring 1991

As mentioned above, people were upset about “right-sizing” Detroit. also known as urban triage. From 2009, early on in the effort:

Today, though, more and more people in leadership positions, including Mayor Dave Bing, are starting to acknowledge the need to stop fantasizing about growth and plan for more shrinkage. Growth is as American an ideal as the capitalistic enterprises that fuel it. So by itself, this admission is a step forward.

It’s way overdue. Detroit has been shrinking for 50 years. The city has lost more than half of the 2 million people it had in the early 1950s, but it remains 138 square miles. Experts estimate that about 40 square miles are empty, and Bing has said that only about half the city’s land is being used productively.

The next steps are complicated and largely uncharted. Moving residents into more densely populated districts has legal and moral implications; it must be done with care and the input of those who would be moved. And what do you do with the empty space? The city is already dotted with big vegetable gardens, and one entrepreneur has proposed starting a large commercial farm. Some people advocate bike paths, greenways, and other recreation areas. Surrounded by fresh water, and buffeted by nature reasserting itself on land where factories used to be, Detroit could someday be the greenest, most livable urban area in the country. A city can dream, can’t it? (Newsweek)

You can’t want vacant buildings razed and not expect the least populated areas to be written off. Don’t want to be written off? Stabilize vacant buildings and work to get them rehabbed.

Just over half of those who voted in the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll also don’t think razing buildings will help.

Q: Agree or disagree: Tearing down vacant buildings more quickly will help St Louis.

  • Strongly agree 8 [18.18%]
  • Agree 3 [6.82%]
  • Somewhat agree 5 [11.36%]
  • Neither agree or disagree 4 [9.09%]
  • Somewhat disagree 3 [6.82%]
  • Disagree 7 [15.91%]
  • Strongly disagree 13 [29.55%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 1 [2.27%]

Obviously, there isn’t consensus on this issue.

We need to have a serious community discussion about the future of this city. What’s our plan — controlled shrinkage or aggressive infill? Probably both is the best way to proceed. This reminds me about an old planning joke about a city tearing down enough downtown buildings for parking, only then realizing there wasn’t enough downtown left to attract anyone.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

Pine @ Tucker Treated Different Than Locust @ Tucker

July 24, 2017 Downtown, Featured, Planning & Design, Transportation Comments Off on Pine @ Tucker Treated Different Than Locust @ Tucker

In April I wrote how some drivers get confused on one-way Locust approaching Tucker — some turn left from either lane because it’s not properly marked. Two blocks directly South, on Tine St, is the identical situation but properly marked.  Pine is also a 2-lane street one-way Westbound.  But the city treats Locust very different than it does Locust.

Locust has no pavement markings or signs to indicate where drivers should be.

Locust approaching Tucker, from April post

Pine, however, has both pavement markings and at least one sign.

Pine looking West toward Tucker. Pavement markings and sign indicate the left lane must turn left at Tucker.

Maybe AT&T got the city to make this intersection less confusing? Two blocks away is the same type of intersection treated very differently — untreated. I favor having traffic that wants to continue Westbound being in the right lane. with the left lane for left-turn only traffic. When I drive Westbound on Locust I stay in the right lane to cross Tucker, allowing me to get through the intersection and not be caught behind cars waiting on pedestrians to cross Tucker.

Locust should be treated just like Pine.

— Steve Patterson

 

Readers: New CWE Apartment Project Isn’t Too Much Density

July 12, 2017 Central West End, Featured, Planning & Design Comments Off on Readers: New CWE Apartment Project Isn’t Too Much Density

In the non-scientific Sunday Poll, an overwhelming majority of those who voted felt a new project wasn’t adding too much density. I agree. Much greater density would’ve been good too, but the number of units was limited by the amount of parking that could fit into the former 1-story warehouse. I applaud the developers for leaving a small storefront space along the street.

Along the public sidewalk you have no sense that a tower emerges from within.

 

The Milton is located at 4534 Olive.

Here are the poll results, the response was slightly higher than in recent weeks.

Q: Agree or disagree: Adding a 4-story tower w/30 apts to a 1-story warehouse is just too much density.

  • Strongly agree 2 [4.08%]
  • Agree 1 [2.04%]
  • Somewhat agree 0 [0%]
  • Neither agree or disagree 1 [2.04%]
  • Somewhat disagree 3 [6.12%]
  • Disagree 10 [20.41%]
  • Strongly disagree 30 [61.22%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 2 [4.08%]

I’m curious about the few that do think it’s too much density.

From across Olive the tower is obvious.
Different angle
Another
With the tower set back from the front, the roof becomes common outdoor space for residents
You can easily see Olive when looking over the front parapet.

While I’m glad the front faced was reused, and I like modern contrasting with old — there’s something just not quite right about the new tower. It’s not displeasing, just not outstanding. Proportions and detailing — or lack of perhaps?

Opening night I entered unto the parking garage area, lots of concrete block walls to support the structure above. Pretty straightforward.

There were two interior details that were a miss — thresholds at each unit and out to each balcony.

The wrong interior threshold was used — both sides should have a beveled edge — these are a trip hazard or a major pain in a wheelchair.
And the huge step over to the outside is another area where these fall short. Try carrying a tray of drinks to guests with this tall step over.

So it’s not a perfect project, but it is a good example of how to retain a nice old facade while adding living space. In the next 5-20 years as fewer people own cars hopefully we’ll see less space & expense to accommodate car storage in new projects.

— Steve Patterson

 

Crossing Hampton At Elizabeth

June 5, 2017 Featured, Planning & Design, Walkability Comments Off on Crossing Hampton At Elizabeth

Four times per year I visit my doctor on South Hampton, 45-minutes each way via public transit to/from downtown. As a regular transit user and pedestrian I actually enjoy the time. What I don’t enjoy is crossing Hampton upon arrival.

The last five years I’ve taken MetroBus to my doctor — except maybe 2-3 times when my husband wasn’t using our car. So at least 15 times I’ve crossed Hampton at Elizabeth — West to East. The bus stop is in the 24th Ward, my doctor is in the 10th Ward.

Aerial image of intersection with bus stop in lower left corner — I cross SB lanes and then NB lanes to reach the lower right corner, click to view in Google Maps

Looking at older versions of Google’s Street View I know the pedestrian & traffic signals were added sometime between September 2007 and October 2009. The bus stop and curb ramps were all existing in September 2007.

View looking East across Hampton, the bus stop is to my right.
View looking back West across Hampton

Crosswalk and pedestrian signals, so what is there to complain about? Plenty.

The issue is the timing of pedestrian signals. First I need to cross the SB lanes of Hampton to the center median — not s problem — a walk is given when Elizabeth Ave traffic gets a green light. The walk signal might require pressing the activation button — I don’t remember. I reach the NB lanes og Hampton just as the pedestrian signal switches to don’t walk. While it would be nice to cross without having to wait I do realize the median is wide.

NB traffic gets a green light soon. After a while they get a red light. I should get a walk signal now that NB traffic has com to a stop, right?  No, that’s too logical. The NB traffic has been stopped because SB Hampton traffic has a left turn arrow. No traffic is crossing the crosswalk but the pedestrian signal on both directions of the NB Hampton lanes says “don’t walk.”No conflict at all — the city just didn’t think about the user or thought about it and didn’t care.

Weeks ago I mentioned the city’s bike/ped Twitter account while venting about this issue. The reply was

E-W peds conflict w N-S traffic…no time to cross if wired for xtra xing during SBL, safest to run w E-W traffic. Plenty of time to cross. 

Again, not enough time to cross all of Hampton at once. There must be a better solution, but I know the traffic engineer in charge of pedestrian infrastructure isn’t the person to figure it out.

It might take some new wires, but the pedestrian signals for NB should act independent of those for the SB lanes. If so, pedestrians wouldn’t get stuck in the median for a complete cycle of the traffic signals. This should have been the case when these were installed.

— Steve Patterson

 

Opinion: Recent Flooding An Act of Mankind, Not A Deity

May 10, 2017 Featured, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Opinion: Recent Flooding An Act of Mankind, Not A Deity

The afternoon of Sunday April 29th I posted a news story to this blog’s Facebook page with a title that read: “MoDot: Very good chance Route 141 at I-44 underwater by Monday morning.” It was. Route 141 didn’t reopen again until late Monday May 8th. When posting the article I’d said: “Sprawl is to blame.”

Two comments stood out:

  1. Maybe rain is to blame. Not everything needs to be blamed folks.
  2. Poor design is to blame – how hard is it to to (re) build a road higher than known flood levels?! Higher than the adjacent flood wall?!

These two comments, both from individuals I know personally, demonstrate why the region is in this mess in the first place. The “it rains, it floods” and “just build higher” is exactly why such a major flood happened again so soon after the December 2015 flood.  We’ve been building higher which helps some initially — but water must go somewhere. More on this later.

Those who believe in a diety might say something like “It’s all part of his plan.” This is the “I can’t understand it so God must have done it” response.

Flooding on the St. Louis riverfront is a common occurrence. At least now the light fixtures stayed dry by being on raised concrete piers. May 7, 2017

The phrase “act of God” does have legal meaning:

act of God
n. a natural catastrophe which no one can prevent such as an earthquake, a tidal wave, a volcanic eruption, a hurricane or a tornado. Acts of God are significant for two reasons 1) for the havoc and damage they wreak, and 2) because often contracts state that “acts of God” are an excuse for delay or failure to fulfill a commitment or to complete a construction project. Many insurance policies exempt coverage for damage caused by acts of God, which is one time an insurance company gets religion. At times disputes arise as to whether a violent storm or other disaster was an act of God (and therefore exempt from a claim) or a foreseeable natural event. God knows the answer! (Law.com)

Note that flooding isn’t in the above definition. To be fair, other definitions do include flooding. As an atheist, I prefer the term, “act of nature.” But our recent flooding was neither — it was manmade.

“Land use is really a huge factor in flooding,” Holmes said. “From what I’ve seen, it trumps climate change in some areas.”

It’s definitely “a bigger game-changer,” he says, in urban areas, where paved surfaces drive more runoff into waterways and still more water is diverted by levee systems.

Bob Criss, a professor at Washington University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences who studies flooding, agrees that the cumulative impact of diverted water — and not rainfall — best explains the region’s recent major floods.

The problem, he says, was especially apparent with last week’s crest of the Mississippi River. Such a big river, he says, should not normally be so sensitive to similar episodes of rain. But he says it’s increasingly behaving like a small basin “because it’s far too squeezed” by levees that amplify flood severity. (Post-Dispatch)

The City of St. Louis divorced itself from the largely rural St. Louis Count in 1876. In the 20th century population began to spread out — consuming more land per person. Just in the nearly 27 years I’ve lived in the region I’ve seen lots of low flood plain get developed.

Chesterfield Commons has over 2 million square feet, this site was flooded in 1993.

In the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll most didn’t think flooding was an “Act of God.”

Q: Agree or disagree: Recent flooding in the St. Louis region was an “Act of God.”

  • Strongly agree 0 [0%]
  • Agree 5 [14.71%]
  • Somewhat agree 2 [5.88%]
  • Neither agree or disagree 3 [8.82%]
  • Somewhat disagree 4 [11.76%]
  • Disagree 3 [8.82%]
  • Strongly disagree 16 [47.06%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 1 [2.94%]

Flooding throughout the region will continue until we take the necessary steps to undo the causes. This means we must remove considerable non-poutous paving, and un-develop flood plains. This line of thought led me to again watch Ellen Dunham-Jones’s 2010 TED Talk on Retrofitting Suburbia.

At the 16 minute mark she talks about regreening parts of Atlanta — pulling development back from waterways. The St. Louis region desperately needs to do this. I doubt anything like this will take place, regular flooding will continue.

— Steve Patterson

 

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