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Scenes from St. Louis’ National Park(ing) Day

Friday in St. Louis was a busy day. Taste of St. Louis was setting up for the last time in the section of the Gateway Mall that is planned to become a sculpture garden (they will relocate next year), citizens rallied to support Fire Chief Sherman George on the steps in front of City Hall and the Board of Aldermen had their first session after summer break. Among all these items was St. Louis’ first attempt at participating in National Park(ing) Day — the world-wide event whereby groups “lease” an on-street parking space by way of feeding the meter so the can make a statement about the need to green areas.

So where does St. Louis selected for the first location? On an excessively wide street surrounded by park space!


Above, Chestnut Street was intended for the installations — the city even had the meters marked as no parking. Here, in the shade of some nice mature trees, groups were to set up in the angled parking spaces to show a need for more green in the city. WTF?


Above, at 15th & Chestnut looking Westbound the street is completely blank — no parked cars, activists or even auto traffic. Chestnut is one-way Eastbound so it basically gets its traffic during the morning rush. This was early afternoon.


Above: Two groups did set up their own parks next to a park, but on Market rather than Chestnut.


Although still next to a full city block long razed to create park space, these two spaces were within full view of the Mayor’s office on the 2nd floor of City Hall shown in the background. Unfortunately the City Hall entrance on the Market Street side has been closed for a few years — probably since 9/11/01.


Pedro’s Planet — the office supply company that delivers and takes your recycling at the same time had a nice space complete with desk, turf and a much needed shade umbrella. The light blue bag is their well-known recycling bag which is handy next to the office copier.


Next to Pedro’s Planet was the HOK Planning Group. HOK is one of the largest architecture, engineering and planning firms in the world — based right here in St. Louis. They employ over 2,000 people globally — not your typical granola anti-car protest crowd.


As you might expect from a group of architects, engineers and planners — the space was a thing of beauty — with sections of lawn and brick paving. An informational sign, placed next to the parking meter, gave information to passers by and parking enforcement about the event and why these busy professionals were sitting in lawn chairs on a major street on a Friday.  I’ve got a link to the PDF of the sign below.


Part of their display I really loved, the symbolic crushed car. They had hoped to get a real crushed car for the project but it proved too challenging logistically. As it was, they arrived at 6am to set up their park — convincing a building inspector to give up the space.


Above, a couple of architects from HOK talk to visitors as the meter shows 33 minutes remaining. They had a stack of quarters so they could continually renew their short-term lease. Clearly HOK and Pedros Planet had spent some time thinking about what they’d do for the day. Talking with them I knew they ‘got it.’ I think we’ll see them again next year but in parking spaces that will actually demonstrate the need for green.

One group in the city made a last minute decision to make a statement.

Above, residents and business leaders in the diverse Cherokee Station commercial district enjoying their park. This area has seen disinvestment for decades and as such street trees are scarce.

They selected a spot (and a half) on Texas at Cherokee — next to a bare lot where a building once existed. Mature Bradford Pears on Cherokee are the only signs of green in the area but you can practically knock them over by blowing on them. These are slowly being replaced. But it is the side streets that are sorely lacking greenery.


Amid the exposed ground, broken glass and crumbling sidewalks these citizens created a colorful demonstration project. I talked with a couple of women leaving the Globe Drugs who asked me what was going on — I explained it as a “demonstration about the need for more green in the city.” One responded, “oh, that is what I thought.” The project in the right location becomes apparent.

More information:

• HOK’s handout

• KSDK’s Coverage w/video (includes brief interview w/me). 

• National Park(ing) Day official website

• My additional photos on Flickr

• The Flickr National Park(ing) Day Pool of images
• St. Louis’ webpage on National Park(ing) Day

Hopefully next year we’ll see many more groups out on the streets of St. Louis in places where it makes sense — those barren areas of concrete and asphalt.  I’ve added next year to my calendar so that I can give a 2 month advance notice to help spread the word.


Cherokee Street: Big Controversy Over Tiny Place

You’ve all heard the story by now, Ald. Craig Schmid has a moritorium on liquor licenses for the 20th Ward. You want to sell beer, then you need to have 50% of your revenues from food. In other words, restaurants are OK, bars are not. Enter Steve Smith, owner of The Royale on Kingshighway near Arsenal. Smith wants to open a bar along Cherokee street and and serve no food in the space located at 3227 Cherokee known as “Radio Cherokee.”

The controversy has escalated to the point that Schmid, a 12-year veteran at city hall, is being challenged by resident and business owner Galen Gondolfi in the election for alderman to be held on the 6th of March. This issue has some fun little twists and turns that I have not seen in the media.

First, opponents cite a number of concerns. One is parking, another is food sales. Of course, I fail to see how Smith getting 50% of receipts from food sales lessons the parking issue any — it might in fact make it worse? Parking too seems like a red herring, the city has literally thousands of corner storefront places but we cannot expect them to each have a dedicated parking lot without destroying the character of our neighborhoods.


Above is the location in question, located on the NE corner of Virginia (street on left) and Cherokee. The very tiny storefront can only hold so many people and quite a bit of on-street parking is available along the side of the building above (on Virginia). Similarly, more cars could easily be parked on the west side of Virginia.

The neighborhood is not ready,” was one comment I heard. Well, what defines ready? What is the plan to get the area ready?  Granted, this property is much closer to Gravois and is therefore not part of the main commercial area we think of as Cherokee.  This is outside the Cherokee community improvement district.  Still, every block between here and the main section of Cherokee contains at least a single storefront, in many cases several.


On the same block as “Radio Cherokee” is the former Cherokee Auto Parts with a greenhouse/nursery business on the end of the block.  In the background of the picture you can see a corner storefront on the next block.  Back to the site in question.


The small place is actually part of a 4-unit building, with one residential unit above and two attached but set back from the street.  The building lot is only 24ft 8 inches wide.  So as you can imagine, both the residential units and the bar space are narrow.


Peaking inside through the front door glass we can see a place basically ready to go.  No major build out or extensive rehab required.  Currently the space is simply sitting empty, not being productive for the neighborhood or city.  Now, I’ve never been in the food services business (well, except those 4 days at Arby’s when I was 16) but logic tells me you need a certain volume of business to operate a restuarant.  With such a small place and lacking a kitchen space it seems unrealistic to expect this space to be anything but a bar.

Sure, I suppose it could be gutted and turned into a retail space of sorts but that seems even more likely to fail.  Retail operations would do better in the main commercial district.

Currently, to my knowledge, Cherokee street has no master plan — no vision has been established.  In looking at the blocks on this end with a mix of storefronts of varying sizes, flats and single family homes I see a small bar fitting in nicely, nothing too big.  A block or two east is the old Black Forest restaurant which has been closed for sometime.  That is a very large space with a large kitchen (I’ve shown the building to prospective buyers so I’ve been through the whole thing).  It is even complete with a parking lot.  But the pro-forma to buy and renovate that place relative to this is night and day.  In reality, both spaces need to be open and active.  We just can’t fault Steve Smith for not having the cash/credit of a say Joe Edwards.   The old Black Forest space will make an excellent restaurant once again.  As a bar only, it would be way too big.

So my solution to this issue is this — for Cherokee Street only:  Set up a sliding scale, the very tiny Radio Cherokee space that Steve Smith is interested in should have a zero percent food requirement.  On the other end, spaces like the large Black Forest should be required to have 50% food.  Other storefronts, such as the old Auto Parts place, might fall somewhere in the middle.  What this does is set up a guideline along Cherokee only where small bars can be introduced and have a chance to succeed while the larger spaces cannot be bars only.  This should be implimented along the length of Cherokee from at least Jefferson to Gravois while the area works on a master plan for Cherokee.
In the interest of disclosure, I have not spoken with either candidate about this concept but I did happen to run into Steve Smith yesterday and he seemed to think it might be a good compromise.  In researching this post I discovered that Galen Gondolfi owns the property in question along with another person.  He also owns the old auto parts place on the same block.  He owns larger buildings in the next block east where he lives, has a gallery space and leases out a storefront to a cafe.  He clearly has a vested interest in seeing this section of Cherokee street succeed and prosper.


Power Shift on Cherokee Street

Earlier today control of the Cherokee Station Business Association shifted to a new and diverse group (see prior post):IMG_6535

In front from L to R is: Minerva Lopez (VP), Karen Abounader (board member), Patavee Vanadilok (board member). In back from L to R is: Jason Deem (Pres), Will Liebermann (Treasurer). Not pictured, Andrew Liebermann (board member).

The meeting was long and not without conflict. The new group provided roughly 20 proxie votes from business owners that could not attend the mid-afternoon meeting. SLDC staffer Harry Bennett and Ald. Ken Ortmann saying they’d need an opinion from the City Counselor’s office before they could accept the proxies. After long debate the new group, thinking they had enough votes anyway, dropped the issue.

And boy were they right. I watched as Ald. Ken Ortman and Ald. Craig Schmid unfolded and counted the ballots. Basically the old guard ran a full slate of candidates (same officers I believe) and the new group did the same. Based on what I could see it was a good 4-1 margin of victory in favor of a change of leadership.

Part of their victory, I believe, was the fact they ran a diverse group of people for the positions and you could tell from the packed room their base of support was as diverse as the street itself.

One of the issues that I think sent them over the edge was the recent paving of three vacant lots owned by the association. All three were paved over at a cost of $9,687.18 per the Treasurer’s report handed out at the meeting. The report shows another $2,471.06 in wrought iron expenses.


The new board felt these lots should have remained as grass and that for this type of cost they could have been maintained. They also mentioned to me their concerns about water runoff with the impervious paving. Though not designed as parking, you can already see a car parked on this lot. Perhaps that is where the wrought iron fencing will come into play? Still, that is a lot of their improvement fund to be used — roughly 40% of their total.

Aldermanic candidate Galen Gondolfi was present at the meeting although he could not vote as his property is just a block or two beyond the boundaries of the CID (Community Improvement District). Interestingly, new board member Patavee Vanadilok was also not able to vote. As an attorney she is not required to have a business license and only those with a business license can vote. Yet, she was able to be elected and serve on the board. One of the priorities of the new board will be to revise and update their bylaws to fix past loopholes and simply items that were unforeseen when the organization was first established.

The next trick will be to get someone interested in re-opening the old upstairs bowling alley on Cherokee Street. Yes, Cherokee had a pretty awesome bowling alley at one time. Mr. Edwards, can we talk over a taco?

BTW, I had planned to attend the E&A meeting on the TIF for St. Louis Centre (see post) but this meeting ran too long. For coverage of that meeting check out Lucas Hudson’s report over at the ACC.


Battle for Control of Cherokee Street

At 1pm this afternoon the Cherokee Street Business Association will hold elections for its board of directors and officers. Unlike most business assocations, where things just continue with little controversy, this meeting may well be as heated as they come. This meeting may be a glimpse of how the upcoming 20th Ward election will go.

You see, Ald. Craig Schmid is pretty much of the same ‘keep out things’ mode of thinking of Wallace and her supporters. In the past, I think this has served a valid purpose. But times change and we must learn and adapt along the way. Among the groups on Cherokee are professionals, business owners catering to Mexican clientele, restaurants and bakeries, various artists and art groups, and a somewhat “radical” left-wing element. Wallace seems to have issues with all of them.

Galen Gondolfi, a candidate for Schmid’s 20th ward seat, is among those seeking change on Cherokee. Jason Deem, a young business man whom I have met and consulted on a rehab project, is seeking to be the new President of the association. Deem has assembled a diverse group of people from the street, all running as a slate. You can view their flyer in: English or Spanish.

Will a win for Deem and his slate mean trouble for Schmid in the larger ward? Maybe, maybe not. But, a Deem win will mark a shift on the street that Gondolfi will certainly tout on the campaign countdown to March 6th. Craig Schmid is not among the favorites of St. Louis’ political establishments but I have to think they’d rather keep him over a more progressive Gondolfi. Ken Ortmann, whose ward includes part of Cherokee, is not up for re-election until March 2009.

At issue is more than just who controls the gavel at meetings. Cherokee is a special taxing district so those who control the board, along with the aldermen, control the use of monies collected from taxes. How this money is used, or not used, will be important in the coming years.

More information on the growing rift on Cherokee from the RFT archives:

The meeting will be held at 1pm on the 2nd floor of the Juvenile Court Building across from the Casa Loma Ballroom, at Iowa and Cherokee (map).  The group, under Wallace’s leadership does have a website, www.cherokeestation.com, which currently has only an announcement about a Cindo de Mayo this past May.


Prohibition is Alive, But Not So Well, in the 20th Ward

I’ve known Ald. Craig Schmid (D-20th Ward) about as long as I’ve known any other alderman, a good 8-10 years. He is very hard working and genuinely concerned about his ward. The problem is he continues to act as though it is 1995 — the year he was first elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen. At that time every corner had a bar, and not the charming “Cheers” sort of place. No, these bars were the collection place for sorts of bad behavior.

To rid his ward of such places Schmid began a moral crusade to close down the ones that could be closed and to prevent the opening of new ones. This has generally served the ward well but in the last few years it has come under fire from those seeking to turn once fashionable shopping areas like Cherokee Street into a new hip area not unlike “The Loop” along Delmar both in the city (28th ward) and in University City. Much has been written about this controversy and the latest, before this, was Antonio French over at PubDef.

Schmid stubbornly sticks to his no bar ban, with an exception for an establishment with 50% of sales in food. I’m no restauranteur but I have read a few things. Namely, the failure rate among restaurants is high. The trick is figuring out the right mix to make the place succeed. The 50% of sales from food rule seems rather arbitrary in my mind. I can see a corner tavern that sells food & beer with say 52% coming from food sales being a bigger nuisance than a place that perhaps does only 48% of its sales via food. In legislation you must draw the line somewhere. But what is so magical about 50%? Is this based on some great research that shows a distinction at this point or was it just pulled out of thin air?

Steve Smith, owner of The Royale on Kingshighway, wants to open a new place on Cherokee. Given the debate it would seem he is admitting that less than 50% of his total sales would come from food. Looking at his menu I see a burger costs $8. Have a couple of beers with that and you are probably at 50/50. I’d probably order the $14 Ahi Tuna and water so that would offset a few drinkers. Still, others will come in and order an appetizer and have a few drinks over the course of a few hours. I’d be curious what percentage of his sales are from alcohol. Frankly, I don’t really care it is is only 10% or if it is 80% — he does a damn nice job! So do many of our other local restauranteurs. The Royale is exactly what we need on Cherokee along with a City Diner, a Mangia, and a few others.

Of course, the many Mexican restaurants and stores are wonderful and they should stay and thrive as well (I simply need to learn a bit of Spanish so that I can order something vegetarian). For Schmid I don’t think he is concerned about gentrification — making the area so trendy current residents are forced out. As long as he continues having this ban on bars, we may never have to worry about gentrification and rising real estate values.

Cherokee Street in the 4-6 blocks west of Jefferson probably has the highest potential of any of our underperforming old commercial districts. The scale is excellent and only a few buildings have been lost. The current ethnic diversity is great. What this street is lacking is vision. I don’t know that Schmid has any vision for this street or others. If he does have a vision, it most likely doesn’t include any bars — dirty old taverns or hip places such as The Royal. This is really a shame. Schmid’s prohibition on bars is really a prohibition on revitalizing the area.

My vision for the street is an eclectic mix of shops and patrons. While the Loop is very college crown and Euclid is very upper crust, I’d like to see Cherokee be the green crowd, the young and old hippies: the Haight-Ashbury of St. Louis. Well, not today’s generic chain store Haight-Ashbury but the bohemian version of not that long ago. I don’t really want to see a Gap store on Cherokee. I can see Cherokee having various artists selling their painting on the street and in small storefront galleries. I visualize people doing street performances on the corners. The trick is not to make it such a destination that you make it a tourist trap that attracts a Gap store. Future problems should be lack of parking. Solutions should be planned now — a rubber tire shuttle bus to eventually be replaced by a modern streetcar. Run along Cherokee and connect with South Grand on one end and take Jefferson & Gravois to connect with downtown (and MetroLink) on the other end.

As much as I like Schmid, I think his 12 years have been well served as a ‘get rid of the problems’ type of aldermen but now I we need an ‘I’ve got revitalization solutions’ type of alderman. If Schmid can transform himself then great. But, I don’t see that happening.