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Rumor: Staff Positions for New President of the Board of Aldermen

Lewis Reed will be sworn in soon as the city’s next President of the Board of Aldermen, replacing Jim Shrewsbury in that role. That much we all know. What we have not yet heard is whom he will hire to the three staff positions to be filled within his office, including Chief of Staff.

One widespread rumor was 15th Ward Alderman Jennifer Florida for Chief of Staff but I’m hearing Florida will not get that job. However, I’m hearing Florida will take the second position as “Assistant to the President”, a job that pays more than current role of Alderman. Fifth Ward Alderman April Ford-Griffin is the name heard most often for Reed’s Chief of Staff. Both were early supporters of Reed’s candidacy.

If this rumor is true, and we will know within a week, that will leave two aldermanic seats open. The 5th ward is where large-scale land speculation is going on (aka Blairmont) and the 15th Ward had the long battle last year over a proposed McDonald’s. Both Florida and Ford-Griffin have been targets of unsuccessful recall attempts.


Earth Moving at the Old Sears Site on Grand

Via 15thWardSTL.org comes news that some activity is taking place on the old Sears Site, the very one Pyramid had hoped to switch for a McDonald’s.

Pyramid has started pushing dirt around on the former Sears site in preparation for construction of their proposed Senior Housing apartments. They appear to have staked out the corners of the building (perhaps in preparation for soil testing). At this time they do not have a building permit (per Geo St. Louis), nor have they appeared in front of the Board of Public Service for any variances.

It looks like we are continuing our pattern of pushing projects through the system with little public input.  Ald. Jennifer Florida’s last update on her blog was October 27, 2006 — just shy of two months.  Where is all the planning for South Grand? Where is the input from citizens on the future of our commercial corridors?  Seems like as soon as the pressure is lifted in this town things go back to “normal.”


Ald. Florida’s Blog On Life Support

Announced with zero fanfare in October, Ald. Jennifer Florida’s blog is nearing blogosphere death — it has not seen a new post since October 27th.  Ouch.  In fact, all the posts except the one on the 27th were lifted from a newsletter she did earlier in the summer.  Thus, the blog has only one original post.
Anyone capable of typing something in a Word document or an email can update a blog, it really is that simple once setup.   The fact nothing new has been added in a months time tells me one of several things:

  • Jennifer Florida doesn’t understand the power of internet communications, OR
  • Jennifer Florida doesn’t see the need to communicate what is going on to readers, OR
  • Jennifer Florida can’t type, OR
  • Jennifer Florida feels the whole recall thing is behind her and isn’t being pressured into communicating on a “stupid blog,” OR
  • Jennifer Florida has been busy helping Lewis Reed run for President of the Board of Aldermen.

Maybe you can think of some other reasons why Florida’s blog is in a near death state?


Pyramid’s South Grand Land Swap Fiasco is Dead

John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies has thankfully been thwarted in their pursuit of mediocrity in areas outside of downtown. The plan, hatched long ago with the full support of Ald. Jennifer Florida, was to allow McDonald’s to construct a suburban-ish drive-thru restaurant on the site of the former Sears store on South Grand. In turn, Pyramid would get to build some senior housing on the current McDonald’s site.

A long battle ensued with a strong and effective grassroots campaign to halt the drive-thru from encroaching into the Gravois Park Neighborhood. On June 21, 2006, however, it looked as though the campaign had lost — the city’s Board of Adjustment denied the neighbors appeal on the variance for the drive-thru. Steffen’s lackeys from Pyramid had a smug look on their face as the ruling went in their favor. Ald. Florida, wisely, wasn’t present. But it seems the whole deal unraveled after that.

The blame is on the deed restriction on the property which reads:

Grantee, by the acceptance of this Deed, agrees, as a covenant running with the land, that the Property shall not be used for retail sales purposes, except that, notwithstanding the foregoing, a portion of the Property may be used for retail sales purposes provided that in no event shall more than fifteen thousand (15,000) square feet of floor area in the aggregate on the Property be used for retail sales purposes and in no event shall any single store, business or other commercial occupant on the Property use more than two thousand (2,000) square feet of floor area on the Property for retail sales purposes. This foregoing use restriction shall be binding on the Grantee and the successors and assigns of Grantee forever.

This restriction on the property has been in place since Pyramid acquired it as part of the Keystone Place project. Such restrictions are typical for stores such as Sears to place on property so a competitor could not take over the building. When the area was in Craig Schmid’s ward, the decision was made to raze the store. This, in hindsight, was a major mistake. But back to the restriction, this was fully known to Pyramid and likely Florida and McDonald’s as they worked on this plan at least since late 2004. Pyramid and McDonald’s are far to experienced in development to have not known and considered the restriction. Most likely, they assumed they’d be able to get away with building it and Sears likely would not have pressed any issue or even known about it. But, it was the adjacent residents that are part of the Keystone Place development, also on former Sears land, that may have had a leg to stand on in court to enforce the restriction. They — Pyramid, Florida and McDonald’s — knew a legal challenge was possible.

So today we have a closed McDonald’s down the street from a closed Burger King. Over on Kingshighway we’ve got a closed Wendy’s and over at Gravois & Jefferson another closed Burger King. Doesn’t look like the city should bank on these high-debt franchises for our future. It is unfortunate the individuals working in these establishments are likely unemployed now. Tax wise things will go on. The city residents that ate at all of these establishments will not stop eating all of a sudden. They will visit other restaurants like Arby’s, Subway or Taco Bell. Or perhaps one of our fine locally owned restaurants. We will still collect the sales tax — it will just come from different places. And hopefully those that worked at the closed places can find work at the others that will handle the additional customers.

Lucas Hudson writes for the ACC about the owner of the McDonald’s franchise that just closed:

He was demonstrative in pointing out what kind of businesses are taking over the area– across the street there are a couple of no-name markets, a non-descript car detaling place that used to be a licensed Firestone branch, and the omnipresent legalized theivery of Rent a Center.

Interesting. Perhaps he is unaware of the condos going into the former Southside National Bank? And while the street has some “no-name” markets what is wrong with that? If you are not a chain place your name is worthless? Conversely, the German-chain Aldi’s next door to McDonald’s isn’t exactly small potatoes. And did the McDonald’s franchise owner (or Lucas for that matter) stop to think that just maybe the McDonald’s chain itself has contributed to the decline of the area since it opened in 1974? For over 30 years a highly auto oriented fast food chain has dominated the corner and now the owner is being critical of other businesses that follow! One of my arguments all along was that we are not going to attract good urban design if we build a new suburban drive-thru.

The Lawrence Group’s renovation of the SSNB is great but it is still needs our help. They need retailers for the base and future urban buildings along Grand & Gravois. They are also taking on the smaller building across Grand with a need for street level retailers. Ald. Florida does deserve kudos for her continued efforts to save and renovate the SSNB but it is not in isolation. Retailers need to see more than simply the footprint of the property in which their store might be located. We must revitalize the street and return it to being a pedestrian-friendly and urban corridor that it once was before the McDonald’s entered the picture in the early 70’s and changed all that. Now that it is closed we have a fighting chance of actually turning this street around.

Back to the ACC:

The ACC just talked to Jennifer Florida about the closing, and she does not currently have plans for the site, but mantains that she wants to go through a “community based planning process”, and used Lafayette Square as a model of successful design.

Now she wants to plan. Great. Let’s see, how long did it take? Ald. Florida was sworn into office on April 17, 2001, nearly six years ago. Where was the “community based planning process” in all the years prior to this controversy? Non-existant! Before this she was in her “you can’t get everything you want” mode of thinking, no doubt instilled in her by old timers like Ald. Fred Wessels. But maybe she has now seen the light, or at least the power of a small & determined group with internet access, so I will give her the benefit of the doubt. Not you Fred, just her…

My friend Steve Wilke-Shapiro has been taking the lead of late on looking at this section of Grand on his excellent 15thWardSTL blog. Click here to read his initial take on the new plan by Pyramid to build senior housing on the old Sears site (as well as the section past the alley to Arkansas St.). You can check out Ald. Florida’s comment-limited blog here. To get an appreciation for Pyramid’s experience at senior housing in a St. Louis neighborhood see my post on Sullivan Place.

Here is what we need to do on South Grand from Utah to a point somewhere south of Chippewa, quite possibly it should match the blighted area which continues to Meramec. First, a community based planning process not driven by the current needs of a particular developer or single property owner. This needs to be followed up with a “zoning overlay” for the district. This overlay would replace the current zoning for that district and would allow us to have greater control over what could be proposed and built within the area. Requirements, such as any surface parking being located behind the building, could be enacted (think Kinkos/Bread Co at Grand & Arsenal). By having quality zoning, something from the 21st century, it will be less important for citizens to scrutinize each and every new project. With new urban-focused zoning for the street this will actually free up Ald. Florida and the developers to plan accordingly and be relatively assured that what they propose will not meet with strong resistance from the community. Citizens, rather than having to waste countless hours tracking down details of every project on every parcel, can hopefully move on to doing comprehensive planning in other parts of their neighborhoods and even work with the developers along Grand on finding tenants.

After all this we do have the potential to make something great happen on South Grand. Actions speak louder than words and right now the ball is in Ald. Florida’s court.


Ald. Jennifer Florida First St. Louis Alderman to Begin Blogging

It seems Ald. Jennifer Florida has become the first Alderman in the City of St. Louis to start a blog as part of her means of communications with constituents and other interested parties such as myself. This is an about face for Florida with respect to blogs, in June she called this site a “stupid blog.” It would appear that Florida has seen the effectiveness of the web as a means of communication and wants to take more control over the message in the 15th Ward. My reaction? Great, what took so long and when are the rest going to follow suit?

When I was running for the St. Louis Board of Aldermen in early 2005 one of the very first things I did was work on a communications strategy. On 1/22/05 my campaign blog went live. From that first post :

I’m pleased to announce that the latest news for my campaign will be presented in a blog format. I will keep voters, volunteers, contributers and the public informed of happenings and appearances via this space. I will also be discussing various issues in greater detail here as well. I will demonstrate to the voters that I am a thinking candidate – I will bring up issues and offer solutions. The comments section will be an opportunity for the public to tell me if I am on tract or not. Public feedback to aldermen is a key component that is missing from our current system. Part of the reason I decided on 25thward.com as my website address is because I think this will serve me well once elected to office. Through this website address I will be able to keep the residents of the 25th Ward informed of hot issues, public meetings, request feedback on upcoming decisions. Making use of current technology will just be one way of being an effective alderman

I touched on this issue a week later on 2/1/05:

So many people say we are not Chicago. True, we are not. We don’t have the population density, the vibrant streets, the thousands of bike racks or Aldermen using the internet to communicate the relevant (albeit mundane) information to ward constituents. Chicago’s aldermen are taking that extra step to use the internet to keep their constituents informed of issues and meetings.

St. Louis’ current system of keeping constituents informed is for aldermen to attend the various neighborhood meetings and give a city hall update to the few people present. Little information is actually communicated – no visuals, no maps, no links to other resources. If you didn’t make it to the meeting you are out of luck. You might get some of the information in a neighborhood newsletter a month or two later – if you are on their mailing list.

My campaign is about bringing fresh thinking to the 25th ward and entire City of St. Louis. Moving the level of communications between city hall and constituents into the 21st century is just one example.

In numerous posts since then, and by way of example, I have shown that complex issues can be effectively communicated and debated. Not everyone will agree on issues. That is the purpose of public discourse, to share perspectives. It is imperative for our elected representatives to hear all sides of issues and from as many people as feasible. With the internet that is unlimited. It is also important to get feedback from all city residents as development projects, by default must take place within a ward, they can have an impact on the entire city.

I applaud Jennifer Florida for being the first St. Louis alderman to make that leap into the 21st Century with modern communications technology. For those aldermen reading this on their old Gateway computer with Windows 95 let me help clarify for you what we are talking about. A “blog” is a form of website. In the old days of the internet, websites were complicated and often costly to set up. No so these days, the blog technology behind the scenes make the setup and posting amazingly simple. The underlying software that runs a blog is referred to these days as “content management” software. So a teenagers blog on myspace.com might well be about what she did today but in the political world a blog can be a means of managing content — notices about upcoming meetings, links to legislation, open discussion on topics under consideration for legislation and of course community visioning. The RSS feed provided via content management software lets more savvy users know when new posts are available for viewing. This information comes to those who want it. The resident who can’t make that 6pm community meeting because they don’t get off work until 10pm can read the site at any time it suits them. The more content the more informed they will be.

I think Jennifer Florida will quickly realize how effective this tool can be, hopefully sharing her experience with her colleagues. One Alderman recently told me he was in Chicago and met someone at an event with the alderman saying he was from St. Louis and the guy asked, “Oh, do you know Steve Patterson’s blog?” Needless to say, this alderman couldn’t believe that he met some random person at a Chicago function and the guy mentions me. It was beyond his comprehension that people in Chicago would be reading about issues in St. Louis. I explained to him, as I have above, how blogs work. He has yet to take my advice. I think many still believe they need thousands of dollars, many computer wizards and hours upon hours of time to have a website. This view is as outdated as our zoning.

So, I’m going to make the members of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen an offer in the interest of better communications. I’m willing to give them a presentation on how to set up and maintain a blog. All I ask is that they have at least 4 aldermen present, I can’t take the time one on one unless I’m getting paid. And I am willing to do that — if you want me to help get you started I can do that on the clock as they say. Only conditions here is that I will disclose that I have done so and that my helping in that regard does not constitute any form of endorsement. My goal is to get all 28 aldermen blogging about community meetings, issues, proposed development and such. I might even be able to talk my friend Antonio French of PubDef into co-presenting to them on blogging. And what about those elected aldermen and city council folks in the balance of the region? Sure, I want to see communications increase throughout the region so I can be persuaded to come talk to you as well.

Visit Alderwoman Jennifer Florida’s 15th Ward Blog and also take a look at a review of Florida’s blog by 15th Ward resident Steve Wilke-Shapiro.