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Alderwoman Argues Against Modern Zoning, Prefers Piecemeal Approach

Last night I attended the forum regarding the state-wide tax bill and the likely beneficiary, Paul McKee (see post about event). As at prior events, the Alderpersons continue to talk about plans — community driven plans and Paul McKee’s secret plan. Ald Davis indicated a million bucks was spent on a plan(s) in the 19th ward to which she was recently elected. Davis indicated they involved “stakeholders to make sure that we knew what everyone wanted, how that community was going to look, we paid for the best technical assistance, and that plan was approved and is a part of the development process with SLDC, but you know something, somebody made a decision that it didn’t matter.” So on one hand they are saying we’ve spent time and money listening to the community and determining what is desired yet at the same time bitching because we don’t know what McKee’s plan is about.

During the question and answer portion, following the grand standing, I had to bring up the issue of these plans. Basically a bunch of time and money is spent in meetings, a document is created, it is adopted by the Planning Commission and Board of Aldermen and sometimes it gets referenced during negotiations with developers. However, the existing zoning for an area prior to a plan remains the only legal requirement. Given how completely out of date our zoning code really is, nearly everything now requires a variance. This is how aldermen derive any sense of power!

Below is a short video clip with my question and a response by 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin. My apologies for the video quality — you get a nice view of my shorts pocket while I am asking the question. Below the video is the transcript of my question and her response.


My name is Steve Patterson and I am a former resident of the 5th Ward, actually in the early nineties. And my question to the two aldermen is…one I am glad that you’ve done plans in the neighborhoods but unfortunately neither one of those plans has any teeth to them, uh, the zoning has not been changed and the 5th ward plan was adopted in 2002 called for some zoning changes to give the plan some teeth of law — right now the Board of Adjustment and the Planning Commission actually, uh, ignore the plans when they are making decisions on variances and things. So my question is when do you plan to introduce legislation to change the zoning?


Actually, there have been lots of zoning changes. You don’t go in and change the zoning of the whole ward because my plan for the 5th ward that we have in place is not so specific. One thing about a plan you have to leave some flexibility. So there is flexibility where it is not so specific where you come in and say on this block right here in the 1500 block of Hebert its got to have homes that they’ve got to look like this. So you have to leave some flexibility and at the Board of Aldermen we always have the power to change zoning. So when this happens is…as you see the development boards and you see the different things that have happened, most of those had to have some type of zoning changes, street changes, name changes, just you go down the list of changes. Also, that is the only thing that makes most of the developers come and talk to us. If we did everything that it took for the development they wouldn’t have any reason to come and talk to us. Once we talk about a development, once they have shown us what they do, once they talk about minority participation, once they talk about inclusion, once they talk about jobs, and all the other things that I make sure I am committed to asking them. And it seems like something that would be good for us and falls within the realm of the plan. and then we talk about doing the things that they need. but you’d be shocked at how many people go out here and spend money on doing things then call us and say ‘oh I’m gunna put a such and such at this address.’ And they only call because they didn’t have the zoning and zoning says you need the support from the alderperson. So if we went out there and tried to guess what would go on every block and zoned it [???] they wouldn’t have to come to us. Therefore we would not be able to even know what they are doing before they’re doing, which not all of it has been good for us. So actually that is another way to get them to come and talk to us, come to the community meeting and present to us. so we don’t want to go and just do a flat blanket of zoning where people are [???] if they a number of other things that we could go out there and do tomorrow we wait until we see the project and make sure that it is what we want then we do the things that are specific that is required for that very project and for that property to happen.

I was completely dumbfounded as were others. I mean, I’ve known this is the twisted control view of zoning that they had — I just never thought I’d actually get one of them on video espousing as much. Ald. Marlene Davis was behind Ald Ford-Griffin nodding her head in agreement.

So here is their logic:

1) Spent time and money on a feel-good community plan.

2) Get said plan “adopted”. Place plan on shelf, dust off when necessary.

3) Use zoning power to be included in development process.
4) Ignore that someone could buy property and build new construction based on existing and outdated zoning — thus bypassing plan.

I don’t want to get into a Zoning 101 lecture but what was described is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Zoning is a very powerful too — a police power — that cities have to set forth what the community wants. Zoning controls many aspects of development on private land such as the building’s relationship with the street and adjacent properties, heights, parking, and so on. Use zoning, which we still have, refers to the zoning focusing on the specific uses to be contained within a structure (residential, retail, industrial, etc…) whereas form-based zoning has a primary focus of looking at the building form while accepting the internal use might vary. For example, I don’t really care if a car dealership exists in a commercial zone if the form based code calls for 3-story buildings with street-level storefront windows and all surface/garage parking hidden in back. Thus, the form of the building is more critical than the use in this case. Hybrid variants exist.
Creating a community plan without going forward with zoning changes to uniformly enforce the desired affect is a useless exercise. So when these alderwoman get up and complain about not knowing McKee’s plan for their area I have no sympathy in that regard. They have the ability to create a solid uniform guide via zoning for these huge swaths of land. They could actually provide some real leadership on envisioning what is to happen in their wards. But instead they are doing development St. Louis style — sitting back and waiting for the developer to knock on their door and ask for a letter to grant a variance. Or maybe they are not sitting back, they are going out and finding developers but the visioning for the area is still done on a project by project basis.

Zoning is the most powerful tool cities have to determine the outcome of development within their jurisdiction. Throughout the city this power has been parceled out to 28 fiefdoms. As long as our old zoning code remains in place our elected representatives will continue to advocate a piecemeal approach based on the desires of developers.


Currently there are "23 comments" on this Article:

  1. eric says:

    i agree, having participated in the painful evolution of the 5th ward plan, zoning is the means to govern and accomplish. having parochial concerns after 22 years of home restoration, i assume that the city “land use” designations of “neighborhood preservation area” vs. “neighborhood development area” (http://stlcin.missouri.org/citydata/newdesign/index.cfm) likewise have no meaning when it comes to managing development.

  2. Thor Randelson says:

    Well the video makes the fundamental disconnect on the purpose of zoning clear: Alderman, particularly those in low employment, high poverty, and areas where minorities are the majority view zoning and the need for variances as a tool to archive social change (“once they talk about minority participation, once they talk about inclusion, once they talk about jobs, and all the other things that I make sure I am committed to asking them”). The use of zoning for such reasons is perverted.

    Zoning is not and should not be used to archive those goals directly. Zoning is the legal establishment of land use policy. But, clearly Ald. Ford Griffin has no idea what the purpose of zoning is.

    How sad.

  3. RPN says:

    The city should get rid of *all* zoning. Zoning was originally introduced to separate residential areas from polluting factories, since we don’t deal with this problem anymore we should return to letting the current market and transportation forces shape what gets built. This is how the original North City that you love so much was created, and cities need to be allowed to continue to evolve without having their form restricted by some well-meaning but misguided aesthetic vision.

  4. john says:

    The management of our zoning/code enforcement is one of the key reasons why StL & County have not and will not prosper in the near future. It has always been used selectively and few understand or appreciate the negative impact this has on everyone. A shameful response but indicative of StL leadership. Will the public here ever “get it” and insist on a level playing field?

  5. gentrification says:

    John, what do you mean by a “level playing field”? In April’s mind, that’s exactly what she’s doing: leveling the playing field. As alderman, she’s the referee, or “gatekeeper” as some like to say.

  6. urbanluddite says:

    You are missing cause and effect. The fact that zoning comes after site specific development is a reflection of the power balance in urban development decisions. If you want to change zoning applications, you need to change power relationships in designing and implementing development projects. A comprehensive, city wide, zoning map that promotes the sort of urban-centered development is probably political impractical; a much more likely strategy is in fact to get piece victories where local conditions provide the right sort of incentives.

    [SLP — Oh I understand the cause & effect and the power implications.  The current structure doesn’t really work for anyone — not the aldermen, not the developers and certainly not the citizens of St. Louis.  The reality is we already have zoning for the entire city.  I’m suggesting that zoning should reflect what we want as a community.  We developers come knocking with their hand out then we’ve got some leverage to make some requests but I am not so sure that should be on a ward by ward basis.  I believe the aldermen could actually have much greater power if a new vision is set forth.]

  7. GMichaud says:

    Members of the Board of Aldermen should not be involved in decision making in the realm of planning. Most cities establish a framework for development that insures urban continuity. By circumventing that process with political favors insures St. Louis will continue it’s mediocre drive to the bottom.
    Contrast this with say London http://www.london.gov.uk/mayor/planning/srdf/central.jsp
    This is a working document that is a sub regional development framework that gives guidance and flexibility to help insure the coordination of all elements necessary for a successful city. Transport, housing, local shops, schools infrastructure and jobs are all included in the framework.
    Aldermen can not coordinate these elements on a personal level and with political agenda in mind. A haphazard, fragmented city will be the result and as Steve has illustrated in a recent post that is what is happening to St. Louis.

  8. toby says:

    Regardless of the problematic details of her response, it is a refreshing surprise to hear an HONEST answer from a politician. Unwittingly honest, maybe, but truthful, with no spin or elliptical loops away from meaning. If more politicians could just say what they really mean, we’d have shortcuts to solving more problems. You may not like Ford-Griffin’s response, but she’s earned my respect for being candid and honest.

    [SLP — Agreed!]

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    I don’t have much to add – the problem is one of perceived power combined with amatuer “expertise”, and the result is more of the same, usually lowest-common-denominator “solutions” . . .

  10. “the problem is one of perceived power combined with amatuer ‘expertise'”

    Jim, could your elaborate? Perceived power of whom, by whom? “Amateur expertise” of whom?

  11. WWSPD says:

    Wow, her response is the dictionary illustration of how not to manage community development.

    There’s absolutely nothing wrong with ‘prescriptive’ zoning and I hesitate to even call it zoning because today, the orientation is more centered around the public realm and how the privately held, built environment supports the health of the public realm and NOT discrete functional or activities-based areas.

    Her approach to community development seems reactionary and not pro-active and prescriptive. ‘Well, we kinda do this plan but we really wait for the developers to call us up (after they’ve done all their pre-development planning and maybe even some site prep and construction) and ask for the go-ahead and THEN we make a pitch for the development to reflect community goals.” Totally bass-ackwards.

    I would love to see each ward with its own form-based code keyed to the neighborhoods and commercial districts therein but I know its more difficult to do in built environments. Lord knows though, its a way more elegant and powerful solution than a token plan and reactionary development.

  12. john says:

    A level playing field is simply one where rules are administered equally to all, no matter who you are or how much campaign contributions have been made (or may be forthcoming).

    The involvement of alderman and other elected officials in the approval process for a zoning issue is corruptive and many municipalities have in in their codes to forbid exactly that from occuring. However, as this answer demonstrates, elected officials here don’t seem to understand or appreciate the obvious conflicts this creates and even believe that it is their duty to make such determinations. As JZ stated, amateur “expertise” at work!

    Recently Steve made an entry on Aug. 15 about the lack of sidewalks to a nursing home. What I said then: If you’re favored, the code officials cannot find the rule and you’re allowed to build without adequate consideration to all members of the public. If you’re not favored, they use another larger and more difficult set of rules (ie. ADA) to interfere and drive up the costs. Whether it is law or code enforcement, the outcome is predictable and obvious. Fragmentation hurts everyone and it is often hard to spot.

  13. steveo says:

    One more example showing how outdated our aldermanic system truly is. What will it take to dismantle this stanglehold on commonsense?

  14. schooled says:

    Steveo and John,

    Your quest for civic improvement is laudable, but you must realize that political loyalties are the currency of St. Louis? How do you create a level playing field and establish reasonable development protocols when every friggin’ decision involving public participation in this city has political hair all over it? To succeed, you need to know how to comb the political hair in a way that’s pleasing to you.

  15. They sit back because they are lazy. Lazy people should be term limited.

    Moreover, the salary is pathetic. Perhaps a wage increase would be an incentive to actually do innovative work?

    The meeting last night was a waste of everyones time. The politics of this City is pathetic. No wonder we had so much decline.

  16. change says:


    I don’t think aldermen are in it for the money. They are doing it to perform a public service.

  17. Jim Zavist says:

    Most elected officials are not trained in urban design, planning or architecture. Thus, I would classify them as having amatuer “expertise” – they think they know what is better or good, but without formal (or informal) training, the odds of seeing other options is usually pretty slim. In other words, they know what they like or they’ll know it when they see it.

    Elected officials are also usually pretty good at hearing what their constituents say. Many times they also have selective hearing and/or an agenda they’re trying to move forward. Combine that with the ability of most developers to “paint a rosy picture”, it’s no surprise that quality suffers when there’s no real context to put a proposed project in.

    Bottom line, I want my Alderman to keep the trash picked up and the potholes filled. I don’t want them (and a small circle of friends and supporters) deciding what is right or appropriate for “their” ward. The bigger the project, the more important it is to both involve all memebers of the public and the city staff we’ve hired to give us informed direction!

  18. Jim Zavist says:

    Follow-up – No elected official can be an expert in everything. Heck, I (an architect) spent 5 years serving on an elected board running a transit district. What training did I have in purchasing or maintaining buses or in approving union contracts and pension plans? (None!) I was, however, willing and able to listen to input from both the district’s professional staff and from my constituents before making an relatively-informed decision. I was also a big believer in trying to avoid micro-managing the day-to-day operation of the agency – my role was to set the big-picture direction, and it was staff’s role to implement it, including all the details. (And yes, I was corrected more than once when I was wrong or misinformed.) Did I pass on specific, individual constituent complaints? Sure, I did – that’s what politicians do. I also respected and worked with the 14 other elected board members on issues in “their” districts, but I was also not reticent if they were pursuing something that was not in the best interest of the overall agency.

    The best outcome here would be a move beyond the “sanctity” of both the ward boundaries and the apparently unfettered power of each alderman. We live in a complex world in one city with a fair amount of challenges. We also apparently have hired some well-qualified city staff who could address many of the issues raised here (on a regular basis) IF they were simply empowered to to do their jobs. And empowering them means supporting them even if they start requiring amenities that one or more campaign contributers would like seen taken out of “their” project(s). A level playing field between both competing developers and adjacent wards would go a long way in improving the city as a whole. As long as we continue to play entities off against each other, we’ll continue to get the lowest common denominator.

    My alderman comes from a career in the Recreation Department. That likely makes her well informed in the areas of parks, recreation and city employment practices. We also have little new development happening in our ward, so I have no idea how any new development proposal would be vetted. Other parts of the city have different dynamics. As this post illustrates, the near north side is being represented by an alderman who sees a bigger priority in pushing “inclusiveness” when it comes to jobs than in creating a comprehensive urban vision for the ward or the city. They also seem to relish the power they have in making developers into supplicants, being able shake them down before anything approaching substantial is considered, much less constructed. This attitude probably plays a bigger role than most in government want to acknowledge in explaining why new development is NOT happening at a pace greater than it is now in the city! Development is all about weighing risk against return, and the more uncertainty the city builds into the process (a.k.a. the need for spot zoning for pretty much any project), the more likely you are to just scare reinvestment away.

  19. john says:

    Investment capital is definitely being scared away and for good reasons. Elected leaders who “relish their power” and use “amateur” expertise in this regard are a negative influence. What concerns me most about this is the lack of outrage by the public and their failure to see the obvious problems this creates for the whole region. Perhaps too many haved been “schooled” by the SLPS and believe that progress should be in the hands of political hairdressers.

  20. Jason says:

    so what the hell is the planning department for? you need to come see us so we dont want things going in that fit into current zoning guidelines- if it fits into the guidelines we are not going to like it. That is what I am hearing. I have not done any new buildings in the city- do alderpersons have this kind of power? Must variances and conditional uses for properties go through them or is this the job of the planning department?

    [SLP — The planning department appears to be a token group that is only brought in at the will of the alderman or mayor (in things like riverfront, gateway mall, etc…).  The planning department, for example, was apparently not consulted on the original plans for Loughborough Commons — a $40 million + project receiving $14 million in public subsidy.  Nobody at city hall is willing to take responsibility for not picking up the phone and calling Rollin Stanley.]

  21. ex-stl says:

    change: I think they are in it for the money, not tomorrow, not next week and you won’t see the trail w/o a lot of work.

    SLP: Stanley’s appointment was very exciting to hear about, but what power over these ward decisions does he really have? I wonder. if that dept. is not even consulted on developments, well why even bother and just let it all turn into Houston (which BTW seems to be trying from the press I’ve read – still, good luck). or is he being played for a sense of “sunshine” in local politics? and if that’s the case, how long will he stay?

    [SLP — Yes, many are in it for the money.  From what I hear in general, minority participation can mean a contract for a brother in law, uncle, cousin, etc…  You don’t get jobs for relatives unless you are at the table.  These relatives can’t kick back to you unless you secure them work.

    Rollin Stanley has zero power.  Well, maybe not zero but very little.  His agency is controlled by the Mayor’s office and I am not sure if individual aldermen feel like they can approach Stanley without approval from Barb Geisman (Deputy Mayor for Development).  But even if there was an open door policy I’m not sure the aldermen would even think it necessary to contact him.  Clearly, they are against big picture planning and simply react to what the developer presents to them.]

  22. Dan says:

    Based upon her off-the-cuff speech, April Ford-Griffin sees no utility in zoning per se, other than as a means to squeeze money and other concessions from developers. Having so much vacant land and property could lead to incredible opportunities for innovative development – but I don’t see how the community can effectively plan anything with this type of attitude.

  23. John W. says:

    …and what’s the most effective way to compel the alderpersons to hear ideas or concerns of constituents, or to consider the qualified input of citizens regarding comprehensive neighborhood planning? Is there honestly that much corruption and disconnection from the mayor’s office? I’m not from St. Louis, but have become very interested in its future development.


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