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Irony or Evolution?

September 26, 2009 Guest 2 Comments

I grew up in Louisville, KY.  Like St. Louis, it’s a city that has its roots along a major river, with its economy based on manufacturing and trade.  And, like St. Louis, it’s a city of historic neighborhoods.

One of them is Butchertown, which, not surprisingly, got its name from the stockyards and packing plants that located there.  The neighborhood is the home of Stockyards Bank.  It’s also a neighborhood that’s seeing reinvestment and gentrification, and one that’s increasing in desirability.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but a recent case illustrates the tension that exists anytime change happens.  As with many traditional industries, the meat packing industry has been shrinking in Louisville.  The stockyards shut down in 1999, and there’s only one packing plant left now, but it’s been there for decades.  Recently, that plant was cited for zoning violations, and some of its neighbors were pushing the city to shut it down:

“In this day and age … it’s not an appropriate use here,” said Jon Salomon, an attorney who lives in Butchertown and represents the Butchertown Neighborhood Association. (Source)

Not surprisingly, the company “won”.  The combination of relatively-minor zoning violations and the potential for losing 1,300 jobs likely directly influenced the outcome:

After a 10-hour hearing Monday, the board approved JBS Swift’s request to modify its zoning permit to allow the expansions, after it illegally started construction on an enclosure for a hog-unloading area last fall. (Source)

The reality is that the plant generates truck traffic and some interesting odors.  When the area was primarily industrial, and the only residential uses were the workers’ shotgun cottages, these issues were the smell of money.  Now that many of the residents, especially the new ones, are no longer associated with the industry, the odors and the traffic are being viewed more and more as real negatives, especially to the further “revitalization” of the neighborhood.  This gets down to one of the fundamental challenges of urban living – when does being a historical use become a negative one?  When do the interests of new residents, especially well-educated ones with new and better ideas, start to take priority?

So what does all this have to do with St. Louis?  Simple – given our industrial base, we have the potential for similar conflicts.  The questions in Louisville really aren’t unique.  Was the decision correct?  Be careful of what you ask for? Don’t move somewhere and expect to change things to fit your definition of urban living?  Is NIMBY a good thing or a bad thing?  How do we balance reinvestment with retaining a diverse economic base?  How much gentrification is too much?

– Jim Zavist

UPDATE: 9/26/09 @ 7:45PM – comment section opened.


Welcome to Houston

August 18, 2009 Guest 7 Comments

Hello from Texas!

A little over a year into property ownership in this town in which I have been resident for two years has been an education in “development without borders.”  As many are no doubt aware, Houston, the fourth largest city in the country (a title once held by St. Louis), has no zoning laws.  In addition, the building requirements are also quite minimal.  Oh and historic preservation laws?  Hardly.  It makes for largely unregulated market-based development, and it’s interesting to see the results.

My current home is “Inside the Loop,” as we say here, which means it is inside the innermost highway ring of the city in which downtown is at the center.  As urban as the location may be, it is a far cry from the layout I grew up with in Dogtown.  My neighborhood is a redeveloped community that started turning over in the late 90’s, after Houston removed its minimum lot size restriction that had resulted in the building of tiny bungalows on huge lots for decades prior.  It was a great plan for creating the urban density the city lacks, but it left the planning of that re-creation largely up to the developers who now buy the properties, tear them down, and squeeze massive townhouses into the space like mini cul-de-sacs.

Now that my neighborhood has almost completely turned over, it is easy to see where a little guidance from the local planning commission might have prevented a few of the annoyances we currently face over things like parking, sidewalks, and utilities.  Alas, the “damage” has been done, and the residents are left to make it work somehow.  This is good, in a way.  It promotes community activism and participation in what your neighborhood becomes.  When people decide they no longer can tolerate this style of community, they will move to an area that more closely fulfills their needs.  If enough people turn away from this area, developers can tear down the current stuff and start all over with a new “product.”  Market-based planning at its finest.  It’s not very “green” but there are no rules against it, so it will happen.

It’s too early to predict how all of this will play out, so for now, I give you my neighborhood – and a couple of others later on – as they currently stand, along with the issues that come with them.

A well-kept version of the bungalows that used to dominate this neighborhood:
Well kept bungalow

This is what is left of two nearby bungalows by 4 in the afternoon, after receiving demo permits that morning:
Demo Down the Block

A typical townhouse cul de sac development. The prevailing design of the three story townhouse consists of two front entrances: one for the household cars and a much smaller one for the people. In some designs, the “front entrance” is on the side of the house. It is not very inviting for guests. Street parking is awkward as well, as can be seen in the following picture.
Inner Loop Cul de Sac

Another typical set up across from the cul de sacs – driveways on one side, narrow parking on the other. When this area started to redevelop, the city did not seem to pay any attention to the narrow streets, the awkward utilities, or the drainage options. As a result, the developers are able to build all the way up to the narrow right of way, and the residents play chicken with each other down the streets. The loser ends up in the drainage ditch or backing into the closest available driveway. There is talk of making the neighborhood streets one way and moving to permit parking. This will be an interesting issue to watch.
Driveways one side

It’s been an interesting adjustment to change my expectations of what I think neighborhoods should have and what is provided. I’ll try to tackle a few of the areas of my neighborhood I would have liked to see done differently, plus show off a few of the other trends in other neighborhoods and a little bit of real estate politics down here as I go along. Be patient though! I also have to get your natural gas delivered safely to keep my own lights on!

– Liz Rutherford


This might explain a few things . . .

By Jim Zavist, AIA

One of the first things I discovered after I moved here in 2004 is that St. Louis has a lot of 4-way stops.  Some appear to have replaced traffic signals, at intersections where the cost of maintaining them could no longer be justified (Jamieson & Fyler or Olive & Sutter, for example) – it makes sense given the city’s financial struggles over the past several decades.  But there are many other locations where they seem to have been installed because someone (not a traffic engineer) convinced someone else in the city (likely the alderman) that doing so would make the neighborhood “safer” – Arsenal and Chippewa between Grand and Broadway are both classic examples*.  A not-so-surprising discovery is that many people don’t actually stop at all our STOP signs, many just slow down, then keep going.

It turns out that one of the traffic engineers I worked with in Denver grew up in St. Louis and southern Illinois, and he enlightened me a bit on how things worked in an earlier time, after I sent him this picture:  “In those days, the 1950’s, they used a lot of yellow stop signs and red ones they called boulevard stops.  I think the idea was that the yellow ones were meant to be like a yield sign because you didn’t have to stop at them unless there was cross traffic.  I remember my grandpa hollering at my mom not to stop at stop signs because you didn’t have to.  It made her mad because he did not have a car nor a drivers license.”

My wife also informed me that one of her older, senior friends remembers when the standard practice at 4-way stops in St. Louis was two cars at time alternating, not just one, as is (supposed to be) current practice and law.  Combine these two aberrations from current standards and practices, along with only token enforcement by the St. Louis Police and many people learning to drive/bad habits from their parents, it becomes easier to understand why a STOP signs here are viewed by many as only a suggestion!  As both a relative newcomer and an occasional cyclist, I’d like to hear what natives have to say on this one – is it a quaint St. Louis tradition, a clash of generational values, or something else?

*Having become pretty active in neighborhood politics, I had suggested the addition of 4-way stops at certain Denver intersections.  Since the city actually lets their traffic engineers design and manage a functional system, I quickly learned that 4-way stops are not the “preferred alternative”, that they were reserved for use almost exclusively at schools, where there would be a large amount of pedestrian traffic.  The engineers found, as we see here, with 4-way stops, that a large number of drivers assume that the other driver will actually stop, so they can just slow down.  They found, and secondary streets with moderate traffic, that alternating 2-way stops (E-W, N-S, E-W, N-S, etc.) was much more effective in both obtaining compliance and in balancing smooth traffic flow and safety than 4-way stops.

Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.


Home Ownership & Mortgages

This post is two posts in one.  The first part is a guest piece by regular reader Jim Zavist.  The second part is a press release about a related event at SLU this Friday.


The Mortgage Crisis

A guest editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

The current mortgage “crisis” has generated a lot of discussion and created a lot of potential “solutions”.  I’m also old enough to remember the previous “crisis”, the Savings and Loan Meltdown of the 1980’s, and I’m seeing one big difference between then and now.  The biggest change now is that there seems to be an assumption that homeowners who can’t pay their mortgages somehow “deserve” to be given a way to stay in “their” homes.  Back in the ’80’s, homes were foreclosed, people were evicted, and because the S&L’s couldn’t deal with the volume of foreclosed properties, the federal Resolution Trust Agency ended up with a lot of properties that were resold at whatever the market said they were worth.  So, while some people lost their homes, just as many people got some great deals and were able to start down their path to the American Dream.

Bottom line, if you’re still able to make either your original or your current mortgage payment, you won’t be living on the street.  Yes, you’ll probably be paying rent instead of a mortgage, but guess what, if you can’t sell your home and you can’t refinance your home, because its value has dropped, maybe substantially, you don’t have any equity!  Whatever money you put down and whatever you invested in improving the property is gone.  It’s the big downside to investing in anything – sometimes things go poorly and you lose some or all of your investment!  Sure, it affects your credit rating negatively if you have to give up your home to foreclosure or a short sale.  It may even seem that it’s not “fair”.  But it’s part of being an adult – it’s time to cut your losses and move on.

As has been noted multiple times in the media over the past few days, 92% of the mortgage holders today are still making their payments on time – only 8% are falling behind.  I’m one of those 92%.  I’ve been making mortgage payments for 25 years; unfortunately, not all on the same property (otherwise it could be close to being paid off).  But, before I bought my first place, I became educated.  I’ve always put at least 10% down and always had a fixed-rate mortgage (including one at 12%!), so I’ve never had to face rates that adjusted upwards, as many ARM’s are apparently prepared to do soon.  I also never bought into refinancing every time the rates dropped half a point or to finance extraneous luxuries (like a car or a cruise) by pulling out the last couple of years’ appreciation.  And I’m not alone – 9 out of 10 people are riding out the current drop/correction in home values, even though it may mean cutting back in other areas.  Real estate shouldn’t be viewed as a piggy bank.  It should be viewed as a long-term investment, one that will, hopefully, eventually be completely paid off.

With the clarity of 20/20 hindsight, we’re relatively fortunate that the St. Louis area didn’t see the huge increases in home values that other parts of the country experienced, since we’re not seeing a huge drop, either.  Sure, we have pockets where too many property owners succumbed to the lure of easy money, but, overall, we don’t seem to being hit nearly as hard as places like, say, Tampa, where property values are down nearly 40%.  Because of that, and even though I agree the government needs to do “something” to “fix” the economy, I’m not all that comfortable with several of the President’s proposals to “help people stay in their homes”.  The fundamental problem is that home values simply became higher than actual buyers were willing to pay.  They will continue to fall until buyers are willing to buy.  And while there are concerns being expressed about the availability of credit, in the world of home buying, if you have good credit and an appropriate down payment and you want to buy a home around here, you can do it!  Realistically, there is no “right” to home ownership.  It’s something that’s earned, and we’re all learning a hard lesson.

Jim Zavist

Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Property Ownership and Economic Stability Focus of Symposium
at Saint Louis University School of Law

WHO: Saint Louis University School of Law and Saint Louis University Public Law Review

WHAT: Property  Ownership and Economic Stability: A Necessary Relationship? This symposium brings together a group of leading scholars and practitioners to examine the relationship between property ownership and economic stability.

WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, Feb. 27, 2009

WHERE: Saint Louis University School of Law, William H. Kniep Courtroom, 3700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63108

WHY: The recent instability in America’s housing markets has demonstrated the complex relationship between property ownership and economic stability for lower-income families. Until recently, many experts argued that low-income families could not hope to achieve the “American dream” without owning their own homes. Increasingly, events from the past year are calling the assumptions underlying these assertions into question.

Leading scholars from prestigious law schools across the country join real estate and urban planning experts — including Richard Baron of McCormack Baron Salazar — to discuss an array of pressing property ownership issues, including barriers to creating affordable housing, property rights in the international context and the changing definition of property ownership in the United States.

The symposium offers 6.0 CLE credits in Missouri.

For a detailed schedule of speakers and topics or to register, go to law.slu.edu/news/conferences/property.


Public Realm Attacked in SW St Louis City

A Guest Editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

The attacks continue . . .

On the public realm, that is . . . Watson Road in SW City is not downtown or the CWE. It’s an older four-lane arterial lined with residences, both single and multi-family, churches, banks and small business. It bisects some very walkable neighborhoods and has a well-developed and well-maintained sidewalk system on both sides, mostly with a small tree lawn/planting strip (example below).

Patio dining is something many diners like, and vote for with their feet and credit cards. I like patio and sidewalk dining, especially on weekends like this past one (Saturday night, at Chava’s, for instance), so I’m not a NIMBY. I’m even coming around to the concept of sharing the sidewalks with tables and chairs, as is done by many places on Washington. Where I draw the line is when permanent encroachments are made into the public right-of-way, especially when other alternatives exist.

In response to this demand, more and more restaurants are creating outdoor spaces. In my area/along Watson and Chippewa, both El Paisano and Aya Sophia have recently completed outdoor spaces, and both seem to be doing well. We’re also home to that St. Louis icon, Ted Drewes (013 jpg), and as we all know, they’re heavy users of the public sidewalk.

El Paisano:

Aya Sophia:

Ted Drewes:

It now looks like one of our old-line places, Pietro’s, wants to join the crowd.

This week, the public sidewalk was ripped out and concrete foundations were poured, exactly for what, I’m not quite sure, yet.

My best guess is that we’re getting a permanent deck (on the circular concrete footings) enclosed with a brick wall (on the rectangular footings with the rebar sticking out). I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s covered, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes enclosed, when cooler weather hits. And since it sits smack dab in the middle of the existing pedestrian path, guess what, pedestrians will now be taking a permanent detour.

I guess I’d be more sympathetic and less upset if there were “no other options”. This simply isn’t the case here. The restaurant abuts the public sidewalk (a good thing) on the north and the east. It’s also surrounded by a generous parking lot on the west and south. Why not use the parking lot? I can guess the answer, it’s simple – “We don’t want to/can’t afford to lose any parking.”

Who’s to blame? The owner, for wanting to use what they see as either an extension of their property and/or wanting to put the the public right-of-way to “better use”, as in “Nobody walks there, anyway”, plus “We’re leaving 4′-5′ to squeeze by”? Their architect/designer/contractor for drawings up the owner’s plans and asking the city (been there, done that – sometimes you gotta push the envelope”, plus you’re getting paid to ask, beg and/or plead the owner’s case)? The city for saying yes? Ding, ding, ding! Ultimately, it’s the city’s responsibility to just say no, you’re simply going too far. It won’t make you popular, but it’s your job! Whether it’s the planning department or the public works department or the alderman, somebody (everybody?) needs to be doing their job (better?) and looking at the bigger picture. We have rules for a reason, to protect the public, and there’s no valid reason for making any exceptions here.

I don’t care if you’ve been in the neighborhood for nearly fifty years. I don’t care if you have new competitors and you’re losing a few customers. I don’t care if you’d lose a few parking spaces – your competitors have made that choice. What’s happening here is permanent. It’s not like a few chairs and tables blocking the sidewalk (and can be moved). This will degrade the pedestrian experience in an area and a city that should be encouraging more walking, and it’s another hit on our fragile urban fabric. And, unfortunately, it’s most likely a done deal and won’t/can’t be changed . . .

Local Architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.

Update 6/26/2008 2:20pm:

Steve here, thanks Jim for bringing this to everyone’s attention.   Some of the comments reflect the attitude that they likely have a permit so all must be well.  One such example of work having a permit was the construction of an ADA ramp into a renovated building on Olive (see post).  In this case the ramp was allowed to encroach on the public sidewalk in order to provide an accessible entrance for the building.  The problem is the ramp was being constructed too far into the right of way.  So far that someone in a chair trying to reach this entrance would not have been able to do so.  By posting about it midway it gave everyone a chance to review the situation and make corrections before it was too far along.  Wednesday morning I had a nice face to face meeting with the new Commissioner on the Disabled, David Newburger.  He will be looking into this situation on Watson.  As we discussed sometimes projects are allowed to encroach on the public space.  The task is to ensure the minimum clearance is protected.  But the minimum is just that, minimum.  To create walkable neighborhoods we need to strive for more than the minimum.