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Oregon Congressman Talks About St. Louis

Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) took time from his busy schedule to attend the annual Railvolution convention held in Chicago this year (the day before the election no less). Following his address to the attendees, I asked him for his take on St. Louis:

Blumenauer is apparently somewhat of an expert on smart growth and transit. He was involved in the establishment of Portland’s infamous “Urban Growth Boundary” when he was in his early 20s, after being elected to the Oregon State House.

He is right, we need to get it right and fight sprawl in our region. Now if only we had someone in congress as dynamic and committed to good urbanism as Blumenauer.


McMillan Seeks TIF Financing for suburban-style Walgreen’s in City

Today the St. Louis Board of Aldermen approved three board bills relating to a proposed Walgreen’s at the NE corner of Grand & MLK. Last week I wrote about a fourth bill to rezone some of the property so the medium box and massive parking lot are in compliance with our suburban-oriented zoning codes dating back to 1947 (see post). You can tell how quickly change happens around here huh?

Here are the four bills related to the same project:
BB152, introduced 6/30/06; BB237 & BB238, both introduced on 10/6/06; and introduced a week ago, BB249. It was the last one, BB249, that I wrote about last week as it pertains to zoning.

BB152 relates to blighting the area while BB237 & BB238 both relate to the establishment of TIF financing in the amount of $1.2 million, from what I can discern from the wording. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not very knowledgeable about the minutia of these various tax incentive agreements. But, I am learning out of necessity. Today I looked at BB237 and realized that “Attachment A” was not, in fact, attached online. I requested this document from Jim Shrewsbury’s office and I got it a shortly thereafter. The attachment was the TIF Agreement which contains the bulk of the details.

I’ve reviewed this document now and see nothing relating to any design standards, other than saying the project will meed state and local codes. It does not seem to reference the Federal American’s with Disabilities Act. Nor does the document seem to have any mention of other potential requirements such as provisions for bicycle parking (a 2-bike rack is a reasonable request don’t you think?). Requiring the new project to have street trees in the public right of way between curb and sidewalk would be nice — although this is potentially a city issue and outside the agreement. However, sidewalks from the public walk to the front door is certainly relevant to this agreement. Bike parking and clearly delineated sidewalk access to the new Walgreen’s is not pie in the sky kinda stuff. Sure, I’d prefer an urban corner but short of that we still need to provide basics for those not driving a car. It is these types of agreements where such requirements, minor costs in the big scheme of things, should be incorporated. Alas, it would take Aldermen that understand such issues and have a desire to provide something besides a self congratulating grand total of development project costs.

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, I am a very minor consult on the campaign of Pat Herod who is running against Ald. Mike McMillan in the November general election for the county position of License Collector. This post is unrelated to any consulting for that campaign.


Loughborough Commons: Getting the Lead Out?

I’m more than a little confused how DESCO plans to deal with lead contamination at Loughborough Commons. Site contamination, you might recall from a prior post, was among reasons cited in a report on why it was in the public’s interest to blight the site and offer tax incentives for redevelopment.

Today’s Post-Dispatch indicates removal as the means of remediation (emphasis mine):

A Desco spokesman said the company would finish preparing the ground before signing any additional leases. Among the tasks is removing lead residue from a site formerly used to make paint, the spokesman said.

Last week the Suburban Journal had a piece on the contamination issue that also seemed to suggest removal (emphasis mine):

“There is lead underground,” said Lori Willis, a spokeswoman for Schnuck Markets, Inc. “When it is removed as part of Phase 2 of our project, the work will be done in accordance with state and federal laws and under the guidance of the (state) Department of Natural Resources.”“DESCO is experienced in handling this. They don’t anticipate any problems and they will follow all safety procedures relative to the lead removal process,” Willis said.

But in the same article it is suggested the solution is not removal, but containment (emphasis mine):

The remediation effort will primarily involve containing the material in place so that it poses no risk, Willis said.The lead isn’t harmful if it’s covered, Brian McCurren, an environmental engineer for the state Department of Natural Resources, said. It’s only harmful to construction workers who come into contact with it, he said.

From the looks of the site they are going with containment but it seems odd even the spokesperson keeps saying removal.


McMillan Seeks to Rezone Property for a Walgreen’s; Ignores City’s Strategic Land Use Plan

mlk_grand - 01.jpgIn what may be one of his last bills as Alderman, Mike McMillan (D-19th) is seeking to rezone a large area for a Walgreen’s to be located at Grand & MLK. The properties facing Grand are already zoned “H-Area Commercial District” but the Walgreen’s suburban design is reaching far back into the block which is zoned “C-Multi Family Dwelling District.” See Board Bill 249 introduced today, Friday the 13th.

If this Walgreen’s is built by Stephen M. Schott of Komen Properties, sole manager of property owner Page Partners III LLC, the area will be further eroded due to this “investment”. Besides the loss of the beautifully detailed structure shown at right, a major corner will for decades loose its urban form.

Since the days of “urban renewal,” a misnomer if there ever was one, government policy has been largely anti-city — seeing the mix of commercial and residential as a bad thing. Dating back to the depression, lending policies largely avoided mixed urban areas considering them too “cluttered.” Hundreds of millions have been spent through the last 50-60 years razing and “reconstructing” large tracts of the city under the false assumption that cities don’t work. We now know that many of these old concepts about cities were wrong and damaging.

Politicians these days don’t seem to care much about the quality of the development, just the total price tag to add to their campaign literature. Never is this more true than in the 19th Ward. At opposite ends of the urban quality scale are great new housing developments (where poorly planned “projects” once stood) and really horrible new sprawl-based strip development. McMillan seems unable to distinguish between the good development and not good development. He likely takes on the city’s low self esteem approach of ‘any development is good development.’

The building at right is located at 1408 North Grand (map) and it stands in the way of parking for a new suburban-style Walgreen’s. Since this area is not included in either a historic district or even a Preservation Review District, the city’s Preservation Board will not review the demolition permit. It will become one of the many thousands of urban buildings that are razed so suburban thinking can continue its invasion into a once urban city.

But the land where the above building is sitting, facing Grand, is not at issue for a zoning change. It is the land behind the building, currently vacant, that needs to be rezoned to permit the sprawl to happen. Rollin Stanley, director of the city’s Urban Planning and Design Agency, made a big deal about creating and getting approved a new “Strategic Land Use Plan.” Indeed, it is a tremendous effort. Sadly or perhaps expectedly, it is ignored like so many other plans that line corners of city hall. It is ignored because it has no teeth. It is completely unenforceable at this point. More good money down the drain.

The area where the Walgreen’s is to spread its asphalt is in two designated areas, Neighborhood Commercial Area and Neighborhood Development Area. These follow the current H-Area Commercial District and C-Multi Family Dwelling District for the area in question, respectively. If we look at the phrasing of the Strategic Land Use Plan which was passed by the Board of Aldermen you’ll see it is clearly attempting to take the city back toward its urban roots:

Neighborhood Development Area

Residential /non-residential areas with substantial amounts of vacant land and abandoned buildings suitable for new residential construction of scale/associated neighborhood services, respecting stable properties that may be considered as part of any new development. Opportunities for new housing construction/replatting at critical mass scale defining a new neighborhood character over time.

Neighborhood Commercial Area

Areas where the development of new and the rehabilitation of existing commercial uses that primarily serve adjacent neighborhoods should be encouraged. These areas include traditional commercial streets at relatively major intersections and along significant roadways where commercial uses serve multiple neighborhoods or where the development of new commercial uses serving adjacent neighborhoods is intended. Mixed use buildings with commercial at grade and a mix of uses on upper floors are an ideal type within these areas. These areas may include higher density mixed use residential and commercial and may initially include flexibility in design to allow ground floor uses to change over time e.g., ground floor space that can transition from residential to commercial use as the local demand for retail goods and services strengthens in the area.
[Note: picture at right is actual picture used by the city in conjunction with this land use designation]

mlk_grand - 03.jpgLooking North up Grand from the site we see existing structures maintaining the urban form along Grand. However, with each new notch in McMillian’s investment belt the urban form is replaced with suburban forms. Well, at least commercially. Let me explain.

mlk_grand - 09.jpgAcross from the proposed Walgreen’s box is a typical suburban strip center currently under construction, also by Komen Properties of Clayton. While the former buildings were nothing sacred architecturally at least they held true to the street. These new developments look more like something you’d see in a new suburb than in a city. But this is simply building upon the sprawl center across MLK built a few years ago.

mlk_grand - 11.jpgMLK Plaza is a typical big box strip center ungraciously plopped down in the city. Bounded by Grand (sorta, see the map link above), MLK, Page and Spring it offers the area shopping choice but nothing else. It certainly does not build upon the areas urban form. The center turns its back to Spring Ave, a fairly busy street in the area. While this does offer better pedestrian access than say Loughborough Commons or Gravois Plaza, its auto centric origins are clear.

mlk_grand - 12.jpgAlong Page Ave many residents in the area, often unable to afford a person car, are pedestrians and users of mass transit. However, the suburban planning behind the MLK Plaza doesn’t really consider pedestrian access beyond a couple of limited access points. The development, at roughly 4.5 acres, is focused on the auto and its parking — not on pedestrians and urban form with parking behind or adjacent. The public street is ignored while the private parking lot is worshiped. A public street was closed as were a couple of alleys for this project.

Pedestrians have made some “adjustments” to the fencing in order to gain access and egress from the site where most convenient. The grass is worn and ground compacted due to the high number of pedestrians coming and going from this area. This shows a couple of things. One, the retail was needed in the area as it was long starved for quality choices but more importantly that many people access this retail via foot. Rather than reinforce the original urban form of the neighborhood and support the many existing pedestrians this project instead imposes the suburban value system upon the city.

mlk_grand - 14.jpgThese buildings which face both Page and MLK and are just south of the proposed Walgreen’s may be next to fall for the sprawl machine. Who’d want to invest the money to make these into lofts when they are being surrounded by nothing but sprawl. Had McMillan led his word toward a more urban vision it might bode well for fine buildings such as these.

But all it is not bad in the 19th Ward. McCormack Baron Salazar is remaking the area formerly occupied by the Blumeyer housing project.

mlk_grand - 23.jpgJust a couple of short blocks east of Grand & MLK where the new Walgreen’s is proposed and where sprawl abounds is a handsome new senior living center. While not perfect, this complex of buildings holds to the odd street grid, reinforcing it rather than rejecting it. Entrances are well placed and the overall design is one that embraces the public street and sidewalk, a big departure from the old housing projects in the area. McCormack Baron Salazar should be proud of the project — how it reinforces the street grid and adds to the walkability of the community. They should be a little more than upset how a couple of blocks away the area is being suburbanized, negating much of their efforts.

The folks over at John Steffen’s Pyramid Construction should have checked out the plans for this project before moving forward with their disastrous Sullivan Place project.

mlk_grand - 32.jpgAlso by McCormac Baron Salazar is the Renaissance at Grand, new housing where the “projects” once stood. At right we looking north on Compton with the above senior project at the termination of the street at MLK. In this project they’ve returned the walkable street grid that was removed during the days of urban renewal and failed housing projects. Again, another commendable project.

The point of this is to demonstrate the area is receiving substantial investment, much of it through incentives, which helps reinforce the urban pattern and to create a walkable community. It is just blocks from all the sprawl commercial being constructed in the area. This is what happens when you don’t plan for an area, or you ignore a good plan like the Strategic Land Use Plan, and then allow just any development. Sometimes the result, as shown here, is quite positive. Other times, the sprawl that is engulfing Grand/MLK/Page, is tragic and conflicting with the strong inroads being made. We the public are helping to fund both.

We need political leadership that can help bring these urban residential projects in the area together with urban shopping environs. This does not mean a ban on Walgreen’s or other stores but fitting them into the fabric so that we have both a walk able urban environment that accommodates those in cars as well. It can be done, it just takes some effort and vision.

The good thing, I suppose, is McMillan can do little urban damage from the License Collector’s office. Unfortunately, his hand picked replacement for alderman will likely offer more of the same.

Komen Properties of Clayton, in addition to the sprawl here, had proposed a Home Depot for Goodfellow & I-70 (see prior post).
Additional photos available on Flickr.

[UPDATE 3:50pm: It should be noted I am a bit biased in two areas. One, I love cities and hate sprawl. Second, I am a very minor consultant to Mike McMillan’s opponent in the race for License Collector.]


An Urban Plan for the Grand & Gravois Schnuck’s Site

Architect, fellow blogger and friend Steve Wilke-Shapiro continues to focus his attention on the city’s 15th Ward on his blog, 15thWardSTL. His latest post looks at the aging big box Schnuck’s bounded by Grand, Cherokee, Gravois and Potomac.

A bit of background: The total area, including a couple of properties owned by others, is roughly 6 acres. The current store was built in 1989 and is listed by the city records as having just under 74,000sf. This refers to the total building area whereas when we hear talk of say, their new location in Loughborough Commons being 63,000sf, that refers to the sales floor only and thus excludes storage and prep area.

Wilke-Shapiro has re-examined the site from an urbanist perspective and is suggesting ways in which DESCO/Schnuck’s could rebuild in the future to maximize their land value, improve the feel and character of the area and add to the diversity of uses in the area. Where this is different than say the McDonald’s drive-thru battle down the street is there is no plan for the area for which this is an alternate in protest. No, this is a design exercise to show how the urbanist thinking can be applied.

Hopefully by focusing on an area not being debated over a current plan the doubters and naysayers of urbanist planning can see the potential for these ideas. Click here (or the thumbnail image) to view his excellent post.