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Much has changed in St. Louis over last 60 years, just not our zoning

December 6, 2009 Planning & Design, Zoning 5 Comments

In 1947 St. Louis’ long-time planner (1916-1950) Harland Bartholomew thought the city’s population would exceed one million by 1970.  Instead, between 1950-70, we lost 234,560 people to have 622,236.  We had 38% fewer people than he thought we would!

Bartholomew also thought we should have 35 airports in the region because, “developments in air transportation during the next few decades will parallel that of automobile transportation.” (source)  Born in 1889, Bartholomew hated our 19th Century “horse and buggy” street network.  His 1947 plan for the city has worked very hard to destroy the walkable city and to create the “modern” automobile city.  In his long career he advocated generous roads, parking and total separation of uses — housing, offices, etc should not be mixed in his view. He stood for the opposite of what cities are trying to accomplish today.

Bartholomew has been dead for 20 years now but St. Louis and so many cities follow his anti-urban thoughts simply because we have zoning he either authored or supported.  Local Aldermen will tell you that we change our zoning all the time.  True, on a case by case basis they’ll often change a zoning classification  — often to allow a better project than what the existing zoning allowed.  But rather than tossing out the 6 decade old vision for the city they cling to the power they have to support or oppose a request to change zoning.  So the ability for developers to do good urban projects comes down to their ability to grease the system to get the change they need or just accept the current zoning as a given and do a mediocre auto-centric project.

So what do we do? We begin the 4-5 year process to entirely replace our existing code.  Denver is nearing the end of this process now:

Denver, which currently has a zoning code dating to 1956, is the first large city in the country to undertake a complete rewrite of its zoning code and associated zoning map under a “form-based” and “context-based” approach. Because it will affect so many stakeholders, the AIA Denver Board of Directors and two AIA Denver committees have been following its development closely.

Of the intense four-year process of writing the code, putting it out for review, and revising, Brad Buchanan, FAIA, who sits on the Denver Zoning Code Task Force says: “We must be sure that the new code does not adversely affect the economic development potential in our city. In fact, this zoning code has the potential to increase economic viability while protecting the character both downtown and in our neighborhoods, which are the original economic engines for our city.”

From the city’s perspective, the new code is intended to support a growing economy, a sustainable environment, a diverse mix of housing, strong neighborhoods, and a high quality of life. (Source)

A new zoning code to guide future development is among the most important policy decision our Aldermen can make.  Of course, doing nothing is a decision.  From the Denver Post:

The 53-year-old regulations that guide land use and development in Denver are inconsistent, outdated and stifling growth, city planners say.

Now, after more than four years of work, Denver officials are on the verge of unveiling what they characterize as a cleaner, more user-friendly zoning code.

The post-World War II era, when the current code was adopted, was a time when planners were enthralled with the automobile. That era expected that much of the city’s existing historic architecture would get razed to make way for large-scale construction with extra space for parking.

But city planners now see value in old bungalows, Victorians and Four Squares that were written off in the 1950s. The current code has become an unwieldy mishmash of inconsistent, confusing rules and regulations that have the potential to actually harm neighborhoods, Park said. For instance, the existing code specifies that a new single-family home should be built on a lot of at least 6,000 square feet.

While that might work in “suburban-type” neighborhoods, it doesn’t conform to historic areas such as the Baker neighborhood, with smaller lots built on streets laid out in a grid pattern.

A more sensitive code

The new code will become more sensitive to the different characteristics that exist in the city and encourage development that blends in, Park said.

It will guide building forms and context for at least seven types of neighborhoods: suburban, urban edge, urban, general urban, urban center, downtown and special context. The regulations for those areas will differ depending on the existing characteristics of the neighborhoods.  (source)

Denver’s code can be viewed at newcodedenver.org.  The poll this week asks your thought — should we go this route and do a complete zoning rewrite or should we stick with what we’ve got?

– Steve Patterson


Harland Bartholomew negatively impacted many cities

Twenty Ten years ago today famed urban planner Harland Bartholomew died.  From his NY Times Obituary, Harland Bartholomew, 100, Dean of City Planners:

Harland Bartholomew, the dean of comprehensive city planning in the United States, died Saturday at his home in Clayton, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He was 100 years old.

Mr. Bartholomew, a consulting engineer, was appointed to Federal planning committees by three Presidents, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1941 President Roosevelt appointed Mr. Bartholomew to a committee to recommend a limited system of national highways. He also helped plan the Metro subway system in Washington, and he represented the Rockefeller interests in the restoration of historic Williamsburg, Va.

President Eisenhower appointed Mr. Bartholomew chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission a position he held for seven years, A City Planner in Newark Mr. Bartholomew became the nation’s first full-time city planner in 1914, when he went to work for the city of Newark. Two years later he went to St. Louis as a city engineer, and he later opened a consulting firm, Harland Bartholomew & Associates, which now has its headquarters in Memphis. He retired in 1965. His firm prepared comprehensive plans for more than 500 cities and counties, including Bal Horbour, Fla., St. Croix, V.I., and Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas. Mr. Bartholomew also prepared plans for the reconstruction of the resort community of Bar Harbor, Me., after two-thirds of it was destroyed by a forest fire in 1947.

His firm also assisted in the preparation of many zoning ordinances. including a statewide ordinance for Hawaii.

He was an early advocate of slum clearance and city planning, and served on the national Slum Clearance Advisory Committee. His ideas helped shape the Housing Act of 1937 and the Housing Act of 1949.

There is no doubting Bartholomew’s influence on both cities and the profession of urban planning. His considerable influence is why he had such a negative impact on cities. We are still dealing with problems created by his solutions to early 20th century problems.

In 1919 he founded Harland Bartholomew & Associates here in St. Louis. For decades the firm operated from offices in the Louderman Building at 11th & Locust (map). From 1916-1950 he was St. Louis’ planner.

Franklin Ave looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis
Franklin Ave looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis

Early writings showed he was concerned about suburban expansion — in the 1920s. He advocated widening streets to accommodate the automobile. In the above image the right-of-way of Franklin Ave from 3rd to 9th is getting widened from 50 feet to 80 feet – a 60% increase! Widened streets and numerous parking lots/garages made the decision to buy a car and move to a house beyond the streetcar line was a no brainier for many.

Soon the widened streets weren’t enough so highways were the next step. Each time steps were taken to make motoring life easier the further people moved from the core. Eventually families needed to have two cars. As a country we would have embraced the automobile anyway but he made it easier and faster. Highways cutting through cities also did much damage.

Bartholomew was a major pusher of Euclidean zoning — the rigid segregation of land uses. Overcoming this segregated view of cities today is a challenge. I’ve spent time in the basement of the Washington University archives library reading through comprehensive plans HBA prepared for hundreds of U.S. cities. Each one a repeat of the prior: widen streets, build a highway loop around downtown, build parking, require high parking standards for new construction, make the zoning even stricter.

Harland Bartholomew left his position with the City of St. Louis in 1950 and after 42 years, in 1961, he retired from the firm that bore his name. I can’t help but think our cities would be better off in the 21st century if this man born in the 19th century had become an accountant. I take some pleasure knowing the building where his office was located currently includes a mix of retail, office and residential uses.

– Steve Patterson


The opposite of the big box store

Nothing defines “big box” more than Wal-Mart, take this recent bit from Iowa:  “the Wal-Mart Supercenter will cover 150,000 square feet of land — around 40,000 feet fewer than the company originally planned.” (source)  40,000 feet fewer?

In the earlier days of our city we had the small box store.  No, make that tiny box.

4219 Virginia
4219 Virginia (Source: Google Street View)

This tiny storefront was built in front of a single-family detached home just down the street from the streetcar commercial district at Meramec & Virginia (map).  Built in the time before zoning laws this storefront extended the established commercial district just a bit farther.  But head down Virginia or most city streets and storefronts dot the landscape.  Commercial activity was not limited to the strip/power center or mall.  Of course most customers were on foot back then.  Thanks to our progress we are forced to drive a car to make purchases.

I can see in the future adding such structures in the sprawling suburbs.  Attitudes and zoning laws will need to change before we will see these in suburbia but it is an option I think we will see explored to make sprawl more walkable in the next half century.

This storefront on Virginia Ave. was vacant for many years.  Finally a creative couple found the answer.

Last month I attended the opening of The Virginia House, a new art gallery.  I had seen the inside 4-5 years ago so I know they did a lot of work on this tiny space. So the space is no longer offering sundries, it is adding activity to the street.  It is a window to peek into even when closed.

I’m not the only one that likes these storefront.  Michael Allen has featured many on The Ecology of Absence.  Here is a recent post of a fine 3-story home that gained a storefront addition in 1912.

It makes a much more intimate space for a gathering than say a former Wal-Mart big big store.

– Steve Patterson