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Grand and Chippewa a few years later

My first post about the McDonald’s at Grand & Chippewa was on February 1, 2005, nearly 5 years ago.    I was alerting everyone about the plan to build a new McDonald’s drive-thru across Grand at Winnebego (map link).

Former McDonald's in 2005

In 2006 the battle began.  The vacant site on Grand where the McDonald’s was proposed had been a Sears site decades ago. It stood vacant.  Neighbors of new nearby homes (and many others) objected to the drive-thru which did not conform to the original blighting plan for the redevelopment.

protest at site of proposed McDonalds on April 15, 2006
protest at site of proposed McDonald's on April 15, 2006

Many meetings were attended, protests were made.  The Summer of 2006 was a busy time fighting for an urban South Grand.

By September 2006 McDonald’s had won the approvals they needed to build their new location.  In November 2006 I declared the drive-thru project dead, delays took their toll and the local franchise owner closed the old McDonald’s rather than rebuilding on the new or old site.

Not long afterward the now defunct Pyramid Construction began building senior apartments once planned for the old McDonald’s site on the former Sears site.

On January 30, 2008 I posted about a title loan operation wanting to open up shop in the long boarded up McDonalds’s building.  I attended the hearing on the title loan outfit on Thursday January 31, 2008.  I didn’t get a chance to blog about the meeting, the following afternoon I had a stroke.  It was 3 months before I returned home.

During the Spring 2009 campaigns I heard a comment from someone the only thing I contributed to the 25th Ward (just South) was the boarded McDonald’s.  Thanks, I appreciated that.  Since then someone bought the unfinished senior building and finished the project.   And just recently the boarded McDonald’s got a fresh start:

Pho Mama (Mama Pho) Vietnamese Restaurant, a new restaurant in the Dutchtown West Neighborhood Association (DWNA) area is set to open on Monday, November 2, 2009! Pho Mamma is located at the corner of S. Grand and Chippewa. Their phone is 314-802-8348 and they will be open 7 days a week from 9am to 10pm.  (Source)

The old building is not the most urban but it also isn’t new.  Often small local start-up businesses cannot afford the rents on new construction. The site may eventually become more urban.  I stopped by the area yesterday to photograph both places.

Pho Mama, 3737 S. Grand
Pho Mama, 3737 S. Grand

Far more tasteful in appearance than the McDonald’s.

Senior housing instead of a new McDonalds drive-thru
Senior housing instead of a new McDonald's drive-thru

Today the former vacant site contains senior housing with street-level retail spaces facing Grand.   I’d say S. Grand is better off without a new McDonald’s drive-thru.  It would have been a tiny building on a large site with too much parking and a duel drive-thru lane.  If only we can get the traffic calmed in this part of Grand as well as a zoning overlay to require new construction to conform to the established urban standard.

Many people were involved in putting a stop to the auto-centric McDonald’s.  We should all be proud of the outcome, I know I am.  We should also go patronize Pho Mama.

– Steve Patterson


South Grand: From the Gilded Age to “Great Street”

South Ground has always been a great street. In the early days it boasted a streetcar line, Tower Grove Park, an active business district, and the mansions of The Gilded Age. It left good bones for redevelopment a century later and has opened the door to a new era as a “Great Street.”

South Grand

In 2005, the East-West Gateway organization began spearheading an urban-planning movement called “Great Streets” in the St. Louis area. “Great Street” ideas hope to re-invent life in the city by taking a holistic view to neighborhood streetscapes. It is, in some ways, a backward-looking movement that hopes to bring back some of the chaotic diversity of earlier street life to modern ways of living.

It eschews our mid-century fascination with the car and focuses again on the street as home to all whether on foot, bike, bus or car. It also wants to achieve something more than integrated transportation; it wants to underline the cultural context of a neighborhood and to reflect the community’s deep historical roots in hopes of crafting a unique cultural identity to stimulate social and economic development.

Starting in early September 2009, the city of St. Louis and East-West Gateway began an experiment to demonstrate how those infrastructure changes might affect life on South Grand. They re-striped Grand from Arsenal to Utah Streets into a three-lane configuration with concrete barriers to simulate future bulb build-outs at the end of city blocks. Public meetings before, during and afterwards captured neighborhood assessments on the changes.

Tuesday October 6 was the final public meeting on the pilot project and East-West Gateway shared data from the experiment and initial designs with the community. Probably the most visible change has been the decrease in vehicle speeds through the business district. Before the three-lane experiment began, car speeds on the then four-lane road averaged 42 mph. Traffic slowed to 31-32 mph during the three-lane experiment.

The difference is palpable either on foot or in a car. More than half of the residents attending the meeting said pedestrian safety was either improved or greatly improved under the new configuration and 69% experienced street crossings as easier or safer.

The slower speeds did not result in greater congestion. Data collected during the trial show a modest 3%-4% decrease in congestion in the area and there was positive feedback from emergency services in that they were able to use the third lane, the turn lane, to quickly navigate the area during emergency calls, an improvement to fighting four lanes of traffic with no dedicated lane.

Neighborhood residents did present anecdotal evidence that some traffic had moved to neighborhood through streets to avoid South Grand. East-West Gateway representatives said they would collect more data on that as the trial period is extended.

The third major change was a reduction in street noise during the pilot. Forty-six percent of residents noted a reduced or greatly reduced level of noise and data collected confirmed a 17-decibel drop in high-end noise.

The pilot has thus proven to be a success in terms of calming traffic, reducing noise, and making the zone friendlier and safer for pedestrians. But what about enhancing the character of the neighborhood or enhanced economic activity? No data was presented by East-West Gateway and perhaps there are too many external factors like the prolonged recession to make any accurate determinations.

I can say, and this should please the street’s merchants, that 37% of the residents reported an improved or greatly improved shopping and dining experience during the “Great Streets” pilot. The slower speeds on South Grand do allow a better look at the shops and restaurants and the friendlier street atmosphere is likely to translate to more walkers and bikers dropping in to check them out.

So what’s next? The institutional recommendation will be made to continue the pilot, temporary concrete barriers and all, until construction can begin in mid-2010. In the meantime, East-West Gateway will continue to collect data and investigate outstanding issues like whether permanently closing the alleys that open on South Grand between Arsenal and Utah will work for residents, merchants and city utility crews. Design work will also continue along with the selection of materials and street trees. Also undecided is whether there will be dedicated bike lanes on a shared bike-car lane through the pilot area. Further consultation with the bicycling community is promised.

Since the proposed “Great Streets” improvements for South Grand are in the $8-$9 million range and only $3 million is available in U.S. federal stimulus funds, the vision being constructed in 2010 will be limited in scope. The budget will allow a permanent reconfiguration of the roadway to three lanes, widening of the sidewalks by three feet, building the bulbs at the end of each block to set off parking spaces from the roadway, and installation of new pedestrian crossing areas at intersections. Special attention will be paid to ADA curb cuts and bringing the project beyond code for ADA modifications. There will also be funds to plant more street trees and replace street lighting with more energy-efficient and effective fixtures.

An effort is being made in the design process to incorporate established neighborhood design icons into the new designs for bike racks, benches, newspaper box corrals, and neighborhood signage. Picking up the wrought-iron, Gilded Age designs from the fencing on either side of the Tower Grove garden gates and the neighborhood signs for Compton Heights and Tower Grove East, the new amenities will reinforce the neighborhood’s unique design heritage.
Compton Heights

Several issues remain up in the air. Two local schools founded in the Gilded Age, Gallaudet School for the Deaf and the Missouri School for the Blind, have requested that audible signals be added to traffic lights so their students can safely cross at the South Grand business-district intersections. Green, LEED-standard materials for paving options, bioswales to deal with street water run-off, and lighting fixtures that meet requirements for night-sky preservation are all under consideration, but haven’t been locked down.

To the extent that this project succeeds, credit should be given to the credible public-engagement process for this project.  Two initial workshops were used to identify problems in the area in 2007 and 2008; three extensive public open houses were held in August, September and October to determine design options, establish neighborhood preferences, and provide data from the pilot. Extensive displays, multiple meeting times and venues, printed materials, online surveys, and extended live question-and-answer sessions with keycard voting on options were all used to present ideas and receive feedback. At Tuesday’s meeting, 85% of residents found the process to be transparent and 74% felt the most important problems on South Grand had been addressed.

Project planners had a few surprises. One was the support expressed at public meetings to not just meet, but exceed, current ADA standards for access to the area as a business and social hub. Two was the public preference for LEED-compliant materials for paving, including pervious pavement. And three was support for street lighting that would meet neighborhood needs for safety, yet not be overly lit, so the area could meet improved energy efficiency standards and protect the night skies from unnecessary light pollution.

– Deborah Moulton


St. Louis’ Grand Experiment is the Norm in Chicago

September 21, 2009 South City, Transportation 12 Comments

The norm in the St. Louis region is for roads to have lots of lanes and no on-street parking.  On-street parking slows motorists and the traffic engineers will have none of that, it is all about speed for them.  But multiple lanes of speeding cars are bad for cyclists and pedestrians alike.

While the South Grand retail district (Arsenal to Utah) has always had on-street parking it has also had our lanes for through traffic.  Currently an experiment is being tested — reducing a six block section to three lanes (two plus center turn).  Have to see if these new radical ideas will work you know.

Anyone that has ever driven a car or ridden a bicycle in Chicago knows the configuration will work wonders.  Chicago has 120% more population density per square mile than St. Louis (12,649 vs 5,725).  They have lots of people, cars and bike.  Yet many of their major streets have the same basic configuration — two parking lanes, two travel lanes and a center turn lane.

Above is a view of this configuration on North Halsted.  On the right is Home Depot.  As you can see the travel lane is wide enough to accommodate motorists and cyclists.    New construction is built up to the sidewalk, in part, because streets have on-street parking.

In spaces you have a hole in the urban fabric (left above) with a parking lot here and there.  But they don’t toss out their urban principals and declare the area an auto-centric zone.

The above is a good distance from downtown Chicago.  The newish building on the right, with retail at grade and residential above, can relate to the street because it only has two lanes of traffic and because of the on-street parking.  But go out further into the inner ring suburbs and the pattern continues.

This section of Roosevelt is well outside the City of Chicago and many miles from downtown yet the street pattern is the same with only two travel lanes and on-street parking to support street oriented buildings.  Without the on-street parking you’d get standard sprawl — buildings isolated in their own parking lots.

Further out in the suburbs the two travel lanes become four but the on-street parking remains.  This ensures buildings will be built up to the street.

There is no need to test the 2 travel + turn lane configuration on South Grand.  It works and works well.

I believe if our streets were more like Chicago’s (fewer lanes, on-street parking, urban in-fill) we’d be in a position to re-urbanize & re-populate our city.  We need to extend this throughout the entire city as well as the first ring of suburbs.  Hampton, Kingshighway, Natural Bridge, Market — every street in town.  After a couple of decades we’ll see the change taking root.  If we can’t do it on six blocks of Grand I’m afraid we’ll never get to where I think we should be.

– Steve Patterson


A Grand Test

September 11, 2009 South City, Transportation 28 Comments

A few days ago a big change was made to a small section of South Grand, Arsenal (link) to Utah. What had been four lanes (2 per direction) was now 2 with a center turn lane.  No, the streetscape was not done overnight.  Paint and Jersey barriers are the visible techniques in this short-term test:

St. Louis, MO, September 8, 2009 — On Tuesday, September 8, 2009, East-West Gateway Council of Governments and the City of St. Louis will begin a 30-day test on South Grand from Arsenal to Utah. The test, part of the South Grand Great Streets project, will change the timing of traffic signals, reduce the number of traffic lanes from four to three, simulate curb extensions at intersections, and close the two alleys on the west side of Grand between Arsenal and Juniata. The purpose is to test the viability of these proposed changes under real traffic conditions for 30 days before committing to a final preferred alternative for the corridor.
At a series of public meetings in August, members of the public and business community favored an option to reconfigure South Grand from Arsenal to Utah from four through lanes to two through lanes and a center turn lane. If the 30-day test shows that the lane reduction will not handle the traffic volumes adequately, the project will keep the existing four-lane configuration and focus on retiming signals and adding curb extensions.
The goals of the South Grand Great Streets project are to improve pedestrian safety while maintaining traffic flow; enhance the appearance and functionality of the corridor through lighting, signage, and landscaping; and provide opportunities for continued economic development. Approximately $2.7 million for design and construction have been secured through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) by East-West Gateway Council of Governments.
For additional information on the 30-day test, please contact (314) 776-2423. For more information on the South Grand Great Streets project, visit http://www.ewgateway.org/GreatStreets/greatstreets.htm.

Anytime you do a test you should ideally design the test to create successful outcomes.  But this test was designed with failure in mind.

Blue indicates 6-block area being tested with 2 through lanes and a center turn lane. Red indicates 4 through lanes, green is 2 through lanes.

The blue section of Grand above shows the 6-block test area that for the next month is two lanes with a center turn lane.  The red above and below are four lane sections of Grand and the green at the bottom has been two lanes for a while.  So the first problem is 4-lane section between Utah and Chippewa.  At a minimum the section from Utah to Gravois should have also been tested at 2 + center.  I know the funding for the street improvements is limited to the 6-block area but the bottleneck created for only six blocks is going to turn everyone off.

The second problem is the lack of notice.  Drivers are already upon the change before they are told of the change. The first lighted sign should have been 3-4 blocks prior.

The above is looking South on Grand.  The intersection ahead is Arsenal. You can see the changing in the stripes causing the former right through lane to now be a right turn only lane.  In the right side of the image you see the first sign indicating the change.  Too late!  By the time you see the sign you are already upon the change.  Fail #1.

Heading Northbound you have the same late notice situation.  You can see the sign in the distance but that is after you need to be in the correct lane.  Fail #2.

I’d say someone wants to make sure drivers call the flashing phone number to complain about the change so that after the test ends they can say the reduced lanes were problematic.  The only way I see the Grand district improving is to have only two total through lanes of traffic.

The other failure is the brevity.  Only six blocks.  A branch library is just beyond the end of the test area.  Heading North from Meramec you have a single Northbound lane.  Then you have two.  Then suddenly one again.  The back to two after Arsenal.  Geez.

Pick the number of lanes and stick to it for more than six blocks.  The other failure is the simulated curb bulb outs:

Yikes, ugly.  Who is going to call the number and proclaim, “I love it!”  Nobody.  Well, but me.  And hopefully you.  The goal is to lesson the impact of the traffic. Those that want to get through the area faster will find alternate routes: Kingshighway, Gustine, Compton, Jefferson, or I-55.  I say skip the planned bike lanes and make the sidewalks wider.  Bicyclists seem to prefer Gustine and Compton anyway.  I suspect that will still be the case even if Grand receives bike lanes for these additional six blocks.  Continue the bike lanes past Gravois, Chippewa and Meramec and connect with the bike lanes on Holly Hills at Carondelet Park and then you’ve got something worth considering.  Six blocks?  Not so much.

– Steve Patterson


River des Peres Trash Bash on the Greenway

Cleaning up the planet sounds good but what can one person do?

River des Peres at Gravois

A week from Saturday there is an event where you can make a difference:

September 19th 2009 at 8:00 am
The River des Peres Trash Bash will have clean-up sites throughout the entire River des Peres watershed. Several of the clean-up areas are along Great Rivers Greenway District trail projects. The clean-up base area, as well as registration and after clean-up festivities, will be along the River des Peres Greenway Trail on River des Peres Blvd between Morganford and Gravois (Fultz Field area) in St. Louis City [map link]. The clean-up promotes the connection of land and water through neighborhood and stream clean-ups, educating the public on how they can Make a Difference in their neighborhood, and the development and promotion of partnerships along River des Peres. Please come out and join us!

This event is a good excuse to get to know the River des Peres better.  Volunteers are asked to register in advance.  Now if only there was a way to volunteer to help get some real water in the river 24/7.

– Steve Patterson