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Pyramid’s Claims to be “Leader in Urban Redevelopment”

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John Steffen’s Pyramid Companies is trying to remake its tarnished public image. Their website is newly updated with a vision statement:

The Pyramid Companies were founded in 1992 to realize owner John Steffen’s vision to rebuild urban areas with high quality historic renovations and the construction of new homes. Today, Pyramid is the acknowledged leader of urban redevelopment in the City of St. Louis with over $500 million in projects completed or in various stages of development.

“Acknowledged leader?” Under who’s terms? Perhaps if you look solely at the total cost of the projects they are the biggest, most likely with the most tax-payer contributions. Biggest does not mean the best. What about criteria that includes urban form factor? How about neighborhoods that have long-term prospects of remaining sustainable in 50 years?

With most of Pyramid’s bigger projects located downtown in existing structures it has been nearly impossible for them to screw up the urban form. But their new construction, throughout the city, has been highly questionable.

The mission statement talks about “John Steffen’s vision to rebuild urban areas.” I think his vision is a bit cloudy. One look at Pyramid’s new Sullivan Place project, at right, and it is easy to doubt any vision other than a money making suburban one. Steffen certainly can’t think Sullivan Place represents a wonderful urban vision!

Over the years they’ve built numerous projects of questionable urbanity. Early projects included very suburban looking houses along Delmar with front-facing garages. Moving on they started and then abandoned Keystone Place. What was built there had attached garages and long driveways, a small step up from front garages. Sure, a detached garage option was listed in sales literature but customers were never shown a display from which to chose.

Next up was King Louis Square, an apartment complex trying hard to be urban but falling short on several levels such as building form and the actual architecture with its PVC molding carelessly applied to the facade. Just up the street they built Old Frenchtown, another uninspired apartment complex. Now we have La Saison, a new single family home project between King Louis Square & Old Frenchtown. In La Saison many of the homes are set far apart and nearly all are set way back from the street as if they were in suburbia. Poor detailing on the houses does not bode well for their long-term value. Pyramid had a great opportunity to create a wonderful mixed-used neighborhood where these recent projects stand yet their suburban “vision” resulted in the housing types all being segregated from each other. This land, cleared once in the 1950’s for public housing, was cleared again in the 1990’s. We should have demanded better. Although, we should have gotten better from a major developer and the city.

A true urban vision would have resulted in a greater variety of housing types, all mixed. We would have seen rental buildings next to single family homes next to attached townhouses. Granny flats over some garages could have helped create affordable rental units convenient to transportation and jobs. Commercial activity on Park in Lafayette Square should have been continued East toward Tucker. Apartments/condos over storefronts would have helped create streets people might actually walk down. As it is, this redeveloped area is clean but lifeless. Is this Steffen’s vision?

Back to propping up Pyramid’s image.

A recent St. Louis Business Journal article on Pyramid was little more than a press release. Everyone got into the act:

“We have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that John will be able to complete St. Louis Centre and the other projects he has embarked on, based on the fact that over the past five years, everything that he has said he would do in the downtown area, he has done and done on schedule,” Geisman said.

The key phrase is “in the downtown area.” Other quotes in the same article used the same ‘downtown’ qualifier. Pyramid’s downtown track record might be good but outside downtown the track record is poor, and getting worse.

– Steve


Tell McDonald’s We Don’t Want Their Suburban Store on Grand

Many of you have heeded the call to put a stop to a new suburban-style McDonald’s on South Grand. You’ve emailed Alderwoman Jennifer Florida and Mayor Slay. You’ve also called Pyramid at 314-773-7333 to express your views. Keep up the pressure, it is being noticed.

But we also need to let McDonald’s know we have higher standards than our elected officials and local developers. Please fill out McDonald’s online comment form to tell them we don’t want a standard store in St. Louis.

You’ll need this information:

Location: 3737 South Grand
Landmark: Grand & Chippewa
Visit Type: Drive-Thru (what else right?)

Points to make:

  • Proposed design does not comply with development ordinance for area which prohibits drive-thru establishments.
  • Neighborhood is in opposition to existing franchise moving across the street from 3737 to 3708 S. Grand.
  • Neighborhood should not be subjected to being drive-thru adjacent.
  • McDonald’s can rebuild at their current site if they want to stay in the area.
  • McDonald’s & Franchise owner can afford retaining wall, if necessary, to rebuild on current site.
  • You might also want to fill out a non-location specific form on Social Responsibility.

    Looking at McDonald’s Real Estate information I found the following:

    The ideal site today might include the following characteristics:

  • 35,000+ sq. ft.
  • In the past we have developed on smaller parcels and significantly larger parcels.
  • Give us the opportunity to look over your site characteristics.
  • Corner or corner wrap w/signage on two major streets.
  • Signalized intersection.
  • Ability to build up to 5,500 sq. ft. of building at any time.
  • Parking to meet all applicable codes.
  • Ability to build to a minimum height of 22 ft.
  • Who makes the decisions on developing a site?
    McDonald’s Corporation is a de-centralized company with the Regions, versus the franchisees, making the decisions on development. McDonald’s (with the best possible credit rating in the world) is the contracting party and we guarantee all leases.

    Interesting, it is the region that makes decisions on development? Well, in that case I say we start contacting the “Heartland Regional Office” Real Estate Contact: Perry Pelton (see list of points above). Mr. Pelton is aware of this issue as he testified at the variance hearing in February. Click here to listen to Mr. Pelton’s testimony.

    Their site criteria section includes three PDF files of standard layouts. The first one, called 34-86/98–Far Corner Site fits on a site smaller than the old Sears site but is very typical, a small box surrounded by a sea of parking.

    Hopefully we can convince them this move will be bad for their PR.

    – Steve


    Three Blind Mice: Pyramid, Florida & McDonald’s

    One of the more disturbing aspects of the whole McDonald’s fiasco is the idea that, as Ald. Jennifer Florida says, “They are just moving across the street.” Well, it is not that simple.

    The current McDonald’s was built in 1974. I don’t know if it was built as we see it today or if they acquired more land over time and later did the lower-level drive-thru. Hard to say.

    What can be said is that in the last 32 years we’ve become accustomed to seeing it there. The neighbors down Philips Place and Chippewa have all likely bought there since the McDonald’s was in place. Same for those buying new homes to the East of Grand in Pyramid’s Keystone Place development, they knew the McDonald’s existed on the other side of the street.

    Everyone knows the old saying we have in real estate: Location, Location, Location.

    Herein is the problem. Moving the location of the McDonald’s will lesson the impact of the fast food chain to those that knew it existed when they bought their homes and increase the impact of those that had no reason to expect they’d live drive-thru adjacent.

    The Gravois Park residents are not being Nimby’s about this issue. A drive-thru fast food chain of any franchise has associated trash, noise, pollution, and bright parking lot lights regardless as to whether the building is in the middle of the site as in the suburbs or following a more urban model like Chicago or Toronto.

    In fact, the only difference between the suburban & urban models is how the building relates to the public sidewalk. This is a critical difference and is highly important in an urban area. However, it does absolutely nothing to diminish the negative aspects of living drive-thru adjacent. We should all fully support the Gravois Park residents East of Grand in not allowing the McDonald’s to relocate to a site that has never held a drive-thru establishment. Period.

    This leaves several options.

    A non drive-thru McDonald’s at the location as part of a mixed-use project. This is not likely as their business model relies heavily on drive-thru traffic whereas places like Subway in the next block North can survive without a drive-thru window.

    Close up and going away. I think the area would actually do better if we got rid of, not fast food, but auto-centric buildings such as drive-thru restaurants, the blockbuster building, etc.. But, I am realistic enough to know this franchise owner is not going to just walk away.

    Construct a new quasi-urban McDonald’s on the current site. Ding, ding, ding; I think we have a winner!

    But Jennifer Florida, with no architectural training, says it can’t be done. Dan Hogan of Pyramid Companies testified last week, and I am paraphrasing, they ‘cannot find a way to build a new McDonald’s on the existing site.’ If they attempted to design a new McDonald’s on the site and couldn’t figure out how to it demonstrates not that it is impossible but that Pyramid simply isn’t very bright. But, one look at their Sullivan Place senior housing project and we can see Pyramid isn’t too astute when it comes to site planning.

    I’ll be the first to admit the existing McDonald’s, built in 1974, is awkward. While I really don’t want auto-centric projects in the middle of my city I will entertain, for purposes of discussion, a new facility at this same location. I think it could, if properly designed, serve to enhance the pedestrian experience as well as serve the needs of the franchise owner, employees and customers. I do not hold out any hopes of Pyramid’s development staff being able to make that happen.

    The problem is that Pyramid’s folks can’t see beyond either what exists or how things are done in the ‘burbs. The Sullivan Place project is not much different than housing projects that were built 40+ years ago and are now being razed since they don’t fit into the city. The McDonald’s they proposed was the standard off the shelf suburban McDonald’s. So when they look at the current location with a drive-thru out of a lower level at the rear of the building they just can’t see beyond that. Most people have a hard time visualizing things when something is existing.

    The existing McDonald’s site is a far better location for their restaurant than the site across Grand. First, the traffic signal at Grand & Chippewa helps facilitate traffic much better than what we’d face on the proposed site. Try for a moment to pretend the existing building does not exist. We bring out the curb to narrow the width of Grand at Chippewa which will actually give them more room to build (the street is wider than it needs to be at this point).

    By placing a new McDonald’s abutting the sidewalks at Grand & Chippewa this leaves the balance of the site for parking and drive-thru. Ald. Florida and representatives of Pyramid have been going on about the 87 units of senior housing and 10,000sf of retail space on the current McDonald’s site. We are supposed to believe it is possible to get all of that on this site yet not a small 2,000+ McDonald’s, some parking and a drive-thru lane?

    Rebuilding at the existing site can possibly be done with the slope if the required ADA parking is on-street with the balance of spaces on the slope. The alternative is to construct a retaining wall to create a more level, although not necessarily flat, site. The now closed Burger King location has a much taller retaining wall than would be necessary at the existing McDonald’s site. The Aldi’s store just North of the existing McDonald’s also required a retaining wall. Just because McDonald’s and/or the franchise owner is too cheap to construct a retaining wall does not mean we should now subject an entire neighborhood to decades of being drive-thru adjacent.

    Add that to the fact that we, as taxpayers, paid nearly a million dollars to acquire and clear the Sears site for the Keystone Place development. To now place a McDonald’s on a portion of that land is clearly a form of subsidy. Ald. Florida says no other tax incentives will be used to help the McDonald’s. She also claims the redevelopment plan’s exclusion of drive-thrus is only applicable to projects seeking incentives such as tax abatement. Okay, Ms. Florida, if this is true why are you working to remove the drive-thru prohibition for this particular parcel? The answer is obvious, because you fully intend to give the McDonald’s some sort of financial incentives such as a TIF or tax abatement. Ald. Florida is getting quite the reputation for saying one thing but then taking action in the complete opposite direction. I do not personally think anything she says can be trusted. Her actions speak volumes.

    This is bad politics and bad planning. Gravois Park residents are being set up to deal with the consequences while McDonald’s, the franchise owner and Pyramid all make a mint. Ald. Florida, presumably, will continue to receive maximum campaign contributions along the way.

    Two things need to be stopped: the McDonald’s from relocating and Jennifer Florida from being a member of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

    Ald. Florida was first elected in Spring of 2001. In the March primary she narrowly defeated Mike Daus (now State Rep.) by 21 votes (1530 vs. 1509). Typical of St. Louis, she was not challenged in the general election. In Spring of 2005 she was re-elected not by popular vote but by default — nobody ran against her. It is rare that an incumbent will be challenged in this town. I’ve yet to find a constituent of hers that is happy with her. Most, in fact, go into some story about how she did them wrong or just her rude attitude.

    I ask that 15th Ward residents do the entire city a favor and recall Jennifer Florida.

    [UPDATE 4/27/06 @ 1:45pm – I’ve been told that Dan Hogan works for McDonald’s and not Pyramid, my apologies for the error. I don’t think this changes much with respect to the inability of Pyramid to do any good site planning.]

    – Steve


    Audio From First Drive-Thru Hearing Online

    To help establish a record of the testimony from the first hearing on the McDonald’s Drive-Thru conditional use hearing I have posted a series of 15 MP3 files. These files are the complete recording from the hearing in the order in which it was held on February 16, 2006.

    You can hear for yourself how Jennifer Florida describes the quite suburban McDonald’s as “urban-style” and how franchise owner James Proctor indicates the new location will be open from 5:30am to 11:00pm.

    Due to the size of the files I have placed these on a separate server. Click here to visit the site and take a listen.

    – Steve


    NoDrive-Thru.com Launched Over McDonald’s On Grand

    I’ve written so much about the poorly designed anti-urban McDonald’s proposed for South Grand that it is all running together. If you are just finding this information it may be a bit overwhelming. To help facilitate finding the articles I created a “McDonald’s on Grand” category some time ago. Articles are posted with the latest at the top so if you need to catch up start at the bottom.

    To make it even easier to communicate the message I’ve registered NoDrive-Thru.com (as well as without the hyphen, nodrivethru.com). Both domains will lead people to this site and my category on McDonald’s.

    As this controversy continues NoDrive-Thru.com will branch out from here and become a full-fledged website as we continue to spread the message of aldermanic abuse, anti-urban planning, deep pocketed developers, and a questionable fast food establishment. In the meantime be sure to tell people to visit nodrive-thru.com for all the latest.

    – Steve