What Should Replace the 1960s 7th Street Parking Garage?

 

  In 1961 the former Stix, Baer & Fuller department store began building a 900-car parking garage, attached to its downtown location via a skywalk over 7th Street. Six plus decades later the old Stix store contains apartments, hotel, a museum, and restaurants. The garage is now surrounded on 3 …

Recent Book — “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It” by M. Nolan Gray

 

  Over a century ago a new idea called “zoning” began, intended to guide cities to grow in a less chaotic manner than they had until then. Reality, however, was very different. It’s time to let go, change. A recently published book explains the why & how. What if scrapping …

18th Anniversary of UrbanReviewSTL, Stage 4 Kidney Cancer Still “Stable”, Gathering Today Noon-2pm

 

  Eighteen years ago today I registered the domain UrbanReviewSTL.com and began blogging about urban planning in St. Louis. YouTube didn’t exist yet. Facebook was known as The Facebook, still limited to college students at many universities. My husband (m 2014) was barely a year out of high school. Some …

Former St. Liborius Church Complex Fits Beautifully in the Street Grid

 

  A major reason why I decided to make St. Louis my home back in August 1990 was the complex street grid and the buildings that neatly fit into it. One of the finest examples of fitting into our decidedly non-orthogonal street grid is the former St. Liborius Church complex, …

Recent Articles:

New Book — ‘American Urbanist: How William H. White’s Unconventional Wisdom Shaped Public Life’ by Richard K. Rein

March 18, 2022 Books, Featured Comments Off on New Book — ‘American Urbanist: How William H. White’s Unconventional Wisdom Shaped Public Life’ by Richard K. Rein
 

cover of american urbanist book Willam H. Whyte is one of two people who influenced how I see our built environment, the other is Jane Jacobs. Had I known about either in 1985 I probably would’ve studied urban planning instead of architecture. Both focus on observation, but in very different ways.

On an otherwise normal weekday in the 1980s, commuters on busy Route 1 in central New Jersey noticed an alarming sight: a man in a suit and tie dashing across four lanes of traffic, then scurrying through a narrow underpass as cars whizzed by within inches. The man was William “Holly” Whyte, a pioneer of people-centered urban design. Decades before this perilous trek to a meeting in the suburbs, he had urged planners to look beyond their desks and drawings: “You have to get out and walk.”
 
American Urbanist shares the life and wisdom of a man whose advocacy reshaped many of the places we know and love today—from New York’s bustling Bryant Park to preserved forests and farmlands around the country. Holly’s experiences as a WWII intelligence officer and leader of the genre-defining reporters at Fortune Magazine in the 1950s shaped his razor-sharp assessments of how the world actually worked—not how it was assumed to work. His 1956 bestseller, The Organization Man, catapulted the dangers of “groupthink” and conformity into the national consciousness.
 
Over his five decades of research and writing, Holly’s wide-ranging work changed how people thought about careers and companies, cities and suburbs, urban planning, open space preservation, and more. He was part of the rising environmental movement, helped spur change at the planning office of New York City, and narrated two films about urban life, in addition to writing six books. No matter the topic, Holly advocated for the decisionmakers to be people, not just experts.
 
“We need the kind of curiosity that blows the lid off everything,” Holly once said. His life offers encouragement to be thoughtful and bold in asking questions and in making space for differing viewpoints. This revealing biography offers a rare glimpse into the mind of an iconoclast whose healthy skepticism of the status quo can help guide our efforts to create the kinds of places we want to live in today. (Island Press)

He was right, in-person observation is incredibly valuable. Photos, videos, etc are good, but the best observations are made in person. This is why for 17+ years I like to visit places in person before posting about them here.

You can read some preview pages of this hardcover book here.

— Steve Patterson

Exploring Housing Options for 801 Dickson Street

March 17, 2022 Featured, North City, Planning & Design, Real Estate Comments Off on Exploring Housing Options for 801 Dickson Street
 

Monday’s post was about reconnecting the pedestrian grid at 8th Street, just south of Cass Ave — see 8th Street Walkway Needed To Fill Missing 110’ Connectivity Gap. Today’s post is about exploring options for new housing on the large lot known as 801 Dickson Street — it stretches a full block along the north side of Dickson, between 8th & 9th streets. This vacant land is owned by the St. Louis Housing Authority.

First we’ll look at the site, conditions, etc. and then some of the various configurations I’ve considered. You may have others.

Aerial view of 801 Dickson Street
801 Dickson is owned by the St. Louis Housing Authority, zoned D Multi-Family Housing. The strategic land use is NPA — neighborhood preservation area. The long sides are 292.52 feet, the east/right short side is 110 feet, and the left/west short side is 120 feet. Click to view in Google Maps — sans boundary lines.

Site characteristics:

  • Faces south-southwest.
  • Gentle slope south from alley.
  • The parking for 12 cars at the alley has been in place for 70 years, it lacks an accessible space and adjacent loading zone.
  • The Youth & Family Center on the north side of the alley was built in 1982. It was previously called Cochran Youth & Family Center. It has entrances onto Cass and the back alley. It has no parking on its site at 818 Cass Ave. Nobody ever parks on Cass Ave, even though it isn’t marked as no parking.
  • A northbound bus stop (#32) is on the short side, on 9th Street.
  • Overhead electric enters the site on the east side, about 20 feet south of the alley. The poles and overhead wires stop just before 9th Street (left side).
  • Some mature trees exist along the alley, 9th. Smaller street trees exist along Dickson Street. The trees next to the alley have been trimmed so as to not interfere with the overhead power lines.
  • The west end had part of Cochran Gardens tower C-9 from 1951 until about 2005, the west end was part of a Cochran Gardens playground. Presumably the building foundations were fully removed. Potentially 19th century remnants remain buried.

Looking west at 801 Dickson

Looking north on 9th, at Dickson. The #32 bus frequently stops here to drop off a rider, or let one board.

Looking back east from 9th, the brick circle is all that remains from Cochran Gardens. Parking & electrical poles are visible.

A direct view of the parking from the alley. Again, the overhead electric is visible.

Before getting into the various options for new construction please understand this post isn’t concerned with who would build any housing, or how it would be paid for, demand, market economics, etc. The purpose here is to see the various options for constructing additional housing on the site — what does & doesn’t physically fit on the site. Ideally I’d like to avoid a curb cut/driveway off both Dickson & 9th streets.

A good plan to start with ideas is to look at the context, the housing around the site. To the east of where I want a new 8th Street pedestrian walkway the dimension between 8th and 7th is just a few feet wider. It has two buildings, each with four townhouses. Along the alley are two garage buildings, each with a 2-car garage — one for each of the 8 total townhouses. When Cochran Gardens was replaced all the new construction, like my apartment, is rental — but each of the 8 townhouses are privately-owned, owner-occupied.

Row houses 7xx Dickson
Row houses 7xx Dickson

Garages behind 7xx Dickson
Garages behind 7xx Dickson

The problem is the aforementioned parking spaces off the alley, on the west end of the site. If the trees along the alley were removed you could building one group of four townhouses, with garage. You could do a second if the parking were removed, but that’s not ideal.

Directly across Dickson Street are more townhouses, these are mixed-income rentals with a common shared parking lot behind. Theoretically it may be possible to put a shallow parking lot behind townhouses.

This is a 2012 view of townhouses on 9th Street, the ones facing Dickson are similar.

The other contextual option is a building with garden apartments. The Cambridge Heights garden apartment buildings each contain 12 apartments — 3 floors, six units per two entrances/breezeways. Like townhouses, parking might be possible behind. One such building could fit. A variation with 18 units with three entrances/breezeways could potentially fit.

What about going higher than 3 floors? While elevators are expensive, and costly to maintain, a 4-5 story building could work as you get more units in the same space. The scale of an old 5-story building on 7th seems fine in the neighborhood. I’d love to see a lot of accessible units as the need for low-income housing for the disabled is needed — especially near downtown. With an existing bus stop adjacent it would be great for many people who don’t drive or own a car, this would make it easier to not have any off-street parking. Perhaps the site is arranged so a small parking lot is located off the alley, on the east end of the site.

It would be nice if an elevator building had a retail space at the corner, perhaps part of a live/work unit.

Another option would be groupings of tiny homes (300sf) or small homes (800sf).  Some could front onto the 8th Street walkway I’d like to see get built. Since the site is a block long there’s nothing to say it all has to be the same, some combination of ideas can be used.

The parking at the alley for the Youth & Family Center should probably be separated from the main lot, or a formalized easement. It would also be nice if the overhead electric was buried. The St. Louis Housing Authority also owns a larger lot between 8th & 9th, on O’Fallon Street (map), but kids often use this for ball, frisbee, etc.

The vacant land in my neighborhood, owned by the housing authority, is ideal for affordable/low-income new housing — perhaps by a developer seeking a tax break on a big project in the central corridor.

— Steve Patterson

 

8th Street Walkway Needed To Fill Missing 110’ Connectivity Gap

March 14, 2022 Accessibility, Featured, North City, Walkability Comments Off on 8th Street Walkway Needed To Fill Missing 110’ Connectivity Gap
 

When cold water flats and tenements were cleared just north of downtown for St. Louis’ first high-rise public housing project, Cochran Gardens, several blocks of 8th Street were erased from the grid. Six decades later 8th Street was rebuilt* when the mixed-income Cambridge Heights apartments & townhouses replaced Cochran Gardens’ towers.

* 110 feet of 8th Street wasn’t replaced!

This short missing piece is a connectivity problem for those of us who live here. Later, when Cass Ave over I-44 (aka I-70) was raised as part of the Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge project 7th Street got disconnected from Cass Ave. So now neither 7th or 8th connect to Cass. Getting to/from the bus at Cass Ave & Broadway is likely the primary reason for needing access here, it would also be nice when we go to Shady Jack’s or walk/roll up Broadway.

A little bit of the original 8th Street exists south of Cass Ave, but it quickly ends at an alley. Jersey barriers exist to keep drivers from going straight ahead.

From the broken sidewalk on the east side of 8th you can see a clear route to 8th Street 100 feet further south. The west side of 8th, unfortunately, has no sidewalk.

In the field you can see beyond Dickson Street to 8th Street

At the public sidewalk you can look south along 8th Street to downtown. 8th Street is the center of Cambridge Heights.

Motorists use the alley south of Cass to get to/from Cass Ave, but pedestrians often walk though vacant land where 110 feet of 8th street should be. As you’ll see, putting in street, curbs, drainage, etc would be challenging & costly — all that’s needed is a 110 foot long sidewalk and a couple of curb ramps.

Looking toward Cass Ave from the SW corner of 8th & Dickson streets.

Looking toward Cass Ave from the SW corner of 8th & Dickson streets.

The same view after a recent snowfall. Two desire lines where people walked are clear. A community center is visible on the left, but no good way to get there directly.

This is needed because going between the neighborhood and Cass Ave is challenging as a pedestrian. I’ve thought so for the 3+ years I’ve lived here. I’ve also seen a woman at least 15 years my senior (so 70+) walking though the grass with a cane. The trail through the snow earlier this year was also a clue.

You might be thinking this land is vacant do it can be developed for more housing. Let’s take a look at the property lines.

The blue dot marks a 15 foot wide parcel owned by the St. Louis Housing Authority (725 Dickson Street). They also own the land from here to 9th Street. 723 Dickson Street is 64.26 feet wide, includes the 22 foot wide end of 3 townhouses.

My assumption is the 15 foot wide parcel known as 725 Dickson (map) is there to prevent anyone building over utilities, like sewer, under the old 8th Street. The end row house has a lot of extra land beyond their fence. Basically there’s more than enough width to create a generous pedestrian path. There are some obstacles near the alley.

From the alley you can see a little bit of concrete and some useless chain link. And an electric utility pole.

From the lot you can see the pole and an electrical box (transformer?). There are also wires to help keep the pole upright on the private land side.

There’s room to fit a 5′ wide walkway at the alley to then toward 8th & Dickson streets, we just need to figure out property lines, utilities, easements, etc. City mowers have a hard time during the summer keeping the back area cut — a private home owner would get a violation letter from the city for such conditions. The elevation is slightly higher at the alley than south at Dickson Street.

The need exists, much of the land is owned by the housing authority. Cost wouldn’t be that substantial. I’d love to see fruit trees planed on both sides of a walkway so the public can access free fruit.

— Steve Patterson

Newish Book — ‘Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving’

March 11, 2022 Books, Featured Comments Off on Newish Book — ‘Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving’
 

Imagine the car of the future, no steering wheel or pedals. Just get in and tell it where to go and then it quietly whisks you to your destination. Will this ever be a reality for anyone living today?

Maybe, for newborns.

A newish book looks at the promise of the future automobile.

“The foundation has been laid for fully autonomous,” Elon Musk announced in 2016, when he assured the world that Tesla would have a driverless fleet on the road in 2017. “It’s twice as safe as a human, maybe better.” Promises of technofuturistic driving utopias have been ubiquitous wherever tech companies and carmakers meet.

In Autonorama: The Illusory Promise of High-Tech Driving, technology historian Peter Norton argues that driverless cars cannot be the safe, sustainable, and inclusive “mobility solutions” that tech companies and automakers are promising us. The salesmanship behind the driverless future is distracting us from investing in better ways to get around that we can implement now. Unlike autonomous vehicles, these alternatives are inexpensive, safe, sustainable, and inclusive.

Norton takes the reader on an engaging ride —from the GM Futurama exhibit to “smart” highways and vehicles—to show how we are once again being sold car dependency in the guise of mobility. He argues that we cannot see what tech companies are selling us except in the light of history. With driverless cars, we’re promised that new technology will solve the problems that car dependency gave us—zero crashes! zero emissions! zero congestion!  But these are the same promises that have kept us on a treadmill of car dependency for 80 years.

Autonorama is hopeful, advocating for wise, proven, humane mobility that we can invest in now, without waiting for technology that is forever just out of reach. Before intelligent systems, data, and technology can serve us, Norton suggests, we need wisdom. Rachel Carson warned us that when we seek technological solutions instead of ecological balance, we can make our problems worse. With this wisdom, Norton contends, we can meet our mobility needs with what we have right now. (Island Press)

I’m very glad to see someone challenging idea that autonomous vehicles is the future of mobility. You can preview the book here.

— Steve Patterson

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We Saved 17.3% On Last Month’s Electric Bill

March 3, 2022 Environment, Featured Comments Off on We Saved 17.3% On Last Month’s Electric Bill
 

A smart electric meter is needed for Time of Use (TOU) rate plans.

Many more of you now have a smart electric meter, assuming you’re an Ameren Missouri customer, than when I have previously posted about this new technology — and the variety of billing rates that go along with it.

My three prior posts:

We have now completed 8 billing cycles using new time of use (TOU) billing rates — the rate charges varies depending upon the time of day. We did one month of Evening/Morning Savers, four months of Ultimate Savers, and the last three on the Smart Savers plan.  The latter plan is best for us, more on that below.

You’re probably thinking you don’t want to mess with new rate plans, you’ll just stick with the flat rate (aka Anytime Users) you’ve always had. Sorry, if you have a new smart meter Ameren will automatically move you to the Evening/Morning Savers plan.  This plan charges slightly less for electricity used between 9pm and 9am.

Why is Ameren Missouri changing all meters and complicating electrical rates? They’re trying to minimize energy use during peak demand periods. Think about shopping malls, they have massive amounts of unused surface parking — except for peak periods like Black Friday when parking lots fill up. Surface parking, unfortunately, is cheap so building extra capacity that isn’t used most of the time is no big deal. Energy plants, on the other hand, are incredibly expensive. Plus, Ameren is planning to shut down its second largest coal plant later this year.

Ideal for energy unities (natural gas & electric) the demand would be perfectly flat 24/7/365. Reality is our air conditioning, electric heat, electric clothes dryers, lighting, and electric cooking use isn’t flat. Most people have similar enough schedules they cool off the house after work in summer, make meals at the same time, etc.  These activities cause spikes in demand. Roller coaster use isn’t a good match for electricity generation.

Spikes in energy demand are costly to deal with, so it’s better for electric utilities to reward customers to help flatten out demand. So peak times cost more, off peak less. Peak demand happens at different times of the day in winter months compared to summer months.

All four of Ameren’s TOU rate plans have a few common elements.

Summer rates are valid for 4 months, June-September. Thus, winter rates are the remaining 8 months, October-May. The flat rate we’ve all had for years has been different in summer vs winter — higher in summer because of air conditioning demand. What’s new is the variability based on the time of day, and day of week.

Let’s review the plans, starting with the flat rate we’ve all had for years — the same rate no matter the time of day or the day of the week.

The specific charge per kWh has changed over the decades, but you see the time of day doesn’t matter.

Now we can get into the new plans, starting with the one Ameren has moved you to after installing the smart meter:

This is the plan everyone will be moved to after receiving a new smart meter. As you can see the rate for 9am to 9pm is only slightly higher than the other half of a 24 hour cycle. 12 hours peak, 12 hours off peak — 7 days a week.

Here are the other three rate plans. They can be confusing but after 4 months Ameren can show you the average cost of each plan based on your usage.

With this plan peak rates are 16 hours, off peak is 8 hours. Seven days a week.

 

This is the one plan that has three levels, instead of just two. Eight hours of off peak, five hours peak summer, four hours peak winter. Peak is only for non-holiday weekdays.

This rate plan has the best rates, but it also has a demand charge based on the hour of highest demand during the billing cycle.

I should note here that major holidays are a break from peak rates, see my first post on TOU rates for specifics.

I jumped into plans as soon as I could, without waiting 4 months to see which plan was best for us. However, I’ve also changed when we use electricity because of these rates — trying to maximize our savings each month. When our report was available I could clearly see the Smart Savers rate plan would save us over the Ultimate Savers plan. I switched based on the report and now that we’re in winter and using electric heating we’re saving big money each month.

We recently received our February bill for the period 1/22/22-2/22/22 — a savings of $12.39 compared to the old Anytime flat rate. The previous cycle we saved $10.64.  So far we’ve cumulatively saved $29.22 on time of use rates compared to the old flat rate — nearly 80% of that amount in just the last two billing cycles! I can’t wait to see the savings after we’ve been on our current TOU rate plan for a full 12 billing cycles. Ameren doesn’t tell you the savings, but I’m a spreadsheet geek so I don’t have to do the math manually.

Our apartment is 100% electric, about 15 years old, 3 exterior walls, with two occupied apartments above ours — winter heat is a bigger expense than summer cooling. The best plan for you may be different, all you need to do is log into your Ameren account online to see the approximate average cost per month for each of the time of use billing rates.

Ameren dashboard
If you have a smart meter and they’ve compared the various TOU rates you’ll see a mention at the bottom of this section of your Ameren dashboard about rates.

Ameren rate plan comparison
This is our current comparison. Note the dollar amounts are energy only — no fees, charges, taxes. Some plans you can opt for summer only or all year.

And finally, what makes these new electric meters so smart?  They’re able to understand what is using electricity based on the loads. This allows Ameren to show me reports like these:

energy use by appliance report, December 2021 bill cycle
Our energy use by appliance report, December 2021 bill cycle. Water heating was our biggest single user of electricity in this cycle ahead of heat.

energy use by appliance report, January 2022 bill cycle
In our January 2022 bill energy use by appliance report heating is no longer a separate lime item, this is likely due to our cat’s heating pad that’s on 10pm-6am daily, with the help of a smart plug.

February 2022 bill energy use by appliance report
Last month our energy use by appliance report was nearly identical to the previous.

Once you have a login for your account it only takes a minute to see if they’ve had enough data from your use to compare rates. You might be paying more each month than necessary.

I mentioned that I did make changes in an effort to reduce our energy costs. I used to do 3 loads of laundry per week, in the mornings. I now do 2 loads timed so the dryer isn’t turned on until 10pm. The washer is set to tap cold water. Most of the time our dishwasher is also run after 10pm — the heat dry and other energy sucking features are off. The dishwasher is occasionally run during the mid-peak time, but never during full peak. Our thermostat is set to a temperature during peak hours so our heat/cooling won’t kick on. I’ve not made any changes to what, how, or when we cook.

In addition to saving money by using some appliances during off-peak hours, we’re using less electricity.  Here’s the totals for the last 3 years:

  • 2019: 10,179 kWh
  • 2020: 9,620 kWh
  • 2021: 7,447 kWh

The weather, of course, plays a role in our heating & cooling costs.

Without changing your life you can potentially save money by checking out Ameren’s advanced time of use billing rates — let them show you the comparison. If you’ve only just received your smart meter check bask online each month to see if they have a comparison ready.  If you can additionally reduce energy use during peak hours you can save even more.

— Steve Patterson

 

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