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St. Louis Suffers Due to Lack of Urban Design Guidelines

Whenever I speak of making St. Louis’ neighborhoods and commercial streets more “urban” I think people have visions of turning St. Louis Hills into Times Square. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really has to do with how we plan our areas and seek to accommodate people as well as their cars. Pedestrian-friendly is about making it easier for people to walk from A to B to C and back to A. These principals transcend scale and work in a town of 2,000 as well as a city of 2 million.

The conflict I’m having with so much recent development is that it is happening in a system void of planning thought. The developer meets with the Aldermen and they negotiate a few things while trying to keep the public from knowing what is going on out of fear they might sabotage the whole thing. It is the St. Louis way. The problem is that I know this can be done differently and is in cities all over North America.

Our zoning, dating to 1947, says what cannot be done. It basically encourages sprawl development and makes good design an exception rather than the rule. What it doesn’t say is what we, as a community, are seeking. It does not articulate a vision. So how do we communicate what we want? Urban Design Guidelines.

Cities that are actually seeking to improve their physical environment through well-planned development create “Urban Design Guidelines” to help guide the development process. These are most often in the form of non-legal phrasing and graphics that are easily understood by everyone. Typical zoning, on the other hand, often requires an attorney that specializes to help determine what can and cannot be done. Form-based zoning, on the other hand, uses graphics to help illustrate what is sought for that particular portion of the community.

It should also be noted that Urban Design Guidelines are different than “plans” for an area. Cities, including St. Louis, have stacks and stacks of unrealized plans. In some cases, this is a good thing as earlier plans called for the razing of Soulard & Lafayette Square to be replaced with low-density housing on cul-de-sac streets. Plans are usually grand visions for an area that lack funding. They are created, everyone gets excited about what may be, no funding is given to implementation and the plan sits. In the meantime poorly executed development that prompted the need for a plan continues through the outdated zoning. UDG look at the vision different — setting out goals for an area such as walkable streets. The guidelines then indicate how this is to be accomplished. Guidelines help guide new construction and renovation projects so that, over time, an area is improved. It is a smart and realistic way to guide physical change in a community.

Below are some examples of Urban Design Guidelines and related documents from a variety of cities in North America. This is only a tiny fraction is what is out there. I’ve only scanned each at this point so I am not making any claims we should adopt any of these for St. Louis. What I am saying is we need to be creating guidelines for future development and have debates over what we seek as we develop the guides — not over each and every proposed project.

City of Denver:

Denver Guidelines by area
Commercial Corridors
Streetscape 1993 (excellent!)

City of Ottawa:

Large-Format Retail
Gas Stations
Traditional Main Street
Outdoor Patios

City of Toronto:

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines

Various Cities:

Lawrence KS – downtown guidelines
Scottsdale, AZ – Gas Stations
Huntington Beach, CA
Mankato, MN
Niagra, Ontario
Niagra, On — Large Format (big box)
Mississauga, Ontario
Tampa, FL

City of Madison, WI

Best Practices Guide (an amazing document — a must read)
Inclusionary Zoning (for affordable housing)

Madison even did a study called, “Grocery Stores in City Neighborhoods: Supporting access to food choices, livable neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities in Madison, Wisconsin”. From the executive summary:

Guiding the decisions of food retailers- and providing support for them- in order to ensure equitable access to food and promote livable, walkable neighborhoods is a difficult task faced by non-profit organizations and local governments in cities across the nation. Since all people require food on a daily basis and shop for it frequently, food retailers should be recognized as far more than simply another retail establishment. However, even as many municipal governments realize this, there are limited ways for cities to intervene in support for grocery stores when particular parcels of land are owned and controlled in the private realm. Market forces and consumer behavior all too often work against the success and proliferation of small grocery stores distributed equitably across the City.

Click here to read the full report.

City of Houston:

As I was working on this post a regular reader sent me an article about how good development in Houston’s midtown is lagging behind because the city’s zoning encourages auto-centric results.

Like explorers hacking a path through the jungle, a small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has
struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown.

Much of what they are trying to achieve —a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. Leaders of a civic group have dipped into their own pockets to pay for alternative design plans for a proposed Main Street drugstore that clashes with their Midtown vision.

“Unfortunately,” said developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, “the Houston way is slow and painful.”

Read through these Urban Design Guidelines and you will see how the community is indicating its desires for a more walkable and cohesive environment yet none of it is designed to force businesses out or create cities without cars. Cities have been working on guidelines for a good 15 years or so but St. Louis remains way behind the curve. This places us at an economic disadvantage when it comes to attracting both new residents as well as potential employers. What would it take to get us working toward community design guidelines — probably the one thing we don’t have enough of: political will.


Former St. Lousian Authors New Book on Car-Free Living

Check out an article in the current West End Word on a new book by former St. Louisan Chris Balish, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car:

Balish is disarmingly frank about his own situation. In the book he tells his personal story of going “accidentally car free” while working for KSDK-TV Channel 5 as the host of Show Me St. Louis. At the time he worked in downtown St. Louis and lived on the western edge of the Central West End.

“In 2002 I was driving a shiny new $36,000 SUV,” he writes. “It was a dark blue Toyota Sequoia with a big V8 engine, power everything and enough seats to fit all my friends. I loved that thing, and I kept it immaculate. It was expensive, but I thought my status as a TV news anchorman necessitated an impressive ride and a flashy image.” Then when gas prices spiked, he thought about selling the SUV and downsizing. But, as it happened, the first person to respond to his classified ad bought the vehicle on the spot, before Balish had a new set of wheels lined up.

Balish was still living and working in St. Louis while writing the book and interviewed a number of locals, such as my friend Jeff Jackson, that manage without a car. From the promotional website for the book:

Despite what $20 billion of automobile advertising every year would have us all believe, buying or leasing a car, truck, or SUV is the worst financial move most people make in their lifetime. And they make this mistake again and again, at a cost of literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. High gas prices, car payments, insurance, depreciation, parking, repairs, maintenance, and nearly one hundred other expenses add up so quickly and silently that most car owners don’t even notice—they just see how little money they have left at the end of the month and wonder why.

The first two chapters are available as a free download on his website, LiveCarFree.com. You can order the book from locally-owned Left Bank Books for the published price of $12.95.

I’m going to move in this direction by selling my ’06 Scion and getting an old basic car outright. Goodbye car payments and goodbye expensive full coverage insurance. The trick is finding something that is cheap, reliable and not overly embarrassing. With my scooter serving more and more of my daily needs the car becomes less and less important.

– Steve


Baby Boomers Brainwashed into Hating Cities

Although I am going to have a huge amount of reading for my classes in Urban Planning at Saint Louis University this Fall I could not help but stop by the Carondelet YMCA for their annual book fair (continuing through tomorrow). I bought a number of Life magazines from the 1960s as well as a former school library book, Cities and Metropolitan Areas in Today’s World by Samuel L. Arbital. The book is copyrighted 1968.

Wow, no wonder some many people hated cities, if I had read such propaganda as a child I might be living out in a suburb and fearful of the city. Here are some selected quotes from the first half of the book:


The problems of our cites and metropolitan areas are nation-wide. No city is along in crisis.

Chapter 1 – From City to Megalopolis

During business hours, the core of the city teems with action. People at work, people shopping, people on a visit — people coming or going. Workers travel into the core every weekday morning from other parts of the city or from the suburbs. After work the movement of people flows in reverse — away from the core to their homes in the outlying sections of the city or suburbs.

Highways and main traffic arteries have had to be built to help route traffic into and out of the core. In Minneapolis, Hiawatha Avenue cuts across the core. In Detroit, the main arteries are Gratier Avenue, Woodward Avenue and Grand Avenue.

Those who live in the core are, for the most part, people who cannot afford to live elsewhere and must settle for old rundown tenements until they can afford to move away.

The majority of people who live in the inner ring, however, are poor. They live in old, outdated, neglected houses built when the city was young. Many houses lack adequate sanitation, heat, hot water, garbage removal facilities, fire protection or other requirements for decent living standards.

Just as the pioneers of old moved ever outward from the crowded areas, many families today have been pushing beyond the political boundaries of the city into open space in the suburbs.

Chapter 2 – The Problems of Cities and Metropolitan Areas

It is typical today for young married couples to move to the suburbs, while their parents and grandparents remain in the core. One of the chief reasons for deterioration has been the in-migration of rural families, both white and Negro, whose customs and values are different from those of older city dwellers, thus giving additional momentum to the movement out of the city. Those who remain have to adapt to the old houses, stores, schools and streets.

As national legislation helps to finance long-range programs worked out by local agencies, there can be a reduction in grinding poverty and improvement in educational and cultural opportunities within the city. Cities will then regain their vitality and blight can be eliminated.

All too often it is to the core of the city that Negro families have moved and the boundaries have become hardened and fixed. Housing is interior to the housing for white families on the city’s fringe or in the suburbs. Negro communities are permitted to deteriorate with no encouragement for those who want to maintain their property.

Every central city is faced with the difficulty of transporting passengers into and through the core at a minimum cost and with maximum speed and efficiency. Narrow streets in the downtown sections of cities are inadequate for the steady flow of automobiles, buses, taxis and trucks that move through them each day.

Detroit has 21 redevelopment and nine neighborhood conservation projects. One of the problems which Detroit has in common with other large cities is the relocation of Negro families, even those who can afford middle income or high rental housing, from the city slum areas.

In a future post I’ll bring you quotes from the second half with chapter 2, Cities meet the challenge and chapter 4, the future by design.

– Steve


Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century

August 25, 2006 Books, Politics/Policy 19 Comments

I recently purchased Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century from the Saint Louis University bookstore as it is a required text for one of my Fall courses in Urban Planning. The book is authored by three Professors; Peter Dreier from Occidental College in LA, John Mollenkopf from City University in New York and our own Todd Swanstrom from St. Louis University. Dr. Swanstrom just happens to be teaching my course which starts on Tuesday.

Yesterday I started thumbing through the book, as I do with any new read, but the first paragraph in the preface section really struck me:

This book grew out of our frustration with the stalemated debate about the condition of cities and our conviction that we can move beyond it. In Place Matters, we argue that because the problems presently facing America’s cities are largely political in origin, their solution also lies in politics. We focus on how public policies and the organization of our political institutions have fostered the growth of economic segregation in metropolitan America, which in turn damages both equal opportunity and economic competitiveness. We favor moving toward forming and delivering urban policy at a broader regional context. Such steps, we believe, are a critical ingredient for transforming all politics of urban policy and broadening the coalition in support of progressive urban policies.

One part is worth repeating;

“…problems presently facing America’s cities are largely political in origin, their solution also lies in politics.”

Interesting. I can certainly agree off hand that many problems I see facing St. Louis are “political in origin.” These include outdated zoning, racial and social segregation, and inadequate mass transit. However, the politicians still claim “the market” or “reality” as reasons for not changing their old ways of doing business. I look forward to reading and discussing concepts from this book and the long list of other reading materials in class this Fall. And as you might expect, I’ll frequently post on the various assignments and topics.

– Steve


Men’s Health: St. Louis 10th Most Angry U.S. City

August 20, 2006 Books 4 Comments

Men’s Healthy Magazine recently ranked U.S. according to how angry they are relative to blood pressure, traffic congestion, assaults, etc… St. Louis placed in the number ten spot, just behind Jacksonville Fl. It is not clear from the article if this was a look at the city or region.

I’d suggest taking this list with a grain of salt but sodium is bad for blood pressure and we’d hate to move up on this list. I thought I’d post it so Mayor Slay’s PR guru Richard “PublicEye” Callow wouldn’t get bored on the job.

– Steve