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St. Charles County is facing problems due to sprawl

November 4, 2004 Public Transit, Suburban Sprawl Comments Off on St. Charles County is facing problems due to sprawl

I love “old town” St. Charles and the surrounding residential neighborhoods. It is compact, urban, charming and it works. To county officials, developers and home builders it doesn’t work. Massive office parks, industrial parks, strip shopping centers, apartment complexes and single-family subdivisions are what works.

Today’s Post-Dispatch is reporting “St. Charles County faces shortage of development sites.” Reporter Eric Heisler begins the story, “Fast-growing St. Charles County faces a shortage in the types of sites it needs to continue luring new employers at a rapid pace, according to a report that will be presented today to county leaders.”

“You need to have sites available and the ability to put together a deal” in order to draw major projects, said Deane Foote, senior project manager for economic development and real estate services at Carter & Burgess Inc. of Fort Worth, Texas. “When it comes to big projects, the sites just aren’t there right now. … That creates the potential that some prospects will go elsewhere.” 

I have to laugh. St. Charles County grew so fast and so sprawling it failed to realize it would not be able to sustain such patterns forever. For a couple of decades St. Charles County has drawn residents from other parts of the region – mostly St. Louis County. Along with residents come the big-box stores like Wal-Mart and soon the office parks show up. Is calling it an office ‘park’ supposed to make you think you are spending your day at a park rather than work? Or the runoff area from all the parking lots with a few ducks will evoke that at the lake feeling?

Ok, back on subject. St. Charles County is now realizing it does not have an endless supply of virgin land. Duh! Instead of fighting Metrolinkexpansion into St. Charles County a decade ago they should have been developing mixed-use neighborhoods around transit stops. Wing Haven was a half-ass attempt at a mixed use development but it didn’t fully grasp the concepts of New Urbanism. The one exception in St. Charles County is the New Urbanist development known as New Town at St. Charles.

Other than being constructed in a flood plain, New Town at St. Charles, is the most progressive development built on virgin land in the St. Louis region in the last 100 years. New Town is also superior to brownfield developments such as King Louis Square as it represents a mix of housing types and uses. Flood plain aside, the next issue with New Town is that it is not connected to the rest of St. Charles nor is it along a possible transit corridor. Within New Town life will be great but to come and go they will be forced to use a car. The bigger picture would be to have more of this development connected by alternative means of transportation. Someone living in New Town should be able to visit a friend in St. Peters without having to get into their car.

St. Charles County has wasted a precious resource in their sprawling land policies. In short order they will come to understand the errors of their ways but by then it will be too late. The inevitability of rising fuel costs in the coming years will have a greater affect on St. Charles County than any other part of the St. Louis region (with the possible exception of Jefferson County).

Four dollars a gallon for gasoline will force regions to become more compact. The WPA-type projects in the future will be undoing the damage caused by decades of sprawl in the burbs and ill-conceived urban renewal projects in the core. Such projects will take decades to complete but in the meantime we will see the economic prosperity of St. Charles County shrink as fuel costs will make most of the county obsolete. Economic prosperity will be shifted to those areas surrounding MetroLink stops.

Sorry St. Charles County. You voted against MetroLink because you didn’t want undesirables stealing your TV sets. In the end, you will lose far more than a television.