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Hearing on Zoning Request for Energy Center Thursday AM at City Hall

Those who support and oppose the conditional use zoning request of Larry Rice’s Energy Center in Dutchtown will have their say Thursday morning at City Hall (8:30am in Room 208). At issue is whether or not the city should grant Rice’s request for occupancy of the former Held Florist building which is in the middle of the 47xx block of Tennessee Ave, an otherwise residential street (see prior post).

Rice did a mass mailing in the area (presumably to property owners) to gather support (view PDF of letter).

The following is the most relevant paragraph from the letter:


Above, Rice admits to being ignorant about the basic concept of zoning and occupancy — something every purchaser of real estate should investigate. But are we really to believe that he made an innocent mistake given that he bought the property from a close friend and supporter? While I can offer no evidence it is my belief that Susan Jansen acted as a straw party to purchase and renovate the 1950s storefront and greenhouse. Once ready to open as the Energy Center, the deed was switched to the New Life Evangelistic Center. There is nothing illegal about this —- in fact it is done all the time by entities that wish to acquire property and not be noticed by using their name initially.

Rice probably figured that had he simply put an option on the property contingent to obtaining conditional use zoning for his operation that opposition would have been high and he would not prevail (a likely outcome in my estimation). So instead he gambled and figured it was better to make it look like an oversight — by not knowing the process. Indeed, many do not know. An innocent mistake?

Once again Rice is indeed using wrong words to describe the zoning. He indicates in his letter that “the zoning on it had changed to residential.” Wrong. I’ve been unable to find out prior zoning for the area but most likely it has been a residential zone for some time — at least a decade. The trick was that while the Held Florist was still in operation it was grandfathered in — allowed to continue as what is known as a nonconforming use. Rice continues, “there will be a hearing to change the zoning back to commercial.” Wrong again. The hearing is about a conditional-use permit to allow him to operate as a nonconforming use in a residentially zoned area — not permanently change the zoning.  In fact, the city cannot legally change the zoning on a single parcel to a classification different than anything around it — that is known as spot zoning.

The hearing is Thursday 10/18/2007 at 8:30am in Room 208 (aka The Kennedy Hearing Room).  If you wish to share your views with the NLEC on this issue you can call the number listed in the letter (314-421-3020).  Alternatively you can email Larry Rice at larrywrice@yahoo.com.


City Values Vacant Land Higher than Land With Buildings

As a REALTOR® I tend to have some basic assumptions about the real estate market. One of those is that a building and land is worth more than the land without a building. Even if the building is in poor condition, it still holds some value in my view. But apparently the people at the St. Louis Development Corporation — the entity that is responsible for property the city owns — thinks differently. Here is how they describe themselves:

The Real Estate Department of the St. Louis Development Corporation (SLDC) documents, manages, maintains, markets and sells agency-owned vacant and abandoned buildings and property.

In some St. Louis area neighborhoods, it will cost you more to buy a vacant lot than it will to buy a lot with a building. Let’s compare a two-family building in poor condition on a 25ft x 125ft lot with a similar 25ft x 125ft lot that happens to be vacant (with the intent for new construction). Oddly enough, the vacant lot is more costly than the building and lot in some cases. For example, based on SLDCs price list, the example building and lot in Benton Park would be $3,000 while the vacant lot (of the same size) would be $4,687.50 — 56% more than the same size plot of land with a building! Their for sale list turns up one vacant building but 19 vacant lots (of various sizes) in Benton Park. In Benton Park West the prices are quiet a bit less at $2,000 for a two-family and only $1,562.50 for a 25ft frontage lot.
If we head up to the north side of the city where many lots are vacant we see a similar situation.  In the Hyde Park neighborhood the two-family would be $1,000 while the same size lot sans a building is $1,250.   Over in The Ville the two-family will cost you the same as Hyde Park but the lot is only $937.50.  In the St. Louis Place neighborhood, where Mr. Paul McKee has purchased quite a bit of private property, the two-family would be $2,000 while the vacant lot $2,343.75.  The building prices are per unit so a single family house on the same 25ft wide lot would be half as much as I indicated above.  So in St. Louis Place a single family home owned by SLDC would only be $1,000 but the land of the same size would still be $2,343.75.

Their price list was last updated in March 2006.  Maybe SLDC has a formula based on the availability of land vs buildings?  Perhaps the idea, and a good one, is to price buildings attractively to encourage their reuse more rapidly than of vacant land?  I just wasn’t expecting to see vacant land with higher selling prices than land and a building.  Given this practice, I can see why some people might favor demolition —- they get the impression from the city it increases the value of their land.


Homeless-Staffed Renewable Energy Center Seeks Approval for 38-Car Surface Parking Lot

Missouri Renewable Energy (MORE), operated by Larry Rice’s New Life Evangelistic Center, is seeking a zoning change to allow them to create a 38-car asphalt parking lot in the middle of a residential block. Yes, the group that “believes in caring for creation by learning, teaching, and implementing clean energy (solar, wind, and water power, biodiesel), environmentally friendly housing structures, going organic, and consuming less” wants to put down a big chunk of paving among a residential neighborhood (see map).

IMG_3524.JPGFrom where I stand it would seem that creating large paved parking in the midst of residential areas is not exactly “caring for creation.” Before getting into the zoning specifics of the proposed parking area, we need to look at how we got to this point.
For decades the area in question was part of Held Florist and Nursery. The commercial building was built in the 1950s and had been used continuously as a florist since that time. However, a few years ago it stopped being used commercially and sat vacant. For decades this business had been grandfathered in — what is more technically known as a “non-conforming use.” That is, the use (commercial) doesn’t fit in with the zoning for the area (residential). But you can’t just tell a business they must close up shop when you change zoning so existing places became grandfathered in. And to permit someone to sell their property as a commercial entity the city allows that such non-conforming use can continue provided the property doesn’t go vacant for a period of greater than 12 months. But once the non-conforming use lapses for a period of 12 months the grandfather provision goes away and the zoning reverts to whatever it is for the area. Someone purchasing real estate anywhere needs to understand this very basic concept and exercise due diligence before assuming they can do as they please. Perhaps Mr. Rice got bad legal advice on this purchase?

All over the city we do have commercial properties that are in the midst of residential areas. We can’t very well expect these all to be converted to residential or razed to build residential. This small commercial building with greenhouse does have value which should be permitted to be used. But this doesn’t mean that someone can buy the building and do as they please. A nightclub, for an extreme example, in an old greenhouse could be pretty cool but not the most ideal in the middle of a residential street. The florist shop brought virtually no traffic to the area — most business was deliveries. Any enterprise that can potentially overload a residential block, as opposed to a commercial block, with too many cars at a very specific time is something which should only be permitted in extremely rare cases. I don’t think this is one.

Let’s take a look at what is proposed. The following plan was distributed by Larry Rice at City Hall a couple of weeks ago when he was to have a hearing on his request for rezoning. That decision has been delayed until October 18th which allows for a public meeting on the issue — to be held tonight (more info at the end).


The buildings shown on the plan are all existing. The area marked “demonstration area” is a greenhouse from the many decades as a neighborhood florist and nursery. The asphalt parking lot, however, is new. In fact, the only structures ever built on this land were some makeshift greenhouses. To the left is this site is the two-family building I owned from 1994-2006. Residential properties surround this in all directions.

For a moment let’s focus on the parking lot. Given the few “energy fairs” already conducted by Rice at this site it is clear they are a big draw — the street gets packed with cars of people visiting the site. But do we really want a 90ft x 113ft section of asphalt to handle cars once a month? This is certainly not very environmentally friendly.

And what about those dimensions? Rice shows 38 spaces, certainly a lot of cars. But does this work? Well, no it does not. City ordinances and common sense require certain sizes for parking spaces (view zoning code). For 90-degree spaces they need to be eight and a half feet wide and eighteen feet deep. In terms of width the idea works so far — 10 spaces across the back only requires 85 feet. But it is the other direction where we run into issues. The plan shows four rows of cars — four times eighteen is 72ft. OK, good so far but in order to do this he needs two drive lanes to actually access the parking. The city says drive lanes must be 22ft wide — each. So you add another 44ft onto our 72ft and now you are at 116ft. This doesn’t even account for required landscaping or accessible parking spaces.

The depth of the lots in this block are 142ft-6inches. Let’s say 143ft just to make it easier to discuss. So we’ve got 143ft from the sidewalk to the alley — the depth of the lot. To get his parking in there you need 116ft — leaving only 27ft. Well, the old frame house the Preservation Board (thankfully) says cannot be torn down is set a good 10ft or so back already and is likely close to 20ft deep itself. Basically, Rice’s plan doesn’t work — he is showing a paved area set at the back of the lot far from the street but the reality is to accommodate 38 cars he’d need to pave pretty much the entire section of open land — including where the frame house is located.

To complicate matters even further, a new parking lot in a residential area requires setbacks from the property lines — you cannot just pave up to neighboring property or the alley. Rice is showing 3ft at the back but nothing on the north side (to the left). Also not show is how he plans to address water run off issues — how will the parking lot be drained. Will this cause more water runoff to the neighboring property to the left? Will this cause more water to run down the alley? What is the anticipated flow of water in a storm and can existing sewers/drains handle this increased volume? These are all normal considerations when considering such a massive parking area.

In July a developer was seeking to build three houses on the land where Rice seeks his asphalt parking lot. The Preservation Board told them the old house could not be razed. They quickly sold the property to Rice. So what was his plan for his center if the new houses had been built?

For an organization that purports to be supportive of the environment to propose an asphalt parking lot is certainly a bit questionable. Water run off, as opposed to ground absorption, is an issue as is the heat island affect. Truly environmentally friendly places have pervious parking such as paving blocks or the block grid that allows you to grow grass through the paving — both allow rainwater to be absorbed into the ground. The latter doesn’t contribute to heat island issues. Impervious surfaces like asphalt and concrete are part of our environmental problem.

Some people I’ve talked to are concerned about the homeless or formerly homeless that will staff the place. I’m not concerned so much as I am puzzled. The concept is to train these individuals for jobs in the growing energy field but that seems far fetched. From a Post-Dispatch editorial from the 2nd:

We also question the wisdom of training the homeless for these sorts of jobs. “We are an agency that places 1,000 [homeless] people a year, and I’ve never heard of a placement in renewable fuels,” says Dan Buck, chief executive at the St. Patrick Center, which operates a wide range of training programs for homeless people. They are much more likely to find work, Mr. Buck notes, in restaurants, call centers, building maintenance and the like.

So while the idea of training the homeless for a career in alternative energy is appealing, I’m just not sure how practical it really is. While there certainly are exceptions, many of the homeless are not the best educated. I wonder what the extent of the training program really is? Will these persons receive any pay? How does this fit with labor laws?


And what about the production of biodiesel at the site? Rice mentions the use of waste vegetable oil being converted to use as fuel in diesel cars like his Volkswagen Jetta TDI, shown above, on the residential block where he seeks zoning approval. So my question would be what quantities of fuel might they be making at this site? Just a few drops here and there during his fairs? Or will he have free homeless labor churning out the fuel to keep his ride going? Is there a point where the making of fuel for personal use differs from the the manufacturing of fuel for the market — involving state regulation and conditions conducive to the production of motor fuels? We already have meth labs blowing up, do we need experimental biodiesel manufacturing facilities doing the same?

IMG_3647.JPG copyRice has intimated that if he doesn’t get his zoning he will want to use the area to house the homeless. Nice. Of course as part of the “B” two family zoning district there are numerous guidelines that, if actually followed, would make it difficult to run a shelter on the order of the one he has downtown. Even transitional housing, something the city does need, would have to conform with the zoning code.

Publicly there seems to be very little opposition to the energy center, the zoning changes and even the parking lot. The most visible opposition comes from the gas station a block away at Grand & Delor (see photo at right). The 25th Ward Alderman (whom I lost to in March 2005 by 117 votes), Dorothy Kirner, has reportedly written a letter of support for the project. This is interesting as she earlier opposed a parking lot for the exact same site when a Muslim church on Grand owned the land. Did Kirner apply a double standard?

Local neighborhood groups are taking a Swedish like position — publicly neutral. Privately many in the immediate area as well as throughout south city are more than a bit upset.
An informational meeting with a chance for public questions/comments is scheduled for this evening. Given all the issues and personalities at play this is a must see in my view. The meeting will be held at 7pm at Gretchen’s Inn — the one-story place behind the Feasting Fox on the corner of Grand & Meramec (see map).

I’m not in favor of large surface parking lots anywhere. I’m certainly not a fan of them on otherwise residential blocks. The parking lot should not be allowed regardless of any issues around the homeless, Larry Rice or the intended use of the property. This is just not a wise move to allow a parking lot in such an area.

Prior posts:

Note: Headline changed at 10:25am from “Homeless-Run…” to “Homeless-Staffed” to more correctly reflect the stated intent.


Some of St. Louis’ Best Architecture is in Public Parks

The other day I was at a traffic light behind some cars and managed to snap this photo in Tower Grove Park:

This structure, and so many others, throughout the city are one of those things that bring a smile to my face. I generally never stop to appreciate the fine detailing, the quality of the stone or brick work or just the overall pleasing scale. It seems before the advent of many architectural and urban planning theories we managed to build really wonderful spaces.

One day soon I’m going to take 10 minutes out of my day and walk around this building, touch the stone, and simply bask in the beauty it evokes. Weekly I am all over this city so I think taking time to enjoy so much of the beauty we do have will hopefully compensate for so much we’ve lost as well as make up for much of what we are building today. And yes, I am in an exceptionally good mood today…


Scenes from St. Louis’ National Park(ing) Day

Friday in St. Louis was a busy day. Taste of St. Louis was setting up for the last time in the section of the Gateway Mall that is planned to become a sculpture garden (they will relocate next year), citizens rallied to support Fire Chief Sherman George on the steps in front of City Hall and the Board of Aldermen had their first session after summer break. Among all these items was St. Louis’ first attempt at participating in National Park(ing) Day — the world-wide event whereby groups “lease” an on-street parking space by way of feeding the meter so the can make a statement about the need to green areas.

So where does St. Louis selected for the first location? On an excessively wide street surrounded by park space!


Above, Chestnut Street was intended for the installations — the city even had the meters marked as no parking. Here, in the shade of some nice mature trees, groups were to set up in the angled parking spaces to show a need for more green in the city. WTF?


Above, at 15th & Chestnut looking Westbound the street is completely blank — no parked cars, activists or even auto traffic. Chestnut is one-way Eastbound so it basically gets its traffic during the morning rush. This was early afternoon.


Above: Two groups did set up their own parks next to a park, but on Market rather than Chestnut.


Although still next to a full city block long razed to create park space, these two spaces were within full view of the Mayor’s office on the 2nd floor of City Hall shown in the background. Unfortunately the City Hall entrance on the Market Street side has been closed for a few years — probably since 9/11/01.


Pedro’s Planet — the office supply company that delivers and takes your recycling at the same time had a nice space complete with desk, turf and a much needed shade umbrella. The light blue bag is their well-known recycling bag which is handy next to the office copier.


Next to Pedro’s Planet was the HOK Planning Group. HOK is one of the largest architecture, engineering and planning firms in the world — based right here in St. Louis. They employ over 2,000 people globally — not your typical granola anti-car protest crowd.


As you might expect from a group of architects, engineers and planners — the space was a thing of beauty — with sections of lawn and brick paving. An informational sign, placed next to the parking meter, gave information to passers by and parking enforcement about the event and why these busy professionals were sitting in lawn chairs on a major street on a Friday.  I’ve got a link to the PDF of the sign below.


Part of their display I really loved, the symbolic crushed car. They had hoped to get a real crushed car for the project but it proved too challenging logistically. As it was, they arrived at 6am to set up their park — convincing a building inspector to give up the space.


Above, a couple of architects from HOK talk to visitors as the meter shows 33 minutes remaining. They had a stack of quarters so they could continually renew their short-term lease. Clearly HOK and Pedros Planet had spent some time thinking about what they’d do for the day. Talking with them I knew they ‘got it.’ I think we’ll see them again next year but in parking spaces that will actually demonstrate the need for green.

One group in the city made a last minute decision to make a statement.

Above, residents and business leaders in the diverse Cherokee Station commercial district enjoying their park. This area has seen disinvestment for decades and as such street trees are scarce.

They selected a spot (and a half) on Texas at Cherokee — next to a bare lot where a building once existed. Mature Bradford Pears on Cherokee are the only signs of green in the area but you can practically knock them over by blowing on them. These are slowly being replaced. But it is the side streets that are sorely lacking greenery.


Amid the exposed ground, broken glass and crumbling sidewalks these citizens created a colorful demonstration project. I talked with a couple of women leaving the Globe Drugs who asked me what was going on — I explained it as a “demonstration about the need for more green in the city.” One responded, “oh, that is what I thought.” The project in the right location becomes apparent.

More information:

• HOK’s handout

• KSDK’s Coverage w/video (includes brief interview w/me). 

• National Park(ing) Day official website

• My additional photos on Flickr

• The Flickr National Park(ing) Day Pool of images
• St. Louis’ webpage on National Park(ing) Day

Hopefully next year we’ll see many more groups out on the streets of St. Louis in places where it makes sense — those barren areas of concrete and asphalt.  I’ve added next year to my calendar so that I can give a 2 month advance notice to help spread the word.