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Suspicious Fire Destroys Construction Site

Officials are calling the fire suspicious but we all know the reality, it was arson. Like three construction sites that went down in flames last year, this project was basically framed out but without drywall and other finish materials that would have helped to prevent a fire from spreading so quickly. The timing was likely very calculated.  Click here to read my post from one year ago today on those fires.
Above, site as of June 3, 2007. Taken from behind Arby’s looking east.

The project involved nearly 200 apartments along with some street-level retail along Lindell, on the site of the former Salad Bowl restaurant, at 3949 Lindell (google map). While in the area on the 3rd of this month I got some in-progress pictures for use later in a post when the project was finished. … Continue Reading


Ald. Kennedy Finally Opens Westbound Olive to Traffic

In April of 2006 I first mentioned the barrels that completely blocked through traffic on Olive at Walton in the Central West End.  The next Month, in May of 2006 I looked into the issue a bit closer and realized that Olive was the dividing line between two wards.  Below is an image from that post.
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At the time I wrote:

Olive, a once great road, is politically divided. One side of the street from Boyle Westward is in the 18th Ward (Terry Kennedy) and the other is in the 28th Ward (Lyda Krewson). Both sides of the street, however, are fully within the Central West End neighborhood. From an urban perspective the issues relating to the rebirth of this street do not fall into line with ward boundaries.

In June 2006 I was happy to report that Ald. Lyda Krewson of the 28th Ward had made the decision to remove the old barrels and open the eastbound portion of Olive to traffic once again.  However, the westbound barrels remained in place.

Recently, Ald. Kennedy finally relented and had the remaining barrels removed allowing a free flow of traffic on Olive — a first in many decades.

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Much investment and development is happening in the areas formerly on the wrong side of street closings so hopefully we will see a nice blending of the areas.  It is just too hard to justify developing on the bad side of closed streets.  The Central West End folks that pushed for the reopening of Olive deserve lots of credit.  Viva la street grid!


The Loop: Eclectic Stores vs. National Chains

Recently I read about two chain restaurants taking over the Streetside Records building on Delmar in the Loop. The store was not closing but the building owner made a deal to lease the space to two chain restaurants when the Streetside lease expires. To everyone upset about the loss of “record” stores, don’t be. When was the last time you passed a typewriter store? Markets shift and like it or not records are like 8 track tapes. Hell, I can’t even recall the last time I purchased a physical CD — certainly before the iTunes Music Store opened.

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This week the RFT had a follow up story on the subject of chain stores in the loop, it seems some local merchants want to set a limit on the number of chain establishments:

Spearheading the move to institute a cap on chains is Patrick Liberto, owner of Meshuggah Café, who says the incursion of two new restaurants spurred him to action.

“We are going to lose our eclectic qualities. We’re going to look like Clayton,” Liberto complains. “The Loop is going to get a lot less interesting to people if they see the same things here that they see in their own neighborhood.”

Liberto wants to set a limit that no more than ten formula restaurants and ten retail chains be permitted in the Loop, and that none can occupy a space greater than 4,000 square feet. The Delmar Loop is home to seven retail chains, including Footlocker and Blockbuster Video. When Chipotle and Noodles & Company arrive, the number of chain eateries will rise to thirteen, versus thirty-four independently owned restaurants.

The irony here is Streetside Records is part of a chain of stores! 

I personally hate chain places, especially chain restaurants. We have so many wonderful locally owned establishments in our region, why go generic. That said, I’m not sure I believe in artificially creating such a cap. First, we must define a chain. Is locally owned Pasta House a “chain” because they have muliple locations? Do we distinquish between a locally owned & operated franchise (say a Subway) vs. a company owned store from a non-local national operator? The St. Louis Bread Co. is most definintely a chain — they had two locations at one time on the loop (disclosure: my investment club is a very minor shareholder in Panera).

The Loop is quite unique to the region but not just because of the mix of the stores & restaurants. The architecture and scale of the place is unique as well. I’ve been to the Noodles & Company at South County mall twice now and I can certainly say the experience is totally unlike going to the Loop. Sure, the food might be the same as well as the interior decor but the Loop still has the right feel I am looking for when I am out and about.

I personally am not a fan of regulating uses, my usual concern is building form which creates the feel of the public space (aka the street). Some franchise places have very strict standards on their signage & storefronts while others are more flexible, allowing adjustment for local flavor.

I think it should be noted “The Loop” is often considered that portion of Delmar in University City — up to the lions heads on the west end. However, over the last few years the portion of Delmar in the City of St. Louis has become quite interesting. I consider them together to be the Delmar Loop or simply the Loop, I never say the U-City Loop. But, it is the U-City portion feeling threatened by the influx of chain stores.

if the merchants want to be concerned about the character of the area and attracting people they need to look at doing something about the bad buildings such as this one:

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These cars are all in for repair. Across the street, within the city limits, is another old gas station that has been boarded for years and the lot is simply used for additional parking.

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At Skinker we have this horrible gas station, hardly a good anchor for a pedestrian district. The next rebuild should require the convenience store functions to be moved to the corner to create more urban context, leaving the pumps in the back less visible to the street.

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The Church’s is no gem either. I believe these types of buildings, not their uses, do more to detract from the loop experience than the addition of a chain noodle shop in an urban building. I’d have not problems with the Church’s in a more urban building form sans drive-thru.

But let’s say you want to make sure you keep attracting the eclectic crowd, not minivans full of suburban families? The Loop merchants need to take a look at the street and see what is missing for their core market. Warning, this is morphing into a brief bike rack rant:
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I stopped by the loop earlier today just to briefly snap a few pictures of the Streetside Records building and in the few minutes I was there I noticed four bicycles in front of several shops across the street.

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Two parking meters, a sign post and finally a tree. Wait, what is that in the background? Yes, an old fashioned “dish drainer” style of bike rack. These are horrible, no wonder none of these cyclists decided to use it. First, it doesn’t look well secured — someone could steal the bike & rack. Second, when you put your front tire between the smaller vertical bars it can warp your front rim. Place your mountain bike tire in the wide opening and the bike easily falls over (I don’t think most of these bikes had kick stands). It also makes it hard to lock the frame securely – especially when using U-shape locks as the first three are. The Loop group needs to think about proper bike racks if they plan to keep their core customers.

But the debate really isn’t about chains, gas stations or even bike racks, it is about money. As owners of buildings decide to retire or when they die the buildings get sold for current market value. As such, new owers seek to recoup their investments with higher rents. Chain stores with deep pockets or local franchisee’s seeking to establish a business seek out thriving areas like the Loop.   Do places that can’t afford the newer rents need to think about relocating to other commercial districts in their price range? Of course, if many of the local places leave that will hurt the chains as well as they moved in because of the foot traffic the area generated. Areas can become so popular they hurt themselves.

The RFT article talks about a “tipping point” of having too many chains to the point where people stop coming because a place has become too generic. The problem is, in my view, is that is so hard to quantify. What number of chain restaurants or retailers is the right number? Is it simply quantity or a percentage of the streetfront or square footage? Maybe some retail experts have done some research but then I’d want to know who paid for the reseach.

My advice to the smaller local merchants: get a long term lease, buy your building, plan for higher rents in the future or think about options for new locations.


BJC/Forest Park Lease is Simply Par for Course

St. Louis has a serious lack of leadership at the top. Following the lack of a second yesterday on a motion to accept the BJC/Forest Park Lease Mayor Slay indicated he was “disappointed.” Well, Francis, welcome to my world. I am disappointed daily by you and pretty much every other elected official out of city hall.

I am disappointed in fellow members of the Board of Estimate & Apportionment, Jim Shrewsbury and Darlene Green. I’m not disappointed because they wouldn’t go along with the current deal, but because they, like the Mayor, are reactionary. Board President Candidate Lewis Reed and all his followers on the Boad of Aldermen are no better. BJC is not really the bad guy here, nor is Shrewsbury or Green. The culprit is how we do business in this town.

The notion of having to maintain Forest Park cannot possibly have been a new concept in 2006 when BJC floated this idea past the mayor’s office. Forest Park Forever, the non-profit group that raised so much money for the restoration of the park, was started in 1986 — two decades ago! Did nobody stop to think, “hey we are going to need to find a way to maintain all these improvements” along the way?

The lack of leadership from City Hall has brought us to this point today. BJC is now issuing threats to the citizens that they will look elsewhere if they don’t get their way. Maybe BJC is the bad guy too. Don’t threaten me, I don’t care how big you are. Take your ugly buildings, your closed off streets and those aweful parking garages you’ve littered the landscape with and hit the road. Yeah, that’s right. Get lost you big f*cking bully. I’m calling your bluff — something the spinless folks at city hall would never do. Proof? The St. Louis Cardinals got a new stadium downtown.
Sometime in the last 20 years we should have had a discussion about paying for Forest Park, and all our parks frankly. Does anyone recall Mayor Slay making this a priority during his 2005 re-election campaign? What about Ald. Roddy? Nope.

Good leadership would have said, “OK folks, we’ve invested millions in the renovation of Forest Park but now we need to find a good way to keep it up for the long haul.” A panel could have been formed to investigate options, a town hall could have been held. Something, anything. Instead they waited until re-elected and then turned BJC land-grab into a immediate crisis, designed to scare voters into submission. You know, something President Bush might do.

I’ve never come out fully against the idea of BJC getting that land for future expansion — it was the process I disliked, not the basic land concept. Again, good leadership from city hall would have told BJC, “We can’t take this to the people until we figure out how & where to replace the open space lost and ammenities.” You can’t take away over 9 acres of park used by nearby residents without figuring out how to accomodate their needs. Yet, when this came up last year the issue of replacement park land was one of those “oh we’ll figure that out later items.” Uh, no! We’ll figure it all out or we won’t do it at all. The Kiel Opera house was one of those “later” projects that still hasn’t happened.

Our city operates in a vacuum, looking soley at a project at a time. Whether it is paying for park maintenance or a master plan for a blighted section of South Grand we simply don’t plan ahead. We sit back or wait for a sweet-looking deal to arrive and push for it. Ald. Florida was all in favor of a McDonald’s drive-thru without once doing a master plan for a mile-long stretch of Grand blighted some 10 years earlier. What is the true cost to maintain our parks and if we did the BJC lease would that solve everything? Doubtful. We need to have discussions about commercial cooridors and park funding before we have an impending proposal on the table.  Only then can we possiblly hope to have a rational discussion about the future of our city.

Given the way our leaders continue to operate, I don’t give this city much of a future.  The potential is here, but we continually squander what we have and push those with creative thinking to other cities.  This region is not growing, at least not by much.  Sure, we are building stuff on the edge of the region but that is not the same — I’m talking population and jobs, not sprawl.  The city has to fight with the Census annually to show we’ve stabilized our population rather than continue the decades-old downward spiral.  Other regions in the U.S. have their act together while this region sticks its collective head in the sand.  We are so far behind and all the folks we elect can do is point fingers at each other.  Well, I’ve got a finger for them…


Board of Alderman “Perfects” Controversial BJC Lease

Today two board bills were passed perfected by the St. Louis Board of Aldermen related to a section of Forest Park. The area located between Kingshighway and Euclid has been under lease by BJC since the 1970s for use as an underground parking garage. Above the garage is a green park with mature trees, racquetball courts, a playground and tennis courts. If the new proposal is approved by the city’s Board of Estimate & Apportionment BJC will be granted the rights to develop what is now a park.

Citizens opposed to the plan have obtained the signatures required to require a citizen vote whenever leasing or selling park land. Today’s vote is an attempt to get this deal done prior to the citizen vote in April to consider such a requirement.

The usual 29 members (28 Aldermen + President of the Board of Aldermen) is only 28 these days since 19th Ward Alderman Mike McMillan resigned to assume his new role as the city’s License Collector. Only two voted against the deal — Board President Jim Shrewbury and Jeffrey Boyd (D-22).

Four Aldermen were either absent from the meeting or abstained from voting on the bills related to this lease: Charles Quincy Troupe (D-1), Jennifer Florida (D-15), Terry Kennedy (D-18) and Frank Williamson (D-26).  Update #2 1/26/07 5pm — Troupe & Florida were not present for the meeting today.  Kennedy & Williamson, although present for the meeting, were not present for this particular vote.

The following aldermen voted in favor of the bill(s):

  • Dionne Flowers, (D-2)
  • Freeman Bosley, (D-3)
  • O.L. Shelton, (D-4)
  • April Ford Griffin, (D-5)
  • Lewis Reed, (D-6)
  • Phyllis Young, (D-7)
  • Stephen Conway, (D-8)
  • Kenneth Ortmann, (D-9)
  • Joseph Vollmer, (D-10)
  • Matt Villa, (D-11)
  • Fred Heitert, (R-12)
  • Alfred Wessels, (D-13)
  • Stephen Gregali, (D-14)
  • Donna Baringer, (D-16)
  • Joseph Roddy, (D-17)
  • Craig Schmid, (D-20)
  • Bennice Jones-King, (D-21)
  • Kathleen Hanrahan, (D-23)
  • William Waterhouse, (D-24)
  • Dorothy Kirner, (D-25)
  • Gregory Carter, (D-27)
  • Lyda Krewson, (D-28)

Update: [The bills will come up again next week for final approval. If approved,] the Board of Estimate and Apportionment (E&A) will determine if this deal goes through. The three members are Mayor Francis Slay, President Jim Shrewsbury and Comptroller Darlene Green. Slay has announced he will support the deal while Shrewsbury has indicated he will not (and judging by his no vote today I think it would be odd to flip flop). So, this puts the decision of the park in the hands of one person — Darlene Green. Right now she holds all the cards so I’m guessing there are some backroom conversations and deals being hatched right now. The old what will it take to get your vote?

If Green supports the plan she will be upsetting voters who have worked to place the issue on the ballot. If she votes against the plan she risks getting shut out of the political establishment backing the deal. From my perspective, Green can’t help but play politics somewhat but I think she tends to come down on the side of good fiscal policy. The question becomes, is this deal now good enough in her mind?

Last week her office sent out the following statement:

The comptroller believes people on both sides of this issue have strong points. On one side are the citizens and taxpayers who want to protect their parks and have a say in plans to develop park land. On the other side is the city’s largest medical facility that serves thousands of disadvantaged residents each year and is an economic engine for the community.

The comptroller intends to move forward in an effort to bridge the gap on these two very valid viewpoints and hopefully reach a compromise solution. She is working now to hold meetings beginning next week with both sides that focus on common ground and building consensus instead of rehashing differences. This issue is too important to our community on a number of levels for us to settle for anything less than a mutual agreement.

“The comptroller is reserving comment on the new lease plan revealed today until after these meetings and, hopefully, a compromise is reached.

I just asked the Comproller’s office if they have a new statement in light of today’s vote — I’ll let you know when they respond.

The next debate is if this will, or will not, affect the upcoming race between incumbent Jim Shrewsbury and challenger Lewis Reed. Shrewsbury is opposing the current lease while Reed supported it.

NOTE: I updated this post roughly 30 minutes after originally posting. I had indicated the bills had passed when in fact they had only been “perfected.” They will be brought up again next week for final passage. I adjusted a bit of the above language to reflect this as well as adjusting the headline.