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Recent Book — “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It” by M. Nolan Gray

November 11, 2022 Books, Featured, Zoning Comments Off on Recent Book — “Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It” by M. Nolan Gray

Over a century ago a new idea called “zoning” began, intended to guide cities to grow in a less chaotic manner than they had until then. Reality, however, was very different. It’s time to let go, change.

book cover

A recently published book explains the why & how.

What if scrapping one flawed policy could bring US cities closer to addressing debilitating housing shortages, stunted growth and innovation, persistent racial and economic segregation, and car-dependent development?

It’s time for America to move beyond zoning, argues city planner M. Nolan Gray in Arbitrary Lines: How Zoning Broke the American City and How to Fix It. With lively explanations and stories, Gray shows why zoning abolition is a necessary—if not sufficient—condition for building more affordable, vibrant, equitable, and sustainable cities.

The arbitrary lines of zoning maps across the country have come to dictate where Americans may live and work, forcing cities into a pattern of growth that is segregated and sprawling.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. Reform is in the air, with cities and states across the country critically reevaluating zoning. In cities as diverse as Minneapolis, Fayetteville, and Hartford, the key pillars of zoning are under fire, with apartment bans being scrapped, minimum lot sizes dropping, and off-street parking requirements disappearing altogether. Some American cities—including Houston, America’s fourth-largest city—already make land-use planning work without zoning.

In Arbitrary Lines, Gray lays the groundwork for this ambitious cause by clearing up common confusions and myths about how American cities regulate growth and examining the major contemporary critiques of zoning. Gray sets out some of the efforts currently underway to reform zoning and charts how land-use regulation might work in the post-zoning American city.

Despite mounting interest, no single book has pulled these threads together for a popular audience. In Arbitrary Lines, Gray fills this gap by showing how zoning has failed to address even our most basic concerns about urban growth over the past century, and how we can think about a new way of planning a more affordable, prosperous, equitable, and sustainable American city. (Island Press)

St. Louis’ first city planner, Harland Bartholomew, a civil engineer, was big on zoning. His planning firm unfortunately helped hundreds of municipalities adopt zoning laws — including in St. Louis. This form of zoning is known now as used-based zoning based on how it separates everything into separate pods. No longer can a business owner build a new building with their apartment over their store — these uses must be separate. No longer can a 2-family residential building be near single-family detached houses — these must be separate.

The latter ended up being a way of keeping immigrant/people of color communities separated from white folks — because whites shouldn’t be subjected to living near anyone different than themselves.  Idyllic new suburbs, in their mind, meant all white — except for servants, of course.  This attitude wasn’t limited to just the Jim Crow south, northern cities joined in this more subtle form of housing discrimination.

The St. Louis region is a prime example — it’s one reason why we have so many tiny municipalities. Going forward we must change the status quo, otherwise the entire region will continue to suffer.

Gray’s book will help you understand the problems & solutions.

— Steve Patterson


Two Buildings, One Small Lot

May 26, 2022 Featured, Neighborhoods, Planning & Design, Zoning Comments Off on Two Buildings, One Small Lot

In the past you’d see multiple buildings on a single lot. Usually this was house and outhouse, stable, or garage. Large fancy homes might have servant quarters over the stable/garage — such was the case at the Campbell House. In more modest neighborhoods you might see two houses or a house and a storefront. A longtime friend owns a property that has a brick front house with full basement and a smaller frame house with a crawl space.  This was not uncommon a century ago. People would build a small house at the rear of the lot and then later build a bigger/nicer house at the front.

What’s unusual about my friend’s property is the 896 sq ft brick house with basement was built first, in 1927. Then in 1936 a 440 sq ft frame house with crawl space underneath was built. My assumption is some combination of increased population and the Great Depression is why the smaller frame house was built later. Either the owner rented out the new frame house to supplement their income, or the owner moved to the frame house so they could rent the bigger brick house and avoid foreclosure. I like that the big house is less than 900 square feet.  I looked up the address in the Post-Dispatch archives, the husband died in December 1934. So his widow likely added the small house for different financial reasons than I originally thought.

My friend has lived in each of the two houses at different times, both are rented now.

Today smaller backyard units are called Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU):

An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is a legal and regulatory term for a secondary house or apartment that shares the building lot of a larger, primary home. The unit cannot be bought or sold separately, but they are often used to provide additional income through rent or to house a family member. For example, an elderly parent could live in a small unit and avoid having to move to an assisted living facility.

  • An accessory dwelling unit (ADU) is an additional residential building that occupies the same lot as a primary residence.
  • Examples of an ADU could be a guest house or a detached garage with a rented apartment above.
  • The establishment and use of an ADU will fall under different zoning rules and regulations depending on where you live.
  • An ADU can provide additional income in the form of rent.
  • An ADU costs money to build and upkeep and will increase monthly utility bills.

The ADU is also known as an in-law or mother-in-law unit, secondary dwelling unit, granny flat, or carriage house. An ADU usually has its own kitchen, living area, and separate entrance. An ADU may be attached to a house or garage, or it can be built as a stand-alone unit, but it generally will make use of the water and energy connections of the primary house.

Two structures on a single lot is different than the once-common two-family building, one unit over another on the same lot. The 1924 two-family I bought back in 1924 was like this, very typical for a rapidly growing St. Louis. There were also four & six unit variations.

The gray building on the left was torn down late last year, it was built on the same 40 foot wide lot as they red house on the right. Image: Google Streetview

This post is about another combination you no longer see happen — the addition of a commercial building on a lot with a residence.

In 1898 two matching red brick houses were built side by side, both 844 sq ft. Each on a 40 ft x 100 ft lot.

In this January 1903 map we see the two brick houses (pink) in a mostly wood frame (yellow) neighborhood Source: 1903 Sanborn Fire Insurance map, click image to view source page.

The houses were at 1915 & 1919 Cooper Street, between Daggett & Shaw avenues.

The twin houses were fourteen years old when, in 1912, one family built a 2-story brick commercial building on the same lot as the house at 1919 Cooper Street, its address was 1921 Cooper Street. A 40 foot wide lot with a house AND a commercial building!

The neighborhood was changing as more and more immigrants arrived from Italy. Multi-story masonry commercial buildings replaced many smaller wood frame houses. It’s not yet clear what business(es) initially occupied this new building, but in 1921 the family opened a funeral home.

In the late 1930s Cooper Street became Marconi Ave. In 1940 Calcaterra Funeral home moved to a new building on Daggett, just east of now Marconi Ave.

At some point between 1940 and 2021 the commercial building had the 2nd floor removed, the main floor converted to residential. It was 790 sq ft.

I don’t blame anyone for tearing down this building. Looking at the vacant spot now it’s hard to believe another building fit in the space for 109 years. See current on Google Streetview. Neighborhoods, including The Hill, continue to evolve.

— Steve Patterson



Car Washes Are Getting Larger, Even Less Urban

January 27, 2020 Featured, Planning & Design, Zoning Comments Off on Car Washes Are Getting Larger, Even Less Urban

When I was a kid washing the car often meant getting the garden house out and washing the car on our driveway. Or it meant going to the self-serve car wash with individual stalls. You get your bills changed to quarters and when it’s your turn you’d pull into the stall and wash your car. Fancy ones had a soapy brush option. Often I’d get wet from splash back from the high pressure sprayer.

I was aware of other car washes, from songs like Jim Croce’s Car Wash Blues and Rose Royce’s Car Wash.  Gas stations began to add automatic car washes to entice more people to stop and buy gas — the wash was often cheaper with purchase of fuel.

Large size dedicated automatic car washes aren’t new, but slowly they’ve replaced the manual DIY car washes I remember as a kid. For years I’d go to the Waterway car wash that was at Forest Park & Vandeventer — now The Standard apartments. I was glad to see this large site be redeveloped with a 5-story apartment building.

Lately it seems throughout South City and in much of St. Louis County a new breed of automatic car washes are popping up frequently. As my husband handles the car maintenance, I’d not been to a car wash in at least seven years.  That recently changed when we were running errands and decided to stop at a newer car wash on Kingshighway, which replaced a former QuikTrip gas station.

My husband had been to this and other car washes many times, but it was a first for me. I was driving so I had to use the touch screen to purchase the wash we wanted. We drove up to the wash and handed the attendant our receipt, he warned us Hyundai shark fin radio/navigation antennas have come off before.

My husband with our white Hyundai

After the wash we stopped at the “free” vacuum area. Free vacuum?!? The site plan is such that you must go through the paid wash to reach the vacuum area.  This saves needing a stack of quarters to vacuum out the interior. I can’t tell you how many times in the past my vacuum time has run out before I was finished.

Another row of vacs near the Kingshighway sidewalk.

A spot to collect water runoff. The vacs are on a central system.

I was happy to see one disabled spot.

The urbanist in me is aghast at the trend for all these new large car washes, although this stretch of Kingshighway and most suburban arterials are so far from being pleasant pedestrian environments. Still, if there’s an expectation for these corridors to improve then such designs shouldn’t be permitted up against the public sidewalk.

Suburbs Rock Hill and Crestwood each rejected another automatic car wash in their municipalities, in 2018 & 2019, respectively.

— Steve Patterson




Opinion: Downtown Needs a Form-Based Code, Not An Old Height Restriction

December 7, 2016 Downtown, Featured, Planning & Design, Zoning Comments Off on Opinion: Downtown Needs a Form-Based Code, Not An Old Height Restriction

The building at 620 Market, like most, has had numerous uses since it was first built, I recall attending a meeting at East-West Gateway when they were on the 2nd floor — back in the 90s. The most recent occupant was Mike Shannon’s restaurant, which closed January 30, 2016.

7th St facade of 620 Market St, May 2012 photo
7th St facade of 620 Market St, May 2012 photo

When St. Louis’ Chinatown, known as Hop Alley, was razed in the 1960s for Busch Stadium (1966-2006), a 35 ft height restriction was placed on the 620 Market deed. A taller building could have allowed occupants to look down into the new stadium. For a decade now the replacement Busch Stadium has been to the South and the old site a slowly developing mixed-use project between the Cardinals & developer Cordish, called Ballpark Village. Ironically, Phase 2 of Ballpark Village will include a tall building where occupants can look down into the current stadium.

Meanwhile, Mike Shannon has been trying to sell 620 Market. I’m sure, for the right price, he could find buyers willing to accept the 35 ft height restriction. Like anyone who owns real estate, he correctly views the substantial public & private investment in Ballpark Village as increasing the value of his property. Shannon’s former employer, the Cardinals, don’t want to agree to lifting the height restriction unless they get a say in what may replace the current building.  See Messenger: Mike Shannon takes on the Cardinals in battle to sell his building.

Results from the recent Sunday Poll:

Q: Agree or disagree? Cardinals/Cordish should get to approve/reject proposals for Shannon’s site in exchange for releasing 35ft height restriction.

  • Strongly agree 1 [4%]
  • Agree 0 [0%]
  • Somewhat agree 3 [12%]
  • Neither agree or disagree 4 [16%]
  • Somewhat disagree 1 [4%]
  • Disagree 6 [24%]
  • Strongly disagree 9 [36%]
  • Unsure/No Answer 1 [4%]

I’d forgotten to uncheck the option allowing user-entered answers, I turned it off after the first, which read: “no subsidy for Cordish unless restriction lifted” Agreed, but that should read ‘no ADDITIONAL subsidy for Cordish unless restriction lifted’.

This is another demonstration of failed urban design policy in St. Louis. Within the central business district the only regulation on height of new construction should be minimum height — not maximum.  Issues such as heights and design could easily be addressed within a form-based code, replacing our 1940s use-based code. Even a form-based overlay for Ballpark Village and surrounding a decade ago would’ve been a good idea.

St. Louis would rather battle parcel by parcel rather than determine a larger vision through a public process. Great for those in control, bad for creating a healthy city.

— Steve Patterson



Zoning Should Not Be Used To Force Washington Ave To Become A Retail Street

There are some who envision one mile of our Washington Ave (from 4th to 18th) as being a retail street like the Delmar Loop or Chicago’s Magnificent Mile along Michigan Ave. One person even wants to use a proposed form-based code overlay to mandate a retail use on the ground floor. Yes, the idea of using a form-based code to regulate uses is illogical. The whole point of moving from use-based zoning to form-based zoning is to get the form correct.

Recognizing uses change more often than the physical form of buildings.

It was a December announcement that prompted this push for a retail street:

LockerDome, which currently has 45 employees, moved to a 6,800-square-foot storefront on Washington Avenue in 2012 but has outgrown that space, said its chief executive and co-founder Gabe Lozano.

After a 120-day build-out set to begin in the second half of 2016, LockerDome’s employees will move to occupy an 18,000-square-foot building a block away at 1314 Washington. (Post-Dispatch)

LockerDome is a St. Louis-based tech company.

LockerDome has been at 1221 Washington Ave since 2012, the space was previously occupied by an architectural firm. Their windows are never covered,
LockerDome has been at 1221 Washington Ave since 2012, the space was previously occupied by an architectural firm. Their windows are never covered,

In January I saw a woman, presumably an employee, working and eating lunch in one of the windows.
In January I saw a woman, presumably an employee, working and eating lunch in one of the windows.

Lockerdome will be moving to 1314 Washington Ave, currently occupied by the gym Fitness Factory. Their windows are never covered.
Lockerdome will be moving to 1314 Washington Ave, currently occupied by the gym Fitness Factory. Their windows are never covered.

Both have the form right, both have windows we can see into day & night. Some think a gym is an acceptable use on a retail street — but a high-tech firm is not. I personally don’t care what’s going on behind the facade. I can see into the windows when I pass by.

But one person would prevent LockreDome from occupying the ground floor of this building — he doesn’t want offices on ground floors. Yet, firms want to be located on Washington Ave. because it is the most vibrant part of Downtown/Downtown West. With the upper floors converted into residential there are too few options for large offices. For that matter, there are too few spaces for a larger retailer like a CVS/Walgreen’s.

What makes a credit union/bank lobby ok, but not a creative office?

It’s the non-creative offices that are the buzz kill…

The blinds at Rise Community Development have been closed since they moved intro 1627 Washington Ave, (right). The same space has been used for a clothing reseller and a restaurant,
The blinds at Rise Community Development have been closed since they moved intro 1627 Washington Ave, (right). The same space has been used for a clothing reseller and a restaurant,

Between Broadway (5th) and 6th the Stifel financial headquarters keeps their ground floor blinds shut.
Between Broadway (5th) and 6th the Stifel financial headquarters keeps their ground floor blinds shut.

Regulating uses is arbitrary — which is why I want the city of St. Louis to abandon old-fashioned Euclidean use-based zoning and adopt form-based zoning. Form-based zoning, however, can be used to regulate the form – largely windows & doors at the ground level where pedestrian activity it to be encouraged.

Many ground floor offices downtown keep their blinds closed 24/7 — that’s something a form-based code could/should address. We need uncovered windows where we can see activity going on inside. But could Washington Ave become a retail street like the Delmar Loop or Magnificent Mile?

No — both of those were built for retail purposes.

This mile of Washington Ave has had many uses over the decades — the middle part included sweatshops where immigrants manufactured clothing, shoes, hats, etc. Items sold in stores all over the country, possibly in the Sears catalog. It wasn’t a retail street then.

Today Washington Ave is largely a restaurant street, with the occasional niche retail merchant. Besides bars/restaurants the other common “retail” use is hair salons.

Both storefronts at 1619 Washington Ave are salons.
Both storefronts at 1619 Washington Ave are salons.

Another problem are the many gaps in continuity.

Our convention center occupies two blocks of Washington Ave -- from 7th to 9th
Our convention center occupies two blocks of Washington Ave — from 7th to 9th

Former CPI parking lot between 16th-17th
Former CPI parking lot between 16th-17th

Get the form right — including being able to look into ground floor spaces. Don’t fret about the users.

— Steve Patterson