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Locating Rec Centers

The City of St. Louis is building two new large ($20 million + each) recreation centers, one just completed in Carondelet Park (map), on the south side, and one just getting started in O’Fallon Park (map), on the north side.  As is typical of rec centers of this type, it turns out that access for people who won’t be driving seems to be both an afterthought and a real challenge. Bigger picture, this really shouldn’t be a surprise. There are three primary reasons. One, the majority of the users, especially the adult ones, WILL drive. Two, siting rec centers is a function of both budget and protecting departmental turf. And three, large rec centers, rightfully, generate the same NIMBY responses from many residential neighborhoods as many big-box retail developments – they operate long hours in large structures that generate a lot of traffic.

Parking at new Carondelet Rec Center, photo by Steve Patterson
Parking at new Carondelet Rec Center, photo by Steve Patterson

When it comes to building new, modern, larger rec centers, rarely are there “enough” funds to do everything one would want to include, so the first decision is usually to locate the rec center in a park; after all, the land is/would be “free”, there is no specific line item for land acquisition. In reality, it’s never free. One, parkland is a finite resource, with multiple demands from multiple user groups to accommodate their programs. Land dedicated to a rec center and its parking lots can’t be used for, for example, soccer fields or Frisbee golf. And two, like any other greenfield development, utilities need to be extended from the park boundary into the site. Since these are large, multi-million dollar public investments, there’s also a tendency to want to make them monuments, and what better place to put one, where it will remain visible, for decades.

Both of these centers are/will be prominently located, visible from neighboring interstate highways (I-70 on the north, I-55 on the south). While this may be good for the civic and political egos, as well as for marketing their programs, it means that both utilities and pedestrians will need to travel a lot further from any park boundary to reach them, to say nothing of the physical barrier the highway creates. There’s also an assumption that there is a need to connect rec center activities with other park uses and facilities. In reality, there’s rarely little, if any, interaction among uses, although a few staff members may end up multi-tasking. For example, the locker rooms used for the gym and the pool don’t get used by softball players or picnickers, and home runs hit over the outfield fence don’t interact well with either the outdoor pool deck or a parking lot full of parked cars. Still there’s an inherent desire in any department to protect turf – if they give up a program, that can mean a reduction in both staffing and budget.

In the case of the new Carondelet Rec Center, the nearest bus stop is on South Grand, at Holly Hills Avenue, approximately 3 blocks from the rec center’s front door. Getting there, as a pedestrian, is possible – there is a sidewalk, but one that follows a circuitous route, first south on Grand to Holly Hills Drive, then east across an ancient (and non-ADA-compliant) bridge over the railroad tracks, then south along the east side of the new parking lot. It looks good, and somewhat “easy”, but if you’re riding the bus, because you’re young or disabled or just don’t want to drive, 3 blocks is still 3 blocks, especially when compared to all the free, at-the-door, parking offered to those who drive.

North entrance to park, no way into park for pedestrians
North entrance to park, no pedestrians access to rec center at left. Photo by Steve Patterson

With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, I would’ve preferred to have seen both rec centers sited much closer to a major public street, and potentially located closer to the population centers of both sides of town. I also would have had no problem locating them outside a park, on land already under the control of the St. Louis Development Corporation. When I was researching both sites, I made the mistaken assumption that the north center was being located on the southwest corner of Taylor and Broadway, behind Metro’s North Broadway Metro Bus Center; there was dirt being moved on what appeared to be an ideal, and very-accessible, site. It turns out that, much like on the south side, that the north side rec center will be located near the center of O’Fallon Park:


And no, this isn’t unique to St. Louis. Whether it’s Richmond Heights or Des Peres, St. Peters or Fenton, Kirkwood or Chesterfield, most new rec centers end up being located in recreation complexes, ideally suited for the proverbial soccer moms (and dads) and their mini-vans, but not so much for even local kids on their bikes.  To move away from an auto-centric urban environment, we need to be doing more of what Clayton has done, either consciously or by coincidence, and less of what St. Louis and too many other suburban cities have done and continue to do.

The just opened rec center on the South side is operated by the YMCA as the Carondelet YMCA.

– Jim Zavist


Accessing the Lucas Park dog run

December 8, 2009 Accessibility, Downtown 10 Comments

When downtown residents began planning a downtown dog run a couple of years ago it was known then that at least one potential member/user from an adjacent building uses a wheelchair.

November 11, 2009

So I was surprised when I heard last month the newly constructed dog run in Lucas Park had accessibility issues.  The newly constructed sidewalk (above) ramps up to the gate.  Like any door that you pull toward you there is a need for at least 18″ on the handle side of the gate to permit entry.

You can see they had only a few inches to the side.  The paved area ends as well making wheelchair access a real challenge.

November 29, 2009

A few weeks later that previous entry sidewalk was ripped up and a proper sidewalk was in place. Because of grade changes this will allow access from the lower center section and the higher outside section.  Access inside is now possible.

A small part of the interior has also been paved to permit wheelchair access.  I’m continually baffled at both small and big projects that don’t take into considerations the needs of their users.  I would have caught this mistake on paper but a year ago I got pushed out of the planning committee because I wanted an open chain of communications (Yahoo or Google Group).  I had plenty of other items consuming my time so I didn’t fight to stay where I wasn’t wanted (but clearly needed).

– Steve Patterson


Crosswalk located within parallel travel lane

I started this month talking about how Lisi Bansen was struck by a car as she traveled on Delmar using her manual wheelchair (post).  There she had no sidewalk available. The city finally came through with sidewalks connecting accessible apartments and a store two blocks away – four years after she died.

At the intersection of Truman Parkway & Chouteau (map) the situation is both different and the same.

  • Different: sidewalks, curb cuts, crosswalks and signals are all in place.
  • Same: a person is likely to get hit by a car when using these facilities as designed and built.
View heading South on Truman Parkway at Chouteau
View looking South on Truman Parkway at Chouteau

Most of us understand that as pedestrians you cross a street parallel with vehicular traffic.  But the problem is, at this intersection, is the crosswalk in placed within the parallel travel lane. Who as the right-of-way? The motorist driving in the lane or the pedestrian within the crosswalk? Both can’t have the right to the same space.  I know who would lose in a conflict!

Looking East on Chouteau at Truman Parkway
Looking East on Chouteau at Truman Parkway

After seeing the situation from my car and grabbing images from Google’s Street View I knew I had to see if the situation was different than it appeared.  It is different than it first appears. Not any better, just different.

Driving Southbound on Truman Parkway I pulled over out of the way just before Chouteau to observe the signals.  Traffic on Truman Parkway got the green but the pedestrian signal never got the okay to cross signal.  Then I spotted a button for pedestrians to activate the crosswalk signal.  So a person activates the signal when needed.  Problem solved, right? Not quite!

SW corner of Truman and Chouteau

I parked a block away and walked to the SW corner of the intersection to see how the signals functioned.  Approaching the corner I see the button on the signal post.

This is an old type button that a blind person wouldn’t know if it was working.  New buttons give you an audible feedback to to let you know they have been pressed.  Using the button you are facing away from the intersection.  But guess what?  The button doesn’t do anything!

In the above image is another button at the same corner.  The first is in the shadow line of this poll.  If you look you can see the don’t walk on the pedestrian signal across Chouteau.  This button does actually work, sorta.

Above I’m standing at the ramp — the place where you’d stand if you wanted to cross. The walk signal is activated in the above.  Don’t see it? Look behind the light poll and it is on for a few seconds.  Yes, the signal to walk is blocked by a pole.  The don’t walk begins to flash almost immediately.

I’d say 98% of the intersections in the city do not require a pedestrian to press a button to get the okay to walk signal.  The other crossings at the intersection to not require the pedestrian to activate the signal.  Why is this so different from others?

It goes back to that curb ramp.  After the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 the City of St. Louis was faced with thousands of intersections that needed curb ramps.  When designing from scratch each intersection would ideally get 8 ramps – two per corner to handle each direction of travel.  To save money and get more intersections in compliance the city opted for only four curb ramps per intersection.   This This meant that crossing either street you’d use the same ramp.  In your typical residential intersection this was a reasonable compromise.  Often it was the only physical way because of sewer drains or other infrastructure in the way.

The problem is that since those early days even when new intersections are created (such as the above), when curbs are replaced, the engineers seem to incorrectly think the compromise of a single curb cut per corner is adequate.  Because they only used a single curb ramp on the SW corner of this intersection they had to do the pedestrian activated signal. But the button is to far away from the point where you’d cross and as mentioned when you are at the crossing point you can’t see the signal!

On this corner there is nothing to prevent a curb ramp in a better location.  Rather than have the pedestrian activated signal that you can’t see it would have been cheaper and better to have a second ramp to pull the crosswalk out of the Southbound travel lane.

Engineers do a great job of planning for motorists but they do a lousy job for pedestrians.  Projects involving pedestrian routes should be reviewed while on paper.

– Steve Patterson


One pedestrian route complete, more needed

In early November 2005 Elizabeth “Lisi” Bansen died a few days after being struck by an SUV as she was traveling the two blocks from the nearest store to her apartment.  Lisi Bansen was disabled and using a manual wheelchair.  She was in the roadway because what sidewalks existed were impassable and curb cuts non-existent.

Two years later, in December 2007, the City of St. Louis lost a lawsuit with the jury finding them negligent in Bansen’s death.  But the city admitted as much by offering a settlement to Bansen’s family.  The jury awarded more than the city’s offer.  Of course you can’t put a price tag on a child or sibling.

By the time this case went to the jury a part of the route between the store and the apartments where Bansen lived had improved.  The state of Missouri constructed sidewalks and curb cuts adjacent to land it owns across the street from the Scott Joplin House museum.  City officials in statements to the press said they thought all was fixed.  They must have done a quick drive-by and saw some new concrete and assumed all was well.

In December 2007 I showed that it was not well.  Earlier this month on the four-year anniversary of Bansen being struck I showed that the route still remained impassable from end to end.  Sure, one portion was new but someone traveling between the same two places would still end up in the road.  After getting the city to finally complete the route between the apartments and the store I decided a celebratory walk was in order.

So last Saturday a few readers joined me as I walked from the store to the apartments and back.

Steve Patterson (with cane) speaks at the beginning
Westbound along Delmar on the new sidewalk. Scott Joplin house in background.

Lisi had another way to reach her apartment door but this shows how we don’t build for walking.  The sidewalk at the apartments is for reaching cars — not the public sidewalk a few feet away.  Make walking enough of a challenge and people who can will do otherwise.

I arrived at the starting point about a half hour early.  In that time I saw at least 8 people walking between the apartments and this store.  Thank you to Richard Reilly for the photos and to the others that joined me.

– Steve Patterson


Access to the Coronado

November 18, 2009 Accessibility, Midtown 8 Comments

The Coronado is known to many of you.  The building sat vacant for many years until it was renovated into residences, offices and restaurants.  Located across from Saint Louis University at Lindell and Spring (map) it is in the center of the action.

Source: Restoration St. Louis (click image to view website)
Source: Restoration St. Louis (click image to view website)

Last month I went to the Coronado to try the new Chuy Arzola’s.  I couldn’t find on-street parking close enough for me so I drove around back to the parking garage.

The walk wasn’t short but it was shorter than anything I could have found on the street.  Part of the garage is reserved for building residents (right).  Guests drive in on a lower level and take the elevator to reach the walkway you see here.  I was walking but to a wheelchair user it is completely accessible.  Well, at least this part is.

Hmm, that curb just blows the accessibility.   I’m able to set up/down curbs but I like accessible routes because not having a curb to deal with reduces my risk of falling.  People using wheelchairs & mobility scooters are out of luck.  People using a walker may have a hard time stepping up.  There may have been a ramp somewhere in the vicinity but I didn’t see it.

The lesson here is you can have many items that are compliant but if the end to end route has one curb all the other efforts don’t really matter.

– Steve Patterson