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St. Louis To Use Eminent Domain to Raze Owner-Occupied Homes for Auto-Centric Retail

city_hospital_sq - 18.jpg Ald. Phyllis Young, up for re-election in only two years, is seeking eminent domain to take people’s homes for a second phase of a project that hasn’t even started construction on the first phase. The project, Georgian Square, is to be located across Lafayette Ave from the former city hospital which is being reborn as The Georgian condos. Still, everyone calls it City Hospital. As such, I will call the proposed development City Hospital Square or CHS for short.

By now you’ve probably heard about or read about this proposed development. The phase II area, with existing buildings include three newer homes (roughly from 2000) is in a “Neighborhood Preservation Area” per the city’s 2005 Comprehensive Land-Use Plan:

Areas where the existing housing and corner commercial building stock will be preserved and augmented with new infill residential and corner commercial development physically integrated with, and primarily serving the immediate neighborhood. These areas generally consist of stable residential areas of the City, including but not limited to historic districts, where the character of the neighborhood is currently well preserved with relatively few vacant lots and abandoned buildings. The plan contemplates continued preservation and improvement, with quality rehabilitation and infill new construction that is sensitive to the character of existing residences. Commercial and institutional uses catering to the immediate needs of the neighborhood are acceptable and reflect the traditional role such activity has played in the history of the City.

I’ve re-read the above paragraph numerous times and I still can’t find the part where it talks about forcing people out of their properties and razing viable structures for more suburban schlock. What is being said, through Ald. Young, is it doesn’t matter what we say on paper or where you buy your house, a Walgreen’s takes priority. In a city littered with vacant land it is criminal to contemplate razing both wonderful old properties as well as nearly new homes.

However, the bulk of the land is vacant, as soon as they finish razing the row houses along Lafayette. This land is located in a “Regional Commerce Area” per the Land-Use Plan:

Areas where the development of existing and commercial uses intended to serve a regional clientele should be encouraged. Developments in these areas will often be new projects. These areas generally consist of existing regional commercial uses or large sites at intersections of major roads/highways with regional access and visibility. Several large and currently underutilized sites exist in the City at prominent intersections. These locations provide “ready to go” locations for large format retailers with strong adjacent markets.

This area, without a doubt, needs new construction. The question is, what form will this new construction take? While I agree with others saying the old Foodland site on Jefferson @ Lafayette would be a better choice the fact is both sites need new construction. I’m not going to get into a debate about which should come first. Both need to be redeveloped and both need to be done so in a clearly urban manner — in other words no big parking lots between the entrance and public sidewalk.

Need more parking? Put in under, on top of, next to or behind the main buildings — just not out front. That kinda development just shouldn’t fly in such an urban area. Well, perhaps that is why they want to raze the block of existing buildings — to make less urban. I really think developers have some sick need to control more land than necessary. When defending the use of eminent domain to gain site control advocates will always talk about “some guy in the middle” holding out for more than his property is worth. But in the case of Loughborough Commons and here the houses in question are on the edge. The developers simply assume, no matter how much land they have already, they need that last little bit to make their project work. I sometimes think if they had a 500 acres but another 10 was off in a corner but on a major road they’d want that — saying their proejct simply won’t work without it.

The problem is our developers, elected officials, architects, planners, engineers and related professions haven’t learned how to develop in a tight land market. As more and more city property is being redeveloped it is only going to get harder and harder for developers to make big land deals. They will need to learn to design projects more densely and not assume they can wipe away an adjacent block. The result will actually be better projects — more building(s) on a given parcel of land. This will make the area more walkable and most likely more desired.

Of course our ancient zoning remains a key player in our problems in the city. It is based on a cheap land, cheap gas model where parking is king. It is hard to push a developer to do expensive underground parking (think Target on Hampton) when the developer down the street might do a massive surface parking lot. The solution is we as a city must embrace an urban form that makes the city a city. That means our standards moving forward should set maximums on the amount of surface parking while offering rewards for more urban forms of parking. Such a reward might be allowing the developer to build an additional floor(s) on their project to make up for the additional parking expense. Getting our aldermen to wake up and see the possibilities, however, is the big challenge. Replacing them might well be easier than trying to educate them.

Here is what needs to happen with City Hospital Square:

  • The Phase II takings of private property needs to be dropped completely.
  • The possible taking of a few vacant pacels in the block between Tucker & 13th should be considered, provided a project is not in the works already for that vacant land.
  • The main project needs to be redesigned placing buildings up to Lafayette Ave with the only parking in front being on-street parking.
  • These buildings should be 2-4 stories in height along Lafayette.
  • Similarly, buildings along 13th Street need to face 13th, not turning their back on the adjacent residential.
  • Some form of shared parking needs to be considered — this might be underground, a common parking structure, roof-top, or back lot should be used for the main project. Very small amounts of surface lots may be appropriate to provide accessible spaces near entrances.
  • Bike, scooter & motorcyle parking needs to be provided as space saving alternatives to typical parking.
  • Sidewalks from Soulard to the East and Lafayette Square to the West need to be evaluated and updated as necessary to make the area as pedestrian friendly as possible.

Mississippi River Bridge: Last Option is the Best Option

A proposed new bridge across the Mississippi River is back in the news of late. Missouri and Illinois still cannot agree on how to pay for the bridge “now estimated to cost between $999 million and $1.76 billion.” (P-D 2/1/07). Call me a synic but if they are estimating such a range I’m going to go with the high end or better when the final bill is paid. In no way do I believe that it would come in under a billion. I’m going to go with $1.5 billion.

So we have several choices: the big highway bridge, a more cost-effective “coupler” built near the existing King Bridge and lastly we have a proposal to fix some of the existing interchanges, a new I-64 interchange in Illinois and redo parts of Illinois Route 3. The feds have already earmarked $239 million for the bridge project — money that presumably can go for this work. Interestingly, these little third option strategies are all items that need to be done anyway. I say stop wasting time on the bridge debate and get to work on fixing the areas that need fixing. Get the bottleneck areas resolved. Is this too short term and not the long-range planning I prefer we do? Perhaps.

I still question the “need” for a new bridge, especially one costing over a billion dollars to construct. Keep in mind that the old McKinley bridge will be reopening for traffic (including cyclists) in September connecting just north of downtown to Illinois Route 3 to Granite City and Madison County. This combined with the King Bridge and Eads Bridge into downtown can handle considerable local traffic. The new bridge as proposed will, in my view, simply shift sprawl from the Western edge of our region (St. Charles County) to the far Eastern edge of the region. Proponents say this will help re-center the City of St. Louis within the region. I suppose that is true, but so would curbing the sprawl through various Smart Growth measures employed by other regions. A billion or so would do wonders in the region for curbing sprawl and building more localized transit.

Frankly, if someone wants to buy a big house way out in Illinois and doesn’t like the traffic on I-64 they have several choices. One, move closer so the drive is not so long. They can get off the highway and take local streets that will get them across the river on other bridges besides the Poplar Street Bridge (aka the PSB). They can utilize the excellent MetroLink light rail system that serves a good portion of St. Clair County in Illinois or bus service to the city from Madison County Transit. Perhaps Illinois with its substantial transportation funding could help out Madison County by helping fund their proposed MetroLink extension.

This bridge, if finally built will not grow our region. It will simply shift suburban sprawl around a bit — a zero sum gain for the region. And simply put, the more lanes you build the more volume will increase putting you right back where you started at some point. As we’ve seen in the past, the city will remain a pass-through. Let’s fix the areas that need fixing and then work on moving people & jobs closer to the center — both in Illinois and Missouri.


A Look at St. Louis’ MLK Drive, Part 4 of 5

This post is part four of a five part series. Part four looks at MLK Drive from Grand Ave. to Kingshighway.

Continuing on our journey west along MLK we resume from Grand Ave. You’ll recall in the prior post we saw the site of the new suburban Walgreen’s. Well, that is only the most recent sprawl-based development in this area.

A new suburban strip center is just completed on the NW corner of MLK (left) and Grand (right). The suburban features are numerous. First we have a single story building, second it is set back as far as possible from the street making it more of a challenge for pedestrians, it lacks a proper ADA required accessible route from the public sidewalk to the building entrances (tisk tisk) and finally it has plenty-o-parking right out front so that everyone can completely ignore the ample on-street parking.

Seen here from the west, the building is completely uninspired and does not relate at all to the sidewalk. I was happy to see the line of street trees along MLK. That is my car parked on MLK, four traffic lanes plus two parking lanes with parking lot focused development is about as suburban as you can get. If I were to crop out the old building in the background you might think we were out in a new suburb. Once the Walgreen’s goes up across Grand, the theme will continue. The above project is located in the 5th Ward of April Ford-Griffin.

Across MLK to the south we see the back of a building at the 5+ year old MLK Plaza. Once again, the entire intersection that was once quite urban has become this low-rise low density sprawl centric area. This is contrasted with the excellent pedestrian-oriented Hope VI housing being built just across Grand. Those residents will find their walk to the store unfulfilling at best and dangerous due to traffic at worst. This project, like those east of Grand, are in the 19th Ward formerlly represented by Mike McMillan.
All this and we are still at our starting point along Grand!

Just a block to the west another triangular shaped lot is being cleared. As I recall it was a mess before with perhaps a junk lot so I welcome the clean up. Survey crews were out working on a Sunday. I’m not sure what is planned for the site but I’m guessing more surburban-style development. You’d think when starting from scratch we’d get better development but then again that would require some true leadership at city hall. This is back in the 5th Ward.


The large lot above is on the SE corner of MLK and Sarah. Saint Louis University’s John Cook School of Business is working [assisting the non-profit  Habitat for Neighborhoood Business] on the construction of a new building at this site for the purposes of creating incubation space for startup businesses, a worthy goal no doubt. Unfortunately, I’m hearing the building may be suburban in form with parking in front. The architecture firm is said to be that of Glantz & Associates which primarily seems to do very surburban residential work. I may well be trying to put a kabash on this one until it can be redesigned, especially given the urban forms on the same block shown below.  [UPDATE 1/28/07 – I’ve met with a couple of board members of Habitat for Neighborhood Business to discuss the project, both indicate they are seeking an urban prototype with parking at the side or rear.]

These buildings (mostly the ones on the right), along the south side of MLK just west of Whittier are among the most interesting we have left in the city. The massing, varied hights and detailing are spectacular. The old cast iron storefronts are still in tact. The neon sign for the cleaners is a reminder of the many such signs that lined this street. Get me a streetcar running down this street and I will gladly live in a condo above one of these storefronts!

The above buildings are located in the 4th Ward (Ald. O.L. Shelton) in the Vandeventer Neighborhood. At one time, MLK (then Easton Ave) was the focal point of the neighborhood. Today is serves not as a uniter but as a dividing line between many neighborhoods. The north side of the street is The Ville.

A once beautiful home sits in ruins after years of decay and a recent fire. The vacant lot to the right is the site of a planned farmer’s market for the area. The American Institute of Architects (AIA) are nationally celebrating their 150th anniversary this year. Chapters all over the country are doing projects to give back to their respective communities. The St. Louis chapter of the AIA have, after working with residents in the Ville last year, decided to help them get the farmer’s market they seek.

The project is being designed this semester through a studio at Washington University. African-American architect Karl Grice will be the architect of record on the project which is expected to cost nearly $500K. I have some reservations about the site that was selected — namely if that is the best location — and if such a costly structure should be built before giving the market a trial run for a season at a nearby school, park or church. But, that will be something I can debate in a separate post.


Another recent tragedy along MLK is this newly opened Family Dollar store. The low end building is pushed back from the street behind lots of parking. As we saw with the strip center at MLK & Grand, no pedestrian access is provided — those walking must cut through the landscaping or walk in via the automobile drive. Later in this post I’ll show you an older Family Dollar store just down the street that is built up to the street with its parking on the side of the building rather than the front. This lovely “investment” was made possible by Ald. O.L.


Another view of the Family Dollar store. Would a break in the shrubs and striping through the parking lot to the front door have been too much to ask?


At this corner stood a wonderful looking building that during the AIA’s charrette last April was considered to be a fine model for new construction by combining a corner storefront with attached townhouses. Below is what the buildings looked like in April 2006.

See my prior post for more on the demolition of this once fine structure. We have 18th Ward Ald. Kennedy to thank for not including this or much of his ward in a Preservation Review District so that the city’s Preservation Board does not have the right to review demolition permits. This was an unnecessary loss.


I promised you a more urban form Family Dollar, this is located a block east of Kingshighway on the north side of MLK. It is an older structure that has been remodeled a number of times. It is not much to look at but at least it is an urban form and pedestrians can easily enter from the sidewalk.


Above is a new retail building at the corner of Kingshighway & MLK, built within the last 10 years or so by the Roberts Brothers. I was working on Union just north of Natural Bridge at the time so I passed by here daily either in my car or on my bike (yes, I was really good about bike commuting for a couple of years). The Blockbuster video that opened in the building has since closed.

The former Sears store which serves as the headquarters for the Roberts’ empire is visible in the far right of the above image (see below). The Sears provided a good model being built up to the street with on-street parking. Had they continued this pattern for this building they might have had something more sustainable.


The former Sears is now named the Victor Roberts Building.


An excessively wide driveway off Kingshighway leads to the parking for the former Sears building as well as the Roberts’ suburban strip center building located to the east. As you might expect, no pedestrian sidewalks are provided — you are expected to be in a car.


The Roberts’ suburban strip center is seen on our left behind a massive amount of parking. The street, Aubert Ave, is devoid of street trees and is excessively wide. To the right is the back side of the former Sears. Down the street and to the right is an Aldi store. At the end of the block is Page, behind us is MLK. And though you might be walking along Aubert to get to one of the few remaining stores in this strip center, you’ll have to cross the bright red mulch planting area or walk in via the auto driveway, pedestrian sidewalks are not provided.


Here, at the corner of Page & Euclid, we get treated to the backside of the Roberts’ suburban strip center. Lovely huh? Page & Euclid was once a prominent corner but no more. Beautifully detailed homes still line the eastern side of Euclid. This whole Roberts mess is located in Terry Kennedy’s 18th Ward (I’m not sure of whose ward it was when the newer suburban stuff was constructed).

I took a total of 111 pictures in this section of MLK, they can all be viewed on Flickr. Click here for part five of this series.


A Look at St. Louis’ MLK Drive, Part 3 of 5

January 14, 2007 North City, Planning & Design, Politics/Policy, Suburban Sprawl, Transportation Comments Off on A Look at St. Louis’ MLK Drive, Part 3 of 5

This post is part three of a five part series. Part three looks at MLK Drive from Jefferson Ave to Grand Ave.

“Melvin’s Permanent Village” isn’t so permanent afterall. Debris from the roof collapse is pushing at the front gates that used to cover the store windows. This is just west of Jefferson.

This stretch of MLK from Jefferson to Grand has few buildings left. Many that remain are in poor condition but a few are quite outstanding. The main thing you notice in this section of MLK is the new sidewalks, curb bulb outs and street lighting as shown above. Last year I said it was good to have the improvements, adding:

I think it is important to send a message of hope to current residents & business owners as well as those that are prospective residents and/or business owners. My fear is that sidewalks and street lamps is a little too late.

I then went on to advocate a streetcar line as the needed push on MLK. I still believe it will take a major force such as that to fully revitalize this street but we will save that discussion for another day. In the last year I have spent more time on MLK than I have in my prior 15 years living in St. Louis. I’ve also spent a lot of the last year learning about and reporting on poorly planned pedestrian access.

Sadly, in this one mile stretch of MLK where we’ve spend a good sum of money (I don’t have exact figures so I am not going to speculate), only at one point are the sidewalks and ramps designed for actually crossing MLK. This is worth repeating — in an entire mile only one place exists where it is suggested via the sidewalks that you can cross MLK.

This is it, the one spot where the sidewalks and accessible ramps are actually pointed across MLK and aligned with each other. Of course, an able bodied person can easily cross the street anywhere along this mile stretch but we don’t spend this kind of money only for those that are able bodied. Others using wheelchairs and mobility scooters need to be able to get around as well. Maybe they are trying to get to church?

Above is looking from Glasgow Ave across MLK at a popular church (it got much busier on my return trip past this location about an hour later). As you can see, coming from the North the sidewalk continues along MLK both east (and west). However, someone wanting to cross MLK to reach this church is not afforded the basics of a sidewalk. Again, someone who is able bodied can easily walk across but someone using the assistance of a wheelchair must get through the standing water and then attempt to locate a break in the curb on the opposite side or have someone assist them in getting over the curb and through the grass.

Such lack of consideration for how people might actually get from place to place on a sidewalk shows the lack of common sense with respect to planning as as well as oversight and review prior to construction. Former Ald. Mike McMillan, now the city’s license collector, has touted this streetscape among his accomplishments. I presume he has never actually walked it himself.

A little further west, at N. Garrison we see a similar situation. Here we are looking east along MLK (the street to the right) with Gamble St off to the left (although not through at this point). The sidewalk for MLK heads over toward Gamble but the actual ramp is pointing out to the still too wide crossing. Again, despite this being a significant crossing point, no walks are provided across MLK.

The senior housing that was being built last year near Compton & MLK is now complete and open. It does a nice job of respecting the street pattern in the area as well as giving a nice massing to a largely vacant area. The building has good sidewalk connections to the entrances.

Across MLK from the senior housing, rubble is all that remains of the former Blumeyer housing projects at the intersection of MLK and Page. Ironically, the new housing that is being built in the area is quite pedestrian friendly but as we’ve seen, the sidewalks to the east are not so friendly. The development happening to the west is not pedestrian friendly either.

In the triangle formed by MLK, Page and Grand are these fine old warehouses and a gas station (behind these buildings). It would be nice to see these renovated into retail & housing but I’m afraid a lack of vision and leadership in this area will lead to their demolition for something suburban.

And finally we arrive at North Grand where work is underway for a brand new suburban Walgreen’s store. A very urban (and stunning) building facing Grand was razed for what will be a generic and short term building that only drains money from the neighborhood. See my prior post on this subject.

My Flickr photoset on this section of MLK contains a total of 41 images, click here to see them all.  Click here to continue to part four of this series.


Loughborough Commons is Not Finished Yet

When I started writing about the failures of Loughborough Commons a few months ago I was reminded by Ald. Matt Villa (D-11th) that it is not finished yet. He is correct, work is still progressing even though the two main stores, Schnucks & Lowes, are open.

In addition to a number of possible out buildings and the need to finish an ADA accessible route to a public street it seems Desco is working to correct some of the poor planning on areas that were already finished. Yes, the not finished yet $40 million project is already getting fixes.


Above you can see a new black metal fence installed recently which blocks now former accessible parking spaces near the entrance. A similar parking arrangement on the other side of the entry remains.


From this angle you can see how the angle of the main entrance would make it a challenge to see oncoming cars if you were backing out of one of these spaces. Accessible spaces, such as these near an entrance, are ideal for many so they do not need to cross a main drive. Still, these must be designed and placed in such a manner that someone using them is able to easily navigate in and out of them. This is also an example of where the minimum sidewalk width required by law is just that, mimimum.


Before the change you can see how tight the space was. When extra shopping carts were stored in the area it completely blocked the sole planned walking route from Loughborough. Civil engineers are a critical part of any design team, they are necessary for a number of areas including water runoff concerns, accessing soil conditions, engineering curbs and other details on a given site. They are not, however, natural specialists in creating walkable & ADA accessible environments. Projects of this scale, especially those with over $14 million in public tax incentives, should have a consultant on board to ensure more than simple textbook minimum compliance. At this point I still question if they will be able to establish minimum compliance with respect to an accessible route.


Above is an earlier image between the Schnucks and the Lowe’s, but as of 1/1/07 nothing has changed here. Pedestrians, including those using walkers, mobility scooters or wheelchairs are directed into the pharmacy drive-thru exit! At this point these pedestrians have only a couple of choices, those who can will simply walk through the plantings/grass and those who cannot must either turn left and exit the drive-thru lane with the cars out into the main drive for the development or turn right and go head-on with the cars in the pharmacy lane for about 5ft (just outside of view in this image) until they get to what appears to be a drainage area which provides a break in the planter. In this direction someone will have to hope the cars leaving the pharmacy drive-thru lane see them. This second route would allow pedestrians to go down that direction but the slope is too steep for a return back to the Schnucks and out to Loughborough. And forget wheelchairs for a minute, what about young families pushing a stroller! We do want young families with kids in the area, right?

What is more amazing than having such major projects built without a planning/access specialist on the design team is the idea that we leave it up to our elected aldermen to ensure the public’s interests are being considered. With our 28 mini-cities with a city mentality we get varying results from ward to ward. Some aldermen seem to know their limitations and consult the city’s Planning & Urban Design Agency. Others, like Lyda Krewson, have ideal developers like Joe Edwards so these issues are rare. But folks like Ald. Matt Villa, who assured me before construction started that pedestrians would be considered, are clearly incapable of distinquishing between token gestures toward access and good community design. Yes, he is certainly a “nice guy” but that only goes so far — not even remotely close in the case of Loughborough Commons. And just think, Loughborough Commons is not even finished.