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Think about giving back

December 25, 2009 STL Region 2 Comments

For those of you celebrating a religious holiday today, Merry Christmas.  For the rest of us, Happy Holidays. I’ll be enjoying dinner with friends, their young children and their family.

Many things will be opened today but when I spend time with these kids (ages 1 & 3) I am reminded it is our obligation to make a better world for them.  In the four decades since I was that age many things have improved – increased equality for example.  But many have gotten worse, such as air pollution.

In 2010 consider giving back to your community.   We typically have a surplus of money or time – rarely both.  Give what you can.  A good place to start is the United Way of St. Louis Volunteer Center.  Maybe your passion is around animals, education, or the elderly.  Whatever your passion, there is likely to be a way to help others.  So enjoy your new things today but next week please start searching for ways to combine your interests with helping the community.

And please recycle wrapping paper, packaging and boxes.

– Steve Patterson


Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist


Consolidating school districts the answer?

Schools in the City of St. Louis, and in much of the region, need help to improve performance and perceptions.  On December 17th the state took action to help one such district:

The Missouri Board of Education today voted to merge the Wellston School District in St. Louis County with the larger nearby Normandy School District.

The Wellston District lost state accreditation in 2003. And despite recent improvements in graduation rates, state officials say the district has continued to struggle academically and financially.

The Wellston School District will officially cease operations after the current school year ends. (source: KWMU)

Some would argue more districts, like municipalities, need consolidation.  One reason:

In the 2006 issue of “Where We Stand” published by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the St. Louis area ranked as number one for the highest number of independent school districts per 100,000 population when compared to 33 other metropolitan areas of similar size and characteristics. (source: Renewing the Region)

Others have argued districts should not be larger than a single high school.  I’d imagine there is a point where a district can be too small or too big.  The poll this week asks your opinion – should Missouri consolidate more school districts in the region? Vote in the upper right sidebar and share your views in the comments below.

– Steve Patterson


What I love about St. Louis

December 11, 2009 STL Region 10 Comments

I’m in my 20th year in St. Louis.  Although I have come close to moving elsewhere over the years at this point I don’t ever see myself leaving St. Louis.  I complain daily about this and that but I do so because I care.  If I didn’t I would have loaded the U-Haul years ago.  I’m just not sure where I would have moved.  Every city/region has issues.  The grass may look greener over there but it really isn’t.

Of course I love my many friends in St. Louis.  I love the quality of the locally owned restaurants in St. Louis.  But I want to list positive physical attributes that makes me appreciate the City of St. Louis.  Here is what I came up with, in no particular order:

  • 19th century street grid of (mostly) short/walkable city blocks. Although severed by highways much of the grid remains in place.  I love how some streets, such as Gravois,  cross the grid at an angle.
  • Solid feel of the mostly masonry structures. I love our rare wood frame buildings but the most ordinary streets, even if largely vacant, feel very substantial.  The subtle variety in colors and the different details are fascinating and show the pride of those who built the buildings.
  • Neighborhood corner storefronts and commercial streets. Much of our city was built prior to the automobile and as such it has the walkable street grid mentioned above.  Often the street corners have storefront buildings that once housed various merchants selling dry goods, meats, produce, bread, candy, and bicycles. In some neighborhoods these continue to in this fashion — visit the Hill to see for yourself.  Along streetcar lines we’d often see a collection of storefronts.  Today these and others make up some of our best districts in terms of architectural scale. Examples: Euclid in the CWE, Meramec & Virginia in Dutchtown, Ivanhoe, Macklind between Chippewa and Loughborough, Morgan Ford, North Broadway in Baden, Manchester Ave in The Grove, Auto Alley on Locust in Midtown, downtown, North 14th Street in Old North, and the Delmar Loop. You can see the Wellston Loop was once thriving – I’m optimistic it will be again.  These places and so many others have character that comes from their period and their age — it can’t be built new.
  • Adaptability of building stock to new uses. Warehouses, factories, schools and churches have been retrofitted with new uses from when first built. I love that we have tax credits available to make the reuse of existing structures possible.
  • Enormous potential for growth – economic and population. I can still recall that Saturday in August 1990 when I drove my friend Mary Ann’s Honda Civic into St. Louis along I-44 from Oklahoma.  By the time we reached Grand I was hooked.  In the years that have followed I’ve explored every part of this city.  St. Louis Hills is different than Soulard which is different than Hyde Park -  all good and all have potential for increased population.  Our main corridors can become densely populated routes with streetcars connecting them to each other and the larger region.  I can see St. Louis with a population double today’s population.  I’m as excited by the potential as I was that first day I arrived.  The rest of my life will be spent as an urban planner helping St. Louis and other cities reach their full potential.
  • Geographic location. Some like the mountains or warm climates. I like being in the middle, flights to either coast are not so long.  My family in Oklahoma is close enough to see annually.  Chicago and other cities are reasonably close.  I like that we have four seasons.
  • Mississippi & Missouri rivers. People seem naturally drawn to bodies of water.  For some they like the ocean.  Others it is living near a lake.  For me I like river cities.  I like the idea of the navigation, the power of the moving water.  I’ve seen prettier river towns but the Mississippi is a beast of a river.

If I hadn’t ended up in St. Louis I would have likely found another 19th century manufacturing city to call home. Perhaps Detroit or Cleveland?

I will continue working to shape St. Louis into my vision for the future.  That may involve negative or hostile views but I think St. Louis is worth fighting for and change doesn’t come without a fight.  I figure I’ve got about thirty years left and I want to make the most of them.  I can guarantee that I will never reach a point where I can sit back and say there is nothing else to be done — the city/region is perfect. Even if our population is doubled and our schools are the best in the nation I will still see room for improvement.

I’ve thought at various times I should live in a better place where things are more urban.  The truth is I like solving problems – urban problems.  Live in utopia and you have no problems to solve.  I’m emotionally attached to St. Louis, no question about that.  Solving urban problems outside the City of St. Louis are less emotional for me but just as thrilling.

– Steve Patterson


Local elected officials and social networking

Knowing what our elected officials are working on used to require attending monthly neighborhood meetings.  Not bad if you are free when the meetings are held and patient enough to sit through the entire meeting to hopefully get a clue what they are up to.  Not good if you care to know about more than a single ward.  How many meetings can one person reasonably attend per month just to be an informed citizen? Then add in the issue of just trying to know what meetings are held when, where and who will be there.  If you are parochial you only care about that which is within your ward — across the street doesn’t matter.  In St. Louis that means your 3.6% (1/28th) section of the city.  Many of us, however, take a broader view of issues and problems facing not just the city but the entire St. Louis region.  3.6% is not enough.

For a number of years now I’ve complained that too few of our elected officials blogged.  If you wanted to know what they were working on you had on track them down at a neighborhood meeting.  Even then you got the same old boring stuff, no real news about what they are working on.

With the rise of Twitter, the 140 character micro-blogging site, our elected officials can now easily reach those interested in knowing what they are working on.  Some of them have embraced Twitter as a way to easily communicate.

The following are elected officials from the City of St. Louis on Twitter:

The list above includes all ages, races & both genders.  It includes senior members and two elected earlier this year.  My apologies if I’ve left anyone off the list.  The use by those listed above varies.  Mayor Slay does not personally tweet. Others can go weeks between tweets.

The above is just for the City of St. Louis.  Our region includes hundreds of units of government.  St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley is also on Twitter.  But what about members of the St. Louis County Council?  Hundreds of mayors in the region? Heads of other counties in our 16-county region?  Newly elected State Senator Joe Keaveny is on Twitter.

I started this post a couple months ago.  Since then Twitter has added a lists feature.  So for this post I created a list with elected officials that represent part of the St. Louis region.  Right now the list has 20 persons from both sides of the river.  You can subscribe to the entire list or pick and chose.  If you know of others that should be on the list let me know.

With only 20 on this list this means that most of our elected officials are not on Twitter.  Many of you are probably not either.  Not everyone needs to follow every official.  What is important is that they are putting out ideas and asking for feedback.  The other day I sent feedback to Lt. Gov Peter Kinder.  I’ve sent a message or two to Senator Claire McCaskill as well as numerous local aldermen. With the local press following them as well you are likely to get better reporting.

If you go to your ward/neighborhood meetings keep doing so.    But I’m interested in the entire region.

UPDATE 11/13/09 7:50am: Just got word that Mayor Slay does do some personal tweeting – those with #fgs at the end. Good to know.

– Steve Patterson




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