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The Disappearing Urban Billboard

I’ve talked at length before about signs and billboards (here and here). These days it is all about the large-scale vinyl banner but in earlier times what wasn’t painted on the side of a building was set on the roof.  I had never given these old billboards much thought, until recently.

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Above is the Farmers and Merchants building in February of 2006 with an advertisement for the phone book, of all things. To preservation purists the billboard is an eyesore. The platform in front of the billboard masks the decorative elements along the parapet of the building and adds a cluttered look, right?

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Above, in November 2007, the billboard is gone but the framework remains — for now. Soon the framework will be off to a metal recycler. Standing in the beautifully renovated South Side National Bank, now condos, with a representative from The Lawrence Group I couldn’t help feel a sudden loss when he indicated it was going away. “No!” I cried out.

I can’t fault the Lawrence Group, well, not too much.  They own the building and want to do a new roof, hard to argue with that logic.  I know if they wanted to install such a billboard folks would be upset.  This, of course, got me wondering if I’d be one of those objecting to a large display of commercialism if this same billboard were proposed today.

Near my office, on South Kingshighway, is another rooftop billboard above the yummy Lily’s restaurant. This helps answer my question — I think I’d be able to support having such billboards along commercial streets.  I’d be cautious about light pollution — excess light cast into nearby windows from the billboard.  But in general, I rather like it.
Even though I don’t always like the message on the billboard, I like the presence.  It adds a nice touch of urban messiness to the street.  I like the shadows they cast.  I like the details of the metal structure and the supports where the structure touches the roof or exterior masonry walls.  I don’t want St. Louis to become Times Square or Las Vegas but such are part of our culture.


Above is from a scene in the classic 1992 film, Strictly Ballroom, with Scott and Fran dancing on the roof amongst the laundry and a Coke billboard.  OK, that was based in Australia — see how universal the billboard truly is.  We have Billboard magazine and I’m sure we’ve all seen a sitcom or two with folks up on a billboard trying to change the message.

I like urban clutter, but not just any clutter.  I don’t like tons of little (or big) vinyl banners affixed to the face of buildings.   I’m also not a fan of the big billboard on a pole — just sticking up in the air, often next to the highway.  But there is something about the rooftop billboard that I find endearing.

As a matter of public policy, I wouldn’t go so far as to prevent an owner from removing a billboard from their building but I could also see circumstances where not only might such a sign be welcomed, but actually encouraged.  I could imagine allowing property owners along major streets to erect billboards as part of a development project — as an incentive for doing a more urban project.  For example, say Walgreens were to renovate an existing urban building (aka up to sidewalk, parking on-street/behind) and then lease the 2nd floor apartments.  I’d let them have a billboard on the roof for that.

I’d want it to be at least on a two-story building.  Again, issues of light pollution would need to be addressed.  Not Times Square, just enough to upset the anti-clutter folks.


Mall Owners Seek Tax Increase To Raze Portion of Vacant 4-Year Old Anchor Location

November 30, 2007 Retail, St. Louis County 13 Comments

In the late 1990s Australian based Westfield Group got a dandy TIF (nearly $30 million) to rebuild West County Mall — claiming it was outdated and unable to compete with newer malls. The suburban community of Des Peres, with well heeled residents, agreed and blighted the old mall.

Reopening in September 2002 the expectations were high but a year later in September 2003 sales were under projections. From the Post-Dispatch of September 14, 2003:

…a year after reopening to much hype, West County Center is yet to prove whether it can prevail in a high-stakes battle for the affluent shoppers of west St. Louis County.

In its first year, West County Center has struggled to capture the sales expected of it, according to figures from the city of Des Peres.

Analysts and retailers say the 1.3 million-square-foot mall, the area’s third largest, has been hurt in the struggling economy and by stiff competition from established high-end malls, namely the St. Louis Galleria and Plaza Frontenac.

Sales for 2003 will be down about 26 percent from original projections, according to the city.

In 2006 Federated closed numerous Lord & Taylor locations, including the one at the Galleria and West County Center (Biz Journal). Earlier this year Westfield and Tennessee based CBL formed a partnership that included a number of area malls, including West County Center.

So now this new partnership wants to create a community improvement district. From today’s Post-Dispatch:

CBL Properties, the new owners of the shopping center, plan to demolish half the building to create a restaurant village with four to six dining establishments and a courtyard in the center. The upper half of the remaining building would be a large bookstore and the lower half would have small retail shops.

The improvement district would impose a 1 percent sales tax on stores in the mall, except for anchor stores Macy’s, Nordstrom and J.C. Penney. The sales tax is expected to generate $10 million to retire notes or bonds issued to finance the project.

A public hearing will be held Dec. 10 on the request for the district, the redevelopment plan and conditional use permits.

Wow, when will these folks ever stop? So I’m now supposed to pay an extra cent sales tax on purchases at the Apple Store so they can fund the latest re-working of the failed indoor mall concept? Meanwhile, purchases made at one of the three anchors would be a cent less than in smaller stores in the mall?  And what “community” is this district to improve?  Are we calling a privately owned mall a community now?  The owner of this mall is not destitute — let them borrow the money needed to rebuild as they see fit.


The End of the Local Video Store?

November 6, 2007 Retail 18 Comments

The age of the video store is coming to a close. Unlike many of you, I’m old enough to recall the VHS vs Betamax fight and the start of the video stores. First they were little local mom & pop stores which become, at times, local chains. Then we saw the rise of places like Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. The demise of the local cinema was predicted by many.

Recently the Hollywood Video at Jefferson & Broadway, next to the ‘can’t touch this’ Schmid Fountain, closed its doors. Earlier, the Blockbuster a tad further South on Broadway closed as well. Blockbuster locations on Chippewa as well as Kingshighway @ MLK have also shuttered their doors. There are probably numerous other examples throughout St. Louis and all across the country.

Perhaps they should have added a drive-thru window?

The choices for the movie fan these days are great, far better than standing in some generic retail space looking at row after row of video cases. First, the cinema is still a special treat with places like the Moolah, Chase and Tivoli. Cable & satellite offer more channels than ever before with new releases coming much sooner than they used to. Online rental models like NetFlix are amazingly fast and the interface is quite addictive. And finally, for a buck, you can rent movies via a machine from companies such as RedBox and MovieCube.

If you’ve not seen RedBox or MovieCube it is an interesting delivery method. Situated inside of places like McDonald’s or Schnuck’s these machines taking all of 5-6 square feet of floor space are quick and efficient.  Today’s retailers need to increase the revenues received on a per square foot basis and large areas with videos simply don’t cut the mustard anymore.

It is interesting to see all these changes in the video market, something that didn’t exist 30 years ago.  Many storefronts, often built for these places, are left scattered around the landscape.  Some will remain vacant while others will find new uses.  This is yet another reason why the building form should be a higher priority over the use of a structure.  The use will likely change over the years but the building form remains in place as long as the building remains standing.  As a society, we cannot afford to change buildings for each and every change of use.


Where to Buy Clothing?

November 5, 2007 Retail 14 Comments

The basics of life are food & shelter, we pretty much need these to keep going. Except for nudists, the next thing on the list of basics are clothing. But what and where to purchase?

Do we go with all cotton? What about American made? Locally made? Sustainably made with foreign labor? It is all a bit confusing.

The old delima was shopping in the city vs suburbs — the box vs the local merchant. Now it is a bit more complicated — does the box sell something better for the planet? At some point price has to be a factor, I don’t need any $100 t-shirts no matter how well built or regardless of who made it.
I have no great insights in this area but I need to purchase more clothes and I want to put my money in the right spot. Thoughts?


I Scootered To A Working Farm Yesterday

Few people on small 49cc scooters make it out to rural farm country. While I did visit a farm yesterday, it wasn’t a long trip through the ring of sprawl to reach my destination . My Environmental Planning class at Saint Louis University visited the New Roots Urban Farm on St. Louis’ near north side.


New Roots is located on Hogan Street adjacent to the vacant but stunning St. Liborius church.


You can almost just pass right by — the quarter acre urban farm is very unassuming with the exception of the lively sign.



Rows of basil yet to be picked. Mmmmmm, pesto! Newer homes, set a suburban distance back from the street, complete the block and much of the street to the east.


Above, wire fencing guards the hen house.


Today was a day for members to pick up their weekly veggies. Above, a father and daughter make their way to the pickup area.


Co-founder/Farm & Program Manager Trish Grim was our instructor and guide. In the span of four years this cooperative group has gone from four vacant city lots to a working farm that feeds themselves and 25 shareholders per season. Their annual budget is now up to $50,000. Yes, a mere $50K annually. They have roughly 4 people that work full time as well as numerous volunteers and interns. Clearly they are not in this for the money.

Payments from members of the CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) make up roughly 25% of the budget, the balance coming from various grants. These members get “10-15 pounds of produce” each week during the growing season. There is a waiting list to be a member. New Roots has teamed with the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group on the North City Farmers’ Market which opened this season on 14th Street across from Crown Candy Kitchen. Saturday is the final day for that market this season — they are ending with a big “Hoe Down” with BBQ, games and music (9am-1pm).

New Roots also teamed up with St. Patrick’s Center and Gateway Greening on the City Seeds project at 22st & Pine. Where you say? The leftover/wasted land at the old 22nd Street interchange. Here the homeless are hired at minimum wage to work 3 days per week on this 2-1/2 acre farm. New Roots provides the expert knowledge on the project and another grant funds the wages for the workers. A couple of years ago I argued with developer Kevin McGowen about this project — I wanted the land to be reused in the future when the excess roadway was removed. I am correct in that in the future it will be hard to take back the land for development but I think Kevin was right — this is really a good project. Produce grown on this urban farm is sold at the North City market and the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market.

One of their goals is to be sustainable — environmentally and fiscally. So far, they are quite environmentally sustainable given their practices which includes transporting goods to the North Side Market via bicycle carts. Fiscally, however, they are not so sustainable yet. Trish referenced groups in other parts of the country —- one getting as much as 70% of their funding from sales of product.

Lest you think this is all some hippie festival, I happen to know at least one self proclaimed Republican that is a member.  In fact, the supporters tend to be more affluent types which allows New Roots to sell their produce at very fair prices to lower income folks at the local market (all are welcomed regardless of income).  To me there is something really neat about seeing our food being grown on a real working farm so close to downtown.

Be sure to check out their website at www.newrootsurbanfarm.org and especially their unique newsletter.