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It takes five houses to create a village?

December 9, 2004 Planning & Design 10 Comments

Dogtown Village is a series of five infill houses in the Dogtown Neighborhood of St. Louis which is formally unknown as Franz Park. Gee, I thought a Village was bigger but then again I don’t name developments for a living.

?dogtown infill.jpg

The city website doesn’t date their entry but these are only a year or two old. As you might guess from past posts, I have no issue with added density – it is much needed. I also don’t have any issue with raising prices in the neighborhood – as long as we don’t eliminate affordable housing. But, I have major issues with walking down the sidewalk and looking at driveways and garage doors. If I wanted to see that I’d move to the suburbs. Yes, these examples are more urban than a wide ranch house with front garage but I have higher expectations.


The Lustron House above, located at Forest & Glades, will be razed for four homes like the ones shown above if the developer, Western Continental LLC, gets their way. This house is in a Preservation Review District so the Cultural Resources Office & Preservation Board would have to approve of the demolition before a permit could be issued. While I love the Lustron houses I know they are certainly not the most urban of structures. But, I don’t think four garage doors facing the street is an improvement. I say let the metal house stay! [note: this parcel does not have a public alley]


The same developer, Western Continental LLC, wants to build three of the same type house on this site at Reber & Sublette in the Southwest Garden Neighborhood. The white alley building the rear of the property would be razed. The three proposed houses would face the long side of the parcel – Sublette. This does several things – snubs the houses facing Reber and introduces more garage doors to the public view.

Part of the idea of having alleys is to get garage doors off the street. Why we’d want to suburbanize our city is beyond me. But, in this case it gets worse. The developer is asking the city to vacate 5ft of the Reber right of way and 9ft of the Sublette right of way. The impact on Reber will not be significant but on Sublette it will be a disaster. To sandwich these houses onto this site the developer wants to move the public sidewalk to the curb – eliminating the tree lawn. Front garage doors, three wide driveways and no tree lawn. Yikes! Can’t we do better than this?


Don’t get excited, the above is not from St. Louis. This is Chicago where urban friendly infill is commonplace. Including basement, this new condo building has five floors and I believe 2-3 units. A garage is in back off the alley. Note the existing house in the left of the picture for a sense of scale.


Above is another Chicago infill project containing two units. As with most of these, space is so tight they finish the basement as living space. The important thing is these buildings add to the public life on the street – not take away from it like garage door projects do.


Much like our classic two-family flats, this two-unit Chicago condo building works well in an urban context.

As a general rule of thumb, if a property has an alley I don’t think the street facades should be allowed to have a garage door.

– Steve


Currently there are "10 comments" on this Article:

  1. Dan Icolari says:

    In my NYC neighborhood–as in most if not all NYC neighborhoods, so far as I’m aware– there are no alleys.

    In neighborhoods like mine, where small, 1-, 2-, 3- and 4-family houses are the rule, garbage cans are kept somewhere in the front yard or areaway, either exposed or enclosed in a large wooden container with a lid or lids.

    It never occurred to me there might be another, less odiferous and more aesthetically pleasing way–such as alleys provide–to organize small-scale household refuse storage and collection.

    But there’s another, more troubling result when new houses are not designed to utilize the alley, and that’s the garages and the series of curbcuts made to accommodate them. The minute a series of curbcuts appears, the clear and important distinction between pedestrian space and vehicular space becomes blurred. Drivers get the message instantly, viewing sidewalks as anyone’s turf, equally suited to parking or walking.

    Several blocks from my house, there’s a failed strip mall whose stores are now occupied by municipal government agencies whose employees park in the designated spaces outside. They now also completely obstruct the sidewalk, forcing pedestrians to walk in the roadway or squeeze between tightly parked vehicles on a public sidewalk.

    The problem, both in St. Louis and in New York, is the imposition of a suburban mode of development in an urban setting. Again and again, in city after city, this mode of development has proven itself a destroyer, not an enhancer, of a community’s sense of place.

    We’ve got to demand that an environment not designed for the automobile be allowed to exist and to develop further on its own pedestrian-friendly, mass transit-friendly and ecologically- friendly terms. Whatever development takes place must further, not destroy, the urban values of our communities–which are precisely what makes them distinctive and attractive and valuable and worth preserving and improving.

    Dan Icolari

  2. Brian says:

    Your Chicago examples do show urbanist design in their massing, setbacks and materials. However, notice upon their completion, that the each has high fences placed about them, hardly pedestrian-friendly. In comparison, the Cappistano condos at Gustine-Utah are just as intimidating.

    As for front-facing garages, your two proposed developments each lack an alley, or at least not parallel to the street in the case of Sublette. If an alley is available, the City should advocate better design, but in these cases, I think we should be grateful for increased density, below-grade garages, and at least no fenced-off front yards.

  3. Danne says:

    The city has a near fetish with “suburbanizing” (is that the word?) the city. This process typically takes up too much land and visually divides the neighborhood. While I’ve never seen the properties mentioned above, that is a much more pleasant use of land and fits better with the look of the area.

    I have to disagree, though, with the notion that garages only belong in the rear. I think home design (multi-angled layouts, multi-gabled roofs, ect) bring the suburban look more than a garage. Personally, I would prefer to have a street facing garage than drive through my alley.

    My alley is cramped and in dire need of repair. But, I at least have concrete to drive on, unlike the block down from me (they are on dirt). So, if I want to park off the street, I’m forced to do it on the city’s terms…and they don’t seem to care about my well being.

  4. Steve Patterson says:

    Brian – good observation on the front fencing in Chicago. On paper I have a problem with Chicago’s fencing fetish but in reality it seems to work – it is certainly not limited to just the new housing. The brick walls in New Orleans also work in reality but not on paper. I think the arrangement of blocks, massing of buildings and such make up for the walls/fences.

    Nearly every corner lot in St. Louis has the alley on the short end. I certainly couldn’t justify street facing garages on every corner. A compromise seen in cities such as Seattle is one street entrance for a below grade shared garage. I agree the increase in density is a good thing!

    Danne – yes, those busy roofs and such are really bad and very suburban. But, when an alley is properly paved it is great. Walking down a street with no driveways or garage doors is awesome and urban.

  5. Michael says:

    As a Chicago resident (if only for another 5 weeks), I have mixed feelings about both the buildings that you have shown and the fences.

    First, the fences: As you point out, they “work” in reality even if they are somewhat anti-urban in principle. They form strong, continuous walls along sidewalks, which keeps a clear urban street line. The drawback is that they aren’t really necessary. The ostensible reason is to prevent crime, but Chicago is much safer than St. Louis, a city that doesn’t have many sidewalk-line fences but needs them more. Chicago fencing just seems unnecessary.

    As for the conddo blocks: Your first two examples demostrate good urban design principles, but the third represents the more common denominator in new residential buildings in Chicago. That is, it distances itself from both its primary and side streets, and displays a callous blandness in design. Many condo buildings in Chicago are horribly anti-urban in materials (cinder block side walls), lack of windows on rear walls (huh?), attached garages and break with reasonable distance from the sidewalk. The last of these features irks me the most–many sit further from the sidewalk than any previous buildings, and one can see lots of the new buildings sandwiched between older buildings that sit much closer to the sidewalk. Many of the larger buildings sit up a half-floor, a Chicago anachronism that came into being due to 19th-century street raising to accomodate the city’s first sewers. The new buildings use this to avoid having to have commerical uses on the sidewalks or any other amenities; most don’t even use the half-floor for housing. So the big ones bring dead walls to spaces where shops or modest homes used to be.

    The better ones are small and work on residential streets. But almost none integrate other uses, unless they are built on very prominent commercial streets.

    Also, many of the condo building replace older, smaller buildings of greater quality of design and contruction (see http://www.eco-absence.org/stl/lea/). This is pointless in a city that has a lot of vacant land available, especially on the don’t-go-down-there southside.

    I like some of the new buildings, but often they tend to introduce some anti-urban tendencies which are no doubt used to entice suburbanites to move in. (Developers here tend to be as clueless as St. Louis developers, thinking that no one is going to pay good money to live really urban but require “baby steps” — never mind that rehabs and established downtown condos are still very popular.)

    I wish that Home Depot on Halsted was the norm here, too. It’s great, but most new big-box development here is anti-urban. Again, consumers aren’t demaning thee parking, because big urban shopping areas are swarming all th time. The developers just can’t imagine returning to urban design idioms. They’re stuck in the trap of thinking that the suburbs work and that middle-class people hate cities.

    These assumptions are false, of course. The problem is that many people born since World War II just ahven’t spent a lot of time in urban areas. When they do, and they find life there, they love it. No one moves into Chicago or St. Louis proper expecting the surburban humdrum–but they’ll take it if that’s all that’s being built (it’s still far better than the actual ‘burbs). It’s time developers caught up with people.

  6. Steve Patterson says:

    Michael – yes, the fences often seem unnecessary. The cases where you’ve got a basement courtyard you obviously need a fence to keep people from falling into the hole. But, you don’t need the gate to the front door.

    You are right that Chicago developers are doing things, just like St. Louis developers, to attract the suburban buyer. What I like about the Chicago examples is lack of front garage.

    The third sample I showed didn’t have cinder block on the public side – but that is common on sides. I prefer the cinder block sides to the vinyl siding so common here. It seems many of the Chicago places are so big they build on the entire lot. Setbacks do sometimes seem odd. I’m not necessarily an advocate of a uniform setback – but within a certain range.

    As much as I like Chicago it does have some treadful shopping areas and some really bad buildings – residential & commercial.

  7. Michael says:

    Oh, the use of cinder block over vinyl is one heartening thing. I have seen less than twenty new buildings using vinyl siding here, and that makes me happy, especially when I contrast that with the number is the smaller confines of StL.

    The cinder block abounds on the larger buildings, which usually import the scale of a factory/commercial building to streets previously sites to smaller residential buildings. The problems I see stem from inappropriate scale which entails the use of cheaper materials and the large blocks of mono-use. Smaller buildings like those you show are so much better–and hopefully will lead to new construction of modern storefront/flat buildings, which really mke vital neighborhoods. We’ll see what happens in Chicago and we’ll shape what happens in St. Louis.

  8. Matt says:

    Another thing that seperates the Chicago and Dogtown buildings is the overall design. The Dogtown homes look like bad imitations of historic structures (like many of the Gaslight Square homes), while the Chicago buildings are clearly modern in design, but with historic roots.

    When is St. Louis going to get over its historic-self and start building some unique and modern urban homes. I’m not saying we turn our backs on the existing fabric, but infill buildings should compliment the existing structures, rather than be poor and obvious imitations. As long as the lines, scale and set backs are the same good modern architecture will fit in well. It doesn’t even have to be brick (gasp!).

  9. Michael says:

    Oh, there are many Chicago buildings that are bad imitations of old buildings. Again, developers assume that people want “comfortable” half-urban buildings without even testing bold new designs.

    In St. Louis, the best new homes that offer a model for the future are the ones Jo Noero and his class built in Bohemian Hill on South 13th Strert by City Hospital. Those are built sturdy, and occupy much of their small lots with urban massing and great materials (brick and real wood siding).

    I also think that pre-fab housing — like Rocio Romero’s LV house (http://livemodern.com/lvhome) — could offer affordable and distinctly modern living spaces in urban areas. The LV House itself could be easily adapted for urban lots by reorienting the front door and adding a second floor. It’s inexpensive but so much more original than the Disneyfied “historic” townhouses that have gone up in St. Louis lately.

    We don’t have to use brick to rebuild a city, but I think that we should stay away from balloon-frame houses, which have relatively short lives (maybe 100 years at most), have low energy efficiency and perpetuate unsustainable foresting practices. Brick makes sense for practical reasons, but other materials can be used too, including precast concrete and — in my wildest dreams — straw bales, mud and recycled materials.

  10. Susanne Niska says:

    Go and look at what has been built where the Lustrom House was and tell your readers that doesn’t look amazing. The rest of the area is so so vanilla and predictable. You should move to the burbs!

    [REPLY – Are you serious? I’ve seent the drawings for what they planned to build – I was at the meetings when it was presented. Talk about predictable.

    You’ll have to do better than this to defend their actions. – SLP]


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