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New Sidewalks in the Suburbs: A Good Thing or a Waste of Money?

Regular readers of Urban Review know I am a huge fan of sidewalks and accessibility. However, my focus is mostly around areas where we have a more urban form such as in the city and older suburban downtowns like Maplewood, Ferguson, Webster Groves or Edwardsville IL.

But what about the vast majority of highly auto-centric areas? I would certainly advocate as new areas are built they include sidewalks, as unlikely as they are to be used given the context. This leaves one area, retrofitting sidewalks in our older auto-centric sprawl mess.

One such example is along St. Charles Rock Road between roughly I-170 and Lindbergh through municipalities such as St. Ann, Breckenridge Hills and St. John. To be fair I think SCRR always had some sort of left over pavement designated as a token sidewalk but with so many driveway crossings and electrical polls it was pretty useless.

st. charles rock road - 1.jpg

I must be on some turn of the 20th Century street, just look at the retro lamps on the bright pink concrete sidewalks. Inviting huh?

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Yes, money well spent. In truth it does help provide accessibility for those who need to but the overall result is almost more ridiculous than it looked before the improvements. Do we think colored concrete and some black lamp posts are going to really make this stretch of road inviting enough to gain more pedestrians?

Over on Lindbergh (speedway) Blvd we’ve got similar attempts going in.

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Except on Lindbergh they only get asphalt sidewalks (nice huh?), the pink concrete is reserved for special areas at crossings. Doesn’t this make you feel safer as a pedestrian. So now when the car flying off the exit ramp hits you the news crews will have a nice new sidewalk to stand on as they film your body being taken away. The other side of this crossing, in case you are wondering, is past the street light in the background.

The opposite view. Pedestrian-friendly, suburban-style. To be fair, I took these pictures in June but it did appear as all the work had pretty much wrapped up. The last of the concrete and asphalt was being set — I did not see anymore areas being dug out. In the picture above, I cannot imagine walking on the pavement to get to the next sidewalk area — this is a high-speed exit! My guess is they did not have the right-of-way to place a sidewalk along the area to the right and get closer to the next crossing.
But maybe when this is redone it can be corrected? It is not as far off as you might think. Turns out MoDot screwed up the specifications for these pretty-in-pink ramps and all 300 of them are being removed and redone at taxpayers expense! Don’t believe it? Watch the You Paid For It segment yourself.
Again, I love sidewalks and making areas pedestrian-friendly. But, just putting a sidewalk along a major street does not make things necessarily accessible or friendly. We need street trees or other fixed objects separating the pedestrian from the passing traffic. We need zoning codes that will require adjacent buildings to have sidewalks connecting to the public sidewalk or, even better, constructing the new building adjacent to the sidewalk.


Bike Parking Comes to Loughborough Commons, Sorta


The sign reads “For Everyone’s Safety, No Skateboarding, No Roller Blading, No Bicycling. Violators Will Be Prosecuted.” And below the no bicycling sign is, a new bike rack. The sign they should have up at the two entrances would warn pedestrians, “We have no provisions in place for those of you on foot so for your own safety just stay out (unless you work here).” But, back to the new bike rack.

This rack is known as a “dish rack” type of rack and frankly it is one of the worst racks on the market. This type has several problems but the main thing is that it is designed to have a wheel (typically front) slide into one of the narrow slots. This makes the bike very unstable in windy conditions but more critically when attempting to secure the bike to the rack you really can’t use a modern U-lock, you must have a long enough chain to be able to lock the bike’s frame to the rack. Otherwise, someone can easily release the front wheel and take the rest.
This is also a two-sided rack, designed to be accessed from one side or the other but here they’ve pushed it up against the wall so only one side is usable. This is probably OK because I doubt they’d have a mad rush of cyclists all at the same time. What is unfortunate is for the same money (or maybe less) they could have purchased a far superior bike rack capable of holding 2-4 bikes with good support, rather than potentially twisting an expensive rim on a windy day.


But the real problem comes in the placement of the rack. It is increasingly obvious they (developer & engineer) had no thought about bike parking beforehand, only trying to fix the situation later after so much attention. But the sidewalk you see here will someday connect to walks eventually getting you out to Loughborough. This is the only pedestrian route planned in and out of the entire project and if the bike rack is used, bikes will be blocking the sole sidewalk.Pedestrian access & bike parking should have been ready on the day the store opened, something that would have been possible had they given it some thought ahead of time. It would have been the friendly thing to do.


Turning back north toward Loughborough we see they’ve begun to dig out the dirt where a planned sidewalk is going to go. My personal guess is they wanted to wait on this sidewalk until the strip mall building that will be on the left gets built. As with bike parking, the recent attention to these issues has likely rearranged their construction schedule a bit.Note the pedestrian walking along the narrow auto drive as they leave the store. I’ve never once had to hang around to get a picture of a pedestrian, someone is almost always walking to or from the store.


Edwardsville Church Votes for Sprawl

Edwardsville’s First Presbyterian Church voted a week ago yesterday to begin construction of a new larger facility on a large tract of land on the edge of town, next door to a mega church. For decades the church has been located in a very cute neighborhood just blocks from Edwardsville’s Main Street and literally around the corner from the Post Office. From their website:

First Presbyterian Church was founded March 17, 1819. It has the distinction of being the first church organized in the city of Edwardsville, and one of the oldest Presbyterian churches in Illinois…. Construction on our third and current home of worship took place in 1924. A large Christian education annex was added in 1960. Several improvements including the elevator, and a covered courtyard called “The Inner Room” were completed in association with the 175th Anniversary celebration in 1994.

Apparently some years ago the church purchased a 30 acre tract of farmland on the outskirts of town  as an investment. Indeed, the land has increased in value as expected but now a faction of the church wants to relocate to the sprawling edge- to be more “visible” in the community. With a vote of roughly 90 to 68 they’ve decided to begin the process of building a new church and apparently make plans for a gym. Visibility in the community no longer means being in the midst of a neighborhood in the center of town where a pedestrian might be alble to hear your service as they pass by but on a busy road where motorists can read your flashing sign from hundreds of yards away. Some look at sprawl and auto-centric development as a reaction to poor inner-city schools and white flight, but neither are the case in Edwardsville where they have a single school system and are nearly 90% white (87.7% per 2000 census data). So what explains all their sprawl? Auto-centric development has become completely ingrained in our society from homeowners, business owners, developers, bankers, architects & engineers to elected officials. Sprawl is the norm. What does it say about our society when a church votes to leave a charming neighborhood adjacent to an equally charming small town main street? Normal Rockwell would paint a picture of the current setting but wouldn’t go near where they plan to locate. Sadly, all the moves to the edge are ruining what was a picturesque landscape. I’m certainly not going to tell people what sort of faith to have but I will question the motives of a church for leaving the place where they’ve been for decades simply for a big parking lot, a gym and visibility on the scale of a fast-food restaurant. Churches have an important role as part of the community, not helping destroy the community by bolting to the suburban fringe. I talked with a couple of the members just days before the vote, they were hoping to stay put. Some members of other nearby Edwardsville churches were also lending support as they collectively want to strenghten the core of Edwardsville rather than see it left behind as sprawl engulfs the nearby farmland. I hope those that wish to stay in the center of Edwardsville do so, including their money. The suburban group may not be able to raise the $3.8 million they need to build their gym with attached santuary (in phase II). Update @ 8:10am — By the way, I forgot to mention that FBC’s architects are St. Louis Design Alliance which has offices on the Delmar Loop near the MetroLink stop.


Should St. Louis Become a ‘Suburb’ in the Region?

You may have heard about the city’s infamous “Team Four” plan from the mid 1970’s. If not, read Antonio French’s report here. This comprehensive plan was in response to a series of research reports from the Rand Corporation on behalf of the National Science Foundation. I am in the process of reviewing these for a school project but I wanted to share part of it with you now.

From Rand Report #R-1353 St. Louis: A City and its Suburbs published August 1973:

The analysis suggests that, among the alternatives open to the city, promoting a new role for St. Louis as one of many large suburban centers of economic and residential life holds more promise than reviving the traditional central city functions.

This is not necessarily suggesting the city taken on a highly suburban form (streets & buildings) but the role of a supporting player in the region but not the core. The center, presumably, would fall to Clayton and the central corridor. In reality, our region and today’s society functions without a single core. Today many people have suburb to suburb commutes.

So what do you think of this idea of giving up on focusing on St. Louis as the core of the region and instead make it simply one of many economic and residential areas? What is the difference?

The first difference, in my mind, is transit. All the planning being done around future transit is focused on trying to reclaim St. Louis as the core from which everything else radiates. For example, the new North & South mass transit studies for the region are trying to connect via the city’s CBD to the county. It would seem to me that getting folks from the county into mass transit can be accomplished much easier by connecting to the end of the new line at Shrewsbury for south county and off the original line for those in north county. There are also several options for connecting the employment hub of Westport into the system.

People are often critical of my belief that neighborhood scale transit in the form of streetcars or guided trams (similar to a modern streetcar but with rubber tires and a single track to guide it) can help increase development and create dense and thus walkable neighborhoods. Perhaps they are right. But my belief in this idea is nothing compared to the utopian notion that by bringing light rail to a former major core we can somehow undo 50 years of change and sprawling development patterns in our region. I’m not convinced.

Would it be so bad for the city to concede that our downtown will never once again be the hub for commerce that it once was? That doesn’t mean it can’t be a great place. In fact, I’d argue that without the pressure to regain its role as the region’s major employment center and commerce hub that downtown and the city might actually be free to focus on creating great places where people want to live and work. This means enjoying out quick light rail connection to the east side, Clayton and the airport but focusing the balance of our transit attention on the neighborhood scale — not how to get more suburbanites into downtown for their day jobs. If anything is a ‘build it and they will come’ scenario it is the thinking light rail to downtown will return jobs downtown.

When the Rand reports were written in 1973 they looked at the population drops in the city, down to 600,000 in the most recent census. Today we are just under 350,000. All of our attention is focused on reclaiming the former glory of the region’s center but how has that worked for us over the last few decades? Sure, we’ve got more residents and investment in downtown but is that really shifting things? The U.S. population is trending back toward cities which may account for much of downtown’s rejuvenation of late. But what is the likelihood of reshaping our sprawling region back to a core with radial suburbs? Very slim in my eyes. I’d like to see us shift to making downtown not the core of the region but one of a number of business centers in the region — the most dynamic of them all. The city should focus on increasing population not by a thousand here and 500 there, but by tens of thousands.

With office parks spread out all over the region, a convention center in St. Charles and performance venues everywhere I just don’t know that we can successfully reverse the damage that has been done. Other regions, such as Chicago, never lost their place as the core. However, many industrial cities, like Detroit, did lose their place in the core. Does anyone know of an example where a former core city regained its place as the center of commerce in a region?

So what do you think? Should we “stay the course” with attempting to maintain St. Louis as the core or accept that in the auto-centric times a region may no longer have a true core and simply work to make St. Louis a pedestrian-friendly urban “suburb” within the region?


Normal: Razing Indoor Mall for Outdoor Shopping

collegestationYesterday I stopped in the greater Bloomington-Normal area along I-55 while returning to St. Louis from Chicago. I happened upon something quite interesting, a former mall that was razed to create an outdoor shopping area. Nobody is going to confuse the ‘Shoppes at College Station’ with say the outstanding Country Club Plaza in Kansas City but it is clear some attention was paid to pedestrian connections.

Let’s start with the original mall (image at right). The mall had three anchor stores — a Target (upper left with light roof), a Von Maur department store (upper right) and a Hobby Lobby (bottom, center). In the remake, all three of those remained but the middle mall section was removed entirely. This is a highly suburban and auto-centric section of Bloomington-Normal with Veteran’s Parkway serving as the Business Loop for I-55. I passed another mall not 3 miles down the road and just about every chain you can imagine in countless conventional strip centers. The headquarters for State Farm Insurance was maybe a mile or so away. (See map of mall)

The remaking of suburban mall sites is increasing of the last say 10 years, making it more and more “normal.” Sadly they did not go far enough in Bloomington-Normal as an upscale strip center basically replaced the old mall. In many other places, the former mall sites get parceled out with real streets (aka public streets) and a mix of uses including office and residential. These will often connect to adjacent residential areas.

But they did one thing right (sort of) in Bloomington-Normal: internal pedestrian connections.

IMG_6328.jpgNew meets old with the new Ann Taylor connecting to the old Target store which appears to have received a face-lift. You’ll note the large sidewalks and pedestrian crossings as well as the city bus in front of Target. Many private properties like this, especially those with more upscale stores like Ann Taylor, don’t like public transportation within their borders so that was a pleasant surprise. I guess this also prevented them from having to make connections to non-existant sidewalks on the main public streets.

IMG_6339.jpgThe “brick” pedestrian crossings are in fact just stamped concrete, but these provide a nice visual clue to motorists as well as a strong suggestion to shoppers to consider walking from store to store rather than get in the car to drive within the property.

IMG_6337.jpgThe center of the former mall contains a large planting area with sidewalks on both sides — this helps you cross the large parking area without having to walk in the auto drives. While this has many flaws, it is certainly better access than most of our suburban style shopping centers such as Loughborough Commons, Gravois Plaza, and Southtowne Center in the city and a mile-long list in the suburbs themselves.

What are the flaws you ask? Well, the landscaping is treated as a decorative element rather providing shade. I personally would have created a strong allee of trees to provide shade for the pedestrian as well as a major visual element. As it is you feel a bit exposed out in the middle and I doubt we’ll see anyone sitting on the benches in the middle of the area despite the attractive “public” art that is provided.

IMG_6330.jpgIn this view you can see how the pedestrian areas are clearly delineated. These were not an afterthought but planned as part of the project.

I don’t want to give them too much credit as the ADA (Americans With Disabilities Act) requires connections between buildings:

4.3.2 Location.

(1) At least one accessible route within the boundary of the site shall be provided from public transportation stops, accessible parking, and accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks to the accessible building entrance they serve. The accessible route shall, to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public.

(2) At least one accessible route shall connect accessible buildings, facilities, elements, and spaces that are on the same site.

So clearly the mandate from the feds is to connect buildings via accessible routes, so the above may not be out of great concern for creating a good environment but simply a desire to comply with ADA requirements. Yet when I look at the shopping centers mentioned above I do not see attempts for compliance with the standards.

At the Rail-Volution conference in Chicago I met a “Transportation Accessibility Specialist” who works for the U.S. Government in helping to write the ADA guidelines. I will be corresponding with him in the future to determine if some of our recently constructed shopping areas past muster or not. Enforcement of the ADA requirements does not fall to the local jurisdictions such as the City of St. Louis which is why projects may get built that do not meet the standards. No, the enforcement falls to the U.S. Department of Justice. I will seek out accessible advocacy groups to help file complaints against local projects that appear to fail to comply with the accessible route requirement of the ADA.

IMG_6331.jpgThis image is the opposite view of the one above, again showing how the path is clearly marked. This is beneficial to pedestrians of all types — those on foot and those in wheelchairs. My visit was prior to 10am yesterday morning so many of the stores were not yet open but I did see a number of people already walking between buildings that did have open stores.

We can make pedestrian connections even in highly suburban contexts and especially in our urbanized neighborhoods and commercial streets. The car is not banished to provide for a walkable route. The lesson is that if you provide a clear path people will use it and the better the path the more traffic you will see.