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More Sprawl Planned Adjacent to Soulard Neighborhood in 7th Ward

A Walgreen’s and attached strip center next to Bohemian Hill and across from City Hospital is not enough. Nor is the under construction strip center at 7th and Russell. The latest in Phyllis Young’s plan to surround Soulard with all the beauty of O’Fallon (Missouri or Illinois — they look the same) is on the former parking lot of Nooter, at Broadway and Park (map). Mere blocks from The Lasalle Park neighborhood, the rebirth of the Chouteau’s Landing area, Soulard Farmers’ Market and other establishments between this site and downtown.


Site is located to the right in the above image. On another day I’ll have to deal with the bike lane suddenly ending at Park with the Bike St. Louis sign pointing you to the left — like somehow you are supposed to get into the left turn lane, across two lanes of traffic, from the bike lane at the intersection.


Closer up you see the nearly four and a half acre parking lot which is to become this:
IMG_4088.JPG copy

Is this the future of St. Louis? Filling in every vacant area with generic strip malls fronted by a sea of asphalt parking lots? While I hope not I am afraid this is the best we can hope for given our politically crippled planning department and inept leadership at city hall. Of course the sketches are pretty honest, they never show an ADA-compliant access route for pedestrians from the main public sidewalk. Bike racks, who needs those? Plenty of “free” auto parking? You bet!!! While the above image is from the sign posted in front of the property it could be anywhere in the region. There is nothing about this that says it is blocks from the river in one of the oldest areas of town.

For years cities had massive change forced upon them in the way of urban renewal — interstate highways ripped through established neighborhoods and high-rise public housing projects wiped out more neighborhoods. These areas really stood no chance of survival with such a large scale approach. Today we cannot afford to come in and reconnect areas on such an equally large scale — nor would we want to. The bigger the scale the more watered down the solution. What we need is to methodically and incrementally piece our city back together again.

While this incremental construction would take place over many years, on many parcels and via many different builders/developers the planning must be done upfront and on the bigger scale. This does not mean we design every building. No, what is means is that we set out a community vision — what will we expect of the building types once built. Will they be multi-story and built up to the street with any parking below or behind the structure? Cities such as Seattle, Portland and Denver are seeing great success through the use of districts-scaled plans with the power of zoning. The goal is not to control uses but forms of new buildings, relationships to the street and the disposition of parking. Slowly but surly the vision will come together — getting increasingly urban and dense with each passing project. Biking and walking from place to place will become better and friendlier over time. This approach takes the long view on rebuilding a walkable city that also happens to accommodate motorists along the way.

I have no problems with generic chain stores in this location. What I do have a problem with is the form in which they are proposed. Even smart suburban areas in the US aren’t allowing this sort of lowest common denominator of development anymore. Yes, this is probably better than a vacant parking lot but when we have no standards at all we get development that is a reflection of that lack of vision.

If you share my perspective on this the people you need to talk to are long-time 7th Ward Alderman Phyllis Young, “Planning” and [Sub]Urban Design Director Rollin Stanley and Deputy Mayor Barb Geisman via Mayor Slay.


Project for Public Spaces Focuses on Public Markets with Valuable Insights

The outstanding Project for Public Spaces continues to illustrate why they are the world leaders in creating quality public space — they understand fundamental relationships between humans and space. While we like to think we are unique in St. Louis the fact is human nature and how we perceive public space is similar throughout the world. Granted, some cultural differences do exist in the world — two men kissing each other on the cheek in Eastern Europe or the Middle East means something entirely different than on Castro Street in San Francisco. Regardless of cultural customs, what makes a good or bad space for human interaction is much the same.

Project for Public SpacesPPS divides their information into various areas of public space; parks, transportation, civic centers, downtowns, mixed-use
development, campuses, squares, waterfronts, and public markets. In each of these areas they’ve undertaken extensive research into what works and what does not work. Of course they continually monitor what is happening as demographics and technology change, recognizing that what may have not worked 20 years ago may work today, and vice versa. The lesson, continual evaluation.
The area of public markets is the topic for their September 2007 online newsletter. Note that I didn’t say “farmers’ market” as they don’t limit their markets to simply food — throughout the world much commerce takes place at public markets. These markets are a great form of low-overhead retailing.

In the St. Louis region the historic Soulard Market comes to mind as the most well known. As public spaces go, the Soulard Market is one of the best in the region. The diversity of shoppers, the various languages spoken, the vendors yelling out their specials, the decidedly non-uniform booths, and the shoppers negotiating the best prices all contribute to an experience you’ll not find in a big supermarket.

This month PPS’ newsletter included the following articles:

  • A Ripe Time for Local Food, four ways markets improve our communities by strengthening ties between urban and rural people.
  • What We Need to Learn from America’s Classic Markets, applying the lessons of Pike Place and other great markets.
  • Markets for All, how innovative markets serve the needs of low-income customers.
  • The Happy Shopper, why the most satisfying shopping experiences are more about social interaction than consumer acquisition.
  • Making the Case for Markets in Cold, Hard Cash; new tools and recent studies prove the positive impact of public markets on local economies.
  • Remarkable Market Anniversaries, historic markets around the U.S. are celebrating milestones this year.

All of the articles are easy reads and highly recommended for a good understanding of public markets. I’ve selected some paragraphs from each to peak your interest and present some key points:

To rebuild agricultural systems that can provide people with fresh, local food, we need to reverse the long deterioration of urban-rural connections. For years, the ties between urban consumers and nearby farmers–so strong before World War II–slackened and fell apart. Teeming market streets disappeared, farms were swallowed up by subdivisions, and the vital networks of market gardens that many cities once relied on shrank and fell into obscurity. City dwellers lost access to the freshest food and its inherent health benefits, and small producers in the countryside became an endangered species. At the same time, the social connections and sense of place fostered by local farmers markets slowly dissipated.

Believe it or not, America’s two most productive agricultural counties in the 1880s were Brooklyn and Queens. And all that produce didn’t just come from farmland untouched by urbanization. A lot of it was grown by city dwellers on garden plots, or “market gardens,” an important supplement to food shipped in from outlying farms.

“As more Asians and Latinos are immigrating to this country, they are bringing their own market traditions,” said PPS’s Steve Davies. “There is a great expansion of markets in diverse neighborhoods, where new arrivals are shaping the markets around their own cultures. Markets are places where all of these cultures, in fact, really come together.”

In addition to financial hurdles, indoor markets run the risk of appearing “Disneyfied,” Tumlin cautioned. “That’s true,” said Ron Binaghi of Stokes Farms. “That’s why some of the [Greenmarket] farmers are nervous about our moving into something more permanent. We don’t want to lose the special feeling of the outdoor market.”

The experience of a market is far more important to its success than any issues involving permanence or structure. In all the market surveys Project for Public Spaces has done around the world, the question “what do you like best about this market?” is always answered the same–it is the “experience” that attracts. The “3 Ps”–people, products and personality, plus that deeper sense of equality and reassurance–are what draw customers. Snazzy designs rarely register beyond a blip of a response.

Markets must not become so regulated or precious that their life and spontaneity are squeezed out. They must stay unfettered by convention and remain, as D. H. Lawrence said in his essay Mornings in Mexico, a “babel and a hubbub”, a place “to buy and to sell but above all to commingle”.

Another method to make markets more accessible is to bring them closer to customers. That’s what a Toronto organization called FoodShare accomplished by setting up small produce stands called “Good Food Markets” in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. “Most of the farmers markets [in Toronto] are based in middle- and upper-income communities,” said Angela ElzingaCheng of FoodShare, adding that the cost of traveling across town to get fresh food is “very expensive for low-income communities.” To reduce those costs, FoodShare launched the first Good Food Markets in 2005. That summer there were two locations. This year there are twelve.

One time-proven way to gauge the effect of a market is to conduct an economic impact study, which gauges the positive influence on local communities in quantifiable terms. Comprehensive economic impact analysis, however, is expensive and beyond the means of most public markets. PPS asked Econsult to create a typology of public markets which takes into account their diversity and the diversity of the communities they serve. SEED is a web-based tool that provides a straightforward mechanism for collecting data about farmers markets from customer surveys and counts, and then uses the data to estimate direct and indirect economic impacts using a standard “multiplier” — that is, the potential indirect and induced expenditures of specific public markets. The website also provides useful information about economic impact studies.

When shopping is separated from the broader fun of hanging out in friendly, lively places, it becomes a hollow experience. It’s like a dinner party with plenty of food, but no conversation. Most malls minimize public space where folks can comfortably gather because they don’t want to distract us from the business of making purchases. It’s emblematic of the single-use zoning approach to life, where we live in one place, work in another, shop somewhere else and play in an entirely different spot, with none of them really offering us that joyful, biologically-fulfilling sense of being where the action is.

One article takes a good look at how a market in Lynn Massachusetts let’s low-income customers know they accept food stamps — signs were simply not enough. Their solution was creative and effective:

The Lynn Farmers Market responded by promoting the use of Electronic Balance Transfer (EBT), a form of food stamp distribution that works like a debit card. Customers swipe their EBT cards at the market and the price is deducted from their food stamp account. Last summer, Dimond and the Food Project launched a two-pronged strategy: adding a financial incentive for customers to pay using EBT, and marketing EBT at every opportunity.

The incentive, made possible by a small grant from a state-wide anti-hunger organization called Project Bread, gave customers one dollar of additional produce for every dollar they spent in EBT, up to $5.00. For example, if a customer spent $2.50 in EBT, they received $2.50 in additional produce. If they spent $10.00, they got $5.00 of extra produce.

Customers get more mouth-watering produce when they pay with EBT. “That type of promotion got the word of mouth going better than anything we’d tried before,” said Dimond.

The next step was to make sure everyone knew about the EBT promotion. Instead of relying on signs or banners, Food Project volunteers informed every customer that EBT was available, whether they were eligible to use it or not. That helped lessen any stigma associated with EBT, said Dimond.

“It got the word out, and it normalized EBT as a form of payment,” she noted. “A lot more people got the message.” As a result of the promotion, EBT sales grew steadily, eventually exceeding $200 per week.

This summer, the Food Project offered the dollar-for-dollar incentive earlier in the season. When August rolled around, they stopped giving out extra produce with EBT purchases. The timing was by design, because it enabled the Food Project to see if the promotion’s momentum would carry over once the financial incentive was off the table.

Sure enough, even without the lure of free produce, EBT sales have averaged $150 per week, compared to $35 per week at the start of the season. This year, the market’s total EBT sales have already exceeded last year’s tally, and there are still six weeks left in the season.

The Lynn Market accomplished several things with their strategy. First, they made sure customers knew they could buy quality food with their EBT cards. Second, and I think this is very important, they reduced any stigma that may have been associated with using an EBT card at the market, making low-income customers feel welcomed. And lastly after accomplishing their goal of letting customers know that EBT was accepted they eliminated the extra incentive so that it didn’t become a default entitlement.

Much of the talk this week has been about national retailers downtown which is certainly welcomed. But it is the local markets in our city/region that give me hope for the future. It has proven impossible for me to visit the Soulard, Tower Grove or Old North markets without seeing someone I know. To the casual observer, the Tower Grove market is simply some tents on a patch of asphalt. While technically true, the sum is without a doubt greater than the parts. Trying to replicate the dynamic through fancy architectural or planning theory could never be as successful. Certainly physical surroundings are important, a Southtown Center market in the parking lot would not have the same feel.

However, I’ve been to the big Hillcrest market in San Diego which is simply a collection of market tents on a temporarily blocked street and adjacent parking lot for a state office building. The alignment of the tents and throngs of shoppers transform a normally bland area into something special. A few hours later the market is over and the area returns to a rather drab normal level until the following week. The 3 P’s mentioned above come together — “people, products and personality.”

And of course I have some photos to share. First up, the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto:


Above, the large building houses two levels of market stalls.


Inside the shopper is greeted with a large variety of choices — everything from produce, to cheese to wild octopus!


The market spills across the street in a brutal 60s building. The people and activity give the building life and character it lacks on its own.


Still more booths are adjacent to both buildings in the form of tents, great for those vendors that don’t want long-term leases inside.

Back in St. Louis we have the Tower Grove Farmers’ Market, now it its second year:


Above, bike & trailer sit patiently amid all the hubub of the market in the background.


Local merchant, Home Eco, gives a talk on green building adjacent to the market.


The market activity can be seen through the building as a band begins to set up. The interactive fountain is momentarily empty except for me (I couldn’t resist — why should the youngsters have all the fun?).


Earlier this year, in much hotter weather, the 2-section interactive fountain was as popular as the market.


The market in Old North St. Louis is still in its infancy but with increasing demand.  A massive undertaking is the project to remove the failed mall concept and return 14th street to an actual street.  Work has already begun in earnest on nine buildings in the immediate blocks around the dormant outdoor mall.  Next year the next phase of the project will center on 14th and the buildings fronting the street which has been closed to traffic for 30 years.  This market will play in important role in the re-population and local economy of Old North.

Again, check out PPS’ September 2007 online newsletter for great information on markets.


Cycling Organization Giving Away Kids Bike Helmets at Farmers Market

The St. Louis Regional Bike Federation will be holding an interesting event on the east side of the river Saturday morning:

Bike Smart – Edwardsville on Saturday, July 7
Join us on July 7 from 8:00 a.m. – noon at the Land of Goshen Farmers’ Market in downtown Edwardsville, IL for helmet fitting, bike education, and mechanical safety checks for your bike! Helmets First will be there offering 50 free helmets for kids. When the free helmets run out you can buy one for just $7! In addition St. Louis Recumbent Bicycles will provide a bicycle mechanic to check your bike and make minor repairs or adjustments and help you learn how to check your bike before you ride. We’ll have experienced riders on hand to answer your questions about bike commuting, riding safely in traffic, and your rights and responsibilities on the roads.

Bike helmets are very important for safety — having them properly fitted it critical.  I see way too many kids wearing helmets that are angled way back exposing their foreheads (some adults wear helmets this way too).  Please folks, check your helmet for proper fit — go to an event like this or go into nearly any bike shop and talk to them about how to properly adjust your helmet.

It looks like the Bike Fed already made an appearance at the Tower Grove market but I have suggested they do a fitting at the Old North St. Louis Farmers’ Market.

Happy eating and riding!


SLU Sells Bread in Clayton to Help ‘Inner-City’ Kids

Something about a university located within the City of St. Louis selling items in neighboring Clayton just struck me as a bit off. Here is the press release from SLU:

SLU Offers Breads, Vegetables at Farmer’s Market
Event Details: 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., June 30
Check out the department of nutrition and dietetics booths 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. every Saturday at the Clayton Farmer’s Market, 8282 Forsyth Blvd., just west of Straub’s grocers in Clayton.

In addition to the seasonal organic produce and fresh-made artisan breads, bagels and muffins, the group serves omelets with fresh ingredients from their organic gardens.

Inner-city children help grow the produce while learning about healthy eating. Proceeds from the department’s sales help the University’s many projects with city children and fund scholarships.

To get involved with the nutrition and dietetics project, call (314) 977-8523.

Maybe they tried working with local markets in St. Louis but no space was to be found? Of course SLU is good at looking to western suburbs for money.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if SLU helped start a midtown farmers’ market?


Cities Chasing Retail

The April 2007 issue of Governing magazine has an interesting cover story called, The Retail Chase with a subitlte: Cities will do almost anything to land the story of their dreams. From the article:

Much of the change in the retail market is happening not just within cities but in the middle of downtown. All over the country, young professionals and empty nesters — people with disposable income to spare — are moving into new lofts and high-rise condos. Those new residents have to shop somewhere. In downtown Minneapolis, now home to 30,000 people, three grocery stores are coming, and not one of them requested government subsidies. “For years, all the cities in the Midwest wanted to have a Michigan Avenue,” says Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, referring to Chicago’s famous high-end shopping street. “Michigan Avenue is spectacular, but we’re not all going to have a Michigan Avenue.” What’s evolving downtown now, in Rybak’s view, is a hybrid retail model where destination shoppers can still buy $200 shoes, but where the people living upstairs can find a dry cleaner. “Focus on the housing first,” Rybak says, “and the retail will follow.”

The above is valid, we don’t buy expensive shoes everyday (I never do). What we do need are groceries, toiletries, prescriptions, basic clothing and dry cleaners. A number of these are available in downtown St. Louis currently. But really, every neighborhood needs to have these in close proximity (… a short walk).

The online version of the issue also has some additional interviews with retail experts. One of the three is Robert Gibbs. As it turns out, Gibbs was in town recently as the retail consultant to DPZ on the Dardenne Prairie town center charette. He was certainly interesting to talk to and he did a great job communicating retail strategy to the general public. One of the things he stressed was having high design standards, explaining that retailers have several store models and will simply do the least they can get away with in the community. Retailers, much like home owners, don’t want to overbuild for the area. Gibbs indicated high standards for store fronts and lighting were very important. From one of the online-only articles:

It’s generally agreed now that the underserved markets are urban markets. From inner cities with low-income populations to high-end wealthy cities, urban centers are vastly under-retailed for lots of reasons. If you’re a retailer and you’re growing your stores, you have to figure out how to get into urban locations. To do that retailers are doing things they never would have considered five years ago. They’re modifying their old standards for store sizes in order to fit on smaller, more compact sites. They’re lowering their parking standards. They’re even changing the merchandising mix to fit the urban consumer. So there’s a tremendous opportunity for cities to attract retail.

You mean, we don’t just have to accept the type of store the retailer builds in the exurbs? The city of St. Louis is underserved from a retail perspective. We can have our cake and eat it too: higher design standards and still attract retailers seeking a market in which to grow their business.

Cities don’t have to turn themselves into a mall, but they do have to do what shoppers want. Last year 70 percent of all sales occurred after 5:30 at night. If downtown is going to compete, it has to have stores open in the evenings or on Saturdays. It has to offer the goods that people want to buy at the prices people want to pay. Last year only 2 percent of all apparel sales occurred in downtowns. In that 1950s, that’d be more like 90 to 95 percent. Downtowns have lost almost all their market share. Most are either entertainment districts or they sell knick-knacks and antiques and other things we don’t need.

Yes, evening hours are harder on the mom & pop stores but if that is when the public has time to shop that is when you need to be open for business. This is not the 1950s anymore, mom works to help the family get by so she is not out at 2pm shopping. Despite being gay, I do not go antiquing.

Cities should have a master plan to show how they can accommodate modern retail. Cities should have a written policy saying they want to be competitive and gain market share. Cities need to have high design standards for signage, lighting and building design and be willing to enforce those standards. And they have to have a public parking strategy.

Are you folks down at City Hall and the downtown partnership getting this? A plan, a policy and “high design standards” that are actually enforced! And by “parking strategy” I don’t think Gibbs is advocating the razing of historic structures for additional parking garages, he is referring to good parking management. Gibbs continues:

Cities can get back up to 30, 40 or 50 percent of market share with a policy. There’s a demand for retailers. A lot of them want to locate in downtowns. A lot of cities don’t know that.

The eight or ten cities we consult in have this huge unmet demand. Even a blue-collar town with modest income has a big demand for shoes and apparel. Urban consumers drive farther than normal to get goods and services, and the goods and services they do get downtown they overpay for. That’s the norm. Old Navy knows that now. Target knows that.

Gibbs give a good reason why we can demand higher standards:

Time matters for retailers. Stores have to open to keep their stock prices rising. A development director for a chain is told to open five stores in a region by a certain date, and if they don’t open he gets fired. So those people will go to a city only if the city can give them some assurance that the store can open by a certain date. That’s hard to do.

With good zoning & urban design codes we, as a city & region, can demand better retail design. It will not be offered to us on a silver platter, we must ask for it — no — we must demand better. The chain’s development director, faced with termination for not opening enough stores, will work with us and reluctantly pull off the shelf one of the more urban formats used in other cities. Walgreen’s will not abandon the City of St. Louis. They are on a mission to be in every part of every city and state. They are also trying to beat CVS in the race to tap new markets. QuikTrip is in a similar situation.
Wall Street doesn’t give a damn about St. Louis or if a new store is urban or has a big parking lot in front. Their concern is new growth as evidenced by new stores and eventually, steady or growing same store sales. Period. All these national retailers want to make sure they please their shareholders and Wall Street. They build the very least they can get away with and still please investment analysts that track their stock. If a reasonable urban design code requires good sidewalk access, bike parking, and caps the auto parking then the retailer will go along — that is much easier than answering to shareholders when the stock takes a dive.

Part of the problem is that retailers generally don’t build their own buildings. They work with developers, often local developers, to construct & own the facility and lease it back to them. In the St. Louis region we have a limited number of such retail developers like THF, Koman Properties, and DESCO. These developers, through campaign contributions throughout the region (Missouri & Illinois) keep things favorable to themselves. High design standards? Not for them! They will cite retailers demands but we know that really isn’t true. If they want to stay in business they will need to comply with the community’s design standards. Do you think THF included all the trees in the Chesterfield Flood Commons project out of some altruistic reason? No way! Chesterfield has high landscaping standards. With enforced design standards in place a developer can go back to a retailer and say, “our hands are tied, [insert municiapity] requires that you [insert requirement].

In addition to some basic demands, non-financial incentives can be used. For example, parking can be reduced if the developer includes bike parking (up to a point, and distributing the bike parking throughout the development). Many cities use creative incentives to improve design by giving developers choices that will make the project look & function better and not really add to the overall costs.

It is time for St. Louis to stop acting like a city losing thousands of people every decade. We are on the upswing per the latest figures from the census.