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Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

June 17, 2021 Central West End, Featured, History/Preservation, Planning & Design, Real Estate Comments Off on Mid-Century Modern vs. 21st Century Density

A developer has proposed a new apartment building that was require the demolition of a mid-century modern (MCM) building. I’ve been watching the debate of preservation of MCM verses increased density on Twitter & Facebook. I want to weight in, but first some background.

The non-profit service group Optimist International was founded elsewhere more than a century ago. In 1924 St. Louis was selected as the location for its worldwide headquarters. Decades later their 2-story building at 4494 Lindell (@ Taylor) was designed by local architects Schwartz & Van Hoefen.

Optimists International’s headquarters at 4494 Lindell was dedicated at 3pm on Sunday June 17, 1962 — 59 years ago today. Previously they were located in the Railway Exchange building, Image from May 2014

Schwartz & Van Hoefen is also known for:

  • Marchetti Towers I & II, SLU campus.
  • Mansion House, 4th Street downtown.
  • Council Plaza, which included a “flying saucer” gas station (later various places like Naugles & Del Taco, now a Starbucks & Chipotle)
  • Northland Cinema (demolished)
  • Busch Stadium II (local architect, demolished)
Optimist International has formally listed their property for sale a number of years ago, it includes the slightly taller building next door. Photo from May 2021.

There have been numerous proposals for the property, including one for renovated and updated office space. The most recent, announced last week, calls for demolition of the original 2-story building and late 70s 4-story addition. In their place a new 7-story apartment building.

This recent proposal is what got people fiercely debating, falling roughly into 3 camps: we need to preserve our few remaining mid-century modern buildings, more density is good, and preservation focus should be on saving 19th century buildings. This is a generalization of their points so let’s get into some specifics.

This view shows the Taylor side of the proposal.

Many see an artist’s rendering of a proposed project from a bird’s eye and get all excited. From this vantage point artists can make anything look good — they could make the workhouse look like a lush resort.  Humans, however, don’t experience the built environment from a bird’s viewpoint.

Those on the side of preservation of Optimist International are correct that increasingly we’re seeing MCM buildings being razed, especially in the Central West End. Last century these MCM buildings were seen as important symbols of reinvestment as the wealthy began to flee the city, as Gaslight Square began to fade.

One disputed point is “architectural merit”, I’m not qualified to argue for or against on this particular building. However, from the Mansion House nomination to the National Register of Historic Places I can learn about the firm responsible:

The firm of Schwarz & Van Hoefen was a midcentury incarnation of one of the longest-running continuously operating firms in St. Louis. It began in 1900 as Mauran, Russell & Garden when three architects broke away from the St. Louis office of Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge (which was set up locally as Shepley, Rutan, Coolidge, and Mauran). John Lawrence Mauran brought along two younger colleagues, Ernest Russell and Edward Garden, and the firm almost immediately received several important commissions. Ned Garden left the firm in 1909, to be replaced by William Crowell in 1911. After Mauran’s death in 1933, Russell & Crowell added W.Oscar Mullgardt.

By the mid-20 century, more than half a century into its existence, the partnership remained one of the leading architectural firms in St. Louis. Esley Hamilton wrote that in the 1950s and 60s, the firm “was unusual in maintaining its design flare while working on large commercial projects. The firm completed many architecturally significant works during this period. In addition to the Mansion House, four of their other projects were recommended for National Register listing in the City of St. Louis’ Modern Movements survey of 2013.

This means that 1/5 of the 25 properties on the list were by the various iterations of this single partnership, more than any on other firm on the list.

The four other buildings on the list are as follows. The Wohl Recreation Center (1959) at 1515 N. Kingshighway Boulevard is a glass-skinned neighborhood recreation center commissioned by the City of St. Louis. The Engineers Club of St. Louis (1959) at 4359 Lindell Boulevard is a low-rise addition to the emerging Modernist corridor; its use of traditional masonry and playful forms is very striking. The original two-story section of the Optimist Building (1961, 4490-94 Lindell Boulevard), a block to the west of the Engineers Club, has an exposed concrete frame.[Emphasis added] Finally, the Steinberg Art Gallery Building at Washington University was a collaboration between the partnership and architect Fumihiko Maki, who is credited with the design (1960, 6201-53 Forsyth Blvd.)

In addition to the buildings recommended for listing in the City’s Modernism survey, the partnership of Schwarz & Van Hoefen designed many other important buildings in St. Louis. Among the most visible is Council Plaza, which consists of two towers and two smaller buildings located at 212 – 310 S. Grand Boulevard (NRHP 3/02/2007).

So the architectural firm is an important part of our history. The city’s modern architecture page includes the survey mentioned above, which lists the Optimist International property as significant and worthy of individual listing. The list only contains 25 properties. So one of the two buildings is architecturally significant. Saying otherwise ignores the established record.

I love density, but it’s also correct that the Central West End isn’t where we need to be building more density. That said, I do like that the proposed apartment building includes small studio apartments. If only new CWE residential projects included some affordable and low-income units — they are not the same thing. An alternative is paying into a fund the help building units elsewhere in the city. Elsewhere means cheaper, less desirable neighborhoods…like where I’ve lived for before and for the last 2+ years.

One pro-preservation argument I saw said the Optimist International building was urban, in line with adjacent properties. Well, yes and no. It’s not set back behind a surface parking lot and the entrance clearly fronts onto the primary street.   The Lindell facade respects the established building line, the Taylor side is a set further back than the slightly older Grant Medical Clinic at 114 N. Taylor, designed by Harris Armstrong. In addition to being set back further than other buildings a low stone wall & raised lawn separates the building from the Taylor facade.  As a result of the design, the Taylor side has zero activity/openings/entrances. This is not urban form.

Looking south you can see the substantial setback behind the raised lawn. The low wall is the established building line along Taylor.

The proposed 7-story apartment building would be built out to the building line, not set back. It would have have a few retail storefront spaces right off the Taylor sidewalk. Balconies would also face Taylor, the common pool area also faces Taylor. I believe Taylor Ave would be more active and interesting with the proposed building, compared with the existing.

I do think we need to save our architectural history from all centuries. Both 19th & 20th century buildings are threatened, often for different reasons. While I love clean 20th century modernism it often is a negative to the urban experience. Claiming MCM buildings are urban is just as disingenuous as those who say the Optimist International building has no architectural merit.

In the event the current proposal falls through, I could see a reuse project where the 1979 4-story addition is replaced by a taller tower with west-facing balconies. A few storefronts or entrances are carefully cut into the Taylor facade. with a section of lawn & wall removed to create an entrance to each. Cafe tables with umbrellas would look great. Maybe the main building has storefronts, residential lobby on the ground floor and structured parking on the upper floor? New residential units would all be in the new tower to the east. The roof of the old building could be a green roof with outdoor seating, activities.

— Steve Patterson

 

 

The St. Louis Region Needs a Moratorium Stopping Construction of New Gas Stations

March 31, 2021 Big Box, Books, Central West End, Featured Comments Off on The St. Louis Region Needs a Moratorium Stopping Construction of New Gas Stations

Earlier this month a city in Northern California has done what other municipalities should do: ban the construction of new gas stations.

The city of Petaluma has become the first in the nation to ban the construction of new gas stations in the city, as part of its aggressive goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2030.

On Monday night, the city council unanimously approved the measure with a second reading of the ordinance, effectively adopting the ban immediately.

The ordinance was widely embraced, as the city council said it faced no opposition.

In a city of some 60,000 residents, covering 14.5 square miles, Petaluma currently has 16 gas stations with another previously approved filling station on the way.  (Source)

It’s foolish to keep devoting more and more land & money into a business model that’s in decline. As vehicles have gotten more efficient gasoline sales have been in decline, as electric vehicles begin to  flood the market gasoline sales will continue falling off. One estimate is 60%-80% of existing gas stations could close by 2035.

Petaluma California is similar in land area & population to the St. Louis suburb of Florissant. By my count Florissant also has 17 gas stations.

Our region has food deserts, but not gas station deserts. Gas stations, mostly large convenience stores that also sell fuel, are everywhere. Former gas stations, vacant & repurposed, are also everywhere.

These will not be repurposed later into EV charging stations as EVs are recharged overnight, at home. Yes, eventually EV batteries will be able to be charged significantly faster, but by then cars will either be owned by ride share companies or it can go off on it’s own and park on a charging pad while you work.

Newer has station in the suburb of Rock Hill, MO replaced a historic stone church.
A closed gas station on the NE corner of Compton & Chippewa.
Former BP gas station at Lackland & Midland, it closed sometime between 2008 & 2012.
The vacant gas station at 2418 N. Florissant was built in 1972.
The urban Arlington Grove Apts as seen from the auto-centric gas station across the street.

Gas stations are a blight, a big hole in the urban fabric. They’re anti-pedestrian. These should no longer be built in the city, county, or region. A big part of why Petaluma banned new gas stations is a grassroots organization called Coalition Opposing New Gas Stations — we need a similar effort here.

— Steve Patterson

 

Auto-Centric Pandemic, Vaccine Site Adjacent To Light Rail Station Didn’t Mention Using Transit

March 25, 2021 Central West End, Featured, Public Transit, STL Region, Transportation Comments Off on Auto-Centric Pandemic, Vaccine Site Adjacent To Light Rail Station Didn’t Mention Using Transit

The previous 12 months have highlighted how auto-centric the United States is. So far during this pandemic we’ve seen drive through food banks, and COVID-19 testing. Each with cars backed up for miles. To keep the cars on the road there were also lines at licensing offices.

From May 28, 2020:

On Friday, May 29 CVS Health will open 22 new COVID-19 drive-thru test sites across Missouri, including locations in St. Louis.

CVS Health expects to have up to 1,000 locations across the country offering this service by the end of May.

The testing will be by appointment only. You won’t go into the store, but sit in your car and administer the test. (Fox2)

From June 11, 2020:

Many St. Louis-area residents endured long lines and waiting times at licensing offices Thursday, which recently re-opened due to COVID-19 worries.

Thursday, a News 4 crew found some people who waited several hours at two licensing offices in west St. Louis County, where only a few people are allowed inside at one time to due to COVID-19 restrictions. (KMOV)

From November 25, 2020:

From California to New York, pictures have emerged of thousands of people waiting to receive groceries from their local food banks ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

It’s one side effect that has cropped up as a result of the coronavirus pandemic that continues to sweep the nation. Experts say the problem is rooted in high unemployment and low cash flow. (CNBC)

So it was no surprise when it came time for vaccinations that many sites weren’t accessible by foot or public transit. As with food & testing, people in their cars were backed up for miles to get a shot.

Last Thursday:

Traffic was backed up for more than a mile in both directions entering the county’s drive-thru mass vaccination site. The event, put on by the St. Charles County Health Department with support from the Missouri National Guard, was expected to vaccinate 4,000 people by the time it wrapped up Thursday evening. (KMOV)

Monday I got my first shot. I’d been on a waiting list at BJC only, as I knew I’d be able to take transit. Many people signed up for multiple lists with the expectation they’ll drive wherever they need to.

Valet parking makes sense, especially for those who can’t walk far.

I was given a choice of vaccination sites, but I picked the 4353 Clayton location because I knew it was adjacent to the Cortex MetroLink station. The instructions from BJC, however, didn’t mention transit at all.

  • Due to social distancing restrictions, do not arrive before your scheduled time.
    • If you arrive earlier, please remain in your vehicle until it’s time to enter the building.
  • Please park in the lot at the front of the building, labeled “30 minute visitor,” or the lot west of the building, labeled “2 hour visitor.”
    • Free valet parking is also available at the front of the building.
    • Click here for a parking map.

Despite my criticism of their lack of mentioning transit, the entire process was very well orchestrated. Outside they had signs & people to direct drivers. At the building they had people stationed at every step to keep the flow going. I was in and out in under a half hour!

– Steve Patterson

 

More Changes Coming To Central West End Light Rail Station

December 23, 2019 Central West End, Featured, Public Transit Comments Off on More Changes Coming To Central West End Light Rail Station

When our light rail line, MetroLink, opened in July 1993 the Central West End (CWE) station was one of the original.  This was prior to the city vacating Euclid Ave. for vehicular travel. For the next 13 years the station operated with two separate platforms — one for eastbound and one for westbound — with the tracks in the center,

In August 2006 the new Blue Line opened further west.  But the CWE station had been rebuilt from two platforms to one center platform. This reduced elevators from two to one.

July 2010 looking down on the station from what used to be Euclid Ave on the west.
Looking east toward Taylor from the CWE MetroLink platform, 2014

The station, the busiest in the system, remain largely unchanged until last year when the platform was extended in length. The trains aren’t any longer, but the eastbound trains now stop further east from the stair/elevator. This was done to reduce pedestrian congestion.

Construction on the platform extension, November 2018.

So what’s changing? From Metro’s December 20th press release:

Station Redesign Details:

  • New, monitored entrance/exit at the street level from Euclid Avenue on the west end of the station featuring a welcome center at the top of the stairs that lead down to the MetroLink platform
  • A new, wider staircase with a center handrail connecting the new Euclid Avenue entrance/exit to the platform to better accommodate passengers
  • Relocating the elevator on the station platform to relieve congestion
  • New, upgraded platform lighting
  • An expanded canopy to cover 70% of the MetroLink platform. The current canopy covers 30% of the MetroLink platform.
  • Safety improvements including a speed bump, stop sign, and new lighting at the entry to the MetroBus area of the garage which connects to the east entrance/exit of the platform.

Construction begins today, the elevator will be closed starting Thursday (12/26/19). When the station was reconfigured in 2006 they should’ve made the platform wider. Hopefully the new station will have a substantially larger elevator — and that a wheelchair user waiting for the elevator won’t block others.

Obviously during the construction those of us that need the elevator will have to use the east end of the platform and enter/exit via the CWE MetroBus Transit Center. Metro’s release indicates other closures may happen throughout the project but that advance notice will be given.  Unfortunately, they did not indicate how long this project will last.

— Steve Patterson

 

Two Urban Medical Campuses Compared: Big Differences Despite Similarities

September 16, 2019 Central West End, Featured, Planning & Design, Travel, Walkability Comments Off on Two Urban Medical Campuses Compared: Big Differences Despite Similarities

I often spend days, weeks, or months thinking about a post before writing it. I’ve been thinking about today’s post for over 5 years now!

It was May 2014 when we first stayed at friend’s newly purchased vacation condo in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood — across the street from Northwestern Hospital. Not a wide boulevard either, Erie Street is like most of Chicago’s streets — two drive lanes and two parking lanes.

We experienced the busy sidewalks but also the internal walkway system connecting the campus’ numerous buildings, complete with bridges over roadways. I immediately thought how different it felt from St. Louis’ Washington University Medical Campus (WUMC)/Barnes-Jewish Hospital (BJC).

St. Louis’ Washington University Medical Campus is prominently identified along Kingshighway, Forest Park Ave, etc
Points along Kingshighway are now labeled A, B. C, etc…

In the Fall of 2017 I had an unexpected emergency surgery and an overnight stay at BJC, I got to experience the walkway going from the Center for Advanced Medicine to Barnes. Then again the next morning going to the bus transit center. Yes, usually you don’t leave hospitalization via public transit, but that’s how I got there with my power wheelchair and a very broken wrist.

I’ve visited the Northwestern campus numerous times while visiting Chicago and I’ve returned to WUMC/BJC for numerous appointment and to photograph/observe the walkway.  I’m finally in a position to compare observation of the two.

First, the similarities between the two:

  • Were built over decades, slowly expanding.
  • Began life in an affluent neighborhood of gridded streets.
  • Comprised of generic beige buildings, parking garages.
  • Lots of people & cars.
  • Have an internal network to help people navigate from building to building indoors.
  • Have one hard edge (Lake Michigan in Chicago, Forest Park in St. Louis)

Given all the above similarities you’d think the two would function the same. But no, the end results are vastly different! This post will hopefully explain the differences I’ve observed and their impact on each campus and surrounding neighborhoods.

In short, the major differences can be reduced to:

  • Sidewalk level activities: Many of Northwestern’s buildings, especially newer ones, have “active” ground floors — mostly restaurants.
  • Street grid: Northwestern didn’t alter the street grid, WUMC/BJC has decimated the grid.

Let’s start in St. Louis (map):

The Center for Advanced Medicine (CAM) building on the SW corner of Forest Park & Euclid avenues is a very busy place
As a pedestrian you can’t enter the building directly off of either major avenue.
Pedestrians have a narrow walk next to the large auto drive to reach the actual entry.
The newer Center for Outpatient Health across Forest Park Ave did not repeat the pedestrian access problem of CAM.
It is built right up to Euclid. An auto drive for patient drop-off is on the back side.
Pedestrians get their own entrance right off the Euclid sidewalk.
There’s a change of level but the ramp is wide and direct, the steps are narrower and off to the side. Through the windows you can see the automobile drive & patient drop-off entrance.
Looking North on what used to be Euclid Ave., the CAM building is on the left.
Looking at the closed Euclid from the WUMC/BJC walkway system — called LINK. Entering LINK from CAM is pretty natural, but the rest is convoluted.
Back on the ground for a moment, another closed part of Euclid, the LINK is visible.
In the background is the busiest light rail station in Metro’s system. LINK overlooks it, but they don’t connect.
This was the view to the North from my hospital room in November 2017.
The LINK winds its way around connecting all the buildings.
Sometimes it is in a spacious area
There are a few retail outlets, but not many. There was also a tiny Sprint store.
Windows give you a glimpse of where you are.
When I was discharged a nurse had to escort me to Metro’s bus transit center because there is no good public route from the BJC hospital to transit! Her card had to be used a couple of times along the way.
Finally I’m on my way to the bus. This walkway also connects to massive parking garages for staff.
Here we are, the entrance to the garage where the buses converge on the ground level.

Before moving on I should note that I was very pleased with my treatment and all those who took care of me that visit and my other appointments, cataracts surgery, etc.

Okay, now Chicago (map). Starting outside.

Am ambulance only drive for the emergency department
An auto area for the outpatient building next door to where we stay while in Chicago. You can see all the way through to the next block. To the left there are three retail spaces spaces — including on both street corners.
The sidewalks are wide with street trees.
There are some truly awful buildings along some of the sidewalks. No retail, no life.
But old historic buildings, including ones not owned by Northwestern still exist within the street grid.
One of the oldest campus buildings is very attractive — much more so than most everything around it.
Another example of not everything along the sidewalks was interesting. That’s mostly reserved for the corners at intersections.
One of the newest buildings. Being located mid-block it didn’t have any sidewalk retail.
Another older building, not exactly inviting.
Here is a corner, which is very active.
Another corner
And another corner
Medical entrance mid-block
Another auto drop-off area
An older parking garage with a mid-block entrance

Now let’s go inside their walkway system.

There are numerous maps posted, all showing how to reach the street grid outside and other buildings
Building lobbies invite you to the walkway system.
An internal intersection in a central building. A couple of food court areas are very close to this point.
One of the newest food court seating areas with lots of seating
There are many different food retailers located along their walkway system, most concentrated in a couple of central areas.
Another restaurant
Their walkways always seen to be busy.

CONCLUSION:

Both medical campuses have good & bad buildings. While Northwestern does a far better job activating corners it is the fact they still have corners that explains why the sidewalks are so full of people. The non-medical public, like us, are able to easily get through the campus on the sidewalks or via the enclosed walkway system. Northwestern’s campus isn’t a monolithic fortress to go around — you can go right through it just like you would elsewhere in Chicago.

I’m firmly convinced the many closed streets within St. Louis’ Washington University Medical Campus are largely responsible for the relative lack of pedestrian activity. Short of reopening the closed streets, I don’t think there’s anything we can do to fix the problem.

There’s a lot more detail I’d hoped to include, but I knew I just had to get this post finished. I might do some followup posts.

— Steve Patterson

 

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