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Now Accepting Nominations for “Worst Shopping Center in St. Louis City”

October 2, 2006 Suburban Sprawl 24 Comments

I think it is time I begin handing out some “awards” in St. Louis to recognize the efforts of those architects, engineers, planners, developers, bureaucrats and politicians making St. Louis such a special place to live. I want you to help in the nomination and selection process.

First up, shopping centers. This is not the voting process yet but simply gathering the list of places to be listed and ranked. I thought about some nomination criteria and I think we need to exclude a couple of types. First, I would exclude single use places such as the Target on Hampton and the Schnuck’s on Grand & Gravois — I’m thinking it is better to look only at those projects which include multiple tenants. We could, in the future, look at single-use commercial development. The other exclusion I’m thinking is those that are older than say 15 years. I’ve listed some excluded places below but if you feel strongly about including one by all means indicate why below in the comments.

Other criteria would include a project with private drives and parking — making it a center. The question becomes, do we include a project such as the building at Grand & Arsenal with the Kinko’s and Breadco? It certainly meets all my criterial for a shopping center. Perhaps the criteria needs to be only those places with parking in front? Those more urban projects could be included in a list for best shopping center although at this time that is a really short list!

Here is the eight I’ve compiled so far, in alphabetical order. If you all come up with 2 more we can have a top-ten list:

• Gravois Plaza; Gravois west of Grand
• Lindell Marketplace, Lindell @ Sarah (divided by Sarah but built at the same time so we’ll treat as one)
Loughborough Commons; Loughborough between I-55 and Grand
• MLK Plaza; MLK & Page at Grand
Roberts Plaza; between Page & MLK at Euclid (behind former Sears)
• Schnuck’s City Plaza; Union & Natural Bridge
Southtown Centre; Chippewa & Kingshighway
• St. Louis Marketplace; Manchester Road

Excluded for reasons of age, impending replacement etc:

• Chariton Plaza; S. Broadway between Meramec & Osceola
• Hampton Village
• St. Louis Centre, downtown
• Christy Plaza, Kingshighway @ Delor (Office Depot, Burlington Coat, etc…)
• Other?

Once everyone has had a say in the nomination process I will gather photos on the projects on the list (I have them already for most I’ve listed above). I will then do a post listing all the projects with links to the photos of each. I’m still debating if I should give them my own ranking at that time or let you all vote and then determine my ranking afterwards — please share your thoughts below on how you’d like to see this happen.

A natural follow up to this would be the worst shopping center in St. Louis County. That, however, will take far more work as the number of bad sprawl-based centers is quite long. Think about the entire region and it boggles the mind — Jefferson County and St. Charles County have some real loser projects as do the counties in Illinois. Makes you wonder who will get more awards — THF or DESCO? I was also thinking if we could come up with multiple categories — “Worst Shopping Center with a Big Box Grocery,” or “Worst Shopping Center Since Rollin Stanley Came to St. Louis,” or focus on a particular aspect such as “Worst Pedestrian Access by a Shopping Center.” Get creative with possible categories! Another could be, “Least convincing excuse for mediocrity by a developer or alderman.”

If you have any suggestions on what the “Worst of Development” award should look like give me some ideas on that as well. I could actually have a physical award made and then track down the developer and present it to them on camera — Michael Moore style. Also, I’m thinking each month we go through this process of selecting a “worst of” in a category and actually having an awards function where I rent a hall and give a slide presentation on the worst development in St. Louis. Think of it as a rebalancing compared to all the self congratulating awards given out in political and development circles.


Southside Journal: “Southtown Centre is failing to fulfill promise.”

The Journal proclaims on page one this week that the highly suburban Southtown Centre is “failing to fulfill promise.” Well, I could tell from the sprawl-centric design that it would not do well so in my mind it is fulfilling my expectations.

What both amused and saddened me was the response of 14th-Ward Alderman as quoted in the Surban Journal:

“There’s no reason why that place shouldn’t be full,” Gregali said, “The demographics are great for the shopping center, he said.

As for business, “I think it’s OK. I think it would be better if there were more foot traffic,” Gregali said.

No reason it shouldn’t be full? It should be fully leased based on demographics? Foot traffic? This is precisely why planning fundamentals should not be left to aldermen unless they are skilled in such areas. Gregali, clearly, is not so skilled. But the problems go beyond Gregali.

First of all, demographics are not the sole determining factor for the success of a commercial center. Design plays an increasingly important role to people, especially in an urban context. In addition to wanting a good price on that bag of cat litter at PetsMart people want an attractive and pedestrian-friendly environment. Contrary to what some might suggest, we can actually have both.

I know you come here for the photos as much as the witty dialog so click continue below and check out the images of this disaster.
… Continue Reading


What happened to the new McDonald’s?

After months of controversy over McDonald’s moving from its current location at the NW corner of Grand and Chippewa to the SE corner of Grand & Winnebego we’ve seen no evidence of anything moving forward. Not that I want the drive-thru moved adjacent to the homes in the Gravois Park neighborhood, but we were all given the impression that time was of the essence.

It has been nearly 3 months since the city’s Board of Adjustment denied an appeal by residents to prevent the McDonald’s from being built. Pyramid Construction was supposed to do a land swap with McDonald’s but a quick check of records for 3708 S. Grand indicates Pyramid Construction is still the property owner. The same records also indicate building permit application #358646 to construction the restaurant remains open, the permit has not yet been issued. With all the administrative hurdles jumped I just can’t imagine why three months would pass without construction starting.

It would appear that someone involved in the deal isn’t going forward. The parties are Pyramid Construction, McDonald’s corporate, the franchise operator and deal maker Ald. Jennifer Florida.

If the deal has gone south now is our chance to work as a community to envision what this street could look like. If you go back to my post from a couple of weeks ago using Photoshop to show incremental changes we can hopefully do a similar treatment for South Grand. If McDonald’s is staying where they are and the empty site at Winnebego is to remain empty or get another plan we need to bring everyone together to work on good solutions that are a fit for the community.


Loughborough Commons On Par with Most Development, Speaks Poorly of Our Standards

Today I’ve got a somewhat random collection of thoughts on the sprawl-centric Loughborough Commons development in south city. If you are tired of this subject, just stop reading now. Otherwise, here we go.

Loughborough Commons, for all its many faults, is on par with most newer development in the city and region. That is both reality and a sad statement of fact. What does this say about us as a region that we care so little about creating worthwhile public spaces, not just private developments with literal acres of asphalt with as much as a tree to break it up. Instead of being happy about a new grocery store we should be concerned, as tax payers, that our government has failed to deliver a project worthy of the incentives given.

The city has a Planning & Urban Design Agency but if they were involved in the project they failed miserably to guide the project to a point where they should not all be fired. If they were not consulted on such as massive project (30+ acres, $14 million in tax incentives) then I would wonder why Ald. Villa didn’t bring in their expertise. Either way something is wrong with how this got built.

The one difference in Loughborough Commons and all the other poorly planned projects is this: I personally spoke face-to-face with Ald. Matt Villa and engineer Dennice Kowelmann prior to starting construction and voiced my concerns about the design and pedestrian access. While I can (and likely will) criticize other projects such as the new 58-acre Dierberg’s development in Edwardville IL, I feel more connected to this one because I tried to make a difference before a single bit of dirt was moved.

This week’s Suburban Journal article on Loughborough Commons read more like a press release than a balanced article. Not addressed is the lack of pedestrian access from the entrance closest to neighboring houses, off Grand. Here is the headline, subheading and relevant quote:

Lowe’s to open in month at Loughborough Commons: Pedestrian access planned after Schnuck’s demolition.`

A spokesman for The DESCO Group, developer of the shopping center, said sidewalks will be added after the old Schnuck’s and its parking lot is torn down. The sidewalk will be where the old Schnuck’s entrance is.
“The development’s not finished yet,” Steve Houston said. “There will be a sidewalk for pedestrian access to that development.”

Sidewalk, singular. As I mentioned on a post on the 1st of the month, their site plan does show a sidewalk abutting the east side of the new entrance off Loughborough. This will be useful to those coming from the current bus stop (assuming it doesn’t get relocated, and those walking from the east side of I-55 along Loughborough. This will do little for those that live west of Loughborough Commons and nothing for those that live near the southwest corner of the project, arguably the greatest number of potential pedestrians. See the next segment for more on this issue.

lc_area.jpgThe red section in the middle of the image at right is Loughborough Commons. The two green dots along the edge represent the two entrances to the site. The blue section in the upper left is the old public school greenhouse site that will soon be developed by Rolwes Homes and C.F. Vatterott and containing a total of 125 units. These will be comprised of 33 detached single family homes, 44 attached townhouses and 48 condos. I will do a review of this project at another time.

As we can see, four streets dead end at Loughborough Commons. Rather than connect to the adjacent neighborhood the projects turns it back to the neighborhood so that it can face the highway. Drivers speeding by at 70mph are seemingly more important than someone living a block away. With only two entrances into the 30+ acre site those walking from adjacent residences have limited choices. The DESCO Group and Ald. Matt Villa are doing damage control by saying they will have pedestrian access but that is only for half the entrance off Loughborough. Those near the south entrance off Grand get squat.

In the world of sprawl development a single token sidewalk is usually sufficient in the minds of the developer (and Ald. Villa in this case). It is clear that careful consideration was not given to bringing in pedestrians from the surrounding area. With the new development just two blocks away is it shameful they will not have direct access to the local grocery store via a short walk down Blow, Roswell or Robert.

It should be noted that Loughborough Commons is in the 11th Ward (Ald. Matt Villa) while the old greenhouse site is in the 12th Ward (Ald. Fred Heitert), Eugene Street is the dividing line. Aldermanic courtesy would have prevented Heitert from questioning the development in an adjacent ward even though it is only a block away from his ward.

IMG_5334.jpgThis morning carts were completely blocking the sidewalk heading to the south toward Lowe’s. We could argue, I suppose, the Lowe’s is not yet open but there is parking in use in that direction. I’ve also seen workers from Lowe’s attempting to walk to the Schnuck’s having to navigate around the planned obstacles (planting areas) and unplanned obstacles (excess shopping carts). These carts are chained together and locked.

IMG_5281.jpgAt other times I’ve the carts have been gone from the same area, most likely when the store is busier and more carts are needed. Still, pedestrian circulation within a project should not be dependent upon something like how many shopping carts are in use. This picture and the one above are both off the south entrance to the new store but the same situation is happening on the other side.

IMG_5333.jpgThis morning a few carts were partially blocking the walkway that right now along connects to a number of accessible (ADA) parking spaces. This walk, however, will at some point be continued as part of The DESCO Group’s planned pedestrian access. So, it is fair to say this bit of sidewalk is part of the main and only planned pedestrian access point to get to the grocery store. And today it was being used for cart storage.

You might say these carts were simply left overs from those using the accessible parking. And such an argument may have some validity. However, this would demonstrate a lack of good planning to anticipate that those using these parking spaces would have carts and need a place to put them out of the way of the main pedestrian path to the nearest grocery store.

IMG_5278.jpgThe other day, when the south walkway was open, the north walkway was completely blocked. Carts are cabled together and part of the chain is on the sidewalk creating a potential hazzard. Toward the end of the walk, more carts completely close off the end. I watched as a woman parked on the other side of the white van had to walk in the development’s main driveway to get to her vehicle.

Again, this little bit of sidewalk is part only planned pedestrian path from the public street (Loughborough) to the entrance of the Schnuck’s store. Ald. Villa and The DESCO Group can say “it’s not finished” all they want to but their actions speak volumes. Pedestrian movement, even those using ADA spaces, are given very little to no consideration.

IMG_5343.jpgOne of the items cited as a reason for blighting for this project was the site of the Schnuck’s store, built as a National store, was used for industrial purposes. From the report:

The site of the Schnucks grocery store was previously utilized for decades for industrial uses. During the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s the site was occupied by the St. Louis Machine Tool Company. In the 1940’s, 1950’s, and 1960’s it was occupied by a paint manufacturing company. As a result, site remediation will be necessary.

That is interesting since immediately following the opening of the new store workers began removing the old asphalt and transferring tons of dirt from another area of the development site. the image at right was taken earlier today. The old parking lot lights, still working, are simply being buried. Was the contamination limited of this site limited to strictly where the current building is located? Did they manage to decontaminate overnight? Or was site contamination simply a smoke screen to get tax incentives. You can be assured that I will be requesting proof from various local agencies for documentation on the remediation efforts.

These pictures and a few more can all be viewed as larger images in a set on my Flickr account.

As stated at the beginning, Loughborough Commons is really no worse than most development in the city or balance of the region. This is quite unfortunate as we deserve better development, especially in areas where you have existing walkable environments that could greatly benefit from a locally owned grocery store an easy walk down the street. What we got, instead, was an expensive project where you are expected to drive even though you can see if from your front sidewalk. Such practices should not be permitted to continue.


St. Louis Suffers Due to Lack of Urban Design Guidelines

Whenever I speak of making St. Louis’ neighborhoods and commercial streets more “urban” I think people have visions of turning St. Louis Hills into Times Square. Nothing could be further from the truth. It really has to do with how we plan our areas and seek to accommodate people as well as their cars. Pedestrian-friendly is about making it easier for people to walk from A to B to C and back to A. These principals transcend scale and work in a town of 2,000 as well as a city of 2 million.

The conflict I’m having with so much recent development is that it is happening in a system void of planning thought. The developer meets with the Aldermen and they negotiate a few things while trying to keep the public from knowing what is going on out of fear they might sabotage the whole thing. It is the St. Louis way. The problem is that I know this can be done differently and is in cities all over North America.

Our zoning, dating to 1947, says what cannot be done. It basically encourages sprawl development and makes good design an exception rather than the rule. What it doesn’t say is what we, as a community, are seeking. It does not articulate a vision. So how do we communicate what we want? Urban Design Guidelines.

Cities that are actually seeking to improve their physical environment through well-planned development create “Urban Design Guidelines” to help guide the development process. These are most often in the form of non-legal phrasing and graphics that are easily understood by everyone. Typical zoning, on the other hand, often requires an attorney that specializes to help determine what can and cannot be done. Form-based zoning, on the other hand, uses graphics to help illustrate what is sought for that particular portion of the community.

It should also be noted that Urban Design Guidelines are different than “plans” for an area. Cities, including St. Louis, have stacks and stacks of unrealized plans. In some cases, this is a good thing as earlier plans called for the razing of Soulard & Lafayette Square to be replaced with low-density housing on cul-de-sac streets. Plans are usually grand visions for an area that lack funding. They are created, everyone gets excited about what may be, no funding is given to implementation and the plan sits. In the meantime poorly executed development that prompted the need for a plan continues through the outdated zoning. UDG look at the vision different — setting out goals for an area such as walkable streets. The guidelines then indicate how this is to be accomplished. Guidelines help guide new construction and renovation projects so that, over time, an area is improved. It is a smart and realistic way to guide physical change in a community.

Below are some examples of Urban Design Guidelines and related documents from a variety of cities in North America. This is only a tiny fraction is what is out there. I’ve only scanned each at this point so I am not making any claims we should adopt any of these for St. Louis. What I am saying is we need to be creating guidelines for future development and have debates over what we seek as we develop the guides — not over each and every proposed project.

City of Denver:

Denver Guidelines by area
Commercial Corridors
Streetscape 1993 (excellent!)

City of Ottawa:

Large-Format Retail
Gas Stations
Traditional Main Street
Outdoor Patios

City of Toronto:

Toronto Urban Design Guidelines

Various Cities:

Lawrence KS – downtown guidelines
Scottsdale, AZ – Gas Stations
Huntington Beach, CA
Mankato, MN
Niagra, Ontario
Niagra, On — Large Format (big box)
Mississauga, Ontario
Tampa, FL

City of Madison, WI

Best Practices Guide (an amazing document — a must read)
Inclusionary Zoning (for affordable housing)

Madison even did a study called, “Grocery Stores in City Neighborhoods: Supporting access to food choices, livable neighborhoods, and entrepreneurial opportunities in Madison, Wisconsin”. From the executive summary:

Guiding the decisions of food retailers- and providing support for them- in order to ensure equitable access to food and promote livable, walkable neighborhoods is a difficult task faced by non-profit organizations and local governments in cities across the nation. Since all people require food on a daily basis and shop for it frequently, food retailers should be recognized as far more than simply another retail establishment. However, even as many municipal governments realize this, there are limited ways for cities to intervene in support for grocery stores when particular parcels of land are owned and controlled in the private realm. Market forces and consumer behavior all too often work against the success and proliferation of small grocery stores distributed equitably across the City.

Click here to read the full report.

City of Houston:

As I was working on this post a regular reader sent me an article about how good development in Houston’s midtown is lagging behind because the city’s zoning encourages auto-centric results.

Like explorers hacking a path through the jungle, a small but determined group of developers, planners and civic leaders has
struggled for 12 years to create a unique urban environment in Midtown.

Much of what they are trying to achieve —a walkable neighborhood with a vibrant street scene is forbidden by city development rules still focused on the automobile. Leaders of a civic group have dipped into their own pockets to pay for alternative design plans for a proposed Main Street drugstore that clashes with their Midtown vision.

“Unfortunately,” said developer Ed Wulfe, chairman of the Main Street Coalition, “the Houston way is slow and painful.”

Read through these Urban Design Guidelines and you will see how the community is indicating its desires for a more walkable and cohesive environment yet none of it is designed to force businesses out or create cities without cars. Cities have been working on guidelines for a good 15 years or so but St. Louis remains way behind the curve. This places us at an economic disadvantage when it comes to attracting both new residents as well as potential employers. What would it take to get us working toward community design guidelines — probably the one thing we don’t have enough of: political will.