Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Neighborhood Decay

Sidewalk lawn:

Was a house:


Monday, May 13, 2013

Okay, now what's the real price?

There's a building sitting empty in a city neighborhood. It looks good on the outside, but word is the inside is a real mess. If it doesn't need a total gut renovation, it needs something pretty close to one.

A real estate company has an "available" sign in the window, but calling the number on the sign just leads to voice mail. Neighbors say the owner is offering the property "for sale" at a "not_really_for sale" price of $1,000,000.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, the city assesses the land value at under $8,000 and the value of the improvements at under $20,000.

The building has sat mostly vacant for over ten years. It's in the heart of an improving commercial area, so it's a drag on the neighborhood.

Complaints from concerned citizens have been piling up against the property. Since 1996, the place has been the subject of 38 Citizens' Service Bureau complaints, beginning with rat infestation. Building Division inspections in 2012 yielded 20 code violations.

Today, the grass and weeds in front of the building have grown to over a foot in height. The sidewalks around the building are cracked and crumbling. The owner lives in a neighboring municipality, one or two counties away. Plain and simple: it's an absentee-owned eyesore.

It's properties like these that test the system.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

We want your technology workers!

That's the message Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel had for the City of Seattle, and Chicago is taking steps to make its city more attractive to young workers. It's a smart plan for sustainable development. Is St. Louis making the same choices? In its efforts for sustainability planning the answer is yes. However, what about the current plans for the South County Connector? That's the question Trailnet raised last night at a community meeting about the South County Connector, a proposed $110,000,000 county highway project.

Young workers, the kind of people we want to attract and retain in the St. Louis region, want to live in closer, denser, more walkable communities. These trends are happening around the country and they are happening in St. Louis. People are driving less. Young people are moving inward towards the heart of the region rather outward to far flung suburbs. Young people are looking for diverse, walkable, amenity rich environments. And they are voting with their feet. If St. Louis doesn't offer these choices, these mobile young people will find what they are searching for in other regions.

Downtown Maplewood:

We have success stories in St. Louis. Maplewood, an inner ring community right on the edge of St. Louis City, saw the highest percentage increase in property values in our region. How did it happen? Over the past ten years, Maplewood has focused on the revitalization of its historic downtown, making the community more walkable, and capitalizing on its central location and two Metrolink Stations. With regard to property values, the nearby communties of Shrewsbury and Webster Groves also saw property value increases exceeding the average in the St. Louis region.

Which brings us to the proposed South County Connector. How does the South County Connector support a sustainable future? Does it make the surrounding areas more walkable and bikeable? Does it help to build a more diverse, amenity rich environment, attractive to young knowledge based workers? Or is it ironically an inner ring infrastructure project designed to encourage sprawl development - the opposite of the kind of sustainable community investments we should make to help attract young workers to St. Louis?

Study Area for the South County Connector:

Building a road that is designed to make it more convenient for drivers headed for outlying suburbs at the cost of walkable, inner ring, communities would seem to be the opposite direction we should be investing in for the future of our region. On Thursday, May 30, the public will have the opportunity to make comments at a public hearing on the project. More information is available here: South County Connector official website

Sunday, May 05, 2013

STL-Based Syfy Series "Defiance" More Truth than Fiction?

Okay, so maybe the title to this blog post is a stretch, but take away the alien invasion and "terra formed" landscapes, and the dramatic science fiction series "Defiance", based in a post-apocalyptic St. Louis, sheds a lot of truth on the St. Louis of 2013.

The premise of "Defiance" is that in the future, after the apocalypse, when aliens share the city with human beings, together they must sort out their differences to find a brighter, shared future. The producers of Defiance chose St. Louis as the setting for the show because of the history of this place as a starting point for new futures, from the heart of the country.

Those challenges set in a science fiction future aren't that different from the challenges we face today. Locals know St. Louis to be a place filled with people from a wide range of communities and backgrounds. We're sort of famous for our fractured nature, and many suggest those divisions are holding us back.

Maybe those future imaginary citizens of Defiance/STL can share some good ideas with the current residents of St. Louis for how we might create a better future starting today?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Newcomers Welcoming Long-Timers?

It is often said that newcomers to the St. Louis area often have a greater appreciation for what St. Louis has to offer than long time residents.

Maybe there should be a "Non-Native Ambassadors Society" established to reintroduce long time residents to the good things happening around St. Louis today?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Traffic Compromise

Busier neighborhood streets serve two purposes - they move traffic and they are shopping districts for neighborhoods. Unfortunately, most of them do a better job moving traffic than they do serving neighborhoods, as is evidenced by the often tattered appearances of the edges of our neighborhoods formed by these busy streets.

What if there was a way to accommodate both purposes - to move traffic and better serve adjoining neighborhoods? Here's a suggestion. Consider Hampton Avenue between Nottingham and Loughborough for example.

Through this stretch, Hampton is six lanes wide. The two outside lanes double as parking lanes with two through lanes in each direction. Traffic moves quickly, parking is difficult among speeding cars, and left turns are treacherous. What if the city were to restripe the lanes and restrict parking?

Instead of the current six lane configuration, what would happen if the road were restriped to create five lanes, including a two-way center turn lane plus two additional lanes in each direction? Fewer lanes would allow for slightly wider parking lanes.

To maximize traffic flow during peak commute times, say from 6-9 AM mornings and from 4-7 pm evenings, Monday through Friday, no parking would be posted in the outside lanes, keeping two through lanes in each direction for those busy hours.

Then during the rest of the day and on weekends, street parking is allowed in the outside lanes, leaving only one through lane in each direction plus the center turn lane? Would such an arrangement make the area more walkable, be better for neighborhood businesses, and safer for drivers?

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Vacancy and the Opportunity for Realizing Growth in Our Urban Core

A 50-year trend of suburban outmigration has led to large population losses and the degradation of our urban core. By most traditional measures, the resulting vacant properties are a liability. There are ongoing costs to maintain the inventory of vacant properties and they are blight on our neighborhoods. Nevertheless, St. Louis has found creative ways to convert these abandoned sites into community assets.

Today with rising gas prices and increased interest in sustainability, people are rethinking the potential of older areas for reuse. Development sites in established areas of the St. Louis region are becoming harder to find and more expensive.

Meanwhile, locations in outlying areas are becoming less attractive due to high transportation costs for workers. These trends help position vacant sites in the urban core for reuse.

While the purchase price for vacant land and buildings is often low, they usually come with hidden extra costs for development. Remnants from the past create challenges for today, including buried rubble, non-engineered fill, environmental contamination, and deteriorated infrastructure. For the reuse of these abandoned properties to take place, the right tools and programs need to be in place to attract the necessary public and private investment.

Our History of Successfully Reusing Vacant Land

St. Louis actually has a long history of leveraging abandoned assets for future growth. In the 1990s, St. Louis planners used abandoned rail lines and tunnels to create alignments for the new Metrolink system. Today, Great Rivers Greenway is again using abandoned rail lines and bridges to expand our region’s cycling and hiking network.

Less than twenty years ago, downtown’s Washington Avenue loft district was an area of mostly vacant buildings. Property values were extremely low. Historic loft buildings could be purchased for $.50 per square foot. That’s $50,000 for a 100,000 square foot, ten story building. Today, the area is revitalized, new businesses have opened, the street is full people, and property values have recovered. The once abandoned area has gone through a complete transformation - all in the span of less than one generation.

How did the revitalization of Washington Avenue succeed? The area was planned and targeted for revitalization by the City of St. Louis, perceptions of downtown changed along with a growing national trend supporting urban areas, and the Missouri state historic tax credit was created, making redevelopment of these buildings financially feasible.

A key player throughout all of this has been the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), created in 1971 by state statute as one of the nation’s first land trust for abandoned property. The LRA has played a vital role in the past and will continue to play one into the future as it works with community groups, businesses, and other partners to return vacant properties back to productive use.

What to do?

Looking forward, are there ways to convert the vacant property into an asset? How can we leverage vacant land and buildings in St. Louis into a source of future growth and renewal?

Here are just a few examples of what’s happening:

In stable neighborhoods we can sell or lease for property as side lots or market to developers for infill redevelopment.

Larger, contiguous sites can be used for community gardens, urban agriculture, parks and playground areas. (See Gateway Greening.)

Assembled with other sites, vacant land can be used for industrial (Martin Luther King Business Park) office, retail, and housing developments (Habitat Build) .

Vacant land can be used to create jobs by salvaging the brick and architectural elements or remediating the lots and using the proceeds from the sale to offset costs.

Vacant land can be used to repair the environment. (See the Green Infrastructure Pilot Program, a creative partnership between MSD and LRA designed to reduce the negative impact of sewer overflows: Green Infrastructure Pilot Program.)

Vacant infrastructure can be used to connect communities. (See The Trestle; and the St. Vincent Greenway.)

In some cases, vacant properties need to be held for future use until the market improves.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The challenge of vacancy has been with us for decades and will take a long time to be resolved. However, creating a regional strategy to address the challenge is one way to raise awareness and begin reimagining vacancy as an opportunity to revitalize our urban core. Here are a few ideas for further discussion.

Engage leaders to develop regional goals and strategies around the issue of vacancy: Through current sustainability and other local planning efforts, such as the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development (Regional Plan for Sustainable Development), identify potential programs, strategies, and goals to make the reuse of abandoned and vacant sites a regional priority.

Formalize the planning and resource development structure: Reinforce these planning efforts by creating a bi-state, regional leadership group charged with developing resources and advancing strategies for prioritizing the reuse of vacant, underutilized, and abandoned sites.

Strengthen efforts through partnerships and collaboration: Create partnerships with educational and community institutions, including the St. Louis Public Schools, local universities, and our growing biotech sector, to match vacant land and building stock with training programs, research, and facility expansion.

Engage and empower neighborhoods, residents, and community organizations: To strengthen support for these efforts, engage community residents, organizations, and elected officials early and often in this long-term effort.