Monday, August 10, 2009

1st, 2nd or 3rd?

Late in the summer of another year in St. Louis we just completed a week-long tour of two midwestern destination cities - Cleveland and Pittsburgh. St. Louis has made a local out of me, but with nearly twenty years of time here, it was time to clear my head and think about the motivations that keep us here in this place.

This was a father-son trip (recommended for those with teen sons that have outgrown the junior amateur athletics and scout aged things). Now we share interests in music, architecture, historic neighborhoods and local/ethnic food. Both Cleveland and Pittsburgh offer much to choose from in those categories.

Our trip started in Cleveland. We made the drive from St. Louis to Cleveland in about ten hours. Not one highway patrolman in sight, so traffic moved at 70+ mph the whole way. Midway through Ohio you enter the Great Lakes watershed and beautiful Amish farm country. Arriving in Cleveland you immediately get the impression that it is much more a smaller version of Chicago than St. Louis ever is. Note to self: We St. Louisans would be well served to stop the STL-Chicago comparisons.

Without a reservation, we got a great deal on the lakefront at the Crown Plaza hotel. Cleveland folks are super friendly and helpful. Our primary destination was the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but we arrived early enough to explore some of Cleveland and was directed by locals to the historic Tremont neighborhood. Tremont is a 19th century neighborhood, undergoing significant rehab and gentrification.

Tremont is beautiful, about five minutes from downtown, and full of hip restaurants and galleries. One interesting feature of the neighborhood is the way architects of infill new construction seem to have a lot of freedom of design expression. The new construction has urban scale but modern form. I liked it and recommend a visit to this neighborhood if you're ever in Cleveland.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was worth the visit. But after having made the trip once, I doubt we'd return to Cleveland for another trip the R and R HOF. After you've seen it once, it would probably be kind of boring. Maybe after another ten years or a major remake of the place. We would return sooner to attend a sporting event or tour more of the city's neighborhoods.

Pittsburgh and Cleveland are only about 140 miles apart, so the rivalry between cities is strong. After attending a baseball game at Cleveland's Progressive Field (a new downtown ballpark built in a decidely non-faux historic style), at about 9:00 pm we left Cleveland heading to Pittsburgh. Enter the land of the toll roads. What a strange life it must be for the workers collecting those tolls. I'm wondering, are those patronage positions?

For miles there was nothing but darkness. No street lights, no highway intersections with four corners of fast food and filling stations. Eastern Ohio and western PA are heavy rural. Where were the suburbs and sprawl? Maybe we were on the rural route? We'll have to make the trip again in daylight to see what we were missing, but I'm betting it was all forest and farms.

The lack of familiar settlement patterns continued until we were very near Pittsburgh. Highway signs for the Pittsburgh International Airport appeared before any gas stations or subdivisions. Where were the suburbs? We felt like we were riding in the twilight zone. Good thing we had spare change for the toll plazas and enough gas in the tank!

We finally found an offramp with services (restaurants, hotels, filling stations), about ten miles from downtown Pittsburgh. There was an inn with a room, so we checked in and got a good rest before our visit to Pittsburgh. Having heard lots of good things about Pittsburgh, this would be the main destination of our journey.

The next morning on our drive in to Pittsburgh we were impressed with the geography. What a hilly place. Mountains really. Steep ones. We kept getting closer to Pittsburgh, now there were offramps for the city and stadiums, but still no major developments along the road. Very open mostly. Then we came upon the "Fort Pitt Tunnel". We drove through the tunnel and on the other side the whole skyline of Pittsburgh appeared right in front of us. What a view and how dramatic! It was beautiful. And bridges and water everywhere. Pittsburgh claims over 400 bridges. Our plan was to drive around for an hour or two to get our bearings.

The place reminded me very much of eastern cities. Much older and smaller scale of buildings than St. Louis, and a very dense and impressive big city downtown. Regional attractions in Pittsburgh abound. Other than a quick game of catch at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and a ballgame at spectacular PNC stadium, we didn't even make a dent in the downtown area. Neighborhood destinations filled our schedule.

We toured the Andy Warhol museum, a closed Catholic parish church which had been coverted to a micro brewery, the Carnegie natural history museum with one of the world's largest collection of dinosaur fossils, took a ride up one of their incline trains (awesome views of downtown from the top), checked out the "Strip" neighborhood (ate a Primanti's sandwich there), the northside and southside neighborhoods, and Heinz Chapel on the University of Pittsburgh campus.

The rivers, steep hills and historic neighborhoods, along with a strong eastern European influence in churches dotting the hillsides, make for very scenic landscapes, defined neighborhoods, and beautiful views. I expected to see more vacant steel mills but there really weren't very many, even though we did hear from the locals how the local economy still feels the sting from the loss of jobs in steel industry.

In both Cleveland and Pittsburgh we asked for recommendations about neighborhoods with nightlife and music, sort of like our Soulard or Loop areas. Recommendations were few and we didn't find much. Any suggestions would be appreciated, especially for Pittsburgh, since we definitely plan a return there.

There was a noticeable lack of cemetaries around Pittsburgh. We only passed one the whole time we were there. Maybe with the scarcity of buildable land, they're all along the periphery? Or maybe they've been relocated outward through the years?

Whetherwise, Pittsburgh was best. The news reported they were getting ready to have their first 90 degree day - in over a YEAR! With the reduction in industrial activities, the years of dust and soot are over and the skies were clear and blue.

It's easy to see how people would love living in both Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We heard from a person at the ballgame at PNC how many Pittsburgh families have over 100 years of local residency.

Given the competition among midwestern regions, there are lessons we can take from both Pittsburgh and Cleveland. All three regions, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh, are about the same size (just under 3,000,000). All three suffered from white flight, struggling public school systems, and declines in their industrial jobs base. Yet all three are making turnarounds and getting national attention.

Cities of the midwest enjoy lots of advantages. They are drawing more attention from young people seeking creative, affordable environments. They have history and destination attractions of national significance. They are supported by educational institutions and interesting neighborhoods. Weather is seasonal and with A/C, summers are manageable.

St. Louis has better baseball than Pittsburgh or Cleveland, but I'd submit Cleveland and Pittsburgh have better stadiums. Cleveland has the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but I'd say St. Louis has a far better music scene. Cleveland and Pittsburgh have more the big city feel, but St. Louis's small town atmosphere makes it easy for people to get connected and gain a meaningful role in their communities.

Making lists makes news. But it's easy to find holes in the lists. So does it really matter whether you're first second, or third? I learned on this trip that we can learn a lot from our neighbors, and we need to always be doing more.


Jim Hacking said...

Cool post. Thanks.

I am glad you guys had a good trip.

Rick Bonasch said...

A friend made a comment to a previous post that fits this thread. Here it is for consideration in the discussion. Thanks Bill for the comment, and let's plan that gathering soon.

Hi Rick,

Hope your summer's going well. We need to get together before the summer's over!

Am finishing a Caribbean vacation in St. Kitts, in the British West Indes, thought I'd catch up on STL Rising. Spending time in a beautiful, yet generally poor nation, got me thinking about how good we have it in the States -- but also about some fundamental problems/opportunities we have.

As I sat in hotel, saw this older blog entry. Coincidentally, I've been thinking the same thing lately and was happy you'd asked the question.

My answer to your Blogs United question: pushing overall development of the area. Maybe that sounds vague. Let me explain.

If you look at the STL area over the last 30 years, you see one constant: STL piddling along while other cities race pass us. Kind of like Bill Bidwell's ownership of the old football Cardinals. No matter the specific coach or players, outside of a couple good years, there was one constant: 25 years of lackluster, average-to-below average football from the same owner. While perhaps exaggerating a bit to make a point, I see our area in much the same terms.

30 years ago, STL was a top 10 market (metro area.) Comparable in size to Dallas. Today, we're barely in top 20. We continue to grow in population -- that's good -- but at a snail's pace. Other markets have been stealing our lunch money for years.

We bemoan the closing, selling, relocation of longstanding St. Louis businesses. But where is the regionwide strategic planning for the next wave of corporate relocation and business development? Yes, St. Louis City has a department that works on it. So does the County. But real growth for the Metro area will be fueled by a region-wide plan to attract and grow businesses who employ people. Can you recall even one instance of a regionwide offer being made to attract and relocate an out-of-town business to the Loo?

Too much of our conversation is fueled by parochial concerns of corporation A leaving downtown and moving to Clayton -- or vice versa. That's a zero sum game. Just moves money around. To large degree, same with TIFs.

That's not to say there are no good things happening or that local development isn't good. There are nice things happening, obviously. Citygarden. Development on Macklind. Ballpark Village (eventually! :)) Controversial or not, Paul McKee's development has tons of potential. I agree with John Danforth, we need to redevelop the Arch grounds, lid the depressed lanes, blah, blah, blah. Heck, I'd LOVE a River Des Peres beautification!! But while nice and certainly exciting and worthwhile, I see all of these as incremental only.

I'm not a pessimistic guy as you well know. Quite the half or more full guy. But how does this market make a BOLD move to reshape the growth plan for the next 50 years? Where is the next A-B? How do we do a free-agent Matt Holliday-type deal to attract a FedEx, a Macy's, a heavy hitting corporation relocation? How do we pull in same direction? How do we make the regional business climate VERY attractive for companies to want to locate here, invest in our community?

How can we be more like the BASEBALL Cardinals and less like the old football Cardinals who, yes, also left?

That's the question for which I'd love an answer. I have some thoughts on the possible solutions. But would love to hear from you and the other development pros.

Bill Burnes

Anonymous said...

Long time reader, first time poster.. Please explain this comment: "Arriving in Cleveland you immediately get the impression that it is much more a smaller version of Chicago than St. Louis ever is."

And to the previous poster... "where is our next A-B" Hint: Chinese Air Hub AKA the big Idea...

Rick Bonasch said...

Thanks anon for reading and the questions.

Two things. Both Cleveland and Chicago are lakefront cities. That's probably the biggest difference.

Second though is the scale of the downtowns. Cleveland feels more like a big city than St. Louis.

This isn't scientific, but I'd estimate that downtown Cleveland has perhaps 40 buildings over 25 stories tall. Maybe more. There's a much greater sense of a big city downtown in Cleveland than St. Louis.

Downtown St. Louis has at most, what, twenty buildings over 20 stories? And they are on a much lower density street grid than either Cleveland or Pittsburgh.

Maybe St. Louis's much lower density is a function of our Missouri way? We like things more low key and less dense?

STLgasm said...

I completely disagree that Cleveland feels more like a big city than St. Louis. In fact, I would say it's just the opposite. Great Lakes frame housing predominates in Cleveland, and its neighborhoods don't even touch the urban flair of St. Louis's solid brick blocks. Everyone I know from Cleveland tells me that St. Louis blows it away in almost every measurable way. In terms of charm, St. Louis is like Paris compared to Cleveland.

St. Louis's metro area is in fact more populous than Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

While Pittsburgh is technically older, St. Louis's population surpassed Pittsburgh's very early on. Pittsburgh has preserved more, so maybe that's why you get the impression it is much older.

Next time you visit Pittsburgh, do not miss the Strip District, Oakland, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, or Carson Street. Lots of life in the Steel City. Definitely one of my favorite American cities!

Rick Bonasch said...

In reply to STLGasm,

Thanks for your comment and suggestions.

The comparison I'm making is between the downtown areas, not the neighborhoods. The only neighborhood we visited in Cleveland was Tremont, which I'd put on par with our Soulard or Lafayette Square.

City neighborhoods don't have to be brick to be urban, just look at San Francisco, it's almost all frame construction.

In my humble opinion, Cleveland's downtown seems much more urban than St. Louis's.

The street layout is much more dense. The buildings are larger. There are way more of them. It's more walkable than downtown St. Louis.

In Pittsburgh, we did see Oakland and the Strip District. We definitely plan a return trip. The pull to return to Cleveland is not as strong. We can't wait till our next visit to Pittsburgh.

Metro/city populations are close (per wikipedia)...

STL 355K city, 2.8 M metro
Pitt 316K city, 2.5 M metro
Cleve 478 city, 2.25 Metro

So, going back to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd theme, St. Louis has the no. 1 metro population, but Cleveland has the no. 1 city population.

We didn't have time to see as much as we'd like, but I didn't see the same amount of abandment and vacancy in either Pittsburgh or Cleveland that I know we have here.

Next time I hope to get a local guide and take the no BS tours.

As far as charm, we found a lot of it in Pittsburgh. Tremont in Cleveland has charm. Which of three has more I wouldn't attempt to debate. I like the charm we have in St. Louis alot. It's one of our best assets.

But would folks say downtown St. Louis has charm? Probably not as much as the outlying neighborhoods.

Venturing a way lame guess here, regarding downtown charm, I'd vote Pittbsurgh first, Cleveland second, and St. Louis third.

Ted said...

I just got back from a day in Pittsburg and was impressed. It was my first time.

I only went to the area around Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburg. There seemed to be a nice street life. I wish Wash U had shops, bars and restaurants in easy walking distance. I also think the architecture of Carnegie Mellon was great. Wash U needs to be a little more adventurous in their design.

Yummy sandwiches at Primanti Bros!

Andrew J. Faulkner said...

I find Ted's comment on business proximity to universities very interesting. The Loop is only a half mile (2,300 feet) north of Washington University and DeMun is only 3/4 of a mile south. At an average speed the Loop is only ten minutes away and DeMun is only twenty.

Perhaps these distances feel much longer because the affluent planned communities surrounding WashU excluded mixed use development. In any case, it's shorter walk from WashU to the Loop than from SLU to the Locust Business District, and plenty of students make that walk as well.

I think this response may be evocative of an unintended tendency to overlook the positives of St. Louis and buy into the notion that this city is not walkable or rideable. Everybody I spoke to when I first moved here bemoaned public transportation and told me that you have to have a car to live in St. Louis. Three years later I only buy a tank of gas once every 2-3 months and cycle everywhere.

Our city can only be as urban(e) as we believe it to be.