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Placeless Sprawl With Names Evoking A Sense of Place

While vacationing in Seattle I visited Seattle’s oldest area, known as Pioneer Square.

The above is obviously not a late 19th Century historic area in downtown Seattle.  Instead it is a typical highway side auto-centric center located an hour or so North of Seattle near I-5  (map added on 3/27/09).  But the horse graphic on the sign gives you that pioneer feeling…

The real Pioneer Square has character and no gas pumps.  I always find it interesting the names given to characterless sprawl.  Does a familiar name on a cheap backlit sign make sprawl more ascceptable?

In the St. Louis region we see the Arch invoked all over .  Does that give these meaningless areas a sense of place?  Hardly.

One of my favorites is the Eureka Towne Center:

In the sense of pure commerce the above is the center of Eureka, MO with a Wal-Mart and a host of chain stores. Sad on so many levels.  Sad that Main Street is no longer valued.  Sad that sprawl like this exists from coast to coast.  Sad that the public has fully accepted this form of developmemt.  Sad that few see the folly of calling it the “towne center.”

We have real places in America but for the last half century we’ve become so accustomed to sprawl.  Those of us who abhore sprawl are then left to retreat to the remaining authentic places for living in sprawl is no life at all.


Green? Yes. Accessible? No.

Green building is all the rage these days.  That is a good thing, but I wished walkability was given the same importance.  Walking, after all, is one of the most green & healthy things we can do.

So last year when the old Sym’s clothing store in the St. Louis suburb of Brentwood was converted into an Office Depot & Westlake Ace Hardware I was hopeful that pedestrian access would make it into the renovation plans.  I periodically scooted by and saw the nifty bioswales being carved out of the existing parking lot but no accessible route connecting the public sidewalk to the accessible entrance of the two stores..

Office Depot & Ace Hardware on Manchester Rd.
Office Depot & Ace Hardware on Manchester Rd.

The parking lot was completely redone so there was plenty of opportunity to do the greenest thing of all — welcome pedestrians.

Detail of bio-swale
Detail view of "bioswale"

I love the green bioswales which catch and use water runoff.

Public sidewalk along Manchester Rd. at entry to Office Depot/Ace Hardware.
Public sidewalk along Manchester Rd. at entry to Office Depot/Ace Hardware.

But when we’ve got major reconstruction of both building and site and no priority is given to connect to the existing public sidewalk we have a problem.  When “green” ignores pedestrians, we have a problem.  When developers and large retailers are able to ignore the basic right of accessibility we have a problem.

You might be saying to yourself, “npobody walks that stretch of Manchester Rd.”  First, not true.  Some do walk here.  But given the lack of consideration for the pedestrian it is no wonder too few walk.  This property is surrounded by residential properties and is only a mile from the Maplewood MetroLink light rail station to the East.

Which comes first the pedestrian or the sidewalk?


Richmond Heights Redevelopment Area Back To Square One

The St. Louis suburb of Richmond Heights was back in the news this week:

The Richmond Heights City Council voted unanimously Monday night to seek new redevelopment proposals for the Hadley Township area.

The developer previously selected for this area, Michelson Commercial Realty and Development, missed the January deadline to give Hadley Township homeowners notices to close, as required in its redevelopment agreement with the city.  (Source: St. Louis Business Journal)

Not good news for the residents who were expecting buyouts.  Another casualty of our current economic situation.

Was this inevitable?

With big developments come big risk.  These massive redevelopment projects are harder and harder to finance.  Good.  I never liked the selected proposal anyway.  More boring big box crap that we have too much of already.

We need to learn how to revamp aging areas without assembling ever larger parcels of land.  We need to learn how to look at major streets like Hanley and envision how, over time, the individual parcels along the street would be developed.  Land-use regulations (aka zoning) can be used to set in place the regulatory framework to see a vision realized naturally over time.

The slow process of remaking areas parcel by parcel requires great vision & patience — qualities lacking in our local elected officials in the City of St. Louis as well as suburban municipalities like Richmond Heights.

Now once again seeking redevelopment proposals this farce continues to drag on.  I attended meetings in January 2006 where proposals were last submitted.  Over three years ago!  People have moved.  The once stable area is no longer.

Richmond Heights officials do have vision.  They want the Hadley Township area to resemble the adjacent sprawl wasteland in Maplewood.  They see future tax revenues over current residents.  Very shortsighted.

The state of Missouri took over our failing city school system.  Maybe the state should take over the region and consolidate hundreds of seperate small units of government into one whole.  That might put the brakes on the destruction of areas in the sales tax chase game.

Click here for my post on Hadley Township from October 2008 — which includes links to posts dating back to January 2006 as well as other resources.


What is an Accessible Route?

I often write about an “accessible route” (or lack thereof), but what constitutes an accessible route? In the days of walkable urbanism and streetcar suburbs you didn’t have wheelchair access but you also didn’t have multiple stores on 20+ acre sites connected only by large surface parking lots. In those days all were connected by this thing we call a sidewalk.

Decades now of building for the car and not humans has destroyed the ability for a pedestrian, disabled or not, to reach the main entry of many businesses from the public sidewalk without having to traverse space occupied by cars. However guidelines relating to the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) intended to make all future establishments reachable from the public sidewalk without having to walk though driveways where cars are coming and going.

The ADA itself just establishes the fundamental civil right to be granted full access to where the general public is permitted. However, through the “Access Board” the rules are established. The rules (guidelines) are known as ADAAG (pronounced A-Dag) — The ADA Guidelines for Accessible Buildings and Facilities. Enforcement of the ADA falls to the federal Department of Justice. However, municipalities, counties and states are free to adopt the ADAAG guidelines as part of their own requirements.

This brings me to my original question, what is an accessible route? For the answer we go to section 4.3 of ADAAG. Much of this section deals with halls and other routes. But one section, if enforced, would change the face of sprawl development:

4.3.2 Location.

(1) At least one accessible route within the boundary of the site shall be provided from public transportation stops, accessible parking, and accessible passenger loading zones, and public streets or sidewalks to the accessible building entrance they serve. The accessible route shall, to the maximum extent feasible, coincide with the route for the general public.

(2) At least one accessible route shall connect accessible buildings, facilities, elements, and spaces that are on the same site.

Developers & cities on which they work have down the route from accessible parking. They just tend to ignore the rest. But “and public streets or sidewalks” is pretty clear. In part #2 above the guidelines require all an accessible route between locations on the same site. This is really just basic sound planning but sadly it is ignored more often than followed.

I’ve shown you numerous examples before. The new Lowe’s in Loughborough Commons is not reachable along an accessible route from a public street. New free-standing Starbuck’s facilities in the area such as the one on Watson and the latest on Broadway lack accessible routes from the adjacent public sidewalk. The entire development at Gravois Plaza lacks an accessible route to any of the store entrances much less all of them. It is just as bad if not worse out in sprawl-ville. For example Brentwood Promenade is just west of a MetroLink station yet none of its stores are accessible from the public sidewalk and even once you are there going from one store to the next cannot be done on an accessible route. Sometimes it is a mixed bag. The new shopping center in Dardene Prairie has a connection from one public sidewalk to the Target & JCPenny but it then fails to connect to other buildings within the site. The typical fast food joint or strip center in an out parcel is often just an island in a sea of asphalt for cars.

If cities required developers, especially those receiving tax incentives, to follow the ‘accessible route’ requirement it would actually make the developments better for all the customers not just those who happen to be disabled. The parent with a five year old and a baby in a stroller could easily get from store A to store B without having to brave the dangers of taking their two offspring through a busy & crowded parking lot or having to load them back in the car to drive closer to a store within sight. Even if it is just a nice day and you’d rather walk than drive, following this guideline makes that a more pleasant possibility.

Compliance is not an impossibility but rather a shift in thinking away from the auto only status quo. Examples I’ve found include a former mall site in Bloomington-Normal,and an Arby’s on Lindell. One of the best examples is a mixed-use project in the bay area that I found in December 2006.

Walkable need not exclude cars.  Sadly so much time is spent by Architects and Civil Engineers figuring out traffic patterns into and out of shopping centers that pedestrian traffic concerns is short changed.  People will say that nobody walks in suburbia so why bother.  If we look deeper we can see that the design of the spaces is largely unfriendly to pedestrians so it is no wonder that nobody walks.  People do want to walk but they need connecting sidewalks to do so.


The St Louis Region Over The Next 50 Years

The last 50 years saw our region (and most regions nationally) flee the inner city, and eventually inner ring ‘streetcar’ suburbs for the newly developing auto-centric sprawl of suburbia. The coming 50 years will be radically different. The following are my thoughts on the changes we’ll see by the close of the first half of the 21st Century.

We already know that by 2050 the U.S. is expected to grow by a third, going from 300 million to 400 million. We have no reason to believe the desires and values of the 1950s will be the same in the 2050s, the 1950s were certainly different than the 1850s.

The decision makers in 1950 were likely born around 1900. The cities of their youth were a polluted places. Many cities in the first half of the 20th century could be as dark as night due to think smoke from coal fired furnaces. Cities were literally dirty places. All the jobs & retail were in the city so one had little choice but to go to the city.  That generation changed everything to get themselves away from the city center.
The American dream of the single family detached home surrounded by a lush lawn and two cars in the garage will cease to be the dream for most Americans by 2050. The further we get into the period of high energy costs the more people will realize the folly of hoping in the car to head 3 miles to a big box supermarket, or anywhere for that matter. Of course in the future that big box supermarket may not exist.

Agribusiness, I believe, will collapse as the cost to produce and ship food great distances will cripple their business plan. Food will become more local out of fiscal necessity.

As we transition from a world a cheap energy to one where energy is very costly much will change.  Wal-Mart too will collapse as they struggle to offer consumers cheap goods shipped from halfway around the world.  Their vast parking lots in suburbia will be increasingly empty, just like their shelves.

Alternatively I think by 2050 we’ll see the 200,000sf Wal-Mart Supercenter break up and be replaced with the Wal-Mart main street. One walkable street connected to adjacent residential and lined with a number of Wal-Mart specialty stores such as pharmacy, grocery, clothing, electronics and so on.    This won’t happen in some corn field but along an arterial currently lined with fast food shacks and cinder block & dryvit strip centers.   Municipalities will see this as the only way to create main street type retail to serve their residents.  It may be Wal-Mart or it might be whatever retailers come along after they crash & burn.
Rolling blackouts to deal with demand for electricity will shape generations being born now.  They will also be shaped by the high price of gas.  Just as the generation from 1900 looked with envy at the wealthy who had large homes in places just outside the city like Webster Groves the generation being born now but raised in car required sprawl will be envious of those with the option to walk a few blocks to work, or to get daily goods & services.  Indeed it will be the wealthy who will first place themselves in the new emerging urban enclaves.
Over the next half century manufacturing will return to the U.S. As transportation costs mount we will begin to see that the cheap item made in China or the head of lettuce grown in Southern California will be more costly than the same thing made or grown closer to home.

As a future Urban Planner this is an exciting time. The next decade or so will be rough but beyond that we’ll see the re-urbanization of the St Louis region and in regions across the country. I’m not suggesting the entire population of the region will live & work with the boundaries of the City of St Louis. What I am suggesting is that in addition to the city our inner-ring suburbs and a few after that will add population and will take on new forms to reflect the market demand for “walkable urbanism.” The single-family detached homes may remain but the commercial arterial roads, now littered with fast food joints, will get mixed-use urban form buildings.

The large vinyl-clad McMansions of suburbia may get reconfigured to house more than one single family.  Lawns will become vegetable gardens.  Those places farthest away from a main street and/or transit (ie: requiring a drive to get there) will be unwanted.   Children raised in these conditions will long for urbanism when they seek places on their own.
The municipality of Dardene Prairie in St Charles County is already taking the right steps to stay relevant.  They are in the process of creating a walkable downtown on vacant commercial land between existing cul-de-sac subdivisions.  When built out in say 20 years that will serve to connect now disconnected subdivisions.  Creve Coeur is also working on a downtown plan.  Much of what Urban Planners will be doing over the next few decades is retrofitting sprawl with mass transit and walkable urbanism.  These places won’t have 10+ story buildings for blocks but they will have 2-5 story buildings opening directly to the street.
Future road projects will not center on how much traffic volume can be accommodated but how to make stretches of road more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, the opposite of today’s big projects like I-64.

In 2050 I will turn 83 years old.  Thus I may only see the start of this transformation.  Hopefully I will play a role in the process from suburbia to urbanism.  In 2050 my great-niece will be 52 and her younger brother will be 46.  Their adult lives won’t be about driving everywhere.   They may never need a car.

The problem is that today’s leadership is stuck on fulfilling the dreams of their grandparents generation, only making it bigger and more sprawling.  The mounting energy crisis is going to test everyone’s idea of the ideal built environment.  Those municipalities that embrace the increasing demand for urbanism will fare better than those that don’t.  As a region our growth will depend upon the actions within tons of small municipalities on both sides of the river.  How we are perceived by those outside our region will become important as we try to get manufacturing jobs that return stateside.

The City of St Louis divorced itself from St Louis County in 1876 and in the coming decades that may prove to benefit the city.  If, in the coming decades, we rebuild much of our now-vacant areas in a dense urban model we can repopulate the city and attract great new jobs.   Not being part of a county will give the city the freedom to go its own direction while ignoring potential sprawl holdouts in the balance of the region.  Of course I’m afraid the pro-sprawl holdouts may still be in charge in city government.

As we face an uncertain future regarding energy I’m nonetheless optimistic about the future and the role I may play in shaping cities over the next 40 years or so.