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South Grand: From the Gilded Age to “Great Street”

South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”

South Grand

In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.

It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.

Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.

Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.

The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.

The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.

Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.

The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.

The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.

I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.

So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.

Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.

An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Compton Heights

Several issues remain up in the air. Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet School for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind, have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-district intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.

To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.  Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establish neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys, and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.

Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as a business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.

– Deborah Moulton

 

Where Is Your Third Place?

There is one thing cities provide in much greater abundance than suburbs: the essential “third places” in our lives that provide respite and relaxation for us outside our homes or workplaces.

Third Place
Third places are defined as one of three places that meet fundamental human needs: home, a first place; work, a second place; and a third place, where we go to find community, relaxation, and simply “be” when we aren’t at home or working.

For all the people who work from home offices, the line between the first and second places, home and work space, may have blurred, but it makes the third place even more important. We all need a common place to hang out, see friends, find conversation, or simply watch the world go by. We seek a place that is separate from our homes or workplaces and all their attendant comforts and irritations.

Third places are very individual. In a family of four, there could be four different third places: church, coffeehouse, club or park. They are where you go to get away from your immediate responsibilities and expectations. You don’t have to do housework or laundry; you don’t have to finish that project or spar with your partner. You are (temporarily) free to indulge your own thoughts, talk or not talk, do or not do anything.

In the city of St. Louis there are many good third-places: local coffeehouses like The Hartford, Shaw Coffee or even the London Tea Room. There are neighborhood bars and cafes where they get to know you and you can stay as long as you like. There are libraries, drop-in centers and parks. There are churches and clubs, both social and athletic. There are museums and entertainment districts like The Loop on Delmar or Washington Avenue downtown. And there are intentional places like Left Bank Books with book groups, author readings and community events. These third places are close at hand, across the street or down the block, most of them within walking distance.

The suburbs of St. Louis are trickier, especially in second-ring suburbs. Newer, more affluent suburbs like Chesterfield and Wildwood have been built with more modern sensibilities about community gathering spots and the intentional communities created by mixed-use construction. You may be more likely to hang out at commercially sponsored third places like Starbucks or the mall, but they exist and are well used.

The second-ring suburbs are in a tougher spot. They belong to an earlier time, before we realized how much we would miss the communal third places that are so abundant in the city. Like the outer-ring suburbs, they may have some commercially-sponsored places like Starbucks, McDonalds or Dennys, but there may be only one or two in a municipality and they are rarely within walking distance. There is a real dearth of small, local businesses like independent coffeehouses, casual cafes or bookstores. Which pretty much leaves the bar, gym or possibly church and almost all of them require driving in your car.

There is a misplaced attempt to fulfill this need for third places in the construction of suburban great rooms, finished basements and fully-equipped media rooms, but all of these fall short. A third place requires distance from home and family. It also requires diversity and randomness in the people you might observe or start a conversation with.
When I lived in Seattle, I could easily walk a few blocks to any of six coffeehouses, each with its own ambience and crowd of regulars. There were bookstores with cafes where you could hang out from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. When I lived in the South Grand area, I had my choice of places to hang out.

In Maryland Heights, I’m stumped. I occasionally get in the car and drive to Starbucks at Westport or I go farther afield to Creve Couer or Chesterfield. More and more, I drive farther to Main Street in St. Charles or into the city to find a third place, but none of them are my third place.

City planners take note: vibrant cities or suburbs don’t exist without a multitude of viable third places. And if you want to attract the young, the creative, the socially engaged, that advice is doubly important.

What I’d like to know, especially if you’re a suburbanite, is where is your third place? Where do you regularly go to hang out, read a book, see friends, or just escape home and work responsibilities? What makes a place your third space? I look forward to what you have to say.

-Deborah Moulton

 

The Port of St. Louis

We all know that St. Louis owes its existence to the Mississippi River.  We’re all well aware of our interstate highways and most of us are aware of the railroads that are an integral part of our urban fabric.

What turned out to be somewhat of a surprise to me, as a newcomer, was just how big a role the Mississippi continues to play in our local economy.  Part of it is “out of sight, out of mind”, part of it is the low profile many of its users keep.  But the statistics are pretty impressive  – the port extends for twenty miles, with 16 public terminals and “over 100 docking facilities”, there are no locks or dams between here and New Orleans (unlike going upriver), and it’s the “third largest inland port in the Midwest.”

Unique resources like this are where we can differentiate ourselves from our economic development competitors, and I’d like to see more of a push to do so.

– Jim Zavist

 

A.G. Edwards to Wachovia Securities to Wells Fargo Advisors in Two Years, Blog Anniversary

Two years ago today A.G. Edwards became Wachovia Securities.  From the Post-Dispatch on the vote the Friday before:

In five minutes it was over.

That’s how long it took Friday for shareholders of A.G. Edwards Inc. to approve the demise of the 120-year-old St. Louis-based brokerage when they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a $6.8 billion purchase by Wachovia Corp.

The final shareholders’ meeting, before a standing-room only audience in the company’s main auditorium, was little more than a formality to announce the results of voting that took place earlier.

Just over a year later, in December 2008, Wells Fargo bought Wachovia.  It was not until May of this year that the Wachovia Securities name was dropped.  Post-Dispatch:

On Friday, the company officially changed the name of the unit from Wachovia Securities.

Wells Fargo bought ailing Wachovia Bank in December, and the securities unit came with the deal. It employs 4,800 people in metro St. Louis, mainly at its Jefferson Avenue headquarters.

The company plans to roll out its new moniker over the next few months. The website will be renamed in June, statements will change in July and the signs on the buildings will switch after that, with the transition completed early next year.

The headquarters on Jefferson now has survived two big mergers without large-scale layoffs. Originally the home of A.G. Edwards Inc., the firm was sold to Wachovia in 2007.

One of my earliest posts was a review of the then A.G. Edwards campus.

A.G. Edwards HQ, November 2004
A.G. Edwards HQ, November 2004

On November 22, 2004 I wrote:

We are stuck with a campus better suited to a greenfield site in the hinterlands. The employees drive in from the ‘burbs, park and return to the ‘burbs at 5pm. Of course, some of their employees live in the city but it is likely they drive to the campus. I saw no bike racks – not even at the visitor’s entrance. It is possible employees walk to Union Station or perhaps the Tap Room for lunch – both locations are about six blocks East. I’d be willing to bet most employees either stay within the campus or drive to a lunch destination. When I’ve got a free lunch hour I will observe the comings and goings of the campus during the lunch hours.

Rather than give A.G. Edwards awards we should be shaming them and their long term architects, Raymond E. Maritz & Sons, into changing their ways. This is unlikely to happen. Instead, city life will naturally avoid this vacuum. East of Jefferson a wonderfully urban area is blossoming along both Locust & Washington Ave – extending all the way East of Tucker. West of Jefferson life is quickly emerging along Locust. A small real estate developer on Locust has done more in two years to generate life than Edwards has done in over 30 years at the current location.

Today also marks the start of the 5th anniversary month of this blog.  Halloween will mark the start of the 6th year of UrbanReviewSTL.  Throughout this month I will bring you my favorite posts from the last five years. I’ve had a blast these last four years and eleven months.  I look forward to the next five years.

– Steve Patterson

 

Readers Split Between Soccer and Basketball

A recent poll on this site asked readers which professional sports league, if any, should be next for St. Louis.  We currently have professional football (Rams), hockey (Blues) and, of course, baseball (Cardinals). Of the “major” leagues we lack only basketball (NBA).  Other leagues we do not have are women’s basketball (WNBA), soccer (MLS), and arena football (AFL).    Note, the AFL is currently suspended amid financial difficulties.

Women’s basketball, arena football and lacrosse received zero votes giving none of the above/who cares the 3rd place spot (17 votes) behind basketball (50) and soccer (52).  Single write-in votes included rugby, “foxy boxing” and an American League MLB franchise.  During the week basketball & soccer were neck and neck, with soccer usually in the lead.

While I’ve enjoyed the handful of Cardinals games I’ve attended over the last 19 years, I’m not a sports fan.  I’ve never attended a football game (except 1-2 during high school), hockey, soccer or basketball.  Of these, only soccer has me interested in personally attending a match.  I’ve watched the Cardinals on TV during the World Series but never during the regular season.

Prior to 1966 St. Louis’ major sports were played outside of downtown.  Baseball & football were played at Sportsman’s Park at Grand & Dodier (map) and hockey was played at The Arena on Oakland Ave.   The idea of constructing downtown stadiums was conceived across the country as a strategy to keep downtown’s occupied. Along the same lines, cultural institutions were also consolidated in many cities.  St. Louis bucked the trend in the late 1960s when the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra renovated a 1925 movie theater in midtown, the St. Louis Theater.   The Symphony left downtown’s Kiel Opera House for their new renovated digs in midtown.  In November 2005 I quoted architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable:

The success of Powell Symphony Hall in St. Louis is probably going to lead a lot of people to a lot of wrong conclusions. In a kind of architectural Gresham’s law, the right thing wrongly interpreted usually has more bad than good results. The first wrong conclusion is that Powell Hall represents the triumph of traditional over modern architecture. False. The correct conclusion here is that a good old building is better than a bad new one. Powell Hall represents the triumph simply of suitable preservation. And, one might add, of rare good sense.

But good sense went out the window in cities all over the country, including St. Louis.  Many good old buildings were replaced with bad new buildings, including concert halls and stadiums.

We have Bush Stadium III for baseball and Scottrade Center for hockey as well as any basketball team we may attract.  The size, location and design of these facilities works fairly well within the downtown context.  Busch holds 45,000 more or less and Scottrade seats up to 23,000 depending upon configuration.

As contributor Jim Zavist indicated in his post introducing the poll, we need to face the fact the Rams NFL team is for sale and it may not remain in St. Louis.  I feel that baseball & hockey/basketball are suitable in downtown, but NFL football is not.

The Dallas Cowboy’s new suburban stadium has a capacity of  80,000 and will hold over 100,000 with standing areas.  Saint Louis University’s Chaifetz Arena seats 10,600.   The scale required for NFL is out of place in a walkable context like downtown.

Soccer, like baseball, is on a smaller scale than football.  The new soccer-specific stadium for the New York Red Bulls, being built in New Jersey, will seat 25,000, a quarter of the new Cowboys stadium. For those that like basketball & soccer, check out games at SLU.

The Edwards Jones Dome downtown (capacity 67,000) where the Rams play looks like an outdated dark closet compared to the new Cowboys stadium with its glass walls and retractable roof.  I can see the implosion of the Edward Jones Dome within the next 20 years.  If we retain the Rams in the St. Louis region their new facility needs to be built out on the fringe surrounded by a big parking lot for the fans that tailgate.  Closer in sites include dying malls like Northwest Plaza.   But no site downtown or the city is big enough to be handed over year round for 8-10 games per year.

I think I get part of the appeal of downtown stadiums; for many it is the only time they leave suburbia and come downtown.  Build the stadium on the edge and they’ll never get a chance to leave their miserable environment to experience downtown life, unless they make it to a Cardinals or Blues game.  Best yet is to forget the games and come downtown, have lunch and do some shopping.

I don’t care about the Rams, I want the E.J. Dome gone from my downtown.

– Steve Patterson

 

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