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I Scootered To A Working Farm Yesterday

Few people on small 49cc scooters make it out to rural farm country. While I did visit a farm yesterday, it wasn’t a long trip through the ring of sprawl to reach my destination . My Environmental Planning class at Saint Louis University visited the New Roots Urban Farm on St. Louis’ near north side.

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New Roots is located on Hogan Street adjacent to the vacant but stunning St. Liborius church.

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You can almost just pass right by — the quarter acre urban farm is very unassuming with the exception of the lively sign.

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Rows of basil yet to be picked. Mmmmmm, pesto! Newer homes, set a suburban distance back from the street, complete the block and much of the street to the east.

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Above, wire fencing guards the hen house.

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Today was a day for members to pick up their weekly veggies. Above, a father and daughter make their way to the pickup area.

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Co-founder/Farm & Program Manager Trish Grim was our instructor and guide. In the span of four years this cooperative group has gone from four vacant city lots to a working farm that feeds themselves and 25 shareholders per season. Their annual budget is now up to $50,000. Yes, a mere $50K annually. They have roughly 4 people that work full time as well as numerous volunteers and interns. Clearly they are not in this for the money.

Payments from members of the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) make up roughly 25% of the budget, the balance coming from various grants. These members get “10-15 pounds of produce” each week during the growing season. There is a waiting list to be a member. New Roots has teamed with the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group on the North City Farmers’ Market which opened this season on 14th Street across from Crown Candy Kitchen. Saturday is the final day for that market this season — they are ending with a big “Hoe Down” with BBQ, games and music (9am-1pm).

New Roots also teamed up with St. Patrick’s Center and Gateway Greening on the City Seeds project at 22st & Pine. Where you say? The leftover/wasted land at the old 22nd Street interchange. Here the homeless are hired at minimum wage to work 3 days per week on this 2-1/2 acre farm. New Roots provides the expert knowledge on the project and another grant funds the wages for the workers. A couple of years ago I argued with developer Kevin McGowen about this project — I wanted the land to be reused in the future when the excess roadway was removed. I am correct in that in the future it will be hard to take back the land for development but I think Kevin was right — this is really a good project. Produce grown on this urban farm is sold at the North City market and the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market.

One of their goals is to be sustainable — environmentally and fiscally. So far, they are quite environmentally sustainable given their practices which includes transporting goods to the North Side Market via bicycle carts. Fiscally, however, they are not so sustainable yet. Trish referenced groups in other parts of the country —- one getting as much as 70% of their funding from sales of product.

Lest you think this is all some hippie festival, I happen to know at least one self proclaimed Republican that is a member.  In fact, the supporters tend to be more affluent types which allows New Roots to sell their produce at very fair prices to lower income folks at the local market (all are welcomed regardless of income).  To me there is something really neat about seeing our food being grown on a real working farm so close to downtown.

Be sure to check out their website at www.newrootsurbanfarm.org and especially their unique newsletter.

 

Some Small American Downtowns Avoided Urban Renewal Mistakes

October 9, 2007 Guest, Travel 16 Comments

A guest editorial by Richard Kenney, AIA

I had an unusual opportunity for extensive travel this year. I teamed up with a roofing consultant to inspect a large portfolio of properties in 22 states. My portion of that work was 125 sites in Alaska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa, the Dakotas, Missouri, Kansas, Washington and Oregon. Almost all the sites are lumber/hardware stores located in small towns. So my summer was all about planes, trains and automobiles. I used all three, but by far most of my travel time was spent on the highway. I was surprised to learn that I drove over 10,000 road miles! It was exhausting, but it was a remarkable opportunity to see some unbelievably beautiful countryside and some really charming small towns that I would normally never see. UrbanReviewSTL’s Steve Patterson joined me for the Missouri, Kansas and Iowa sites when the project first started.

In some ways this trip renewed my faith in the small American downtown. Recently I had been back to Shawnee, Oklahoma, where I went to high school, and I was very saddened by the condition of its downtown. When my family lived there we owned a business on Main Street, and downtown was still a great place to be (this was the mid-1980’s, not that long ago). Sears and JC Penney were still there, as well as dozens of thriving local businesses. I still remember the “Midnight Madness Sidewalk Sales” and the summer parades. But the tragic shift was well underway as I left for college in 1986. A mall was constructed on the city outskirts, and the retail epicenter shifted dramatically. It’s my understanding that “Shawnee Mall” was proud to be the first in the United States to have Wal-Mart as an actual anchor store, which seems like a sad thing indeed. Shawnee then fell the way of many American small towns, as Downtown is now a sad collection of pawn shops, payday loan offices and thrift/junque stores. It’s clear that the city has made the usual attempts to revitalize the area, including the addition of sidewalk ‘bulbs’ at intersections, planters, and benches. These new commodities stand unused near the many vacant buildings and blank storefronts with windows covered in paper. Incidentally, Wal-Mart made its usual move a few years after opening, and abandoned the mall location to build a larger super-center down the street from it.

In 1989 I lived and studied in Cologne, Germany, an old and large city that was literally 95% destroyed in World War II. Allied bombs focused on larger cities like Cologne, which lost most of their architectural legacy in the process. It’s amazing to think that
only 5% of the city fabric remained intact by war’s end. In many ways, American cities suffered the same fate, only ours was self-inflicted. In the name of post-war progress, most large American cities began to decimate their architectural legacy (which evidently is still in full swing in St. Louis). Priceless historic buildings and irreplaceable urban fabric were dismantled in the name of new highways, urban open space, “super-blocks”, convention centers, stadiums, and ‘fill in the blank here’. It really didn’t matter what the reason was, it was all considered to be disposable urban blight and a barrier to progress. My Mother lived in downtown Oklahoma City in the early 1950’s before the substantial demolition began, and it’s hard for me to imagine that it was ever as vibrant and interesting as she describes. Accordingly, it would be hard for a kid in today’s Shawnee to imagine that Shawnee’s downtown was as ever the way that I remember it was a mere 20 years ago.

If you want to see the real Germany, you see it in small towns which were typically spared the mass destruction of big cities. The same is true for the United States. The small American Downtown is our last great cultural and architectural vestige which was spared from the urban renewal war. Surviving a deadly viral infection like Wal-Mart is another issue and one that is on-going.

So now back to the summer road trips. I was concerned that I would be driving through many Shawnees: small downtowns that are bombed-out and boarded up. I was pleasantly surprised that in many northern states the small American downtown has survived beautifully. There is undoubtedly a demographic and population threshold at which Wal-Mart stays away and the local businesses thrive. But what’s truly great are the small downtowns that have managed to survive despite the existence of a Wal-Mart or a new shopping mall. There’s typically a contributing factor: perhaps they’re college towns, military towns, or towns that are close enough to a metro center to be a “boutique weekend destination” for nearby urbanites. Here are just a few of the pleasant surprises I encountered in three of my destination states.

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Minnesota: Stillwater has a thriving downtown on the waterfront of Lake St. Croix.

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Minnesota: Stillwater’s local businesses in wonderful original storefronts.

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Wisconsin: Madison’s thriving State Street.

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Wisconsin: well-utilized outdoor dining on the sidewalks of State Street.

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Wisconsin: downtown Platteville (a small college town).

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Wisconsin: charming and inviting original storefronts in downtown Platteville.

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Wisconsin: unique retail housewares in Fort Atkinson, as can only be properly displayed in a 100+ year old basement with painted stone walls in an old downtown building.

Sheboygan
Wisconsin: charming buildings and well-restored storefronts in downtown Sheboygan, on the shore of Lake Michigan.

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Michigan: downtown Manistee, an unexpectedly thriving area which was a random stop on the way south.

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Michigan: beautifully restored original storefronts in Manistee.

Petoskey 1
Michigan: fun & quirky coffee shop storefront in Petoskey.  This Petoskey coffee shop was well populated when I stopped for my Americano before hitting the road again.

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What a great storefront!

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Michigan: this wonderful old theater marquee in Marquette is a small work of art.

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Michigan: delightful art deco storefront in Marquette.

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Michigan: busy downtown coffee shop with a view of the gorgeous old City Hall across the street.

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Michigan: Marquette’s City Hall

These are all small towns (with the exception of Madison, Wisconsin, which is a medium-sized city that has managed to keep its sanity nonetheless). They were fortunate enough to be in a shadow when urban renewal was blazing brightly and scorching everything in its path. These towns did not destroy themselves and their history in the name of progress. None of these towns did anything dramatic to “re-invent” themselves to compete with a mall. They didn’t bulldoze large blocks of urban fabric to create open space or parking garages. They didn’t do anything extreme or bizarre to redesign their old downtown for the 21st century (such as downtown Salina, Kansas, a story for another day). What they did was embrace what they already had, and to manage this valuable resource to keep it intact and allow it to prosper naturally. They left it alone, and the beauty and integrity of what had been built 100+ years prior returned again to provide us the texture and beauty that can’t be genuinely replicated in a new shopping environment. If you have a visitor from out of town, you don’t take them to the new Wal-Mart or to the Shop-O-Rama Factory Outlets, do you? If they ask to see your town, you take them downtown because that’s where the soul of the city resides.

There is, however, a size threshold. I had great expectations for towns like Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Unfortunately they were just large enough to have big-city ideas of re-inventing downtown, to no avail. But this is a story for another day too.

Richard Kenney is an Architect in Seattle Washington and the principal of Cool Green Cabin, LLC.

 

Rollin Stanley Presented “Lessons from St. Louis” at Louisiana State APA Conference in New Orleans

September 22, 2007 Guest, Planning & Design 16 Comments

A guest editorial by Matthew Mourning

On Friday, September 21, 2007, in a city noted for its amalgam of cultures and linguistic influences, Canadian citizen and St. Louis’ Planning and Urban Design Agency Executive Director Rollin Stanley served up generous portions of “aboots” and “pro-grums” to an eager smattering of planners, architects, and students assembled at the Louisiana Chapter of the American Planning Association’s annual conference, this year in New Orleans.

Rollin Stanley In a seminar entitled “Lessons from St. Louis,” Stanley proceeded to showcase a PowerPoint (in a room without audio capabilities) of St. Louis’ ascendancy from contemporary equivalent of the ancient sacked city of Troy to an urban exemplar whose recent success story is, though remarkable, also replicable.

The city of New Orleans has lost more than half of its population since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in August and September of 2005. Many neighborhoods remain partially ruined; water lines tell the story of the storm’s destructive remnants and extant FEMA spray paint on row after row of New Orleans’ flamboyant Creole-style architecture indicates the number rescued from (and the number deceased found within) each splendid but forlorn structure. While it’s hard to believe, certain neighborhoods near the Levee breach have few structures remaining at all. The often spoken of Lower Ninth Ward, including part of the tight knit Holy Cross neighborhood, saw nearly complete devastation. Only concrete slabs and, against odds, a determination to rebuild persist.

Stanley’s concept was rather simple. St. Louis is like you, New Orleans. St. Louis’ “Katrina” is, in fact, worse and more debilitating than yours, a half-century long storm of urban blight, white flight, substandard schools, a bleeding population, deindustrialization, disinvested infrastructure, and abandoned solid brick architecture. Quipped the Canadian at one particularly bleak demonstration of St. Louis’s extant urban problems: “I’ll sell you a 5,000 square foot Victorian for $1,000…and I’ll give you a 10 year tax abatement.”

Stanley’s speech dichotomized St. Louis as a city with unique and monumental challenges which it is now gracefully and astoundingly seeing some triumph over. And while comparing St. Louis’ half-century free-fall to the overnight ravages of Katrina on one of America’s most celebrated cities is not particularly popular with native New Orleanians, it lent the presentation a tone of gravity that captured attentions that in previous presentations had been on the coffee thermostat, complimentary snacks, and conference packet materials. Rollin set out to show New Orleans how it could best lick its own wounds, using the St. Louis example.

The Einsteinian City, the presenter maintained, is the successful one. That is, the energy of a city (E) equals its mass of services (m) times its density, or concentration (c) squared to produce the well-known equation. In this urban planner’s twist on it, maximizing density justifies services and creates an energetic city. The theme that sound urban planning is much like this simple equation was echoed throughout the presentation. At one point, Rollin scrunched up his face and searched for a word—“What do you guys call it—TOD? In Canada, we call it good urban planning.”

In showcasing what he and conference organizers termed the remarkable turnaround of St. Louis, Mr. Stanley had to relate the raw product that he, upon entering the position, had to work with. And so, a wide-angle video shot driving down Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. popped up on the screen and evoked an audible audience reaction. “I know. It’s hell. It’s absolute hell,” Stanley stressed. He augmented the visceral decay with the numbers to back it up—a loss of 508,000 residents since 1950 as well as the loss of stature having been the nation’s fourth largest city in 1900. He even featured a slide of Pruitt-Igoe’s demolition to detail the loss of 3,000 housing units in the City of St. Louis over the course of just a year and a half.

When the audience had been bludgeoned with the point that St. Louis “was crap,” as Stanley concisely summed up the state of the city, he moved on to the strategy that could lift New Orleans out of its storm-induced doldrums. Ironically, Stanley seemed to have done no research on New Orleans, however. He asserted that, unlike St. Louis, New Orleans had no powers of Tax Increment Financing, only to be corrected. He also lent no time to the acknowledgment that New Orleans too had been losing a considerable portion of its own population pre-Katrina and suffered from an as-bad or worse crime rate as St. Louis for the last decade.

He included all of the expected topics: building diversity, improving education, thinking regionally, increasing density, and introducing new and improved transit options. Up until this point in the presentation, Stanley was engaging, energetic, witty, and, most importantly, rather accurate. In discussing St. Louis’ climb upward, however, he mentioned in passing that he and Mayor Slay had proven and continue to prove themselves panaceas to past planning blunders and even to urban blight itself. In one of his strategy areas, leveraging historic resources, Stanley appropriately pointed out that the state of Missouri is the leader in the nation with its generous historic tax credits program. Further, St. Louis has proven a tremendous beneficiary. But Rollin depicted these tax credits as his own tool towards selling St. Louis’ venerable but dilapidated beauties. He made the Mayor and himself seem ardent preservationists, salvaging inimitable structures that once fell to the wrecking ball of urban renewal. Homer G. Phillips Hospital was one of his examples of the city’s (and his own) recent reclamations—while in the next breath he appeared frustrated that the city had to resort to eminent domain to demolish a row of historic (but, to him, “unmarketable”) Ville shotgun houses. A slide bragging of new development in the low-income Ville projected the image of suburban style homes (far set backs, vinyl clad) that stayed on the screen only long enough to perhaps convince the audience that this was some collection of New Urbanism or HOPE VI pastel housing units that New Orleans itself has seen popping up in place of outmoded low-rise public housing.

And on the note of historic preservation, I have to ask, did Rollin Stanley protest the infamous demolition of the Century Building for a parking garage (quite sardonically dubbed the “Garage Mahal” by embittered opponents of the garage that is said to draw its “architectural inspiration” from the marble clad turn of the century mid-rise it replaced)? What about the wholesale clearance of the McRee Town neighborhood, part of which rested in a local historic district? Or the erosion of the last remaining fabric of the Bohemian Hill neighborhood for strip center shopping? Ongoing demolitions within the historic districts of Hyde Park and Murphy-Blair/Old North St. Louis? The mysterious destruction by Bobcat of the rear corners of buildings in McKee’s targeted neighborhoods of St. Louis Place and JeffVanderlou?

To his credit, Stanley did belabor the point that he was a progressive in a decidedly backward city and state. He expressed disillusionment that Walgreens felt it needed front parking lots to develop urban sites and that fast food restaurants required drive-thrus. “If you can’t get out of your damn car for a hamburger, something’s wrong,” he remarked to the delight and applause of the crowd. He also attacked the stature of planners in St. Louis, saying, “In Canada, you can’t make noises with your armpit without going to a planner first. In Missouri, they shoot ‘em [planners].”

In a strategic point entitled “Implement Big Ideas,” he used the Chouteau Lake project (spearheaded by McCormack Baron Salazar) to offer up but one of St. Louis’ big ticket development projects while simultaneously rejecting it as coming too soon. He believed that it would drive up demand for lakeside real estate outside of downtown, causing a shift of development away from the downtown proper that he stated he wanted to see filled up first.

In the “putting it all together” slide, Rollin praised the recently passed Urban Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Act and called it a great opportunity to redevelop large sites in the City of St. Louis (to be brief, or convenient, without a mention of the Paul McKee, Jr. controversy). He lauded the King Louis Square development (whose photo on the slide, I would note, did not reveal the “mullet” style brick-in-front, vinyl-on-the-sides-and-back construction)—“all done with tax credits!” Pointing out that the new Busch Stadium was one of the least publicly subsidized stadium projects in the country, he offered a bit of helpful advice to Cordish, the developers of Ballpark Village. “We need retail and restaurants that don’t exist anywhere else,” he emphasized, even though he called for a Disney-owned ESPN Zone on the site.

In a slide entitled “How We’re Doing,” he tells of increasing population after decades of decline, decreasing poverty, and the city’s coveted “Urban Renewal” award bestowed by the World Leadership Forum in London this past year.

He then closed his presentation and opened it up to questions. I found myself still bothered by an urban planner calling MLK Jr. Blvd. “hell” and championing the demolition of historic structures in what was St. Louis’ premiere African-American neighborhood all within in the same presentation. And so I asked, “How does one interested in historic preservation balance the idea of preservation as economic development with the political and economic pressure to tear down vacant buildings and replace them with buildings that do not even approximate the older structures?” He told me that the City of St. Louis vigorously protects anything in a historic district, which covers 40 percent of the city, and that he can’t reasonably save every structure. After all, he noted, St. Louis needs new construction anyway, and nobody will buy a shotgun house these days. Wow. I suppose New Orleans must really be having a difficult time with recovery if no one will live in a shotgun! And of course, images of demolished Garden District bungalows make me question what this city’s idea of good new development is.

If the city is to recover, and especially to the point where it is felt that it can present an example to even more beleaguered cities, historic preservation and quality infill housing become ever more important focuses. St. Louis’ political structure, its acceptance of Aldermanic fiefdoms and aldermanic courtesy, preclude Stanley’s idea of “good urban planning.” As long as zoning codes reflect the “urban renewal” mentality of the 1940s and beyond, St. Louis, as a city, will see its “renaissance” give way to another protracted “dark age.”

Stanley’s presentation points out a single and incredibly important fact about St. Louis. Indicators haven’t looked this good in decades. Now is time to “think big.” But thinking big doesn’t necessitate large casino developments or more parking garages downtown. Thinking big, in St. Louis, means challenging the status quo rather than working within it. It means that developments such as Southtowne Centre on Kingshighway and Chippewa should be illegal. It means that demolition in Bohemian Hill (too small to be considered a neighborhood, I’m told by many) should be decried and rejected by nearby residents, business owners, and preservationists alike. It means that “Botanical Heights” should conform to setback and spacing guidelines. It means supporting the businesses of Cherokee Antique District, Cherokee Station, Grand South Grand, Euclid, Ivanhoe, Morganford, Macklind, Gravois, and, in the future, the 14th Street Mall, or Crown Village, especially the local ones (and NOT ESPN Zone). It means biking or taking public transit to work.

To borrow from Mayor Slay, “we’ll be a great city” again, but not until we start acting, investing, and building like we deserve to be one.

Matthew Mourning is a St. Louis native, from the Bevo neighborhood, with a bachelor’s degree in Urban Affairs from Saint Louis University. Matthew is a graduate student in the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning Program at the University of New Orleans.

 

Downtown Reverend Speaks Up on Feeding the Homeless in Public Parks

September 5, 2007 Downtown, Guest, Homeless, Religion 23 Comments

A guest editorial by Rev. Karen Fields:

Over the past year or so, I have been a part of the St. Louis Downtown Residents Association’s meetings that have focused on the safety issues that face those who have chosen to make downtown their home. Recently, I attended a similar meeting convened by Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett. As a clergyperson whose church has opened the doors to the homeless, I went to these meetings already on the defensive. I had an idea of how the residents might feel about the population that walks through our doors everyday looking for a meal, a restroom, or a phone. I knew that they didn’t know me, my motivation, our program, or even very much about the people we serve. I didn’t say much at these meetings. I wanted to assess the prevailing sentiment.

I have to admit that I did hear some of what I went expecting to hear. I heard the voices that said that the presence of the homeless in the parks and on the streets was hurting their property values. I heard the voices that said that there needed to be more security measures in place to protect residents and their investments. But I have to also admit that these voices were dwarfed by the voices of those who were looking for safety and security for all downtown residents, not just the ones sleeping in a loft. There was evidence of compassion for those with whom they share their neighborhood. It is hard, however, to hold compassion and the desire for safety and security in tension; especially when you have compassion for those whom you feel threaten your safety and security. It was obvious that it is in that tension that most of the St. Louis downtown residents live.

None of the homeless service providers created homelessness nor did they bring homelessness to downtown St. Louis. This population was downtown long before the first developer decided to invest in gentrification. They made their homes in abandoned warehouses, in tunnels under the city, in the parks, and along the riverbank, long before the warehouses were reclaimed for profit or there were pets to walk in the parks. The service providers responded to a human need that existed. They are still responding to human need.

Working with this population, I have learned a great deal about the human condition. There is no one definition of the characteristics of a homeless person. Stereotypes are as wrong for them as they are for any other minority. I have learned that they are a microcosm of the larger society from which we all come. Just like in any neighborhood across the metro area, some of the members of the homeless population are extremely intelligent. Some are intellectually challenged. Some are creative and artsy. Some are linear and analytical. Some need to be on medications to maintain a balanced temperament. Some are diabetic. Some have high blood pressure. Some have families that love them. Some are estranged from their past. Some have criminal tendencies. Some try to be model citizens. Not one wants to be a failure. Not one dreamed of someday living on the streets. Not one of them wants to be invisible. All of them want to love and be loved. Not all of them know how.

As part of the neighborhood, Centenary Church decided two years ago that we have a responsibility to step into the tension and become part of the solution. No matter how well intended a suburban group might be, it is not a safe and healthy practice to feed people in our parks. There is no control over how the food is prepared, served, or disposed of. The homeless population risks illness and the parks suffer from trash and rodents. Centenary has a large dining hall with an inspected kitchen and lots of trash cans.

No matter how much downtown residents and business owners dislike the problem of public urination, the fact remains that there are few public restrooms available for a homeless person to take care of this most basic human need. Centenary is in the process of completing the construction of new public restrooms that will be available for anyone’s use. It is the hope that in the near future, we might be able to acquire the funds necessary to also offer showers.

No matter how hospitable the library is to the homeless population, most are not using it for the purpose for which a library is intended. Centenary will be open from breakfast to dinner most days, so that the homeless have a place of respite from the elements – to get in out of the rain or snow or to escape the heat, a place to get a cold drink of water or a hot cup of coffee, a place to rest feet or wait for an appointment.

I have heard rumor that some have said that we are nothing more than a City-sponsored Methodist jail. I have been asked how I feel about the City requiring people to join Centenary in serving evening meals or they will be ticketed. Neither one of these accusations could be further from the truth. Centenary Church has opened its doors to help ease the tension and help find ways that diversity can co-exist. Nobody is required to join us “or else.” Nobody is being forced to spend their day in our building.

The re-development of downtown St. Louis is exciting. Dry bones are beginning to come to life. Downtown living offers something that can be found no place else. Centenary Church has been a downtown church since 1839. It has chosen twice in its history to remain a downtown church; even as other churches have packed up and moved west. It did not go to the suburbs and decide to move back downtown. It has always been here. Centenary knows what a great place downtown St. Louis can be and is committed to being a place of hospitality and grace to all of the residents of the neighborhood.

At the last meeting I attended, the question was asked about what people could do “right now” to address the issues that homelessness causes for the community. I said it then, and I will say it again. Come join us at Centenary. Help us build bathrooms. Help us provide a safe place to eat. Come help us serve a meal. Come have a conversation with one of your neighbors. You might find that they are more human than you thought.

Reverend Fields is an Associate Pastor with Centenary United Methodist Church located at 1610 Olive and is the Program Director of Centenary CARES. For more information go to centenarystl.org. To volunteer time and/or money please contact Rev. Fields at 314.421.3136 ext. 106 or k.fields at centenarystl dot org.

 

Parting Thoughts from St. Louis Urban Planner Heading to Charlotte

July 13, 2007 Guest 22 Comments

A guest editorial by Brian Horton

Next week, this lifelong St. Louisan moves from the rustbelt to the sunbelt. I have found a great job for my combined interests in transportation and land use planning. The only drawback is that this strong career-building opportunity is not within or closer to my beloved hometown, but 700-plus miles east of here in rapidly growing and increasingly progressive Charlotte, NC.

In Charlotte, developers are already building multiple, mixed-use projects in anticipation of their first light-rail line opening late this year, with additional light rail, bus rapid transit, modern streetcars and commuter rail all planned as an extensive, multi-modal system. Most importantly, Charlotte has adopted a coordinated land use strategy with the goal of targeting forty percent of all new development into their planned transit corridors, supporting growth in the form of more compact, walkable development. Steve would likely love how Charlotte agreed to a new Lowe’s not far from the new South Corridor line nearing completion, only on the condition that the big-box wrap itself with dense housing. Sadly, as most readers of Steve’s blog know, St. Louis doesn’t even have sufficient sidewalks leading to its newly subsidized Lowe’s in Loughborough Commons.

In Charlotte, it’s frankly easier to get things done than in St. Louis. Even though Charlotte is significantly smaller than St. Louis, they’re growing, have money to build, and local government controls key planning decisions, including transit, roads, sidewalks, development review, and land use strategies. As a result, Charlotte has the impetus to shift gears, the resources to fulfill their plans, and little excuse for any disconnect between its land use and transportation decisions.

Of course, today’s Charlotte, having exploded into a major metropolis only in the last twenty years, still resembles a large suburb. But the policies are now in place for change. Likely aided by their growth pressures (perhaps a fear of becoming like nearby Atlanta), Charlotte now supports rather smart growth strategies. Still, Charlotte will be far from another Portland. Their pro-transit Republican mayor, banking-dominated corporate culture, and largely suburban-living electorate all support the bold plan for how it was sold. It’s about choices, and frankly, urban is again chic. If the fastest growing major city east of the Mississippi is to continue attracting people, it will be more marketable to have urban choices within a largely suburban looking place. And with the coordinated transit-land use plan calling for Corridors, Centers, and Wedges, low-density living will still very much persist in the largest designation areas of “wedges.”

Compared to Charlotte, I will immediately miss St. Louis for its unique neighborhoods and architecture, but certainly not its politics. The feel of an older city is something clearly missing in the largely post-1980 sunbelt boomtown. Here, we have the dumb luck of living in a place with a glorious past built largely when cities were still built for people instead of cars.

Sadly, too many locally bred leaders fail to see what an asset we have in the expansive “Old Urbanism” we have inherited. The best parts of St. Louis were largely built prior to the large-scale planning and auto-dominated development in the mid-to late-twentieth century. If Washington Avenue warehouses hadn’t been mothballed during those “dark ages” of planning, I doubt we could have ever quickly returned to such urban critical mass in the near future.

I would argue that leaders like Mayor Slay are more so riding the wave than leading the way. The market has already shifted towards urban living. Even suburbs now get it and are pursuing more urban development. What is so sad then is when the leaders of our urban core still don’t get it and still push for suburban development as the fix-all solution. I’m sorry, but a Winghaven in North St. Louis will be no more sustainable than Pruitt-Igoe. Locals should never forget that even big projects like Laclede Town and St. Louis Centre were briefly successes too initially. However, as Jane Jacobs had the street sense decades ago to observe before urban again became chic, urbanity will always thrive on organic relationships, which are possible in the hodge-podge blocks of city living. The resulting mix of street life found in blocks with a mix of new and old uses creates more sustainable vibrancy, whereas the overly controlled environments found in big projects risk failing as quickly as the next fad.

So ironically, I’ll now work in a largely suburban environment seeking to build the currently fashionable “New Urbanism,” while my hometown continues to ignore the vast amount of “Old Urbanism,” for which we have had the dumb luck to inherit. But you see, Charlotte also has the dumb luck of geography and climate. It’s close to the mountains, a day’s drive from the ocean, and enjoys a mild winter in exchange for summers no more humid than here. Of course, St. Louis will never have mountains or beaches. But what we do have more than any other city, especially for such low cost, is an amazing urban environment. Enough inherited mass is already here that we only need to now carefully ensure that proposed infill remains urban. Despite the context with which we are blessed, our local leaders continue to still mess it up.

Sure, critics may say Charlotte has the luxury to be picky since it’s growing, but it takes a positive-thinking culture to grow. Until we stop settling for mediocrity, we will never grow. Other cities would die to have the inherited urbanity we take for granted, and yet it’s our most under-appreciated asset.

Over the years, I’ve noticed more optimism among transplants than natives. Those moving here from elsewhere, often lucky themselves to stumble on a place not selling itself, outsiders not hung up on what high school they went to, they tend to get it right away. Coming from other areas, outsiders quickly realize what an urban gem and great buy St. Louis is. Thus, I think too many of our region’s leaders are natives, an ironic observation from this native. Thus, our leaders fail to sell St. Louis to others, when they are not entirely sold themselves, taking their inherited place for granted.

Ideally, I hope to someday return to St. Louis and help my home region finally pursue similar strategies. For the moment though, I will move to a place that already gets it. I fear if I stay here, I will grow cynical fighting the good fight, ever pessimistic about a local culture that settles too quickly, or at least questions how great of a place it already is, let alone how much greater it could easily become.

From KDHX Radio:

At 7 p.m., Monday, July 16, Collateral Damage will feature Brian Horton, an urban planner at East-West Gateway Council of Governments, along with Steve Patterson of www.urbanreviewstl.com. Horton, who worked on plans for the next MetroLink extension, is about to move to Charlotte, North Carolina. Patterson, an avid watchdog on local urban issues, will discuss with Horton how St. Louis and Charlotte take different approaches on mass transit, transportation and urban development. The two will join co-hosts D.J. Wilson and Fred Hessel with end-of the-show commentary by Barroom Bob Putnam.

We are losing a great thinker in Brian Horton, his contributions will be missed — Steve. Share your thoughts below and tune-in Monday evening at 88.1.

 

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