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Correcting the Post-Dispatch on Interstates

Thursday marks the 50th Anniversary of the US highway system. Newspapers and television reports are all a flutter with how great highways have been. True, being able to get to California in a few days rather than weeks is a good thing. But, our highway system encouraged sprawl and ravaged our cities. We are sill paying for these mistakes today.

The main focus of a Post-Dispatch article from this weekend was which state could lay claim to being the first to have a new interstate highway following the passage of the authorization act in 1956. Basically Missouri let the first contract, Kansas opened the first section and Pennsylvania had a divided highway that became the model for our interstates. Thomas Gubbels, a MoDOT historian in Jefferson City, was quoted in the article as saying,

“Arguing over which state is first isn’t as important as the fact that interstates benefited everyone: all Missourians, all Kansans, everyone throughout the country.”

Everyone? Well, not exactly. Still, it doesn’t surprise me the MoDOT historian would turn a blind eye to the victims of the highway projects. First, we have all the people that lost their property through eminent domain. Their families were uprooted, their businesses relocated, their neighborhoods ripped apart. Massive quantities of the population in all our cities were disrupted for highway construction and slum clearance. Cities are great at managing natural change and evolution but this scale was simply too much.

I did learn something new in the article about Eisenhower’s plan for the highway, a distinction between a failed 1955 plan and the adopted plan of 1956:

The Clay Committee report, “A 10-Year National Highway Program,” suggested the project be paid for with bonds. Congress nixed the approach, and the president’s plan died in July 1955.

Eisenhower, though, was as driven as a Honda on the New Jersey turnpike. He campaigned for interstates the following year. Only this time, it included the addition of urban interstates and a new tax-based financing plan with the federal government picking up most of the construction costs. Congress went for it.

For a good 20 years prior to the passing of the highway act, officials debated by-passing cities or going through the dense core. Many references were made at the time how Germany’s Autobahn by-passed their major urban centers. Sadly, it was felt our cities needed to have interstate highways to help them get workers to the employment centers (keeping people working was a key issue during the depression era). In reality highways were a major contributing factor to the dismantling of cities. If the interstates had by-passed our cities development still would have left the center for the new outer areas but at least we would not have sliced through our effective street grid and destroyed so many homes, businesses, churches and schools in the process. Highways through cities were seen as an important adjunct to the slum clearance programs gaining traction as early as the 1930’s.

Earlier federal road programs helped create jobs during the depression. Still, these roads paled in comparison to the scale envisioned by the 1956 Act. Had congress approved original financing in 1955 without urban interstates our cities might have turned out quite different.

The Post-Dispatch included a short myth & fact section. The myth is shown in italics:

President Eisenhower supported the Interstate System because he wanted a way of evacuating cities if the United States was attacked by an atomic bomb.

Eisenhower’s support was based largely on economic development and safety. Still, the system can evacuate people fast and efficiently.

Fast & efficient? I’m guessing the reporter missed the footage of people trying to evacuate Houston last fall. Interstates have led to more cars which led to more congestion which calls for more highways and so on. It is a never ending cycle. We know this yet we continue to feed the highway beast. Our highways cannot handle rush hour much less evacuating our urban areas.

And yes, defense was a big part of the original plan, the system is called the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways. Defense highways! I guess you had to be there to fully understand the fear during the cold war.

When I take the interstate back to Oklahoma to visit family or up to Chicago for a fun weekend I am thankful for their existence. As I see them snake their way through once dense and thriving neighborhoods I get a feeling of sickness and anger. The interstate system could have avoided going through the middle of our old and established cities. The planners of the day hated cities and deliberately wanted to alter them in a big way. the interconnected street grid, so beloved by old & new urbanists, was viewed as archaic. They envisioned remaking cities around the automobile.

They succeeded alright, nearly every major city in North America followed the status quo and sought to remake themselves so they would easily accommodate the car. This plus the many urban renewal projects were intended to bring new life to cities by making them, well, no longer cities as the world had known them to be up to that point.

Our city’s Zoning, from the 1947 Comprehensive City Plan, is a relic of the time when society hated true urban cities yet it is still our model nearly 60 years later. Only time will tell if we have the wisdom and will power to undo the mistakes of the past. So much work remains to be done.

– Steve

Further Reading: Highway History from the U.S. Department of Transportation.


Rumor: QuikTrip to Relocate Bevo Location

This just in, apparently QuikTrip corporation is planning to close its location on Gravois just south of Delor in the Bevo neighborhood and relocate up the street at Gravois & Chippewa.

I’m told this was revealed at a Clifton Heights neighborhood meeting recently. The site in question is the southwest corner of Gravois & Chippewa, currently a pre-owned lot for McMahon Ford.

The site in question is in the 25th Ward, where I unsuccessfully ran for alderman last year against incumbent Dorothy Kirner. A quick check of campaign finance reports shows QT contributed $300, the maximum amount, to Kirner’s campaign just days after the primary election last year. I have not reviewed other documents to look for additional contributions.

My questions are two-fold. Will they build solely on the existing auto dealer parking lot? Also, what will become of their old site?

– Steve


Revised Prediction for St. Louis Gas Prices

Back on December 30th I predicted that by the end of 2006 “a gallon of regular gas will exceed $3.00, not due to a natural disaster or terrorism.” I think that prediction might turn out to be a major understatement. At the time regular gas in St. Louis was around $2.20/gallon.

Yesterday when I left my house for dinner regular at the two stations near me was $2.69/gallon. Just a couple hours later the price was $2.88/gallon (shameful I didn’t have my camera with me). Today I noticed the price has settled to $2.84/gallon. This is all for regular. Premium fuel, like my former Audi required, is now over $3.00/gallon. Places in metro East are seeing regular in the $2.94 – $2.99/gallon range.

So today I’m revising my estimate, I think we’ll see regular gas at $3.50/gallon before New Year’s Day 2007. And I don’t mean some spike brought on by a hurricane or such. Just normal everyday pricing.

What we must remember that the cost of this increase is not simply what we pay at the pump. While the average driver may be able to pay another $750-$1,000 for gasoline in 2006 than they did in 2005 that aggregate cost will mount. Many will be unable to juggle this increased expense with their incomes. Far suburban areas will continue to find it challenging to attract service workers because it simply will not be cost effective for someone to drive 20 miles for a minimum wage job.

Our entire economy is dependent upon oil, cheap oil.

Employers & employees located nearest to mass transit will be the best off. Ironically, it will be more and more costly to operate our bus system as fuel costs surge. Increased revenues from new riders and rate increases will not keep pace with fuel prices. Meanwhile, our government will likely continue road expansion projects rather than providing efficient mass transit where needed to keep the economy moving.

We may elect more Democrats to Congress in November but I don’t think that will help much, if any. Democrats have controlled the White House & Congress and still failed to do anything about sprawl, dependence on oil and auto fuel standards. Republicans are more cozy with oil interests but Democrats don’t seem willing to make any real change, presumably out of fear of not getting elected.

Locally things will be interesting as fuel prices increase. The City of St. Louis will actually be positioned well to deal with a slowing economy. I hope we can actually utilize some of our industrial buildings to once again manufacture goods to replace those we can no longer cheaply import from China. Our retail storefronts should again begin to open up as locally made goods are sold locally. Local farmers markets will see continued growth as the big grocery chains struggle to stock shelves with reasonably priced merchandise that has to be shipped cross country.

People will naturally gravitate together in the core. Sprawling suburbs with massive McMansions will become liabilities. Owners of those 3 acre lots may have to resort to growing veggies where they have the manicured lawn now.

This is not going to happen overnight but it has already started. The shift is taking place. How quickly the economy changes is hard to say as is how rough it will be.

– Steve


Edwardsville HS To Build Tunnel To Get Students From Parking

Edwardsville IL High SchoolFor a minute I thought I was reading the great satire from The Onion but a quick glance confirmed I was reading the Belleville News-Democrat. The topic: It seems Edwardsville’s high school is going to spend $480,000 on a tunnel so they can stop busing students from an overflow parking lot across the street to the high school building. Why you ask? Apparently the road is too dangerous to cross. In fact, it is against school policy for students to cross the road.

District 7 Superintendent Ed Hightower stood with State Rep. Jay Hoffman, D-Collinsville, State Sen. Bill Haine, D-Alton, Edwardsville Mayor Gary Niebur and Glen Carbon Mayor Rob Jackstadt to announce a $384,000 grant. The grant will cover 80 percent of the cost of the $480,000 tunnel. Hightower said the tunnel has been part of the overall plan for the Edwardsville High campus since its inception. [emphasis mine]

So from day one they planned such a sprawling campus on a road lined with sprawling subdivisions that a tunnel would be the best solution. Remember when small college towns were charming and quaint? It seems they like sprawl as much as the bigger urban areas.

The tunnel will provide a lighted, video-monitored walkway for students who park at the stadium lot and must cross Center Grove Road to get to the high school. Currently, more than 200 sophomores and juniors park at the stadium across the street from the high school and ride buses across the street, which sees more than 14,000 cars per day.

Students are forbidden to try to cross the street on foot, and are faced with a three-day in-school suspension if they are caught doing so, according to student council president Mallory Smith.

“It’s a major problem,” Mallory said, especially for students who stay late for events or meetings. Once the buses stop running, they must wait up to half an hour for someone to take them across in a golf cart.

A golf cart? You see why I thought this was something the crazy folks at The Onion came up with. The school is in the top half of the picture at right while the stadium and extra parking are on the lower half, south of Center Grove Road.

This is wrong on so many levels. First, looking at the map you can see that Edwardsville, a small college town with a cute downtown, has sprawled beyond belief. The resulting high school campus is equally sprawling and auto centric. To be fair to the high school, the college campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville (SIUE), doesn’t really relate to the town either. It is bad when our metropolitan areas experience sprawl but perhaps it is even worse when small towns get in on the act with disconnected cul-de-sacs, strip malls and big box centers all reachable only by car.

– Steve


‘Entertainment District’ Replaces ‘Festival Marketplace’ as Latest Trend

In the 1970s and 80s the “Festival Marketplace” was all the rage. This development concept was seen as the savior for many areas, including St. Louis’ Union Station. The Festival Markeplace was seen as a destination spot with entertainment and retail. The retail was often a clever adaptation of an existing building to form a mall space. Grand train stations were eagerly converted to this great new concept:

The fine 1888 headhouse became the grand entrance to the complex, housing an upscale restaurant on the former concourse floor. The eastern half of the shed became a festival marketplace, with specialty stores, bars, and a food court, while the western half was converted into a hotel, with new room modules built in the area occupied by most of the old tracks. Four tracks at the north and south ends were retained, and stocked with old heavyweight Pullmans, which were gutted to the shell and rebuilt with completely new interiors containing two rooms each.

This description is not about St. Louis’ Union Station although many similarities exist, including financial trouble of late. No, the above is about the Union Station in Indianapolis (source).

But after a couple of decades this concept is showing its age.

As city after city experienced trouble with their festival marketplaces, all suffering too little festivities and not enough commerce to pay the debts, something had to be done. Sadly, the solution was to only tweak the concept slightly and give it a new name. So today overblown development projects are called “mixed-use retail/entertainment districts.” Not quite as catchy as festival marketplace but that will give this new name greater longevity. The MUR/ED, as I will call it here, has little difference from failed festival marketplaces.

One primary difference we see, and it is a good one, is the embrace of the street. Gone are the days of multi-level indoor mall configurations of the festival marketplace. These have been replaced with overdone streets. Overdone in the sense of a cheap whore rather than a regal lady in a classic outfit.

The other main difference between the Festival Marketplace and the MUR/ED is the addition of housing. Again, this is a major improvement. With Festival Marketplaces such as our Union Station it was only after the locals and tourists stopped flocking to the attraction that people woke up and realized that if we had some housing there we’d have a built-in base of customers. Wow, these guys are brilliant that they’ve figured out that having residents creates retail customers!

The St. Louis Cardinals & The Cordish Company are planning one of these tarted up districts:

Ballpark Village is a $450 million mixed-use retail/entertainment and residential district being developed in partnership by The St. Louis Cardinals and The Cordish Company. Ballpark Village will cover six city blocks that will directly connect to the new Busch Stadium, which will be unveiled Opening Day of the Spring, 2006 season. Ballpark Village will feature approximately 450,000 square feet of retail/entertainment, 1,200 residential units, 400,000 square feet of office and 2,000 parking spaces. Located in the heart of downtown St. Louis, MO, Ballpark Village will be a world class district that will redefine the Gateway to the West.

World class? What makes it world class, an ESPN Zone sports bar? And it will “redefine the Gateway to the West” even though the Arch does a pretty good job of that right now. What they really should say is the district will be over-hyped with every chain business that will sign a lease. The developers will make their money in the first 20 years and could care less about creating a sustainable model for development beyond that. Furthermore, I see them creating, like the Bottle District North of the Dome, an internally focused area with little relationship to the surrounding area.

Ballpark Village will be hugely popular when it opens. It will lease the bulk of its retail & commercial space and the residential units will sell quickly. Getting a table at one of the new restaurants in the first year will be a challenge. But, in time what once seemed so new and exciting will age and no longer be the new hot spot. Some of the chains will simply close the location while other chains will go out of business nation-wide. In about 25 years the Cardinal’s owners, whomever that will be at the time, will begin talks with the city about building a new stadium. I’m just not confident in the long-term prospects of the adjacent “village.”

So what would I do differently?

Well, I’d drop the whole “Ballpark Village” name. A village, in my view, is self reliant. Yes, I know it is just a marketing ploy but in the long term such a fixed identity will hurt the area once it becomes passé. Counter to current trends, I would not give the area too distinct a visual look. Instead, I’d do my best to integrate the area with adjacent blocks so as to blend rather than stick out. Having 12 acres controlled and designed by one developer is apt to look too contrived. I’d suggest they create the street grid and then allow other developers/owners to take on various pieces of the total site. This would get closer to how things used to be and with multiple owners we would have great variety.

Chain restaurants & retail stores are typically only interested in a long-term lease whereas a locally owned business might be interested in purchasing a storefront condo. Trying to get local businesses as part of the mix will help with local people having a vested interest in the long range future of the area. Corporate offices of chains simply do not care. Of course, rental rates are often astronomical in these mega projects so chains are the only ones that can afford to locate in them. They become outdoor malls without the charm of Kansas City’s Countryclub Plaza.

Much is happening in other parts of downtown north of Market Street as well as in the Cupples Station area just to the West of the new stadium. It will be very important that residents and visitors all seamlessly walk from area to area but I have concerns the Ballpark Village will attempt to corral people simply to make its numbers work. To be successful, it will need thousands of visitors which is an easy task on game day. Hype will get the area visitors on non-game days as well but I’m concerned it will be at the expense of other parts of downtown. I hope I’m wrong. The rest of downtown needs the village to draw new people downtown, not just steal current ones.

The mixed-use retail/entertainment district is a revamp of the mostly failed Festival Marketplace which was twist on the failed downtown mall idea. The big developers and the city officials they sponsor simply do not understand neighborhood basics. If they do, they don’t feel like they can sell it to the general public or the bankers. In the 1950s cities began tearing apart their cities to accommodate the car and in the process ruined downtowns. Sure, downtowns were tired and dirty before all the demolition and highway construction began but champions of “progress” argued for more parking and wider streets to move traffic. All these efforts over the last 50+ years accelerated the demise of downtowns and aided in the growth of suburbia.

Civic groups have been trying every bloated scheme since to change things. The 50’s saw the first wave with beautiful buildings being razed for parking. The ones that were not razed were stripped of their detailing and modernized in an attempt to look like a new building. This was the first failed trend for downtowns and it has been an expensive downhill ride since.

In the 60’s and 70’s came the pedestrian malls, again trying to compete with the new suburban outdoor mall. The new suburban mall was not much more than a couple of strip centers facing each other but downtown folks had to do it. St. Louis didn’t close off streets, instead we torn down blocks of buildings to create the Gateway Mall. When suburbia moved to enclosed malls cities followed suit. It is really a sad history of failing to understand what makes an urban core special.

Along the way cities decided that every major venue should be located in their downtown. Sports arenas and convention centers were going to revive downtowns. St. Louis’ convention center, despite numerous expansions, is failing to live up to expectations. The dome is less than 20 years old and is already costing millions to stay competitive with others stadiums. The convention hotel is still on the verge of bankruptcy due to lower than expected occupancy.

Forgive me if I am cynical about these new “entertainment districts” but I see too many eggs in one basket for long term sustainability.

– Steve