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Suburban Sprawl Descends Into Uncomfortable Middle Age

Most would agree that West St. Louis County is the poster child for urban sprawl. Over many decades, St. Louis development has crept westward through St. Louis County and into St. Charles County, the current epicenter of unrestrained sprawl. As time has passed, much of central and western St. Louis County have begun the inevitable cycle of aging and renewal that is associated with older urban areas.

My focus of interest is primarily on what urban planners refer to as the “second-ring western suburbs” of St. Louis. They are a microcosm of multiple older rural communities from the mid-to-late 1800s that have been folded into larger, newer cities over the past 50 years. They are all facing the need for urban redevelopment in the face of overwhelming evidence that many of the ideas embraced by the original suburban developers have not turned out so well.

In my city, Maryland Heights, this means a city without a town center. If asked, most people would cite either the Dorsett-McKelvey Road commercial district or Westport as our gathering places. One is a basic commercial crossroads and the other is an aging mixed -use development. Both are modestly successful and neither one represents a true central nexus for residents.

Part of the problem is that Maryland Heights is an anomaly in suburban development: it hosts over 80,000 workers during the day and houses only 26,000 residents at night. The reverse of a bedroom community, it often finds itself beholden to business and commercial interests at the cost of the residents.

This was clearly present in the 2008 fight that residents waged against development in the Howard Bend area of Maryland Heights. This area contains the flood plain around Creve Coeur Park and land on either side of the Maryland Heights Expressway from I-70 to the Page Avenue extension. Residents didn’t want to see a massive development (initially arranged around a proposed Walmart) that would back up against Creve Coeur Park. Maryland Park, as the proposed development was called, was set to build a bland suburban mixed-use project that was fully oriented toward cars.

The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend that is the embodiment of urban sprawl focused on building commercial warehouses and one (or more) large-scale developments for big-box stores and retail. During the Howard Bend fight, residents became fully aware of what was contained in the comprehensive plan. While the process was public, the lack of effective public engagement by the city over 20 years had the unfortunate outcome of surprised residents visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan. In fairness, residents also neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known.

Citizens who fail to monitor and influence their city governments are likely to be surprised and angry when the businesses who do engage with the city are given top priority. To combat this usual state of affairs, a group of concerned citizens originally organized under the flag of SaveCreveCoeur.com has developed into a more permanent organization called Maryland Heights Residents for Responsible Growth. As part of the steering committee, we have launched a new website for the community development organization at MarylandHeightsResidents.com

In the future, I will be contributing posts about the more universal aspects of the issues facing second-ring, western St. Louis County suburbs. Issues I intend to cover include:

  • Cities without town centers
  • Stagnant population growth
  • Diminishing open spaces
  • Flood plain development
  • Aging apartment complexes and housing stock
  • Public-engagement successes and failures
  • Community-development issues and specific projects being pursued
  • The role of residents in guiding city development

I look forward to hearing from you. Please use the comments section below or email me directly with topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts.

– Deborah Moulton


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. anon says:

    Deborah, thank you for your commentary. It does raise a question for me. With so many apparent flaws, why do you choose to live in Maryland Heights? What are the compensating factors that led you to make it your home?

    Then, given both the positive and negative factors influencing your quality of life in Maryland Heights, do you think – currently – that the positives outweigh the negatives or vice versa?

    And if the negatives outweigh the positives (which for me, as a city of St. Louis resident contemplating a life in suburban Maryland Heights, they would), why do you choose to stay there?

    It would be tantamount to making a sacrifice to live in a place like Maryland Heights? Why? I don’t get it.

    On the other hand, if the positives of a life in Maryland Heights outweigh the negatives, and overall, you are happy with your suburban lifestyle there, how would you outline a commentary about why the St. Louis suburbs in general and Maryland Heights in particular is a housing destination of choice for people with the ability to choose where they live?

    I’ll give the outline a stab as an outsider…

    Amenities of city is close enough without having to pay local city taxes.

    Good free public schools in Maryland Heights.

    Good rec/swim center for Maryland Heights residents.

    Centrally located in the region, in between Westport, West County Mall, Chesterfield Mall, and St. Charles.

    Close to the airport and highways.

    Close to work.

    Friendly neighbors.

    Stable neighborhood.

    Minimal racial tensions.

    Very predictable, stable, day to day living.

    Low crime.

    If those are the plus side of the ledger, what are the negatives?

    From your list:

    Lack of engaged residents.

    Lack of a town center.

    Proposed building in the flood plain (not sure how that impacts residents of Maryland Heights any differently than all St. Louis are residents).

    Aging housing stock (universal challenge).

    Stagnant population growth (isn’t STL County actually starting to lose population now?).

    Side by side comparisons are interesting. They reveal what is important to us in making our neighborhood and lifestyle choices.

    For some people, crime/public safety and high performing public schools trump all other categories.

    It would seem to me that if you are someone ready to make that choice, you have a pretty short list of priorities, and will probably end up living in a boring cul-de-sac.

  2. Terrence says:

    I live in Maryland Heights…… only because it’s much closer to my job then if I lived in St. Louis city. I want to move to the city, I love the nightlife and new developments and new urban core.

  3. Kim says:

    Good commentary Deborah! I’ll be very interested to see the rest of the posts when they come out.

    In response to the person who commented previously, I would like to put in my 2 cents. My parents moved us to Maryland Heights in 1975. It was pretty much the western outpost of the county at that point, driving to St. Charles seemed like it took hours! After college I moved a couple times around St. Louis and then moved back to Maryland Heights for a few reasons; many of which you named in your list. I would also add affordable housing, no extra property tax, fairly low sales tax, an excellent police force, a great Parks & Rec dept., the best streets department and as a result of the low crime rate, low insurance rates. (When I moved to Richmond Heights, my car insurance went up 15%). and no, I don’t work for the city.

    The problems Deborah talks about are not insurmountable, after all no place is completely perfect. Everyone has different priorities at different times in their lives and like you did, you have to list out the pros & cons. Most of what we’ve been coming to grips with over that past year is that as residents, we dropped the ball. We’ve been taking the good stuff for granted and assumed that we didn’t need a watchdog. We’ve learned that no news isn’t necessarily good news- sometimes it just means no one is telling you anything!

    The threat of forever losing the only thing that makes our town unique from every other suburban blot has served as a much needed wake up call to the community and we are seeing a surge in interest from residents to stay informed and get involved. I hope that in the end, this will actually make us a community rather than just a place to live. The problems of community aging and obsolescence are not easy to deal with and without all of us participating, at some level, in the process we will be stuck with the same old cookie-cutter developments that we’ve always had. I think that many of us are looking at this as an opportunity to push the city in the direction of redevelopment rather than new development. Changing the status quo isn’t easy, but at least we are going to try.

  4. anon says:


    Thanks for your comment. How do you think the people of Maryland Heights would respond to the idea of St. Louis City re-entering St. Louis County?

    Is that ever a topic of conversation in Maryland Heights circles?

  5. Deborah Moulton says:

    I want to thank “anon” for their thoughtful comments. I’ve lived my entire adult life in the urban core of cities (Chicago, Seattle, St. Louis) before moving to Maryland Heights four years ago. I can see there is a need to balance the picture by talking about the appeal of the suburbs and why a city dweller might choose to move to them. I’ll tackle that in my next blog.

  6. Questioner says:

    I’d be interested in some commentary on jefferson county and south county– other than the typical “country cousins” reaction that most people offer

  7. Cheryl says:

    My husband and I bought a house in Maryland Heights soon after moving to St. Louis in the early ’80s. I had taken a job with the Army Aviation Command located on Goodfellow right off I-70. At that time, I was informally advised to locate in Bridgeton or further west. I can’t remember now what all the reasons given were. But we were definitely advised that we would not want to live in St. Louis City and we took the advice and got an apartment in Bridgeton, and soon purchased a house nearby in Maryland Heights.

    After living 20 years totally dependent on my car and a long drive from any activity, I was ready for a change and now live in St. Louis City.

    I think this shows how we all just come to accept the general cultural thinking on life style and it takes a lot to bump us out of that and get us thinking a different way.

    I accepted getting in my car for every trip because that was what everyone did. For example, I was part of a group that regularly drove to the high school track to make loops around it for exercise in the evenings. I bucked the trend by walking to it. Everyone else drove.

    I just accepted that I would be spending a good part of every day in my car. In fact, I was saving driving time by living in Maryland Heights, instead of St. Charles.

    I chose to live on the end of a cul de sac in a house that had a large yard that I seldom even noticed, other than to have to mow it.

    We learn a lot about our neighborhoods after we move there and don’t think about a lot of these things when we decide on the house. Close to work was a factor for me – but that is because in our culture driving every day from Maryland Heights to St. Louis City is considered locating close to work.

    I admit I did not give lots of thought to taxes and other things you mention. When you are searching for houses, you are overwhelmed by finding a place you can afford and generally swayed by just finding a house you would really like to live in.

  8. stlzou says:

    I grew up in Maryland Heights in the 1980s and 90s, and perhaps it is odd for a child to think of things such as this (and maybe why I am interested in urban life and dynamics today), but I remember thinking about this same question growing up. I remember reading lots of childrens books that would be set around characters in small town life- maybe folk tales or fairytales. In these books, either in the illustrations or in the storyline itself, there seemed to always be a town square that people would gather around, and I wondered, “Where was our town square (or the equivalent thought of a child)?” They always looked so attractive and fun with fountains, trees, flowers, and people running around everywhere. I actually remember trying to think of what would be the closest thing to a town square and where we spent a lot of our time getting what we needed and socializing with people in our neighborhood. It’s funny, the closest thing I could come up with was that Schnucks shopping center on Dorsett and McKelvey. That and our parish school, St. Blaise, where we spent a lot of our time gethering with friends for church, Scouts, and sports games. Though we didn’t necessarily have that official community or town meeting center, we still had community with those in our school and parish, even if mostly the people we shared it with weren’t right in our neighborhood/ subdivision. Anyways, I think it’s great that you are looking at topics such as this to explain the appeal and dynamics of suburban life today. While I am a converted urbanite, I have lots of fond memories growing up in the suburbs and can understand why it is difficult to imagine leaving that for the city for some. Rather than spending our time bashing the suburbs and arguing amongst ourselves about topics we mostly agree on anyways, it would be very productive if we could examine the positives of suburban life that keep people there (beyond the stereotypical accusations of racism, classism, selfishness, and (oh my!) Republicanism) that we should incorporate into our plans for making city life attractive again.

    P.s I’m so glad Creve Couer Park has been saved from suburban development. It truly is one of the region’s gems.

  9. Jimmy Z says:

    NIMBY = “The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend . . . In fairness, residents . . . neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known. . . . While the process was public . . . surprised residents [were] visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan.”

    To put it in simpler terms, if you’re not a part of the process, you’re a part of the problem! Blaming the government for a “lack of effective public engagement over 20 years” is simply 20/20 hindsight through rose-colored glasses. Granted, residents do tend to get complacent when any area is mostly, but not completely, built out. People ASSUME that vacant land will always stay vacant, and don’t realize (or want to accept) that their ¼ acre of suburban paradise was once someone else’s vacant land. They’re either “too busy” or they don’t want to be bothered. And if there weren’t plans for more development, why did we spend the money on levees, the Maryland Heights Expressway or the Page Extension?! If previous generations had wanted this area to be a Boulder or a Portland, that money would have been spent investing in greenbelts, not development infrastructure.

    It’s disingenuous, now, to expect to stop development once you move in, that things like Maryland Park or rebuilding 141 shouldn’t be happening. Do I like the sprawl or think we need another suburban Walmart? No! But I’m also a big believer in respecting the process. These things have been decades in the making. Previous generations had their meetings led by their leaders to make these decisions. Significant investments, both public and private have been made based on these decisons. Just because it’s becoming reality now is no reason to say “Um, no.” Still, I’m glad to see some of the city’s residents are now getting more involved. Plans CAN be changed, just don’t expect immediate results. And much like stlzou, one real challenge is getting residents to actually understand what’s being proposed – no one is proposing doing anything to the county park, the development is proposed for the surrounding farmland!

  10. Cheryl says:

    I have to point out that plenty of people, myself included, were opposing the Howard Bend Development plan and levee from the beginning. We just failed to stop it.

    New people moving in to the city just would not know about this history. When you look for a house, you don’t go reading through all the old city council minutes. After living in the city for a while, people start to notice what is happening.

    Long time residents have less excuse for being Johnny – come- latelys on this. But, even for these residents, it is not hard to see how they were not aware of the issue. There was little press coverage and many candidates for city office were hardly aware of the new Maryland Heights expressway, as it was built, opening the floodplain. City council candidates and residents were more focused on what looked like immediate issues. I could name a few of those hot issues. Residents hardly ever ventured to the far west of Maryland Heights before the Maryland Heights Expressway was built and generally only had a vague idea about it.

  11. Jimmy Z says:

    Cheryl, while I can understand your frustration, if “plenty of people” were in opposition, why did the things things get planned and/or built in the first place?! Most politicians want to get reelected and are VERY sensitive to any constituents who have concerns. We also live in a democracy, so perhaps your “plenty”, even if they were, and are, passionate about what they believe, are actually the minority. There are plenty of things I oppose and support, some more passionately than others, but I sure don’t expect to change the majority’s opinion, especially on long-established plans and projects, and especially if I’m a “johhny-come-lately”. And saying that you can’t research an area’s history or find out about such basics as what the existing comprehensive plan includes is just flat wrong. Will the city reach out and put it in your lap? No, but they can’t hide it from you, either – you just gotta ask! Do they make it easy? Sometimes, not, but in these days of the internet, digging is a whole lot easier than it used to be. And, as you say, “Residents hardly ever ventured to the far west of Maryland Heights before the Maryland Heights Expressway was built and generally only had a vague idea about it.” Could it be because they weren’t living there? That they were able to move out there because other roads were built and expanded? It’s the truly rare situation where you can move in and lock the gate behind you, stopping any further development!

  12. stlzou says:

    It’s not a big deal Jimmy, but just to clarify, I understood that this development was not going on the park land. Though I woud consider having a Wal-Mart built on the park’s backyard would be a crime against it. Though it might be said respect for the state’s largest natural lake was thrown away years ago when they built the Expressway and the Page Extension monstrosity over the edge of the lake anyways. But I get what you are saying about public engagement that has been lacking in Maryland Heights which allowed plans to get so far before residents took any notice. Though I still say that goes back to nature of suburban development which provides no real public forum outside of churches for community members to get together regularly for discussion. There is little community among neighbors. Yes, there are the city hall meetings, and I feel pretty confident that you have attended such meetings. If you were new to the area, as most residents are, would you have any reason to go out of your way and out of the blue to go to one of those? Maybe a very select few would and would let there voices be heard, but for most there really are better things to do with their time. I’m not saying it isn’t disingenous for citizens to be shocked about development plans after the construction of the Expressway, but what wave of public support do you think there was for the road in the first place? Local officials aren’t going to make decisions based on the interests of people who they can predict with almost certain accuracy aren’t going to vote anyways. It is very difficult to stir the emotions of people into action until there is a direct threat to something they hold dear. If it took the threat of a big-box within sight and sound of the lake, broadcast to them by an activist group that may have come too late, that’s just further evidence of a breakdown in the communication that ought to exist between government and people. It should be the goal of local government to fix that, not take advantage of it. It is ironic really. It seems the park, a widely used public space, could have been used as an excellent forum for gauging public opinion about the development. Yet instead of using the tremendous resource at their disposal, they set out with a plan to undermine it altogether.

  13. Jimmy Z says:

    The challenge with suburban development is that most buyers, probably the vast majority, aren’t educated on how growth happens and assume that what they see is what they’ll continue to have after they move in. The developers and realtors have NO incentive to point out that other plans are in place or to challenge buyer assumptions. And many of the original “residents” involved in the development plans are farmers looking to cash out for their retirement, developers looking to maximize the return on their investment and cities looking to maximize future tax revenues. My struggle is with the “got-miner” mindset, that somehow the development that created “my” subdivision had no impact, while any future develoment should be subject to much greater scrutiny. I don’t like sprawl, but I also have a problem with trying to stop development when construction is ready to start. Comprehensive plans go back decades, these projects shouldn’t be “surprises”!


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