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Top-Down Auto-Centric Thinking Continues In Ferguson, Still Time To Change

We all know the phrase: “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”  Those living in low-income areas, especially those of color, have been sent this message for decades: Mill Creek Valley, Pruitt-Igoe, etc. In other words, we know what’s best for you so just accept what we decide to give to you. In the near term the gifts seemed like a good idea, but in hindsight they were ill-conceived and corners were cut. Pruitt-Igoe:

As completed in 1955, Pruitt–Igoe consisted of 33 11-story apartment buildings on a 57-acre (23 ha) site, on St. Louis’s lower north side. The complex totaled 2,870 apartments, one of the largest in the country. The apartments were deliberately small, with undersized kitchen appliances. “Skip-stop” elevators stopped only at the first, fourth, seventh, and tenth floors, forcing residents to use stairs in an attempt to lessen congestion. The same “anchor floors” were equipped with large communal corridors, laundry rooms, communal rooms and garbage chutes.

Despite federal cost-cutting regulations, Pruitt–Igoe initially cost $36 million, 60% above national average for public housing. Conservatives attributed cost overruns to inflated unionized labor wages and the steamfitters union influence that led to installation of an expensive heating system; overruns on the heating system caused a chain of arbitrary cost cuts in other vital parts of the building.

Nevertheless, Pruitt–Igoe was initially seen as a breakthrough in urban renewal. Residents considered it to be “an oasis in the desert” compared to the extremely poor quality of housing they had occupied previously, and considered it to be safe. Some referred to the apartments as “poor man’s penthouses”.

Despite poor build quality, material suppliers cited Pruitt–Igoe in their advertisements, capitalizing on the national exposure of the project.

The people were expected to adapt to the solution, rather than the solution adapt to the people. Locally and nationally little has changed since the 1950s.

Early residents were thankful, those displaced not so much. Within a decade what had seemed like a great solution turned out to be an expensive nightmare. Most of the site remains vacant four decades after being cleared.

The players today are different — non-profits and the private sector in place of the federal government. The attitude, however, is the same: ‘we want to do something to help you — why should we ask for your input?’ The unintended consequences of the well-intentioned were huge. Eventually the federally government realized the folly of this way of thinking — changing to rules & regulations to require environmental impact studies, public input, etc. This is not to suggest these will avert all unintended consequences — they won’t — but the results are better than those designed in isolation. Which brings me to Ferguson.

As I wrote about a week ago two community plans intersect at former ferguson QuikTrip site. Rather than QuikTrip officials quietly talking with the St. Louis Urban League for six months I think they should’ve empowered the local residents by getting them involved in the process of determining what to do with the site. The Urban League’s slogan is “Empowering Communities. Changing Lives.”

This was an opportunity for Ferguson’s residents to have a say in their future — to have a seat at the table. Empowerment through engagement.

Rendering of the Empowerment Center of Ferguson shown on March 16, 2015
Rendering of the Empowerment Center of Ferguson shown on March 16, 2015

The speakers for their presentation was exclusively top-down players:

  • Michael P. McMillan President and CEO, Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis
  • Michael Johnson Board of Directors, QuikTrip Corporation
  • Warner Baxter Chairman, President & CEO, Ameren
  • Patrick J. Sly Executive Vice President, Emerson
  • Thomas J. Irwin Executive Director, Civic Progress
  • Kathleen T. Osborn Executive Director, Regional Business Council
  • Susan Trautman Executive Director, Great Rivers Greenway
  • Steven Sullivan President and Executive Director, Provident

The proposed new building would be built in the same spot as the old QuikTrip — not up to the sidewalk to make the area more pedestrian-friendly as suggested by the Great Streets Initiative. Great Rivers Greenway said they’d hire some who complete the 4-week jobs 101 course to be Gateway Rangers to bike the North Riverfront Trail — the planned trail next to the site wasn’t mentioned.

Today’s buildings are more disposable than those build 100 year or more years ago, this QuikTrip opened in 1989 — it lasted 25 years until burned following the shooting of Michael Brown. As I said in the comments on Monday, the building had been fully depreciated. Yes, the St. Louis County Assessor still said it had value, but the business view is different — for tax purposes you want deductions: a facility you can depreciate or lease payments.

QuikTrip just razed their 2851 Gravois location built in 1991 — to be rebuilt. QuikTrip sold this property two years ago in a 15-year sale leaseback.   The two-year older Ferguson location wasn’t sold to an investor, so no deductions. The 1.14 acre site was too small to build a new QuikTrip.  So they opened a new location a mile and a half north at 10768 W. Florissant Ave. on 3+ acres.

It was either the night of the shooting, August 9th, or the next night when the older QuikTrip was burned that QuikTrip Board Member Michael Johnson called the Urban League’s Michael McMillan to offer to donate the property. I can’t blame them — they probably had wanted to close the location anyway. So began the six month process involving corporate CEOs and heavy hitters collectives like Civic Progress.

A few misunderstood my point a week ago — involving the public or at least respecting the plans the public helped draft  — isn’t an “either or” situation. They could’ve done exactly as they did but announced this building will represent the new W. Florissant Ave with a up to the sidewalk design to respond to the needs of the high pedestrian population. Instead they just decided to put the new building where the old building was.

St  Louis County records list the irregularly-shaped property as being 1.14 acres.
The building was located on the East edge of the site, set back from W. Florissant and Northwinds Estate Drive
QuikTrip never made added an accessible route to the entrance, as required by the ADA
QuikTrip never made added an accessible route to the entrance, as required by the ADA
The North side is the easiest to meet the one route minimum, but most pedestrians will come from W, Florissant.
The North side is the easiest to meet the one route minimum, but most pedestrians will come from W, Florissant.

Locating the building at the street corner would make access from the sidewalk easy. Keeping the building at the back will require a circuitous route(s) — not pedestrian-friendly. Bare minimum — not empowering!

Additionally, if the Urban League builds at the back of the lot behind parking it’ll be difficult to convince others along W. Florissant Ave  to rebuild in an urban manner — effectively killing an important part of the plan. The St. Louis region is known for developing plans that sit on the shelf and collect dust — now we’re killing plans through willful ignorance.

When I asked during the press conference about why the building wasn’t up to the sidewalk Mike McMillian, said “remediation.” I guess that means QuikTrip isn’t remediating the contamination enough to build over the old tank location, but even that doesn’t make sense.   To remediate the site enough for residential use would be onerous — but a commercial building should be able to be constructed after the tanks are removed and basic remediation has been completed. I think they simply failed to consider the pedestrian population of Ferguson.

Nothing is built yet — the site isn’t ready yet. I hope they’ll do the right thing and work to set a good example for future buildings this stretch of W. Florissant.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "36 comments" on this Article:

  1. guest says:

    So now we’re comparing Pruitt-Igoe to the new Ferguson job center project?

  2. JZ71 says:

    Ummm . . . aren’t you just as guilty as the other “players”? “The attitude, however, is the same: ‘we want to do something to help you — why should we ask for your input?’” Have you asked the residents of Canfield Green, of Ferguson what THEY want? What THEY need?! I’m not hearing a groundswell of demand for a more walkable neighborhood, here, or most other places in north county. YOU are pretty sure that that is what is needed, but you don’t live there. You’re coming in as an outsider, as an “expert”, and telling the residents that your vision is better, without asking them, either!

    • The residents of Canfield Green and the general area aren’t going to protest for walkability — they’ve been protesting for social justice related to the police. That doesn’t mean walkability isn’t important. Many don’t realize it can be better than it is.

      This is why it’s important to look at the Great Streets Initiative — which had direct community involvement. Also why new development should include community vetting.

      The reality is pedestrian deaths are higher in poor communities — walkability is social justice! See http://www.governing.com/topics/public-justice-safety/gov-pedestrian-deaths-analysis.html.

      • JZ71 says:

        And why aren’t they “going to protest for walkability”?! Because it’s not THEIR priority, Because they actually prefer a SUBurban environment?! Walkability and accessibility for people with disabilities is a huge issue, for YOU. You choose to live in a denser, more-walkable, urban environment, it’s “important”, but it’s YOUR CHOICE – no one forced you to move into your loft. Most people who CHOOSE to live in the suburbs do so because they like the convenience of low densities and convenient, “free”, surface parking – that’s what is “important” to them, walkability simply isn’t.

        If the Great Streets Initiative were truly embraced by local residents, much more would be happening to see it implemented – zoning laws would have been changed and money dedicated to changes to the public infrastructure. I’ve been in involved in plenty of “public” processes lke those associated with the Great Streets efforts. They’re led by advocates with a specific agenda, and most participants, in any “public meetings”, are either just curious local residents or outsiders (like you and me) who support the advocates’ agenda. Getting the average citizen to even pay attention is difficult, and the more abstract and in-the-future any planning is, the less engaged any participation becomes – having “public” meetings does NOT equal public buy-in!

        As for “community vetting”, we have two answers. We have the established process, where rules and regulations are established and revised by city staff and elected representatives, and if you meet the rules, you get your permits without any further public “input”. Then we have the “Steve” process, where any project, on any site, should be opened up for public review and the public’s (Steve’s) “input” before any permits are issued. If you want more of the latter, you’re going to have change more of the former. If you think more public input should be a part of more permits, you need to (work to) change the underlying ordinances. There are plenty of zoning ordinances that contain conditional uses (that require public notice), but there are also plenty of ordinances that contain uses by right (that do not require any public notice).

        Why? Because many decisions are not (or should not be) “controversial”. Owners and designers need some certainty that what they propose doing will be approved quickly and with no or few changes. They don’t want to have to wait several weeks to see if anyone “comments”. The city doesn’t want to go to the expense of posting or sending out notices that will generate no responses. And no one wants to legitimize or encourage the “squeaky wheel”, the person who continually objects to minor details or continues to push an unworkable agenda. Majority rules, and, in government, you’re never, ever, going to make everyone happy . . .

        • You try to fit everything into your perfect libertarian world. Sorry, real life does’t work that way.

          • JZ71 says:

            Changing ordinances to allow or require more citizen input is not a partisan or libertarian issue, it’s a practical one. If a city requires more review, it requires more staff and more staff time – it’s both a choice and an additional expense. Every city needs to decide what its priorities are or should be – that’s “real life”!

          • Once again you advocate the ‘I’ll only do what right when I’m forced to prospective.’ Got it.

          • JZ71 says:

            There are few libertarians in local government, just mostly D’s and R’s, along with a lot of bureaucrats (who are the ones that really hold “the power”). And yes, I do subscribe to the “when I’m forced to” perspective – give me the rules, tell me what to do, and I’ll do my best to comply – I don’t care if its form based or Euclidian, historic or non-historic. I’m not going to do academic research or invent problems when I have a client whose only priority is “how quickly can I get my building permit?”! I’ll save my “save the world” efforts for when / until I’m off the clock.

          • gmichaud says:

            You misrepresent citizen participation. The City of London and their Unitary Plan, which is updated every ten years, and actually now updated again recently and is called the Local Plan now.
            In any case policies are concepts that the public buys into and has a voice in. In the same way the creation of the two plans, one by East West Gateway for West Florissant should have public discussion about adopting that approach along this stretch as planning policy in Ferguson. That is public participation, the overall concept is accepted, not every individual project judged separately by the public.
            In the City of London Unitary Plan, the one I am most familiar with, allowed developers to propose anything with good reason, but overall the general idea, in this case supporting decision making that encourages pedestrian and transit involvement.

          • He’s a frustrated architect no longer working In the profession. If anyone needs someone to help kill creative thinking plesse hire him ASAP.

          • JZ71 says:

            The four building permits that I’ve had approved for clients in the past couple of weeks would tend to disprove that statement . . .

        • By your way of thinking they also like being disproportionately stopped by police — they signed a lease so they must. They chose to live in North County where the public is routinely fleeced by the police & court system — if they didn’t like it they’d just move. Right?

          Except real life doesn’t work the way it does in libertarian fantasyland.

    • QuikTrip has a well-documented history of poor ADA-compliance — see http://www.ada.gov/quiktrip_factsht.htm

      • JZ71 says:

        And that has what to do with the topic at hand?! QT no longer owns the property, the Urban League does!

        I have no problem hammering Ferguson (or Dellwood) for not adopting and/or not enforcing zoning language that their citizens want. All I’m seeing here is sour grapes, that a “better” plan hasn’t been adopted (yet?), and the Urban League is getting to play by the “old”, “bad” rules. That’s life – not everyone is as enlightened as you are. Some people are just trying to get something approved, built, open and functioning. If you don’t like that, (work to) change/improve the rules, don’t resort to public shaming just because you don’t agree and don’t have any real power to do anything about it, especially after the fact!

        • You said I was picking on QuikTrip — a $10 billion dollar privately-held company. My point — which you missed or overlooked — was they didn’t update this site despite an obligation to do so under the ADA. Does the Urban League think they can just build a new building on the same spot without connecting to the sidewalk(s)? Perhaps.

          • guest says:

            $10 billion? Wha??? Where did you get that info? They’re privately held.

          • From their about page:
            “Founded in 1958, QuikTrip has grown to a more than $10 billion company with 690+ stores in eleven states.”

          • JZ71 says:

            And from Forbes, http://www.forbes.com/companies/quiktrip/ . . annual revenues of $11.45 Billion, as of October 2014

          • guest says:

            Sales does not equal market value. But I suppose the real question is, why is this even relevant? Steve threw that number out there suggesting somehow based on their size, QT should be more accountable to the public. Silly rationale.

          • JZ71 says:

            No excuse for QT not upgrading, but that building is gone. Yes, the Urban League needs to comply, and they can do so by connecting the public sidewalk to the front door, going around the parking lot (in front of the building), from one or both sides of the corner lot – there should be no drive-thru to create a conflict, as with a fast-food restaurant.

            I don’t care if it was QT or Sam’s Meat Market, once a property changes ownership, the new (current) owner is responsible for ADA compliance, not the previous one(s). And the challenge facing both Ferguson and Dellwood is that multiple commercial properties, some that didn’t comply with the ADA and a few that did, are now all vacant lots. Yes, new construction should comply, completely, with the ADA. But the time to raise non-compliance was before the properties were destroyed, not now.

          • It hasn’t change ownership yet, what’s left of the building, the canopy, tanks, etc were still there a few days after their announcement.

          • JZ71 says:

            You’re splitting hairs – the site is currently fenced off and accessible to no one. All the structures are going to be removed, they’re gonna be gone, soon. Yes, looking backwards, what QT did (and did not do), regarding ADA compliance, was wrong, but that was true, and remains true, of many, many, other businesses and commercial property owners, both large and small, rich or poor, urban, suburban and (especially) rural, even today.

            You’re also straying pretty far off topic, for this post. I agree that there are many opportunities to integrate the recommendations of both studies, at multiple sites, up and down West Florissant, but ADA compiance is a given with any new construction (of which there will hopefully be much). The bigger challenge isn’t making sure that any new construction will be accessible or more walkable, the challenge is making sure that any new construction will be built, in the first place!

            You may not like “top-down” spending, but there are few resources for bottom-up spending in this part of Ferguson or Dellwood. Local residents don’t have a lot of resources (or access to resources) to create (and support) new businesses, especially the brick and mortar kind, and the two cities don’t have a lot of resources to invest in “frills” like street furniture, street trees and trails. So that leaves bigger governments, bigger businesses and bigger non-profits as the major sources for the funding for any major changes, and with that comes strings and the right to decide how the money should be spent.

            Yeah, being poor sucks. You gotta take what people are willing to give you, and you don’t get as many choices as people with money have. Demanding change, protesting for change, is one way to create change, but so is working hard and not burning down the community you live in. North county is facing the same challenges as north city. There are plenty of “opportunities”, both large and small, but as long as the majority of investment comes from government and their surrogates, the non-profits, and not from those evil people in the private sector, who actually want to make a profit, the trend is going to continue to be downward, not upwards.

            Call me libertarian, but the fundamental challenge, here, today, remains rebuilding (and growing) the commercial sides of Ferguson and Dellwood. Without the taxes thes businesses generate, and absent the elimination of the small-city predatory-policing form of government, and absent a fundamental change in the provincial, racist mindset of many area residents (of all races), things will just continue as they always have, for years. Random public investments, even the “right”, “good” ones, can do little to improve any community when those with the resources to leave continue to choose to leave.

  3. JZ71 says:


  4. JZ71 says:

    And to clarify, the Great Streets Initiative is the same kind of top-down planning that you’re decrying in this post. From http://www.greatstreets-stl.org/content/view/527/1613/ . . “East-West Gateway launched the St. Louis Great Streets Initiative in early 2006 to expand the way communities think of their streets. Rather than viewing a roadway project as solely a way to move more cars and trucks faster, the goal of the St. Louis Great Streets Initiative is to trigger economic and social benefits by centering communities around interesting, lively and attractive streets that serve all modes of transportation.

    “The First Phase culminated in October 2006 with the Great Streets Symposium. More than 160 planners, engineers, city managers and elected officials attended the event, during which local and national experts discussed the many benefits of great streets. Great Streets not only help make attractive, interesting places but they support local economic development goals and improve quality-of-life by providing transportation choices for the entire population.

    “The Second Phase of the project is the development of this web-based Digital Guide, which provides planning, design and process-related recommendations for making “Great Streets” happen. In February 2007, a technical workshop was held to introduce the St. Louis Great Streets Digital Guide and to assist local communities in designing their own “Great Streets.” Following the workshop, this web manual became publicly accessible as a regularly maintained website.

    “In the Third Phase of the project, four communities received assistance from a national consultant team to develop concept plans for turning good streets into Great Streets.”

    All these steps involve outside experts coming in and telling communities what they should be doing, no differently than the “exclusively top-down players” that you called out in this post!

    • They do involve experts but having sat in on these types of meetings before I can tell you they’re offering choices — not directing what it must be.

      If you were to randomly survey area residents and show them alternatives they majority would pick walkable over non-walkable the major. You live in an Ayn Rand fantasyland!

  5. tbatts666 says:

    I am surprised at how much blowback Steve is getting. You don’t need to be an expert to criticize or question. The attitude that Steve can’t point out a few things is just wrong. It’s what stop people from being active citizens. Steve keep up the good work!!

    That being said, how much of the population of Ferguson own a car?

    It’s hard to imagine how our built environment can be better. We sort of think of it as something permanent rather than something that is designed.

    It’s pretty obvious to me that having a walkable, nice looking, neighborhood is important. Who knows what the population of Ferguson think.

    I live in the City, so I can’t say what is right for Ferguson. But it’s pretty clear they are in trouble financially. Scaling developments to people that live their makes sense to me. Building developments that have a high value (parking lots don’t really pay taxes right?) also sounds like a good idea.

    This does seem to be a case of top-down, orderly, but stupid planning.

    • I’m not surprised — apologists for the status quo don’t like being questioned or challenged.

      The Great Streets Initiative found “The heavy transit use along the corridor results in a correspondingly heavy pedestrian demand.” Incredibly, some think the residents prefer walking in an area designed half a century ago for automobile use.

    • JZ71 says:

      The “blowback” I’ve aimed toward Steve comes from how he’s framed his argument, turning it into “no good deed goes unpunished” narrative. East-West Gateway’s last update, http://www.ewgateway.org/GreatStreets/WFA/wfa.htm . is dated two years ago, 4/13. The Michael Brown shooting took place in August of last year, 8/14. In those 16 months, I’m not aware of any real efforts by either Ferguson or Dellwood to implement the recommendations contained in the study (in fact, today, none of the links to the project on Dellwood’s website seem to be active.) I get it, these processes take time. But given the current political and social dynamics, combined with the reality of two dozen other burned out properties along the same corridor, tearing apart the one active, new project seems to be highly counter-productive. Any criticism lies with the governments of Ferguson and/or Dellwood (for not updating their zoning, at the very least), not with a non-profit that’s actually willing to invest in the area, when few others are!

      • Yes, the bottom of the landing page shows 4/2013 — that doesn’t appear to be automatically updated. The final report linked in the sidebar of that page is dated June 2014. I don’t know if that was June 1st or June 30th — let’s say June 15th.

        Michael Brown was shot less than two months later. I’ve repeatedly mentioned this plan was finished just prior to the shooting!

  6. gmichaud says:

    Steve, great post, you are exactly correct in your assessment. And you are right about remediation, Are they trying to say that they are leaving poisons in the soil?
    While the truth is while the whole political system is failing. The failure only becomes more complete when an organization like Urban League who should be standing up for the people’s interests is not taking a leadership role by not only ensuring their individual building enhances the lives in the surrounding community but demand that Ferguson and surrounding communities change policies to encourage a healthier, more sustainable environment.
    Urban League says they want to help Ferguson heal, but it is just lip service without a thorough dialogue about the issues that are brought up in your blog.

    • Thank you, I know my view isn’t popular –but over the last decade I’ve taken many unpopular positions because they needed to be said. We must break the institutional strangle on low-income communities — including those from well-intentioned but oblivious non-profits.

  7. gmichaud says:

    In looking at the list of various execs that participated in the presentation it demonstrates the lack of leadership in the community not only lies with Urban League, but also the business community, other non profits and government entities.
    Think about, are these people who purport to be leaders and saying they wish to “heal Ferguson” are they all ignorant of the East West and Maline Greenway Plan? If so how do they think they can present yet another boiler plate solution and expect to heal Ferguson when they don’t have the faintest idea of what is going on? Or, on the other hand, if they are aware of the plans, why hasn’t there been a full scale discussion about the principles discussed in the two plans and how they might in fact work in conjunction with the improvement of peoples lives and job opportunities.
    St. Louis has to heal in the nation too, development of new approaches in the community will demonstrate to the nation that St. Louis is changing.
    Transit and walking go hand in hand, they support each other and establish a new balance with the automobile This insertion of an urban element will also support the job mission Urban League says it wants to undertake. That is what is really maddening, Urban League completely misses the role of transit and pedestrian in supporting their mission as a social organization.
    Instead what St. Louis gets is a doomed leadership that once again fails to understand the community and how to build a viable future.
    And when this is placed in context with a world with climate uncertainty along with other issues of sustainability that impact St Louis and world as we speak, it simply boggles the mind to think there is not a spirited public discussion brought on by these leaders to address these concerns for the community and for the nation.
    The people mentioned above have fancy titles, but apparently the titles are more decorative than real.

  8. JZ71 says:

    Interesting take on economic inequality, NIMBY and regional (versus local) planning: http://www.salon.com/2015/04/05/the_incredible_shrinking_megacity_how_los_angeles_enginereed_a_housing_crisis/

  9. chris says:

    Great Article. Thanks for the info. Does anyone know where I can find a blank “change ownership form” to fill out?

  10. Leif Cusi says:

    Hey Chris, I found a blank fillable “2013 CA BOE-502-A (P1), [05-13]” here:preliminary change ownership report.


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