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Finally impressed by new residential construction in the city

“You’ll love these townhouses,” real estate agent & friend Leigh Maibes recently said to me.  “Yeah, right,” I thought. She mentioned the location and at first I got it confused with another new construction development that I don’t like.  After I Googled the address I knew the location but I didn’t realize anything had been built there.   I was skeptical about liking the design, we’ve had lots of new residential construction in neighborhoods throughout the city over the last dozen years or so and the bulk has been boring and highly suburban in it’s relationship with the sidewalk and street.  I agreed to take a look the next time I was in the Hill/Southwest Garden area but my expectations were low.

Here are some suburban new construction in the blocks near the townhouses that have a poor relationship to the sidewalk, the norm if you will:

ABOVE: Corner house has a tall flight of stairs and the bright white garage door jumps out at you.

The original plans called for three units on the site above but it ended up being only two.

ABOVE: View from the street.

The garage door is the most prominent feature on this house.  The front door is so far from the sidewalk and the porch is just a decoration.

ABOVE: Despite having an alley this house placed the garage facing the sidewalk.

Any car parked on the above driveway would block the public sidewalk.

ABOVE: No alley here but a garage below or behind would have been better.

So wrong!  Bright white and you have to walk up the driveway to access the steps to the front porch.

ABOVE: This could be nearly any suburban subdivision, anywhere in the country.

Again, the walk to the front door connects not to the sidewalk but to the driveways. Nobody should be subjected to such houses and certainly not within the urban core of the region.

ABOVE: At least the garage doors are not bright white.

Where to begin? It just hurts to look at the above.  Hey, they could be worse:

ABOVE: My eyes!

The above site doesn’t have an alley but better options exist.  The best for this site would have been a shared garage with a single garage door.  New construction here should have been built closer to the street, roughly in line with the existing building to the right. Again, the bright white paint is what jumps off the picture.

So you can see why I was not optimistic about what I was about to see:

The development, Magnolia Heights, is at the SE corner of Macklind & Reber Place.  When finished four units will face Reber Place and six will face Macklind.  Above you see the first four units facing Macklind. What is great is how they filled in around the 1896 building on the corner.

ABOVE: Townhouses (right) fit well with 19th century corner building (left)

I like the different brick colors with the old buff building in the red on the new construction.  Had the corner building been red I would not have liked the selected color but it works very well here. The black trim and windows on the new construction is classy and works well with the overall color scheme of the facade.

From the sidewalk we immediately see the differences with the other new construction shown earlier. The units are only slightly set back from the line established by the corner building. Steps exist but they are few in number. Hand railings on both sides of the steps would enable me to easily navigate them. This facade enriches the sidewalk experience rather than taking away from it as the other examples do.  Each townhouse has their own two-car garage accessed from a private rear drive off the public alley.

I hope to see more infill like this in the future!

– Steve Patterson


Starting bid 900K

February 16, 2010 Downtown, Economy, Real Estate Comments Off on Starting bid 900K

The handsome building at 1701 Locust was sold twice in 2005: for $1.25 million in August and for $1.8 million in December 2005.  Next week it will be auctioned online with bids starting at 900K.  Ouch!

Many buildings downtown faced similar issues.  When times were great building prices rose quickly but they have cooled even faster than they heated up.

Nothing appears to have been done, except architectural drawings for lofts.  This 4-story building contains over 76,000sf.  From the listing;

“Exceptional user purchase or redevelopment opportunity. The Property is a vacant office building measuring approximately 76,000 sf in downtown St. Louis. The property is an ideal candidate for a user purchase or redevelopment to mixed-use of commercial and residential. Phase I and Phase II applications for local, state and federal historical tax credits have been completed and approved, which provide for tax credits of 25% (state and local) and 20% (federal) of eligible costs and expenses of renovations to offset state and federal income taxes.”

It is located a block West of me so I hope someone will buy and rehab it. There are plenty of for sale condos on the market already so rental units makes more sense currently.  More information can be found at Auction.com.

– 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


Smoking ban can’t come soon enough for one St. Louis family

I often get emails from people wanting me to bring attention a problem/dispute they are having.    Such was the case on November 7th:

I live in the Jack Thompson Lofts on the top floor above Club Lure. I live with my girlfriend and her [9 year-old] daughter and the smoke from the bar engulfs us every weekend. The condo assc. meet with the bar a couple of times and request smoke eaters. They agree to install them months ago but it never happened. Now they just ignore us.

“Engulfs?”Many people tend to exaggerate or twist facts to get the media on their side.  I ended up emailing with both of them, learning more about their situation.  I emailed some smoke-free friends that suggested they look here and here (pdf) for help.  I was interested in sharing their story and I could have shared it just based on their accounts.From their descriptions I could tell their situation was real and they were not just playing me.  But I knew it was best if I visited them in person to see for myself.  Before I get to my visit let me explain the building.

The Jack Thompson Square building is located at the Southwest corner of Tucker & Washington Ave (map).

Washington Ave facade of the Jack Thompson Square building
Washington Ave facade of the Jack Thompson Square building

The ground floor is Lure Nightclub.  Floors 2-4 are offices, mostly for Kwame Building Group, the developer of the building.  You may recognize the name Kwame — they were part of the Cross County Collaborative that won a lawsuit with Metro over the extension of our MetroLink system.  The club and the offices share the Washington Ave entrance.

The 5th floor contains four condos while the 6th floor has four 2-story units.  The 8 residential condos have a separate entrance at the rear of the building facing narrow St. Charles St.

entrance to Jack Thompson lofts
entrance to Jack Thompson lofts

That first weekend we couldn’t find a time to meet.  The problem, they explained, was worst between 1am and 8am.  I knew I’d need to alter my schedule to verify their claim.

So last Friday night I went to their condo located at Tucker & Washington Ave at 1am (technically Saturday morning).  I had never been in the residential part of this building.  Like most, the lobby contains a mail center and an elevator.  But this resident lobby contained something I’ve seen in no other: massive amounts of cigarette smoke.

Jack Thompson Lofts lobby
Jack Thompson Lofts lobby

This is basically the size of the lobby.  The elevator is to the left and the mailboxes are just beyond that.  Behind me to the right is a door to a hallway which leads to the back emergency exit for Lure Nightclub.

Typically in these buildings the commercial spaces are kept separate from the resident spaces.  However, it is common to permit emergency egress through an otherwise resident-only space.  The club’s exit door is at the end on the left in the above image.

We took the elevator up to the top — the 6th floor.  I was so bothered by the lobby smoke their hall seemed refreshing.  We peaked into the emergency staircase.

The stair leads up to the roof.  The bedrooms/bathrooms for the four 6th floor units are located on the 7th floor.  A former opening from the stairwell is adjacent to her daughter’s bathroom.  Each Friday & Saturday night the smoke makes its way up the stairwell forcing them to run the exhaust fan in her bathroom.

This couple’s unit is in the middle of the floor.  They said the neighbor with the entrance opposite the elevator (above) gets smoke through the elevator shaft.

From the shared hall I could see the intersection of Tucker (12th) and Washington Ave.

Their loft was very nice.  I didn’t even attempt the spiral stair but we talked for about 15 minutes.  Their windows which face West were closed but I could hear the music from the club below — we are on the 6th floor!

Heading back down the hall to the elevator I could now smell the smoke on their floor. Coming off the elevator into the lobby I was again confronted by the visible smoke.  Just then a young man exited the club into the resident lobby to talk on his phone.  I can’t imagine putting up with 1) this smoke and 2) having strangers in what should be secured space.

I emailed both Lure and Kwame Sunday morning requesting a response to the claim they are ignoring requests from loft owner’s to remedy the situation.  This couple and her daughter moved in a year ago after she bought the condo.   Their first night in  their new home a fight broke out in the club that spilled out into their lobby.  I’vc never been to Lure but here is how they describe themselves:

Located in the heart of downtown, Lure nightclub is one of the most popular places in Saint Louis. Lure nightclub has become the place where the “A” list crowd goes to unwind, to dance, or just have a drink. Every night Lure attracts beautiful crowds by the sweet smell of sophistication, class and style. The beauty of this magnificent ultra lounge is supplemented by the house groves, European bottle service and party people. This chic ultra lounge keeps finger on the pulse of socialite demands with modern decor, sexy lighting, and DJs spinning the best in hip hop, top 40 and house.

As of January 2, 2011 Lure will be smoke-free but that is more than 13 months away.  When the weather is warm the problem is not as bad because the club runs the air conditioning system.  The couple tried a petition to revoke the club’s liquor license but they couldn’t even sign it themselves:

The Excise Division has a procedure wherein the property owners, registered voters and business owners within a 350 feet circular radius of the proposed premises can protest the issuance, renewal or continuation of a liquor license and seek administrative review.

Apparently the Excise Division has an unwritten rule limiting protesters to the first few floors of a building.  Second floor residents of The Meridian building across Tucker can protest Lure’s license but none of the residents in the same structure can.  That just doesn’t seem right.

Lure needs to contain the smoke within it’s space.  The developer of the building,  which owns the space Lure leases, needs to correct any deficiencies that allow the smoke from one space to enter another.  The emergency exit at Lure needs a panic alarm so the door is used only in actual emergency situations.  Club patrons should not have access to the resident portion of the building unless they are exiting the club in a true emergency.

Hopefully these parties can resolve this awful situation prior to the start of the indoor smoke-free law on January 2, 2011.

Addendum: as I wrote this piece over the weekend I sent out many emails.  Monday morning at 9:15am I got a call from Kwame’s President/CEO Tony Thompson.  He indicated he was unaware of the problem and would get his building management staff on the issue right away.  But within the last year the condo association met with Lure’s manager and Tony’s brother Ty. We’ll see, hopefully a resolution is coming soon.

I also learned that 7th Ward Alderman Phyllis Young introduced BB240 on 11/13/09 that would revise the city’s excise ordinance. Language in this bill would still mean these residents have no say:

No portion of a building shall be considered to be within the petition circle other than the main or surface floor of such building, the two floors immediately above the main or surface floor, and the floor immediately below the main or surface floor.

That is fine for adjacent buildings within the 350ft radius, but not for the subject building.

UPDATE: 11/17/09 @ 12:15pm – I just received a phone call from Lure’s manager, Tony Tribiani. He said he and Kwame’s Ty Thompson have met with the association he says he can’t afford the equipment to eat the smoke.  He says the couple shouldn’t have bought a condo located over a nightclub.  Furthermore, what I saw, smelled and coughed on was not smoke — it was fog created by hazers that weekend.  Yeah right I can tell the difference between fog and cigarette smoke..

– Steve Patterson


Avalon Cinema For Sale

The long-closed Avalon Cinema is finally for sale.  For years people have said the 1930s structure was an eyesore that should be razed.

Thankfully it has avoided the fate of so many other fine buildings.  The property at 4225 S. Kingshighway is listed at $1,000,000 by Bjaye Greer of Realty Exchange. The owner is finally convinced to sell:

Inside the pitch-black carcass of the Avalon Cinema, the windows are boarded up and the electricity has been shut off since it closed its doors on South Kingshighway Boulevard nine years ago. The faint sound of dripping water is audible, and junk lies strewn across the floors of the building — ruined reels of film, broken projector parts, a shopping cart and a filthy mattress.

Amid the squalor, the building’s owner, Greg Tsevis, navigates the darkened stairs and crawl spaces with the ease afforded by 30 years of familiarity, oblivious to the ruin around him.  (Riverfront Times July 2007)

The building includes land with 200 feet of frontage along South Kingshighway – a substantial length.

The West face of South Kingshighway at Chippewa (map link) is mostly intact.  The parking lot adjacent to the Avalon was there in a 1958 photograph.

I’d like to see a new building be built adjacent to the Avalon with street-level retail, offices and/or residential units and structured parking.  Basically it would be structured parking at the rear of the site with a thin face at the street.  I haven’t done a proforma to see how the numbers work out.  My focus is to create a nice wall of building fronts along the sidewalk line so that the area is more connected and friendly to pedestrians.

Source: Google Street View
Source: Google Street View

The garage on Delmar (left above), across from the Tivoli Theater, still looks like a garage with the open second floor.  But I’d take it on South Kingshighway next to the Avalon as a compromise to having occupied space at the front on the 2nd level.  A 3rd floor would be excellent and in keeping with nearby buildings.

The first step that needs to be taken is to develop a form-based zoning code for the area that would guide future development.   This would give developers an assurance that any adjacent development would also take on an urban form.

Further Reading

– Steve Patterson