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Almost smart (?)

June 11, 2008 Guest 19 Comments

A guest editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

My wife and I almost bought a smart fortwo pure this weekend. Or, more accurately, I tried to convince her we should buy one. And, more precisely, her no vote won out.

A little history – last summer I signed up on the waiting list (www.smartusa.com). Last winter, I was able to order what I thought would work. A few weeks ago, I got a call from the local dealer (Plaza) saying they had the vehicle in. After test driving, looking at reviews and much internal discussion, we decided not to buy a smart. For many urban dwellers, the question today is why? Here are a few answers . . .

My wife’s biggest concern can be summed up in one statement, “How do I know that you won’t get killed in that?” The reality is that there is no good answer. Even though it’s incredibly well designed (good handling, great brakes, stability control, multiple air bags), it’s also tiny. It does very well in the crash tests (www.iihs.org), but the results do contain a disclaimer that you can’t beat the laws of physics. I’ve always been a fan of quirky, relatively unsafe vehicles (one Corvair, one Jeep and three VW vans, to name a few that I’ve owned), plus I’ve ridden a bicycle for years in urban traffic, so I’m both aware of the dangers and accepting of the risks. The reality remained is that the smart is a cross between racing bar stool (http://racingbarstool.com) and golf cart, wrapped in plastic panels. It’s a good urban vehicle. It gets scarier as speeds and the number of lanes increase – freeways aren’t smart-friendly places, especially with the current mix of semis, SUV’s and super-duty pickups.

If we lived and/or worked in a more congested part of town, the smart’s tiny size would be more of an attraction. The reality is that we live in a suburban-feeling part of St. Louis, a mile from the Shrewsbury Metrolink station, and we have both a driveway and generous on-street parking available. I work in Clayton, where my employer provides parking in a parking structure. Parking simply is not an issue – either there’s a spot available (99% of the time, there is) or there isn’t – there are no half spots where a smart could squeeze in. And when we go downtown, we usually hop on Metrolink, which, again, at the Shrewsbury station, has plenty of regular-size spaces available. The reality, for us (and many other St. Louisians), is simply that a tiny car offers no parking advantages, unlike places like Victoria, British Columbia, where they have created smaller spaces (http://governing.typepad.com/13thfloor/2008/06/cities-fighting.html#comments) to better utilize limited land in a dense urban area.

The other half of the equation is getting better fuel economy. The smart’s fuel mileage is rated at 33 city and 40 highway. While this compares favorably with the Miata I’m currently driving, it’s not that much better, plus the smart requires premium gas, unlike the regular I’m using now. I’m fortunate, I usually get between 26 and 28 mpg, so I only need to fill up every couple of weeks. Doing the math, the actual savings would be small – 270 miles at 27 mpg in the Miata costs me $39.00 (10 gallons at $3.899 for regular gas), compared to 270 miles at 35 mpg in the smart (7.7 gallons at $4.099 for premium), which would cost me $31.56. Sure, I’d be saving ±$7.50 twice a month, but that would be nowhere near the cost of a new car payment of $250-$300 per month (the Miata’s paid for). Plus, my wife really likes the Prius, so we’re going to wait for one of those – their fuel economy rating of 48 city and 45 highway beats the smart by 10%-40%, plus you get a real car with a real back seat. I know, I know, the Prius costs twice as much ($29,000, for what we want, versus $13,500 for the basic smart) and it would take a million miles of better fuel economy to make up for the higher purchase price, but it’s a much better vehicle for our driving needs. The real question is why, at 2/3 the weight and half the size, doesn’t the smart do better?!

The final issue I need to raise is the transmission in the smart. It only comes with one, an “automated” manual transmission, and it is the vehicle’s biggest Achilles heel. It’s noted in every review and it was the biggest reason I didn’t push harder to buy the car. It shifts slowly and erratically. It may be good in slower stop-and-go-traffic (where you’re stuck in first gear), but it makes driving in typical rush-hour traffic a real pain, as it shifts up and down, poorly. A good CVT (continuously-variable transmission, like Nissan makes) would be a much better answer than this crude device. And given no track record on repairs, I’m not sure if longevity will be part of the smart’s charms. That said, I still view the smart as a great alternative in the right situations. For someone like Steve, who has limited parking available in a loft conversion, being able to fit two vehicles in the space designed for one can be a great asset. It’s also great if you’re fighting for on-street parking in areas where spaces aren’t striped. But until “my” world moves away from the standard 9′ x 18′ (or bigger) parking spots, I’m going to shoot for the best of both worlds, a bigger vehicle and better gas mileage.

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Steve’s Reaction:Thanks Jim for sharing your thought process. In places like Seattle where they have ‘pay-n-display’ systems and no defined parking spaces a microcar such as the smart ForTwo will have a greater advantage than here where every space will hold a Chevy Suburban suv. Due to my stroke-induced disability I can no longer operate my scooter so I am car shopping — used car shopping. If I could afford it I’d buy a smart in a flash — it is the perfect urban car.


The Developer Strikes Back

– guest editorial by Richard Kenney, AIA

As Jim Zavist noted in his guest editorial, the building known as the Ballard Denny’s in Seattle, WA (formerly Manning’s Cafeteria, constructed in 1964) was recently declared a Landmark by the Seattle Landmark Preservation Board (in a 6 to 3 vote) and saved from the bulldozer in its last moments. This was a surprise as the property had been recently owned by the Seattle Monorail Authority (before its unfortunate voter-declared demise) and would have been torn down to make way for a monorail station to serve the Ballard neighborhood. When Seattle voters made the unfortunate decision to kill the expansion of the monorail, the properties that had been acquired by the monorail authority were sold off, including this one which was sold to the Benaroya Company. It was fair for Benaroya to assume that demolition would not be an issue when they purchased the property for $12.5 million last May. They partnered with another company for a proposed 8-story mixed-use development which would include 260 living units.

As reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, ironically it was Benaroya who nominated the building for Landmark status. They did so only to head off what they felt was an inevitable discussion and would result in a delay to the project. Assuming it would be declined, they wanted to get that obstacle out of the way. But unfortunately for them it gained momentum and backfired, as Landmark status was obtained after the local community got involved.

The Developer struck back on March 12th and filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the City for improperly declaring the Ballard Denny’s Building a landmark. According to the Seattle Times, the Developer stated, “The [Landmark] Board’s decision … was sentimental and capricious, but not legal”, and with the burden of this building now being a landmark, that it is essentially impossible to create any sort of feasible development for the property. They are claiming that the criteria for Landmark designation is unconstitutionally vague.
It does seem true that the saving of this building has more to do with local sentimentality than with actual Landmark’s criteria. One often-mentioned requirement for landmark status is that the building must be of a defined architectural style. Most people have used the general term “Googie” architecture, which is the catch-all bucket into which some very unique styles of the 1950’s and ‘60’s are relegated. Larry Johnson, the architect who was responsible for preparing the paperwork for this building’s Landmark designation, called it “Scandigooginesian”, short for Scandinavian and Polynesian with the obligatory word Googie thrown in for good measure. This new word is ten times more irritating than the original term Googie, so I suggest we simply refer to it as “mid-century architecture” (and forever dispose of those other terms please).
Another often-discussed criteria for landmark status is age. Most people feel that the 44-year-old Ballard Denny’s is simply too young for such an important status. But age should not be an absolute determinant. Seattle’s beloved Space Needle received its designation as a Historic Landmark in 1999 when it was only 37 years of age. The Space Needle was constructed for the 1962 Seattle Worlds Fair, and when you look at it, there’s no denying that it’s a product of its time. When I first moved to Seattle in 1993, I was not a fan of the Space Needle. It seemed so dated to me, and whenever I looked up at it, the lyrics to the Jetson’s would enter my head (…”daughter Judy….Jane, his wife….”). But after a few years I grew to love it, and now I can’t imagine Seattle without it. I see it every day, and I no longer think of it as a dusty dated mid-century relic. I think of it as a unique work of art. Granted, the Space Needle and the Ballard Denny’s are two very different creatures: one is a destination, and the other one is where you stop for pancakes before driving to that destination. But perhaps small scale and daily use is not a detriment to the Denny’s importance. It’s probably safe to say that a long-time Ballard neighborhood resident has been to the Denny’s much more frequently through the decades than to the Space Needle.

I remember a trip to St. Louis where Steve Patterson and I went to LaClede’s Landing (which is something we rarely do). He explained to me that LaClede’s is virtually a tiny remnant of what used to be there, and one that surely would have also been demolished had the budget allowed. He explained that some 40 city blocks – truly the original city of St. Louis – were demolished to make way for the Jefferson Expansion Memorial. This will always be a staggering loss for the city of St. Louis, but certainly at the time, the buildings they demolished were considered obsolete, outdated and unwanted. Urban renewal and grand ideas for a park and a shiny steel arch took precedence over the classic old buildings that many people considered to be a barrier to that progress. In a microscopic way, isn’t the Ballard Denny’s in a similar predicament? While many people consider it to be useless and disposable architecture, will we perceive it the same way in another 50 years?

Nostalgia is a funny thing. Our world promises to be so very different in another 50 years. When our cheap oil supply is substantially gone and the great American automobile society is a faded memory, won’t the mid-20th century architecture be a stunning reminder of that culture we once had where you could park your big car a mere 20 feet from the booth where you ate your Grand Slam breakfast? I’ll be 90 years old by then, but I personally hope to still see great examples of mid-20th century architecture here and there, lovingly preserved as part of the urban fabric.
The City of Seattle has 20 days from March 12th to respond to the new lawsuit. Stay tuned.

Richard is a Seattle architect.  rich took yhe image of the space needle  — his stunning balcony view.



March 17, 2008 Guest, STL Region 21 Comments

Guest editorial from Dan Icolari
We’re not the only people in places like Boston or New York or D.C. or maybe even Chicago who’ve stopped being wage slaves, or would like to, and need a cheaper place to live that’s still a real city, warts ‘n all.

I think St. Louis boosters need to broaden their target audience to include people like us. I don’t mean just well-heeled empty nesters who can afford lofts downtown. I’m talking about middle-class people like the ones my wife and I know–financially secure but not rich, educated, involved in the arts and in civic life and politics. People who want an urban way of life in a dynamic, diverse community. A community that’s affordable now and, in relative terms, is likely to stay that way.

With child-rearing behind them, such people have the disposable income to help preserve cultural institutions, patronize local specialty businesses, and support local artists in a variety of media. They have the time to devote to civic activism that most full-time working people don’t. They’re big on university-level continuing education. They’re exactly the kinds of people, in short, that St. Louis boosters are already pitching, only older.

And nobody except marketers of retirement communities–which are the last places the people I’m talking about would want to go–are reaching out to this particular segment of older adults. They are, after all, sophisticated people with many of the same interests and tastes as the 20- and 30-somethings that every city is working overtime to attract.

I think going after a segment of sophisticated people 50+ could be a very productive strategy for St. Louis. But it won’t be an easy sell. I can hear the naysayers already:

“Oh, great: Blue-Hair Central.”

“St. Louis’s reputation for crime will scare them off.”

“We’ll become The Nursing Home on the Mississippi.”

I’m not proposing that St. Louis boosters target older potential relocaters exclusively. Rather, I’m suggesting this over-50 segment has potential that should be recognized and developed.

The fact is, for people of any age who want an urban way of life they can afford, St. Louis has a pretty compelling story to tell. It’s not a story that will interest all or even most older people considering relocating. But I think it’s a story that will interest enough older people–the kinds of community-oriented urbanites St. Louis needs–to make telling that story to this segment worth a try.

[Dan Icolari is a native of NYC and lives with his lovely wife in a stunning home on Staten Island.   Dan is retired and writes Walking is Transportation.]


Big Picture versus Little Picture

March 12, 2008 Guest 39 Comments

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist

I’ve been thinking – is investing in public infrastructure a better long-term investment than partnering directly with developers on individual projects? It seems like recently, especially in St. Louis, that more resources are being directed to the latter, with more public funds being dedicated to directly supporting private development, through various funding mechanisms, using everything from tax-increment financing to special improvement districts, with questionable results. In other cities, many more past (and current) efforts have been focused on larger, more “macro” solutions, creating attractive public places that attract private investment to “blighted” areas and/or areas targeted for (re)development.

The two cities I’m most familiar with are Louisville and Denver. Louisville has spent the last twenty-some years successfully recreating their waterfront (http://www.louisvillewaterfront.com/index.shtml), replacing scrap metal yards and other industrial uses with a massive public park along their Riverfront. In doing so, they’ve attracted a major employer (Humana), a minor-league baseball team and have seen new high-density housing being built around the perimeter of the park. Cincinnati has done something similar (http://www.crpark.org/), as has Memphis (http://www.mudisland.com/ and Denver (http://www.riverfrontpark.com/

Other cities have, and are, working to relocate rail yards away from their downtown areas, reclaiming the land for higher-density, mixed-use developments. Salt Lake City is currently developing their master plan. In New York City an abandoned elevated railway is being converted to a linear urban park (http://www.thehighline.org/). Oakland is moving forward with their project (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2002/09/13/MN655.DTL). Denver has completed one in the Central Platte Valley, and is moving forward on a second (http://www.denverinfill.com/, http://www.abag.ca.gov/planning/theoryia/compdenver.htm

St. Louis has potential examples of all of the above – industrial properties along the river, urban rail yards and an abandoned elevated rail line. We also have a significant amount of underutilized or vacant industrial land that doesn’t fit any of those descriptions. Luckily, Trailnet is already working on the Iron Horse Trestle north of downtown (http://www.trailnet.org/p_stlriverfront.php). On the flipside, we have many potential “brownfield” sites that seem to have no plans in place. Between Tucker and 21 St., on the south side of Highway 40, is one rail yard. Between Victor and Rutger, along our waterfront and near Soulard, is another, along with another between Jefferson Barracks and the River Des Peres. At Arsenal & I-44 is yet another yard that sees a lot of traffic in containers. Between Calvary and Belfontaine Cemeteries and the river lies another one. Are any of these potential redevelopment sites, combining desirable locations with a parcel of land under single ownership, being pushed for redevlopment? Or is there simply “too much” “brownfield” land available to make it worth the railroad’s effort to relocate their investments?

I also know that studies, probably multiple ones and including a few current ones, have been done in an effort to reconnect the city with the river with new public investments, primarily parks and “parklike” ones. Do we have any serious, dedicated “champions” who can see a benefit in making this happen? Or are all of our efforts focused on our existing “gems”, places like Forest, Tower Grove and Carondolet Parks? Do we have any sort of vision of how to put underutilized and vacant industrial properties to “better” uses? Or are we on a perpetual quest simply to build new retail to generate sales tax revenues?

As I’ve said many times before, the unfortunate reality is that without a market, there will be little demand for any product. St. Louis once was a strong industrial cit. We still have industries that depend on the river – we shouldn’t needlessly “chase them away”. We, however, seem to have fallen into a rut of just “throwing money” at pretty much any potential business that promises to increase tax revenues without any sort of overall concepts or goals. Just look at the last 50 bills introduced at the Board of Aldermen – 14* of them narrowly deal with granting tax breaks or creating special districts to “benefit” specific developments! On the “micro” level, yes, these small investments probably help these individual projects. But on a “macro” level, what are we really “gaining”? Or are we really just “robbing Peter to pay Paul”?

To grow and thrive, we need to see net gains. We need to rely more on positive, successful, private investment, not ever-increasing publicly-funded investments in private projects. We need to create an environment that is more attractive to people both outside and inside the city. And while our built environment is a part of this environment, so are our schools, our business climate, our transportation systems and our tax structure. We need to reduce, if not remove, the objections people have to moving or remaining here. Once we do, and only then, will we slowly turn into a more “attractive” and economically-sustainable city, one more like the ones envy and/or puzzle over their successes.


And if it is “Broke”, Fix It!

March 7, 2008 Education, Guest 55 Comments

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist

SLPS has a budget in excess of $350,000,000 (http://www.slps.org/budget/SummaryofFY07BUDG.htm). The school system is considering closing four more schools because “enrollment has dropped from about 44,000 to about 28,000 in six years.” (3-6-08 P-D, “SLPS board to consider closing four schools”) Let’s do the math – we’re now spending $12,500 per student per year to provide an inferior education! St. Louis is also home to ±64,200 children between the ages of 5 and 18 (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/29/29510.html). Let’s do the math again – we have ±36,000 children, or 56%, who are not utilizing the St. Louis Public School System.

School vouchers are the darling of many free-market conservatives. They believe that the public schools aren’t accountable, that they’re bloated bureaucracies, and that the only way to “right the ship” is to make them compete in a free-market environment. School vouchers are also a goal of many parochial school parents, as they face ever-increasing tuition costs. Until recently, I’ve believed that the public’s tax dollars should be used exclusively to fund public schools. I’ve also supported the concept of charter schools, where parents potentially have (the ability to have) more control over the education their children receive. But with the combination of a rapidly-shrinking enrollment, continuing upheaval in the governing structure, a loss of accreditation, no improvement in test scores and a continuing movement out of the city by families with school-age children, I’ve come to the conclusion that vouchers may be the only solution for public education in the city.

I know all the arguments about why many (but not all) SLPS students do not succeed – poverty, a lack of parental involvement, a lack of preschool, frequent moves, teen pregnancy, “school ain’t cool”, a lack of respect toward teachers/an inability to maintain order in the classroom, the impacts of main-streaming special-needs students, the impacts of busing, the closure of neighborhood schools, etc., etc., etc. . . . The reality is that many “solutions” have been tried, yet the results continue to speak for themselves. Yes, a minority of students are successful in this environment (graduating and going onto college and/or meaningful careers), but, on average, SLPS simply continues to “not meet expectations”. Combine all this with no reduction in spending, and we voters need to think seriously about some other options.

Bottom line, our spending, per student, has increased by 8%-10% per year, on average, for the last six years. At the same time, the number of students in the SLPS system is dropping by roughly 10% per year. At this rate, in ten years, SLPS will have fewer than 1,000 students! Assuming that, for better or worse, ¼ of the current budget is committed, more or less in perpetuity, to funding existing obligations (long-term debt, pensions, etc.), that still leaves in excess of $260,000,000 in annual revenues that, in theory, could be devoted to a 100% voucher program. If true, that could mean an annual payment of slightly more than $4,000 per student to every school-age child in the city.

Milwaukee has been on the forefront of pushing the use of vouchers. Much like St. Louis, they’re a rust belt city that wants to reinvent themselves. They also struggle with many of the same “challenges” SLPS struggles with. Their results appear to be mixed (see resources cited below), and, as with everything political and statistical, published results can and do get “spun” to reinforce one’s preconceptions. Personally, I fall into the camp of the non-parental taxpayer. I don’t have kids in the SLPS, never had and never will. My concerns fall into two distinct, fairly unemotional, areas – what am I paying and what am I receiving? Taxes are a necessary evil – they’re always more than I want to pay, but I realize that government can’t function without them, that they need revenues to deliver the services I use. Performance can, is, and has been measured. The results appear to be unacceptable, and as a result, the SLPS has become an increasing disincentive for any “resurgence” the city may attempt. I would prefer that we had a viable public educational system. We apparently don’t. So if vouchers can improve things, if for no other reason they enable families to migrate to the existing parochial schools and stay in the city, I say let’s give ’em a try – it can’t be much worse than what’s happening now and it would be a much more fair distribution of resources, especially when compared to the results delivered . . .