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Blank Walls Kill Sidewalks

ABOVE: NW corner of Page & N. Kingshighway

Like so many other areas, the intersection of Page & North Kingshighway suffers from disinvestment.  Yet, at one point in the last few decades, the 1904 building on the corner received new investment in the form of street facades featuring blank walls and mirrored glass.   The building next door, also from 1904, has a blank facade where windows and doors should be.

I’m not saying this corner would be lively if the corner building hadn’t gained blank walls during the unfortunate new skin with blank walls. But, the blank walls make improving the vibrancy of the sidewalk today impossible.  A new pro-urban formed-based zoning code would prevent future blank walls to the sidewalk.

– Steve Patterson


Transportation and the Urban Form

The host of this site, Steve Patterson, and I are both passionate about urban design issues. One area where we differ is how the interaction between transportation options and the urban form plays out in the real world. Steve, and others, believe that requiring “better”, more appropriate and/or more restrictive design standards, through efforts like moving to form-based zoning and reducing available parking, will somehow convince the uninformed public to become more enlightened and to change their ways.  I have a different perspective, that available transportation options inform the urban form, including our land use regulations and their application on a daily basis.

I’m not going to go back to the discovery of the wheel, but I am going to go back 150 years.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution / the American Civil War, transportation options were limited to human, animal, water or wind power – you could walk or row, ride a horse or a mule, use a sailboat or “go with the flow”.  The result was a world made up of farms, relatively small settlements, seaports, river ports and a few larger centers of banking, trade and government.  There was no zoning, as we know it, but we did have our westward expansion, with land being given away for free to anyone willing to “tame the wilderness”, through farming, ranching or mining.

Cities were just starting to build rudimentary water supply and sewer systems, and elevators and air conditioning were non-existent.  You got an urban environment marked by row houses, small, local retail establishments and tiny signs.  You didn’t have drive-throughs or dry cleaners, computers or gas stations; you did have hitching posts and coal for heat, telegraph and manure in the streets, Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim.  You can find many preserved examples up and down the east coast, including Colonial Williamsburg.  And St. Louis started to grow as the Gateway to the West, primarily as a trading center and a transportation hub.  Examples around here include Soulard, Carondelet and Baden

The ability to capture the power of steam, through the boiler and the steam engine gave us railroads, cable cars and steam heat.  It also gave us the ability to run machinery with something other than water power, greatly expanding where factories could be located and how much they could produce.  More importantly, electricity was staring to be harnessed, with major improvements in generation, lighting and motors.  From the 1850’s through the 1890’s, city life changed rapidly.  Factories, along with their need for lots of workers, worked better in urban settings than in rural ones.  Cities like St. Louis became industrial centers as well as trading centers.

Quoting from a story in the 12/13/09 edition of the Daytona Beach News-Journal;

According to the Web site trolleystop.com, the first successful trolley system in the United States began operation in Richmond, Va. in 1887.  After the initial success in Richmond, almost all of the horse car lines in North America were converted to electric power.  The electric trolleys became so popular that the street railway industry experienced explosive growth almost overnight.  As the popularity of automobiles and buses boomed in the 1920s, however, most trolley companies began converting their lines to bus service.

That was certainly the case here.  We had multiple streetcar companies competing for riders and we saw explosive growth of streetcar suburbs, both inside and outside the city limits.

Streetcars and buses allowed workers to live further away from work.  You still needed to walk to the transit line, but it meant living within walking distance of your job was no longer an essential requirement.  People had more options, and many of those, that could afford to, moved out of the older, denser parts of town, leaving them to new waves of immigrants or to see them torn down and replaced by factories.  Retailers were still expected to offer home delivery, so stay-at-home moms (yes it’s a stereotype, but it was the reality) shopped for fresh food pretty much every day and kids walked or biked to neighborhood schools.  This was also the time when the first attempts at zoning started to occur, primarily to separate industrial uses from residential ones.

The next big “step forward” was Henry Ford’s efforts to produce an affordable automobile.  His success, in the 1920’s, was the next big step in the suburbanization of America and St. Louis.  Throughout south city one can find garages that are too small for many contemporary vehicles – they were built to shelter the vehicle that expanded Dad’s transportation options, Ford’s Model T.  The residential neighborhoods of that time were still walkable (with sidewalks) and they still had corner groceries, but they were growing less dense.

The next big impact on the urban environment was World War II, both directly and indirectly.  Factories moved from multi-story to single-story, sprawling structures.  The internal combustion engine became more reliable and synthetic rubber made tires much less of a pain in the a**.  Women entered the work force in large numbers and pent-up demand for consumer products continued to build.

Once the war ended, we experienced several decades of unprecedented prosperity, from the mid ’40’s through the ’70’s.  We built the interstate highway system and moms learned to drive.  FHA and VA loans favored single-family homes, primarily new, suburban ones, over denser, multi-family options.  We went from single-car families to 2-car families.  We embraced the suburban shopping center and the enclosed mall.

Just because it was a whole lot easier, people chose driving themselves over taking public transit.  They chose living in the new suburbs over living in established urban areas, especially those that had experienced decades of deferred maintenance (the Great Depression followed by wartime rationing).  Employers, schools and retailers all responded by offering more and more “free” parking, either by planning for it from the start, in new suburban developments, or by buying up and tearing down existing buildings in more-established urban areas.  This mobility also resulted in the Euclidean zoning that many of us are questioning today – it codified a preference for convenient parking over both density and walkability.

The end result is the world we live in today.  It reflects the hopes and aspirations of the majority of Americans, as reflected by the actions of our elected officials.  We trade sprawl and congested highways for the “freedom” to live where we want, work where we can find jobs and to shop at generic chains who have mastered the worldwide logistics supply chain.  We have seen St. Louis lose both population and jobs.  And we have two choices – we can continue to become more suburban, building more shopping centers, single-family homes and “free” parking.  Or we can redirect our efforts, differentiate ourselves from our suburban neighbors, encourage density and create viable transportation alternatives.

To attract people out of their cars and trucks won’t be easy.  There’s a real attraction to privacy, control and convenience.  But, as a big believer in the Law of Unintended Consequences, I find it interesting that more members of the Generation Y are willing to embrace mass transit.  It turns out that people who text, tweet and surf the mobile net would actually rather let someone else do the driving, IF they can figure out how to make it work.  Whether that involves reinventing Metro’s system and creating a market for higher densities or developing a taxi infrastructure that mimics that in New York, it appears that we may be on the cusp of a another significant change in how people want to live, work and commute.  Combine that with the growing success of, and the reliance many people have on, online shopping, and in many ways we’re returning to the “home delivery” model of yore.

Steve’s belief in the need for form-based zoning could very well be reflected in actual change, just not one driven by direct logic and/or nostalgia.  I doubt that we’ll see the imminent demise of the suburban shopping center or the type of store Schnuck’s or Direbergs typically builds.  But I can see a future where Transit Oriented Development will gain traction on both the residential side and on the employment/educational side – it’s actually slowly playing out here locally at the Barnes campus on Kingshighway.  The single-occupant vehicle could very well become an anachronism for the daily commute, saved only for shopping, recreation and regional out-of-town trips.  Whether it ends up being garaged for days at a time or rented only when needed will be a personal decision.  But these decisions will inform what “sells”, and in turn, what gets built, and ultimately, what our legislators will see a need to codify.

– Jim Zavist


Readers: St. Louis’ zoning needs to be changed

December 15, 2009 Zoning 14 Comments

Ninety-five percent of the readers that voted in the poll last week agree that the City of St. Louis needs new zoning.  95%!

Q: Kansas City, Denver and other cities are replacing their old zoning codes to reflect current views/vision. Should St. Louis replace its 1947 zoning code?

  • Yes, we need zoning to set an urban vision rather than piecemeal sprawl: 102 (95%)
  • Unsure: 4 (4%)
  • No, leave zoning matters on a case by case basis: 1 (1%)

Zoning classifications used in a municipality were never intended to be used unchanged for more than a half century.  Even St. Louis long time planner (1916-1950) Harland Bartholomew would have advocated a regular review and revision.  To city hall changing a parcel(s) from one classification to another is changing zoning.  To me, and I think to many of you, changing zoning means tossing out the old classifications and starting entirely from scratch – built around how we envision our city in the coming decades. Cities from coast to coast are realizing how use-based zoning has failed them and are embarking on the long process to revamp how their cities are developed.

Zoning sets the ground rules for development.  It regulates the building size, placement on the site and parking. Most cities have Euclidean Zoning which obsesses about the use of the property but could care less if the buildings on the street make for a quality environment.  Ensuring single family homes are separated from multi-family which is separate from retail which is separate from office is the most important goal in use based zoning.  Or the most important goal is ensuring that each use has parking because with all the separation a car is required to go from home to the office to dinner and to the store.

In short, use-based zoning creates auto-centric sprawl.  We usually think of sprawl as that mess on the edge.  While that certainly is sprawl I think the use-based zoning type of sprawl that eats away at the core is far more dangerous.    The core of regions offers something different than new edge development but if use-based zoning remains eventually the core will be completely undone – that was the intention when the use-based zoning was put into place.

Starting the ball rolling on on new zoning should be a top priority of city government for 2010.  The fact development is slow right now is a good thing.  This gives us the freedom to determine the vision for our neighborhoods and commercial corridors without debating specific projects.  Largely residential sections of the city wouldn’t see much change.  Major corridors like Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, and Jefferson would be where changes would occur.  The emphasis, in my mind, would be on form rather than use.  Shared parking rather than each business having their own lot.

In 2010 I will continue posting on this important issue.

– Steve Patterson


Much has changed in St. Louis over last 60 years, just not our zoning

December 6, 2009 Planning & Design, Zoning 5 Comments

In 1947 St. Louis’ long-time planner (1916-1950) Harland Bartholomew thought the city’s population would exceed one million by 1970.  Instead, between 1950-70, we lost 234,560 people to have 622,236.  We had 38% fewer people than he thought we would!

Bartholomew also thought we should have 35 airports in the region because, “developments in air transportation during the next few decades will parallel that of automobile transportation.” (source)  Born in 1889, Bartholomew hated our 19th Century “horse and buggy” street network.  His 1947 plan for the city has worked very hard to destroy the walkable city and to create the “modern” automobile city.  In his long career he advocated generous roads, parking and total separation of uses — housing, offices, etc should not be mixed in his view. He stood for the opposite of what cities are trying to accomplish today.

Bartholomew has been dead for 20 years now but St. Louis and so many cities follow his anti-urban thoughts simply because we have zoning he either authored or supported.  Local Aldermen will tell you that we change our zoning all the time.  True, on a case by case basis they’ll often change a zoning classification  — often to allow a better project than what the existing zoning allowed.  But rather than tossing out the 6 decade old vision for the city they cling to the power they have to support or oppose a request to change zoning.  So the ability for developers to do good urban projects comes down to their ability to grease the system to get the change they need or just accept the current zoning as a given and do a mediocre auto-centric project.

So what do we do? We begin the 4-5 year process to entirely replace our existing code.  Denver is nearing the end of this process now:

Denver, which currently has a zoning code dating to 1956, is the first large city in the country to undertake a complete rewrite of its zoning code and associated zoning map under a “form-based” and “context-based” approach. Because it will affect so many stakeholders, the AIA Denver Board of Directors and two AIA Denver committees have been following its development closely.

Of the intense four-year process of writing the code, putting it out for review, and revising, Brad Buchanan, FAIA, who sits on the Denver Zoning Code Task Force says: “We must be sure that the new code does not adversely affect the economic development potential in our city. In fact, this zoning code has the potential to increase economic viability while protecting the character both downtown and in our neighborhoods, which are the original economic engines for our city.”

From the city’s perspective, the new code is intended to support a growing economy, a sustainable environment, a diverse mix of housing, strong neighborhoods, and a high quality of life. (Source)

A new zoning code to guide future development is among the most important policy decision our Aldermen can make.  Of course, doing nothing is a decision.  From the Denver Post:

The 53-year-old regulations that guide land use and development in Denver are inconsistent, outdated and stifling growth, city planners say.

Now, after more than four years of work, Denver officials are on the verge of unveiling what they characterize as a cleaner, more user-friendly zoning code.

The post-World War II era, when the current code was adopted, was a time when planners were enthralled with the automobile. That era expected that much of the city’s existing historic architecture would get razed to make way for large-scale construction with extra space for parking.

But city planners now see value in old bungalows, Victorians and Four Squares that were written off in the 1950s. The current code has become an unwieldy mishmash of inconsistent, confusing rules and regulations that have the potential to actually harm neighborhoods, Park said. For instance, the existing code specifies that a new single-family home should be built on a lot of at least 6,000 square feet.

While that might work in “suburban-type” neighborhoods, it doesn’t conform to historic areas such as the Baker neighborhood, with smaller lots built on streets laid out in a grid pattern.

A more sensitive code

The new code will become more sensitive to the different characteristics that exist in the city and encourage development that blends in, Park said.

It will guide building forms and context for at least seven types of neighborhoods: suburban, urban edge, urban, general urban, urban center, downtown and special context. The regulations for those areas will differ depending on the existing characteristics of the neighborhoods.  (source)

Denver’s code can be viewed at newcodedenver.org.  The poll this week asks your thought — should we go this route and do a complete zoning rewrite or should we stick with what we’ve got?

– Steve Patterson


Harland Bartholomew negatively impacted many cities

Twenty Ten years ago today famed urban planner Harland Bartholomew died.  From his NY Times Obituary, Harland Bartholomew, 100, Dean of City Planners:

Harland Bartholomew, the dean of comprehensive city planning in the United States, died Saturday at his home in Clayton, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis. He was 100 years old.

Mr. Bartholomew, a consulting engineer, was appointed to Federal planning committees by three Presidents, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Dwight D. Eisenhower.

In 1941 President Roosevelt appointed Mr. Bartholomew to a committee to recommend a limited system of national highways. He also helped plan the Metro subway system in Washington, and he represented the Rockefeller interests in the restoration of historic Williamsburg, Va.

President Eisenhower appointed Mr. Bartholomew chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission a position he held for seven years, A City Planner in Newark Mr. Bartholomew became the nation’s first full-time city planner in 1914, when he went to work for the city of Newark. Two years later he went to St. Louis as a city engineer, and he later opened a consulting firm, Harland Bartholomew & Associates, which now has its headquarters in Memphis. He retired in 1965. His firm prepared comprehensive plans for more than 500 cities and counties, including Bal Horbour, Fla., St. Croix, V.I., and Grand Bahama Island in the Bahamas. Mr. Bartholomew also prepared plans for the reconstruction of the resort community of Bar Harbor, Me., after two-thirds of it was destroyed by a forest fire in 1947.

His firm also assisted in the preparation of many zoning ordinances. including a statewide ordinance for Hawaii.

He was an early advocate of slum clearance and city planning, and served on the national Slum Clearance Advisory Committee. His ideas helped shape the Housing Act of 1937 and the Housing Act of 1949.

There is no doubting Bartholomew’s influence on both cities and the profession of urban planning. His considerable influence is why he had such a negative impact on cities. We are still dealing with problems created by his solutions to early 20th century problems.

In 1919 he founded Harland Bartholomew & Associates here in St. Louis. For decades the firm operated from offices in the Louderman Building at 11th & Locust (map). From 1916-1950 he was St. Louis’ planner.

Franklin Ave looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis
Franklin Ave looking East from 9th, 1928. Collection of the Landmarks Association of St Louis

Early writings showed he was concerned about suburban expansion — in the 1920s. He advocated widening streets to accommodate the automobile. In the above image the right-of-way of Franklin Ave from 3rd to 9th is getting widened from 50 feet to 80 feet – a 60% increase! Widened streets and numerous parking lots/garages made the decision to buy a car and move to a house beyond the streetcar line was a no brainier for many.

Soon the widened streets weren’t enough so highways were the next step. Each time steps were taken to make motoring life easier the further people moved from the core. Eventually families needed to have two cars. As a country we would have embraced the automobile anyway but he made it easier and faster. Highways cutting through cities also did much damage.

Bartholomew was a major pusher of Euclidean zoning — the rigid segregation of land uses. Overcoming this segregated view of cities today is a challenge. I’ve spent time in the basement of the Washington University archives library reading through comprehensive plans HBA prepared for hundreds of U.S. cities. Each one a repeat of the prior: widen streets, build a highway loop around downtown, build parking, require high parking standards for new construction, make the zoning even stricter.

Harland Bartholomew left his position with the City of St. Louis in 1950 and after 42 years, in 1961, he retired from the firm that bore his name. I can’t help but think our cities would be better off in the 21st century if this man born in the 19th century had become an accountant. I take some pleasure knowing the building where his office was located currently includes a mix of retail, office and residential uses.

– Steve Patterson