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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.


Tower Grove South Concerned Citizens Special Business District

What a name!  Ald Jennifer Florida is introducing legislation (BB89) at the Board Of Aldermen this morning to put the establishment of a special taxing district on the ballot for residents within the district to vote on.  The district, if approved, would be from the alley South of Utah Place, to the centerline of Grand, to the centerline of Gravois to Roger Place (one block West of Gustine). The official name would be the “Tower Grove South Concerned Citizens Special Business District.”
First, what is with the “concerned citizens” bit in the name?  They’ll never get the full name on banners or on trash cans.  Doesn’t every area have concerned citizens?
Secondly, I never like it when major streets are used as edges for neighborhood or business district lines — Grand was once the center point for residential areas on both sides.  When using major streets as dividing lines we end up with different groups having a say on the same street — but only for their half.  When business districts are done this way you end up with money for improvements for half the street.  Using alley lines is the better way to go.

And lastly I always wonder who manages the money — in this case it would be a 7-member Board of Commissioners appointed by the mayor.  Five would be property owners and two would be renters.


Cherokee Street May Remain a “dry” Street

Ald. Craig Schmid (D-20th) is continuing his anti drinking establishment campaign in the 20th ward, which includes parts of Cherokee St West of Jefferson Ave. Schmid has introduced new legislation titled “Prohibiting package liquor in the 20th Ward.” (see BB47) The exception is for restaurants that get at least 35% of their revenue from food sales.

Schmid’s attitude is summed up in the bill as legislative findings:

The existence of alcoholic beverage establishments appears to contribute directly to numerous peace, health, safety and general welfare problems including loitering, littering, drug trafficking, prostitution, public drunkenness, defacement and damaging of structures, pedestrian obstructions, as well as traffic circulation, parking and noise problems on public streets and neighborhood lots. The existence of such problems creates serious impacts on the health, safety and welfare of residents of single- and multiple-family residences within the district, including fear for the safety of children, elderly residents and of visitors to the district. The problems also contribute to the deterioration of the neighborhood and concomitant devaluation of property and destruction of community values and quality of life. The number of establishments selling alcoholic beverages and the associated problems discourage more desirable and needed commercial uses in the area. In order to preserve the residential character and the neighborhood-serving commercial uses of the area.

Wow, why do we allow such debauchery to run rampant throughout the rest of the city? Gee, maybe because he is operating under the false impression that prostitution will cease to exist if only people can’t buy a drink at a bar.

Oh but it gets better:

the Excise Commissioner shall have authority to:

(3) Issue a drink license only with the following conditions applied and enforced in an area with a Cherokee Street address from the west curbline of Iowa Avenue to the east curbline of Nebraska Avenue
A. No package liquor and premises must be operated as a restaurant with gross food sales constituting at least 35% of gross sales; and
B. Operator of the premises must have and maintain at all times written permission to use a public commercial parking facilities within 350 feet of the premis:
with a minimum of at least 15 parking spaces (paved, striped, having a six foot good quality, sturdy ornamental metal fence surrounding it and adequate lighting, and with concrete wheel stops, all complying with City of St. Louis requirements); and if there is live entertainment or live performances, with a minimum of at least 30 parking spaces (paved, striped, having a six foot good quality, sturdy ornamental metal fence surrounding it and adequate lighting, and with concrete wheel stops, all complying with City of St. Louis requirements); and having at a minimum at least 30 additional parking spaces for every 1000 square feet of business space in excess of the first 1000 square feet of business space.

Well, there we have it. More parking in an urban neighborhood commercial district.

And we all love establishments with cafe tables — as long as they keep a clear path. But what about a cafe table behind a 4ft high fence?

J. Sidewalk tables for restaurant purposes only may only be permitted in accordance with an extension of premises permit with an appropriate 4 foot high good quality, sturdy, black ornamental metal fence separating the tables from the rest of the minimum 4 foot wide public sidewalk;

The reality is nobody is going to open a wine bar under such conditions which probably suits Schmid just fine.  This isn’t a class thing for Schmid — the person who downs a $2 bud is just as bad as friends that share a $40 bottle of wine.

To the business association this legislation would be an impediment to competing with other commercial districts where the rules are less restrictive.  To me Schmid only knows how to run off perceived problems — he hasn’t a clue how to bring life back to a once thriving commercial street.


We Have Our Own Stupid Bike Lanes

Proponents of bike lanes use arguments of increased safety to advocate an increase in such lanes. That would be nice and all if it were true. What is true enough is the perception of increased safety.

To the novice rider getting out into traffic can be intimidating. Bike lanes give these riders a mostly false sense of security. It is not the fault of the lanes but how they are designed in the US. Here they are largely left over roadway whereas in other areas where they are more effective they are part of a connected network, sometimes with their own signals and such. Here bike lanes simply start and stop out of the blue, leaving the rider on their own when the lane ends. This is where the safety argument falls apart.

Recently Slate did a couple of video segments looking for the stupidest bike lanes, click here to watch both. Go ahead and watch — they are brief and interesting. OK, back?

In July 2005 I did a report on a local bike lane that was more dangerous than stupid — it intentionally placed riders going straight ahead to the right of right turning vehicles.

The bike lane is that area nearest the curb. As you can see the cars in this lane above are required to turn right — right into cyclists heading South. The above is where 8th merges into 7th which at this point is basically Broadway.

Broadway is one of those hit or miss streets — the bike lane stops and resumes all of a sudden. A reader sent me a few pictures from further South, just South of A-B in fact:

Above as we approach the I-55 overpass we have two Southbound travel lanes, but no bike lane.

Under the bridge the roadway widens and a right turn lane begins to form for people going to Cherokee St or Southbound I-55. A brief bike lane appears to separate Southbound bikes from right turning motorists.

This is the exact spot where a cyclist should be at this point. But any rider skilled enough to get to this point doesn’t need a 10ft long bike lane to help them. The novice rider that hugs the right curb still needs help getting positioned in the right spot. If anything this tells motorists to not use all the road when turning right.

Bike lanes can be a good thing but only when they are consistent.  Having then only in spots where the road is too wide and not where it narrows again is just inviting a bike accident.


So What Did I Miss?

Being in the hospital for all of February, March & April you tend to miss what is going on.  Sure at the end of February I got internet access but not all subtle little things make it to the web — especially while I am out of commission.  I did notice a few things coming back into town on Wednesday and when I went to dinner with friends on Wednesday evening.

Ameren is constructing a pedestrian bridge over 18th/Truman Prkwy so that employees can walk to their cars without stepping foot on a public sidewalk.  I’m sure safety was the argument but if the area had something besides acres of parking and a fairly inactive corporate HQ the area would be safer.  Starting prior to my stroke and continuing for some time construction crews had the sidewalk totally blocked.  With only the West side of the 18th street viaduct having a sidewalk pedestrians had only one North-South option.  ADA requires an accessible route be maintained even during construction.  I will have a follow-up post on this project (w/pictures) in the near future.
The Drury Inn is now open at I-44 & Hampton.  Ick.  More generic roadside crap in our city.  At quick glance it appears to not have proper connections to the public sidewalks but I’ll have to check that out.

The KFC on South Grand near Gravois got a face lift.

We seem to have once again been competing with Chicago, this time for homicides in a given period. I think they won.

So now is your chance to fill me in on things big and small that I might have missed these last three months.