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Suburban Sprawl Descends Into Uncomfortable Middle Age

Most would agree that West St. Louis County is the poster child for urban sprawl. Over many decades, St. Louis development has crept westward through St. Louis County and into St. Charles County, the current epicenter of unrestrained sprawl. As time has passed, much of central and western St. Louis County have begun the inevitable cycle of aging and renewal that is associated with older urban areas.

My focus of interest is primarily on what urban planners refer to as the “second-ring western suburbs” of St. Louis. They are a microcosm of multiple older rural communities from the mid-to-late 1800s that have been folded into larger, newer cities over the past 50 years. They are all facing the need for urban redevelopment in the face of overwhelming evidence that many of the ideas embraced by the original suburban developers have not turned out so well.

In my city, Maryland Heights, this means a city without a town center. If asked, most people would cite either the Dorsett-McKelvey Road commercial district or Westport as our gathering places. One is a basic commercial crossroads and the other is an aging mixed -use development. Both are modestly successful and neither one represents a true central nexus for residents.

Part of the problem is that Maryland Heights is an anomaly in suburban development: it hosts over 80,000 workers during the day and houses only 26,000 residents at night. The reverse of a bedroom community, it often finds itself beholden to business and commercial interests at the cost of the residents.

This was clearly present in the 2008 fight that residents waged against development in the Howard Bend area of Maryland Heights. This area contains the flood plain around Creve Coeur Park and land on either side of the Maryland Heights Expressway from I-70 to the Page Avenue extension. Residents didn’t want to see a massive development (initially arranged around a proposed Walmart) that would back up against Creve Coeur Park. Maryland Park, as the proposed development was called, was set to build a bland suburban mixed-use project that was fully oriented toward cars.

The City of Maryland Heights has spent 20 years working on a comprehensive plan for Howard Bend that is the embodiment of urban sprawl focused on building commercial warehouses and one (or more) large-scale developments for big-box stores and retail. During the Howard Bend fight, residents became fully aware of what was contained in the comprehensive plan. While the process was public, the lack of effective public engagement by the city over 20 years had the unfortunate outcome of surprised residents visibly upset about the Howard Bend development plan. In fairness, residents also neglected their responsibilities by failing to interact with city government and make their wishes known.

Citizens who fail to monitor and influence their city governments are likely to be surprised and angry when the businesses who do engage with the city are given top priority. To combat this usual state of affairs, a group of concerned citizens originally organized under the flag of SaveCreveCoeur.com has developed into a more permanent organization called Maryland Heights Residents for Responsible Growth. As part of the steering committee, we have launched a new website for the community development organization at MarylandHeightsResidents.com

In the future, I will be contributing posts about the more universal aspects of the issues facing second-ring, western St. Louis County suburbs. Issues I intend to cover include:

  • Cities without town centers
  • Stagnant population growth
  • Diminishing open spaces
  • Flood plain development
  • Aging apartment complexes and housing stock
  • Public-engagement successes and failures
  • Community-development issues and specific projects being pursued
  • The role of residents in guiding city development

I look forward to hearing from you. Please use the comments section below or email me directly with topics you’d like to see addressed in future posts.

– Deborah Moulton

 

Go Smoke-Free, Get Free Advertising

Used to be I had to make sure that, as a vegetarian, I could get something besides a salad when eating out.  Now, my first question about a place is not about the quality of the food, the variety of the menu or the location.  It is whether or not they allow smoking — which ruins it for me if they do.

A recent post (A Smoke-Free Vacation) prompted the following response from a reader:

I’m always a little stunned at this conversation.  40% of St Louis establishments are completely smoke-free.  A vast majority of the rest either restrict it and/or ventilate it.  There are plenty of choices for people who hate smoke, people who smoke and those that don’t care.

I[t] would be a rarity to have to deal with smoke in a dining area St Louis Restaurant.

Read the non-smoking restaurant lists and you’ll find lots of McDonald’s, Subway shops, grocery store deli counters and such.  Not exactly my idea of a nice Friday night dinner out.  Using the “near me” feature on my Urban Spoon iPhone app I get a long list of restaurants downtown but only a handful are smoke-free.  Many of those aren’t even  open for dinner.  Of the non-chain places for dinner in the City of St. Louis too few are smoke-free.

I recently turned down a free meal with a friend at Mike Shannon’s because they have indoor smoking.  I’m not a fan of turning down free food – especially expensive meals.  But I’m no longer going to go along just because a few folks can’t be indoors for a hour without feeding their addiction.  More on that later.

In response to a prior comment I listed the places I’d like to see go smoke-free.  Below is an expanded alphabetical list of nearly 20 places where I have eaten in the past that I’d like to see go smoke-free so I can return:

  • Chimichanga
  • City Diner
  • Joe Boccardi’s Ristorante
  • Joanie’s Pizzeria
  • Mangia
  • Mi Ranchito
  • Mike Shannon’s
  • Mokabe’s Coffeehouse
  • Scottish Arms
  • Soulard Coffee Garden
  • Stable
  • Square One Brewery
  • Tap Room
  • Three Monkeys
  • Triumph Grill
  • Tucker’s Place
  • Vito’s

You’ll note most of these have non-smoking sections but smoke doesn’t know how to stay out of adjacent spaces.

Here are a couple of places I’ve not tried but won’t because they have indoor smoking:

  • Herbie’s Vintage
  • William Shakespeare’s

In total it is a pretty long list.  Too long.  So I’ve got an offer for the owners/managers of these establishments.  Go smoke-free and I’ll give you free advertising.  The first one will get a year’s worth, second gets 9 months, third gets 6 months and the fourth gets 3 months.  The establishment must remain smoke-free to continue receiving free advertising.  The entire indoor space must be smoke-free.  Go smoke-free and I’ll help publicize your decision.  Will I get any takers?

Back to the addiction.  My parents were smokers.   In the 80s my dad quite cold turkey.  My mom struggled to quit for 20 years.  Smoking was not a primary factor in their passing, old age was.  I saw, first hand, with them, how addictive smoking can be.  I know many smokers. I would imagine that most would like to be former smokers.  But quitting is not a simple matter.

Often the addicted has an enabler that feeds the addiction — making it that much more difficult to break free.  The “freedom” folks out there enable smokers – ensuring the many places they visit will have other smokers.  So even the person who wants to quit is constantly surrounded by smokers feeding their own addiction.  Giving their brain the nicotine it craves.  The persons talking about protecting the rights of the smokers are really the ones helping to keep the smoker addicted.  They don’t have the strength to quit so they don’t want others to be able to quit.  Misery loves company.

If you own or manage one of the above restarants I’d love to hear from you.  Say your smoking place in the city isn’t on my list but you are contemplating  to go smoke-free, I’ll pretend you were on the list and give you free advertising if you are one of the first four.  This offer expires at the end of June, 2009.

 

We Are Still A Beer Town

InBev upped the offer and A-B’s board said yes, that we know. For the moment at least this change of control of A-B won’t affect most of us in our daily lives.

I’ll admit that my heart sank a bit after reading the news this weekend.  I still miss names like Boatman’s Bank, Mercantile Bank and so on.  Times change.  Big & little guys get bought out every day.    The fact is the Busch family sold the brewery in 1980 when they took it public.

We will continue to produce beer just as they have for generations.  The big changes, if any, will be in the corporate tower.  The middle management types probably need to polish up their resumes.

In terms of the urban landscape around the brewery I don’t anticipate many changes in the short term.  In the long term I’d like to see some new 2-4 story structures line the outside edges of some of the surface parking lots.  Filled with restaurants at the sidewalk level the could serve employees during the week and become a walking destination for nearby residents in the evening.

Before I moved downtown I would use Broadway as my scooter route from my southside home to downtown.  I would enjoy passing the brewery — the aroma, the gargoyles, and the knowledge that a long standing tradition was continuing at that location.  Hopefully it will continue for many more generations.

I didn’t like the aroma at first.  I was 23 when I came to St Louis with a friend on our way to Washington DC.  That Saturday in August 1990 we arrived at her mother’s home on Lemp just North of Arsenal. The hops were strong that day.  A Sunday tour of St Louis convinced me to make this my new home despite that strong odor from the brewery.  In the nearly two decades since I’ve come to appreciate, and at times crave, that wonderful smell of hops.
We are a beer town.  Besides A-B we have some other great micro brewers.  I even know several people in town that home brew.   Beer is in our blood, its a part of who we are.  That can never be sold.

 

Public Realm Attacked in SW St Louis City

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

The attacks continue . . .

On the public realm, that is . . . Watson Road in SW City is not downtown or the CWE. It’s an older four-lane arterial lined with residences, both single and multi-family, churches, banks and small business. It bisects some very walkable neighborhoods and has a well-developed and well-maintained sidewalk system on both sides, mostly with a small tree lawn/planting strip (example below).

Patio dining is something many diners like, and vote for with their feet and credit cards. I like patio and sidewalk dining, especially on weekends like this past one (Saturday night, at Chava’s, for instance), so I’m not a NIMBY. I’m even coming around to the concept of sharing the sidewalks with tables and chairs, as is done by many places on Washington. Where I draw the line is when permanent encroachments are made into the public right-of-way, especially when other alternatives exist.

In response to this demand, more and more restaurants are creating outdoor spaces. In my area/along Watson and Chippewa, both El Paisano and Aya Sophia have recently completed outdoor spaces, and both seem to be doing well. We’re also home to that St. Louis icon, Ted Drewes (013 jpg), and as we all know, they’re heavy users of the public sidewalk.

El Paisano:

Aya Sophia:

Ted Drewes:

It now looks like one of our old-line places, Pietro’s, wants to join the crowd.

This week, the public sidewalk was ripped out and concrete foundations were poured, exactly for what, I’m not quite sure, yet.

My best guess is that we’re getting a permanent deck (on the circular concrete footings) enclosed with a brick wall (on the rectangular footings with the rebar sticking out). I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s covered, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes enclosed, when cooler weather hits. And since it sits smack dab in the middle of the existing pedestrian path, guess what, pedestrians will now be taking a permanent detour.

I guess I’d be more sympathetic and less upset if there were “no other options”. This simply isn’t the case here. The restaurant abuts the public sidewalk (a good thing) on the north and the east. It’s also surrounded by a generous parking lot on the west and south. Why not use the parking lot? I can guess the answer, it’s simple – “We don’t want to/can’t afford to lose any parking.”

Who’s to blame? The owner, for wanting to use what they see as either an extension of their property and/or wanting to put the the public right-of-way to “better use”, as in “Nobody walks there, anyway”, plus “We’re leaving 4′-5′ to squeeze by”? Their architect/designer/contractor for drawings up the owner’s plans and asking the city (been there, done that – sometimes you gotta push the envelope”, plus you’re getting paid to ask, beg and/or plead the owner’s case)? The city for saying yes? Ding, ding, ding! Ultimately, it’s the city’s responsibility to just say no, you’re simply going too far. It won’t make you popular, but it’s your job! Whether it’s the planning department or the public works department or the alderman, somebody (everybody?) needs to be doing their job (better?) and looking at the bigger picture. We have rules for a reason, to protect the public, and there’s no valid reason for making any exceptions here.

I don’t care if you’ve been in the neighborhood for nearly fifty years. I don’t care if you have new competitors and you’re losing a few customers. I don’t care if you’d lose a few parking spaces – your competitors have made that choice. What’s happening here is permanent. It’s not like a few chairs and tables blocking the sidewalk (and can be moved). This will degrade the pedestrian experience in an area and a city that should be encouraging more walking, and it’s another hit on our fragile urban fabric. And, unfortunately, it’s most likely a done deal and won’t/can’t be changed . . .

Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Update 6/26/2008 2:20pm:

Steve here, thanks Jim for bringing this to everyone’s attention.   Some of the comments reflect the attitude that they likely have a permit so all must be well.  One such example of work having a permit was the construction of an ADA ramp into a renovated building on Olive (see post).  In this case the ramp was allowed to encroach on the public sidewalk in order to provide an accessible entrance for the building.  The problem is the ramp was being constructed too far into the right of way.  So far that someone in a chair trying to reach this entrance would not have been able to do so.  By posting about it midway it gave everyone a chance to review the situation and make corrections before it was too far along.  Wednesday morning I had a nice face to face meeting with the new Commissioner on the Disabled, David Newburger.  He will be looking into this situation on Watson.  As we discussed sometimes projects are allowed to encroach on the public space.  The task is to ensure the minimum clearance is protected.  But the minimum is just that, minimum.  To create walkable neighborhoods we need to strive for more than the minimum.

 

Downtown Business Not So Good for Good Works

The giant ribbon-cutting scissors are barely back in their box and Good Works is pulling the rug on their second location, located on Washington at 9th (Banker’s Lofts). I attended the ribbon cutting on December 13th and I must say it was an exciting time, the ribbon cutting for Flamingo Bowl was later that same day.

Above: Deputy Mayor Barb Geisman, Ald Phyllis Young, the store manager and Jim Cloar from the Downtown Partnership cut the ribbon on December 13th, 2007.

In the Post-Dispatch on the 24th of this month the news of their closing:

In the latest blow to downtown St. Louis, Good Works Inc. will close its home-furnishings store next month due to a lack of new customers.Many of the shoppers who visited the store at 901 Washington Avenue were the same ones who frequented the Good Works store at 6323 Delmar Boulevard in University City, said Chris Dougher, one of the owners. Co-owners Dougher and Rita Navarro plan to expand the store in the Delmar Loop.

“We just aren’t generating new business,” Dougher said of the store on Washington Avenue. “It’s a huge disappointment, but we can’t foresee it changing in the near future.”

The 8,000-square-foot store, which opened in November, was one of the larger retailers to locate downtown in recent years.

The store on Delmar, which sells contemporary furniture and accessories, has been successful since opening at that location about 11 years ago.

The owners decided to open a second store on Washington Avenue because they wanted to be part of the downtown renaissance and thought it would become the next Loop.

However, a soft economy has slowed downtown loft purchases, store openings and retail spending.

On opening day I wrote:

“I wish Good Works the best of luck and hope they do get all the support they need from the city — and some on-street parking out front.”

Just imagine the loop as four traffic lanes and no on-street parking, it would totally kill the vibe that it has. That is what exists in front of the Good Works store on Washington — it is a poor pedestrian & retail environment. To do well they needed lots of customers and the area to the immediate East is a dead zone — so dead the taxi cabs get to use the sidewalk as a taxi stand. The loft crowd just doesn’t walk by this location on the way to get groceries, dinner or drinks. Too few people do walk by. OK, back to parking.

As I’ve written before I think so much of St. Louis is auto centric with too many drive-thrus and surface parking lots measured by the acre. Even downtown it is hard to take pictures without getting a damn parking garage in the image. So how can I be arguing for on-street parking? On-street parking does a number of very beneficial things for an area. First it reduces four traffic lanes down to two — much friendlier. This also helps to slow down the traffic on the street. People parking and getting in/out of their cars & feeding the meter creates activity on the street. And finally having parking in front of the store decreases the perception that downtown has a parking shortage. When someone arrives they may have to park in the next block or two but the fact that someone got to park out front helps give the impression that parking is fairly easy. This is not to say that a few on-street spaces out front would have provided a steady stream of customers but it would have changed the feel of the area for the better. Certainly more Loop-like.
Of course they recognize they were basically stealing customers from their Loop location. Not much you can say about that except it takes a lot of marketing to increase a customer base. The Loop didn’t happen overnight and neither will retail downtown. For many places the rents far exceed the number of customers.

This is why we need to take immediate steps to make downtown more pedestrian/retail friendly. On-street parking needs to be added where it doesn’t exist, add street vendors selling hot dogs, toasted ravioli, t-shirts, whatever. Street performers would also be a nice touch. The sidewalks need life to have a good stream of retail customers. If we are not quick to act I can see much of downtown being just a restaurant zone with very little retail.

 

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