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1960’s: Model Cities Not Such a Great Model

In 1966 the federal government enacted the Demonstration Cities and Metropolitan Development Act, commonly known as model cities.  In large part, the federal program was based on programs being tried in New Haven Connecticut by Mayor Richard “Dick” Lee (1954-1970).  Mayor Lee championed the efforts of urban renewal and creating a model for other cities to follow.  Sadly, many cities did.

A few years ago Yale did a nice look at the era and produced an exhibit and website.  From the site:

The Ideology of Redevelopment

Urban renewal offered a chance for architects, city planners, and other experts to enact their ideal vision of a city. New Haven became a testing group for top-down, Modernist theories of urban design. Instead of neighborhoods in which the people lived, shopped, and worked, planners wanted to separate housing, retail, and industrial uses. Dense, irregular city streets gave way to highways to accommodate the automobile.

Especially in the first years of urban renewal, planners thought that new buildings would make new people: that renewing the city physically would solve the problems of poverty, unemployment, and racial antagonism. As the 1960s progressed, it became clear that these difficulties would not be overcome solely with new construction alone, and the Lee Administration pioneered a number of social programs.

The arguments were pretty much the same from city to city.  To solve problems we must erase the past.  To many the slums were home. One of those interviewed for the exhibit said this, “You could classify Oak Street back then as a slum, but it was a thriving slum…”

This was the part the planners and architects of the era failed to understand.  These slums may not have had hot water or toilets but they had good human interaction, an economy, and local services for residents.  The slums were functional, unlike the projects that replaced them.

The Yale site, in one section, said:

President Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Labor called New Haven’s efforts “the greatest success story in the history of the world.” But by the end of his tenure, Lee said regularly, “If New Haven is a model city, God help America’s cities.” 

Indeed.  Mayor Lee realized, by 1970, the failure of the urban renewal programs in New Haven yet they continued throughout the USA.  In the early 1970s, the model cities program was folding into the new CDBG (Community Development Block Grant) program.  Unfortunately, many planners and architects trained in this way of thinking are still in positions of power.  We’ve not fully learned the lessons of the past.

The Yale site called, Life in the Model City: Stories of Urban Renewal from New Haven, is highly recommended.


Lower Manhattan Before the World Trade Center

April 18, 2007 Books 10 Comments

Yes, this is still a St. Louis-focused blog. Just go with me to New York for a bit, we will return to St. Louis I promise.

I’m researching a paper I have to write for one of my classes at Saint Louis University, “Planning the Metropolis.” The subject? The former World Trade Center in New York. The main focus of the paper is on rebuilding the site after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As part of the research I’ve been reading City in the Sky: The Rise and Fall of the World Trade Center by New York Times reporters James Glanz and Eric Lipton.

What a colorful story of powerful and unaccountable agencies, backroom politics, the small businessman, eminent domain and how deals get done. What started off as a much smaller project on lower Manhattan’s east side (yes, east side) as a way to boost downtown interest as businesses fled to mid-town ballooned into a massive and mostly unnecessary building project.

I’m not even going to attempt to give you the full story and sadly I’ve not found a good online source. I’ll give you a quick run down and suggest you get this book — it is available from the library (except I have the Buder branch copy at this time). As you read this very long history remember the grand opening dedication took place in 1973:

  • 1939: The New York World’s Fair includes an exhibit “dedicated ‘world peace through trade’ and called World Trade Center.” WWII put any immediate plans aside but a committee organizer was Winthrop W. Aldrich, head of the Chase Bank and whose sister was married to John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
  • July 28 1945: A B-25 Army bomber plane accidently crashes into the north side of the Empire State Building on the 79th & 80th floors, killing a number of people. Flames erupted from the fuel.
  • 1946: NY Governor Thomas Dewey names Aldrich to be a member of a “new state agency named the World Trade Corporation.” The mission was to build a World Trade Center downtown. The plan was a 10-block area with 21 buildings “loosley modeled on the seven-hundred-year-old Leipzig Fair in Genmany.” Well, except for having underground parking. Estimated cost: $150 million. Critics said it would not work and “The planners themselves determined that an astonishing 80 percent of the country’s six thousand largest companies would have to become tenants to give the trade center a chance at financial survival.” The concept was dead just four months after naming the board.
  • 1946: 32 year-old David Rockefeller joins the family bank, Chase.
  • 1951-54: David Rockefeller takes up the family tradition of shaping New York, by helping raze a large section of an upper west side neighborhood called Morningside Heights, to be rebuilt as a housing project consisting of six high-rise buildings called Morningside Gardens. This would replace 71 apartment buildings, 4 rooming houses and 68 retail stores. The new high-rises would be reserved for the middle-class only. Rockefeller, of course, teamed with the legendary Robert Moses.
  • 1955: David Rockefeller seeks real estate for new HQ building for family’s Chase Bank, still headed by his uncle Aldrich. Upon securing real estate is convinced by others more investment is needed in downtown area to keep others in financial district from heading to midtown (as many had done). Rockefeller formed the Downtown Lower-Manhattan Association in late 1955.
  • October 1958: Rockefeller’s Downtown association releases report suggesting razing entire blocks of lower Manhattan and supports Moses’ Lower Manhattan Expressway. Combined estimated “investment:” One billion dollars.
  • May 25, 1959: First noted record by Rockefeller’s Downtown association of what they then called the “World Trade and Finance Center.” At this point they were focusing on the “downtown” of Lower-Manhattan which is on the east side of the tip of the island.
  • June 1959: Hired consulting firm McKinsey & Co determined the World Trade Center may not be so wise, from the book authors, the firm indicated the WTC “could be a serious financial bust. Almost nothing about the concept —its mission or its target client base — was assured.” The authors also noted the report suggested that if it were going to be done, it should be in midtown where everyone was moving to anyway. A key note in the report that if the WTC project were to succeed it would need to be very unique to attract tenants.
  • August 11, 1959: The hired consultants, contacted by Rockefeller’s staff prior to the meeting, indicated to the Downtown association executive committee they would back out of the $30,000 consulting contract. It was that or give a glowing report they knew to be false.
  • 1959: Architectural firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (aka SOM), designers of Rockefeller’s new Chase Bank building, sketched out an idea for the WTC.
  • 1959: Rockefeller holds private talks with the Port of New York Authority (as it was known at the time). This agency was created by the states of New York and New Jersey, and had huge revenues from tolls on bridges & tunnels. Rockefeller viewed the Port Authority as the only group with the governmental power and financial resources to pull off the project.
  • 1959: David Rockefeller’s older brother, Nelson, becomes Governor of New York. … Continue Reading

Reads on Highways, Pedicabs, High Rises, Parking and Christian Clubs

March 2, 2007 Books 4 Comments

Like many of you, I read so many things each week of interest. I wish I had the time to share & comment on each with you. Because so many are relevant to St. Louis, I may look at doing a weekly post with links of interest sans my comments. Here are a few articles along with quotes from each:
Mega Highway in Phoenix

A plan to widen part of Interstate 10 in metropolitan Phoenix from 14 lanes to 24 is the USA’s latest giant superhighway proposal designed to ease the kind of gridlock that some planners say could stunt economic growth.

For a 2-mile stretch between U.S. 60 in Tempe and State Route 143, the interstate would have six-general purpose lanes, two carpool lanes and four lanes for local traffic in each direction. Work on the first phase, which planners expect to cost about $550 million, could begin by 2011.

NYC Limits Pedicabs

Chad Marlow, who represents the New York City Pedicab Owners Association, said the association agrees with much of the legislation, but plans to file a lawsuit challenging some elements of it. He said it believes that the Council was within its rights to impose a cap as the city does with taxis, but that the restriction on electric motors and the provision giving the police the power to ban pedicabs from Midtown run afoul of the law.

Building Up In Seattle:

Developers should be able to build taller than current zoning allows if they pay for public amenities such as affordable housing, the Seattle Planning Commission said Tuesday.

Mayor Greg Nickels favors such a plan and is working on so-called incentive zoning proposals for the South Lake Union, Interbay and South Downtown areas. Nickels intends to roll out his proposals in the next year. They would be similar to new downtown building rules Nickels and the City Council approved last year.

Less Parking for Brooklyn Whole Foods:

Whole Foods’ corporate machine beat back a neighborhood green dream team this week, denying a petition from a civic group to shrink its parking lots and put an earth-friendly solar roof on its super-store, now under construction on Third Avenue at Third Street.

The Park Slope Neighbors petition asked the grocer to cut 100 of its planned 420 parking spaces, a move that the group believed would discourage driving and reduce traffic.

And for some local flavor…

Christian Club Locating in Failed Mall:

The Exodus, an all ages nightclub promoting Christian values and family entertainment, will likely open to area residents this fall.

Aldermen approved the final development plans for the community center Wednesday, which will be located within the Mall at Wentzville Crossings that owners Cory and Darian Atkinson purchased last March.

The $2.5 million, 100,000 square-foot nightclub is one of two phases of a non-alcoholic, smoke-free environment that will include a bowling alley, rock-climbing wall, video arcade and possible cinema.

Have a great weekend!


St. Louis Suffers Due to Lack of Urban Design Guidelines

Whenever I speak of making St. Louis’ neighborhoods and commercial streets more “urban” I think people have visions of turning St. Louis Hills into Times Square. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really has to do with how we plan our areas and seek to accommodate people as well as their cars. Pedestrian-friendly is about making it easier for people to walk from A to B to C and back to A. These principals transcend scale and work in a town of 2,000 as well as a city of 2 million.

The conflict I’m having with so much recent development is that it is happening in a system void of planning thought. The developer meets with the Aldermen and they negotiate a few things while trying to keep the public from knowing what is going on out of fear they might sabotage the whole thing. It is the St. Louis way. The problem is that I know this can be done differently and is in cities all over North America.

Our zoning, dating to 1947, says what cannot be done. It basically encourages sprawl development and makes good design an exception rather than the rule. What it doesn’t say is what we, as a community, are seeking. It does not articulate a vision. So how do we communicate what we want? Urban Design Guidelines.

Cities that are actually seeking to improve their physical environment through well-planned development create “Urban Design Guidelines” to help guide the development process. These are most often in the form of non-legal phrasing and graphics that are easily understood by everyone. Typical zoning, on the other hand, often requires an attorney that specializes to help determine what can and cannot be done. Form-based zoning, on the other hand, uses graphics to help illustrate what is sought for that particular portion of the community.

It should also be noted that Urban Design Guidelines are different than “plans” for an area. Cities, including St. Louis, have stacks and stacks of unrealized plans. In some cases, this is a good thing as earlier plans called for the razing of Soulard & Lafayette Square to be replaced with low-density housing on cul-de-sac streets. Plans are usually grand visions for an area that lack funding. They are created, everyone gets excited about what may be, no funding is given to implementation and the plan sits. In the meantime poorly executed development that prompted the need for a plan continues through the outdated zoning. UDG look at the vision different — setting out goals for an area such as walkable streets. The guidelines then indicate how this is to be accomplished. Guidelines help guide new construction and renovation projects so that, over time, an area is improved. It is a smart and realistic way to guide physical change in a community.

Below are some examples of Urban Design Guidelines and related documents from a variety of cities in North America. This is only a tiny fraction is what is out there. I’ve only scanned each at this point so I am not making any claims we should adopt any of these for St. Louis. What I am saying is we need to be creating guidelines for future development and have debates over what we seek as we develop the guides — not over each and every proposed project.

City of Denver:

Denver Guidelines by area
Commercial Corridors
Streetscape 1993 (excellent!)

City of Ottawa:

Large-Format Retail
Gas Stations
Traditional Main Street
Outdoor Patios

City of Toronto:

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines

Various Cities:

Lawrence KS – downtown guidelines
Scottsdale, AZ – Gas Stations
Huntington Beach, CA
Mankato, MN
Niagra, Ontario
Niagra, On — Large Format (big box)
Mississauga, Ontario
Tampa, FL

City of Madison, WI

Best Practices Guide (an amazing document — a must read)
Inclusionary Zoning (for affordable housing)

Madison even did a study called, “Grocery Stores in City Neighborhoods: Supporting access to food choices, livable neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities in Madison, Wisconsin”. From the executive summary:

Guiding the decisions of food retailers- and providing support for them- in order to ensure equitable access to food and promote livable, walkable neighborhoods is a difficult task faced by non-profit organizations and local governments in cities across the nation. Since all people require food on a daily basis and shop for it frequently, food retailers should be recognized as far more than simply another retail establishment. However, even as many municipal governments realize this, there are limited ways for cities to intervene in support for grocery stores when particular parcels of land are owned and controlled in the private realm. Market forces and consumer behavior all too often work against the success and proliferation of small grocery stores distributed equitably across the City.

Click here to read the full report.

City of Houston:

As I was working on this post a regular reader sent me an article about how good development in Houston’s midtown is lagging behind because the city’s zoning encourages auto-centric results.

Like explorers hacking a path through the jungle, a small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has
struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown.

Much of what they are trying to achieve —a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. Leaders of a civic group have dipped into their own pockets to pay for alternative design plans for a proposed Main Street drugstore that clashes with their Midtown vision.

“Unfortunately,” said developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, “the Houston way is slow and painful.”

Read through these Urban Design Guidelines and you will see how the community is indicating its desires for a more walkable and cohesive environment yet none of it is designed to force businesses out or create cities without cars. Cities have been working on guidelines for a good 15 years or so but St. Louis remains way behind the curve. This places us at an economic disadvantage when it comes to attracting both new residents as well as potential employers. What would it take to get us working toward community design guidelines — probably the one thing we don’t have enough of: political will.


Former St. Lousian Authors New Book on Car-Free Living

Check out an article in the current West End Word on a new book by former St. Louisan Chris Balish, How to Live Well Without Owning a Car:

Balish is disarmingly frank about his own situation. In the book he tells his personal story of going “accidentally car free” while working for KSDK-TV Channel 5 as the host of Show Me St. Louis. At the time he worked in downtown St. Louis and lived on the western edge of the Central West End.

“In 2002 I was driving a shiny new $36,000 SUV,” he writes. “It was a dark blue Toyota Sequoia with a big V8 engine, power everything and enough seats to fit all my friends. I loved that thing, and I kept it immaculate. It was expensive, but I thought my status as a TV news anchorman necessitated an impressive ride and a flashy image.” Then when gas prices spiked, he thought about selling the SUV and downsizing. But, as it happened, the first person to respond to his classified ad bought the vehicle on the spot, before Balish had a new set of wheels lined up.

Balish was still living and working in St. Louis while writing the book and interviewed a number of locals, such as my friend Jeff Jackson, that manage without a car. From the promotional website for the book:

Despite what $20 billion of automobile advertising every year would have us all believe, buying or leasing a car, truck, or SUV is the worst financial move most people make in their lifetime. And they make this mistake again and again, at a cost of literally hundreds of thousands of dollars. High gas prices, car payments, insurance, depreciation, parking, repairs, maintenance, and nearly one hundred other expenses add up so quickly and silently that most car owners don’t even notice—they just see how little money they have left at the end of the month and wonder why.

The first two chapters are available as a free download on his website, LiveCarFree.com. You can order the book from locally-owned Left Bank Books for the published price of $12.95.

I’m going to move in this direction by selling my ’06 Scion and getting an old basic car outright. Goodbye car payments and goodbye expensive full coverage insurance. The trick is finding something that is cheap, reliable and not overly embarrassing. With my scooter serving more and more of my daily needs the car becomes less and less important.

– Steve