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A Tale of Two Existences

Between recent comments here on the blog and the URBANEXUS gathering downtown recently, it has been striking how vehemently people feel about the urban vs. suburban existence. The vitriol is mostly one-sided, the urbanists against the suburbanites. To most suburbanites, there is little passion for that fight because the city is basically irrelevant to them. Suburbanites tend to fall into three main groups: they have lived in the city at one point and subsequently chosen a suburban path; they enjoy visiting city amenities but don’t want to live there; or it never appealed to them. So what lies behind this divide?

If urbanists disdain the suburbs and speak arrogantly toward those who live there, where is the fuel? I would suggest it is, at heart, anger. The suburbs represent everything they hate: sameness, conformity, uniformity, and detachment or entrenchment from the world at large. But aren’t these all illusions? Aren’t they just as conformist to an urban identity and shared disdain for the suburbs? Aren’t both cities and suburbs created landscapes representative of their times? Aren’t as many people isolated and detached from the world in their urban condos and apartments as the folks who inhabit split-levels, ranch houses and huge suburban great rooms? Is one really better than another? Or are they neither better or worse, just different?

I am the most unlikely defender of the suburbs. I have hated them most of my adult life. I grew up in a small town, 100 miles from any large city, and I didn’t really experience city life until after college when I started my career in Peoria, then Chicago. I lived on the Chicago’s north side, in Lincoln Park before it became ultra chic. Then I moved to Seattle in the Queen Anne neighborhood. I spent my vacations in cities visiting friends in New York, LA, San Francisco and Boston. Nothing else appealed to me and I was horrified by friends and relatives as they abandoned the cities for the suburbs. Not me, not ever, I said.

So here I am, in Maryland Heights, and (gasp) I enjoy it. It’s a second-ring suburb so it’s grown-up, it’s mature, it has huge trees and sidewalks. Its houses were built in the peak era of the rise of middle class. Large enough to be comfortable, but small enough to be considered now as modest in comparison to much larger, new suburban homes and mega mansions. The lawns aren’t huge, the neighborhood is extremely walkable for exercise and recreation, and the energy footprint is modest like the houses.

I have a garden and enjoy yard work after years of container gardening on porches and balconies. I have a giant sweet-gum tree in my front yard and love raking leaves. I know my neighbors. My sister and her family live less than a mile away. My mother lives with me. It is easy to get around and run errands, pick up library books, and every night, for the first time in my life, I park my car in an enclosed garage. I no longer have to get up early to scrape the ice from my windows, shovel myself out of street parking, or get soaked in the pouring rain before I’ve ever left home.

Located smack in the middle of I-270, I-70 and Page Avenue, I can get to the airport in under 15 minutes (important when I commuted weekly to Seattle for my job) and there’s almost no place in the metropolitan area that I can’t get to in about 20 minutes or less. I have fresh, locally grown food available at Thies Farm and the many charms of Creve Coeur Park are less than a mile from my house.

My city is small enough that I can easily attend meetings and interact with city government. I know the people who run my city and I can work both with them and in opposition to them to build a better city with a sustainable future. I have easily met others and formed a residents’ group that will continue to educate and inform the political process.

Maryland Heights is also auto-centric, lacks a town center and informal gathering places, and, like every other place on earth, is sometimes boring. So I think it comes down to this: time of life and love. Our decisions about where to live are not abstract concepts. They are practical and they come with a constellation of considerations, many beyond our control, and many of them related to love.

We fall in love with someone who already owns a house in the suburbs or we move to have a vastly shorter commute to our suburban employer. We move to the suburbs of St. Louis because our toddler will soon be in school and we believe in the value of public-school education, but not in the St. Louis city schools. Our parents grow old and need help and comfort in their old age. They move in with us, into a single-story ranch house with an attached garage, and easy access to medical facilities and grocery stores. We can simply be ready for a change of pace: ready to garden in our own yard, to participate in civic activities, and take care of our extended families while we still have them.

Time is precious. I wouldn’t trade my 25 years as a fervent urbanist for anything. It was the absolute right thing for me. I have come to love my life in the suburbs in service to those I hold most dear. There will be other chapters in my life and I will, doubtless, live other places, including the heart of a great city.

I wish I had been more thoughtful, and less shrill, about my choices when I was younger. I wish I could have been more confident in my own choices without thinking everyone had to feel the same way. I wish I had known more about the value of family ties and the difference between sacrifice and a loving sacrifice. I wish I had been kinder to my friends who married and left for the suburbs.

One of the great gifts of age is a truer appreciation of diversity and how we all make choices for love. My neighborhood is as integrated as my neighborhood in the city, maybe more so, because of all the nationalities that live near me. But it isn’t race that makes us diverse, it’s all the stories of how they came to be here, the choices they made for love, and why this is only one chapter of a long and varied life.

-Deborah Moulton


Readers Split Between Soccer and Basketball

A recent poll on this site asked readers which professional sports league, if any, should be next for St. Louis.  We currently have professional football (Rams), hockey (Blues) and, of course, baseball (Cardinals). Of the “major” leagues we lack only basketball (NBA).  Other leagues we do not have are women’s basketball (WNBA), soccer (MLS), and arena football (AFL).    Note, the AFL is currently suspended amid financial difficulties.

Women’s basketball, arena football and lacrosse received zero votes giving none of the above/who cares the 3rd place spot (17 votes) behind basketball (50) and soccer (52).  Single write-in votes included rugby, “foxy boxing” and an American League MLB franchise.  During the week basketball & soccer were neck and neck, with soccer usually in the lead.

While I’ve enjoyed the handful of Cardinals games I’ve attended over the last 19 years, I’m not a sports fan.  I’ve never attended a football game (except 1-2 during high school), hockey, soccer or basketball.  Of these, only soccer has me interested in personally attending a match.  I’ve watched the Cardinals on TV during the World Series but never during the regular season.

Prior to 1966 St. Louis’ major sports were played outside of downtown.  Baseball & football were played at Sportsman’s Park at Grand & Dodier (map) and hockey was played at The Arena on Oakland Ave.   The idea of constructing downtown stadiums was conceived across the country as a strategy to keep downtown’s occupied. Along the same lines, cultural institutions were also consolidated in many cities.  St. Louis bucked the trend in the late 1960s when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra renovated a 1925 movie theater in midtown, the St. Louis Theater.   The Symphony left downtown’s Kiel Opera House for their new renovated digs in midtown.  In November 2005 I quoted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable:

The success of Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis is probably going to lead a lot of people to a lot of wrong conclusions. In a kind of architectural Gresham’s law, the right thing wrongly interpreted usually has more bad than good results. The first wrong conclusion is that Powell Hall represents the triumph of traditional over modern architecture. False. The correct conclusion here is that a good old building is better than a bad new one. Powell Hall represents the triumph simply of suitable preservation. And, one might add, of rare good sense.

But good sense went out the window in cities all over the country, including St. Louis.  Many good old buildings were replaced with bad new buildings, including concert halls and stadiums.

We have Bush Stadium III for baseball and Scottrade Center for hockey as well as any basketball team we may attract.  The size, location and design of these facilities works fairly well within the downtown context.  Busch holds 45,000 more or less and Scottrade seats up to 23,000 depending upon configuration.

As contributor Jim Zavist indicated in his post introducing the poll, we need to face the fact the Rams NFL team is for sale and it may not remain in St. Louis.  I feel that baseball & hockey/basketball are suitable in downtown, but NFL football is not.

The Dallas Cowboy’s new suburban stadium has a capacity of  80,000 and will hold over 100,000 with standing areas.  Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena seats 10,600.   The scale required for NFL is out of place in a walkable context like downtown.

Soccer, like baseball, is on a smaller scale than football.  The new soccer-specific stadium for the New York Red Bulls, being built in New Jersey, will seat 25,000, a quarter of the new Cowboys stadium. For those that like basketball & soccer, check out games at SLU.

The Edwards Jones Dome downtown (capacity 67,000) where the Rams play looks like an outdated dark closet compared to the new Cowboys stadium with its glass walls and retractable roof.  I can see the implosion of the Edward Jones Dome within the next 20 years.  If we retain the Rams in the St. Louis region their new facility needs to be built out on the fringe surrounded by a big parking lot for the fans that tailgate.  Closer in sites include dying malls like Northwest Plaza.   But no site downtown or the city is big enough to be handed over year round for 8-10 games per year.

I think I get part of the appeal of downtown stadiums; for many it is the only time they leave suburbia and come downtown.  Build the stadium on the edge and they’ll never get a chance to leave their miserable environment to experience downtown life, unless they make it to a Cardinals or Blues game.  Best yet is to forget the games and come downtown, have lunch and do some shopping.

I don’t care about the Rams, I want the E.J. Dome gone from my downtown.

– Steve Patterson


Suburban Sprawl Descends Into Uncomfortable Middle Age

Most would agree that West St. Louis County is the poster child for urban sprawl. Over many decades, St. Louis development has crept westward through St. Louis County and into St. Charles County, the current epicenter of unrestrained sprawl. As time has passed, much of central and western St. Louis County have begun the inevitable cycle of aging and renewal that is associated with older urban areas.

My focus of interest is primarily on what urban planners refer to as the “second-ring western suburbs” of St. Louis. They are a microcosm of multiple older rural communities from the mid-to-late 1800s that have been folded into larger, newer cities over the past 50 years. They are all facing the need for urban redevelopment in the face of overwhelming evidence that many of the ideas embraced by the original suburban developers have not turned out so well.

In my city, Maryland Heights, this means a city without a town center. If asked, most people would cite either the Dorsett-McKelvey Road commercial district or Westport as our gathering places. One is a basic commercial crossroads and the other is an aging mixed -use development. Both are modestly successful and neither one represents a true central nexus for residents.

Part of the problem is that Maryland Heights is an anomaly in suburban development: it hosts over 80,000 workers during the day and houses only 26,000 residents at night. The reverse of a bedroom community, it often finds itself beholden to business and commercial interests at the cost of the residents.

This was clearly present in the 2008 fight that residents waged against development in the Howard Bend area of Maryland Heights. This area contains the flood plain around Creve Coeur Park and land on either side of the Maryland Heights Expressway from I-70 to the Page Avenue extension. Residents didn’t want to see a massive development (initially arranged around a proposed Walmart) that would back up against Creve Coeur Park. Maryland Park, as the proposed development was called, was set to build a bland suburban mixed-use project that was fully oriented toward cars.

The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend that is the embodiment of urban sprawl focused on building commercial warehouses and one (or more) large-scale developments for big-box stores and retail. During the Howard Bend fight, residents became fully aware of what was contained in the comprehensive plan. While the process was public, the lack of effective public engagement by the city over 20 years had the unfortunate outcome of surprised residents visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan. In fairness, residents also neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known.

Citizens who fail to monitor and influence their city governments are likely to be surprised and angry when the businesses who do engage with the city are given top priority. To combat this usual state of affairs, a group of concerned citizens originally organized under the flag of SaveCreveCoeur.com has developed into a more permanent organization called Maryland Heights Residents for Responsible Growth. As part of the steering committee, we have launched a new website for the community development organization at MarylandHeightsResidents.com

In the future, I will be contributing posts about the more universal aspects of the issues facing second-ring, western St. Louis County suburbs. Issues I intend to cover include:

  • Cities without town centers
  • Stagnant population growth
  • Diminishing open spaces
  • Flood plain development
  • Aging apartment complexes and housing stock
  • Public-engagement successes and failures
  • Community-development issues and specific projects being pursued
  • The role of residents in guiding city development

I look forward to hearing from you. Please use the comments section below or email me directly with topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts.

– Deborah Moulton


Faded Glory or a Glorious Future?

September 12, 2009 Books, STL Region Comments Off on Faded Glory or a Glorious Future?

As most frequent visitors know, I’m not from around here (I’ve “only” lived in St. Louis for about 5 years). I don’t remember Sportsman Park or where the Blues used to play. I never went to Gaslight Square or the Highlands amusement park. I never rode on a streetcar here, nor do I have any irrational cravings for a concrete or for Provel cheese. I’m an outsider, and I’m still learning a lot about my new hometown.

Earlier this year, Forbes Magazine did a special series on the State of the City, and unlike many series, focused on the whys cities are the way they are, instead of just creating another list. I found many points that crystallized more than a few of my perceptions and observations about St. Louis, both the city and the region, and offered more than a few insights about what the future may hold for us and how we may or may not get there.

In an effort to be succinct, I’m purposely not going to quote from any of the articles – it would be best if you explored them on your own – but I think there are multiple topics worth further, local discussion, everything from the role suburbia plays to discussions on parks, public art and high-speed rail. Many of the issues raised aren’t new – crime, schools, sprawl, taxes, jobs – but the spin is not always what we’ve come to expect. I’d encourage you to take the time to look at one or more in depth, and then to come back and post your thoughts on the issues that seem most relevant.

– Jim Zavist


The Value of Walkable Neighborhoods

As a real estate agent I often hear people say they’d live in the city but they get more house for the money in the exurbs.  True enough, if you count number of rooms (or garage spaces), square footage and so on you do get more on the edge.  They have to offer something to get people out there. The more is more driving.

With home prices bottoming out in many areas nationally, people are looking for any way to get more for their homes. For some, there is a ray of hope….walkability. A new study says that if you want more dough for your house (tell us if anyone says no) it helps to be in a walkable neighborhood.

That’s the conclusion of the analysis from CEOs for Cities that reveals that homes in more walkable neighborhoods are worth more than similar homes in less-walkable neighborhoods.

The report, “Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities” by Joseph Cortright, analyzed data from 94,000 real estate transactions in 15 major markets provided by ZipRealty and found that in 13 of the 15 markets, higher levels of walkability, as measured by Walk Score, were directly linked to higher home values.

Key findings include:

  • In 13 out of 15 metro areas studied, higher levels of walkability were directly linked to higher home values.
  • In the typical metropolitan area, a one point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000. Gains were larger in denser, urban areas and smaller in less dense markets.
  • In the typical areas studied, the premium commanded for neighborhoods with above-average Walk Scores ranged from about $4,000 to $34,000.

(source | study-PDF)

To many of us this is common sense.  I’m willing to pay more or at least make trade offs to be in an environment where walking is an option.  Walkable inner-ring suburbs have the same relationship as the core, less house but more walkability.  You could not pay me enough money to live in the fanciest McMansion in a drivable (non-walkable) area.

Schools, ah yes, schools.  Many correctly point out that older districts suck when it comes to test scores.  Well, the sucking sound is caused by caring parents who should be contributing money & their time to established districts rather than continually creating new edge school districts.  There is value in your child having classmates from different economic classes.  The ability of your chilld to learn to walk to the store, alone, to get a loaf of bread cannot be traded for a media room.

I’m not suggesting everyone needs to live downtown.  Single family detached with a yard and everything between that and my loft is fine.  But understand that walkability adds value to homes.  By buying a home in a drivable area you are saying you don’t value walkability.  At least not enough to pay for it.

– Steve Patterson




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