Friday, May 29, 2009

Cobblestones Rising

One of the cool things about living in an old city like St. Louis is digging stuff up. There are lots of interesting things below the surface, and you never know what you might find.

This month the city is doing lots of street work in downtown. They are using those big pavement grinders to lower the surface of the street to prepare for new pavement. They have to do this, because othewrise, if they just added new pavement over the old, eventually, the surface of the street would be up over the top of the curbs. So they have to grind down the street. And when they do this, they expose the old street surface of downtown from 150 years ago. Here and there, like poltergeists, the old cobblestones are popping through.

This week, you can see cobblestones near the Old Post Office and the new Busch Stadium. I wonder how much of the city originally had cobblestone streets? The labor involved in building a street one stone, or, as in other parts of town, one brick, at a time, put lots of people to work. It must have been an interesting, busy scene. I've also heard that in some places, oiled blocks of wood were used to build alleys. Apparently, there's one near the intersection of 11th and Locust.

You never know what you'll find when you start digging below the surface. A few months ago, I was on hand for a soils exploration on a vacant lot planned for new construction. Under the ground was the debris from a demolition carried out decades ago. A back hoe was digging trenches. They needed to go deep enough to get beneath the debris of the old demolition.

The tractor dug down to virgin soil. The trenches ended up about 8 feet deep. By the way, for the urban agriculture enthusiasts, the soils were excellent. Eight or so feet of dark, rich, top soil; we never found the bottom of it. There is something wonderful about the smell of good quality soil. It's a beautiful thing. It can make you feel good inside.

The tractor operator was skillfull and carefully pulled out huge stone parts of the old building and mass amounts of brick from the ground. There were also lots of unbroken bottles, even through the swishing around of tons of earth at the end of the tractor boom. The bottles glided smoothly with the earth behind the force of the tractor, like they were floating in water. A small bottle appeared, still with a glass stopper in the top. We climbed down into the trench and pulled out the little bottle. The contents were still inside.

The bottle had been buried with the debris of the old house for some thirty years. We opened it up. It was a spice bottle. When the top came off, the fragrant aroma of cloves was strong. I thought after such a long time, the contents would have dried out or turned to dust. Nope. The cloves were preserved and their scent was fresh. It seemed like you could have taken the bottle home and cooked with those cloves the same night.

Then I thought about what it must have been like the day they buried the house underground, kitchen spices and all, and covering it over with a foot or two of earth. They probably didn't think much about it. Strange.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Information is power

Usually, I wouldn't post scanned images of our household mail to the STL Rising site, but the mail we received yesterday from AmerenUE is worth more attention.

Ameren is sending a report to all its ratepayers breaking down energy usage and charges by month for the past three years. It also contains practical recommendations for lowering energy use. I bet you didn't know that it costs four times as much to operate a 60-inch plasma television than it does a conventional 28-inch tube set?

Here's our personal household energy report for the period January 2007 through March of 2009:

And here is where Ameren offers some ideas for reducing energy costs:

Ameren has faced criticism in recent years for its handling of major power outages as well as its tree trimming practices. When they do a good job, they deserve credit. Kudos to the company for its work educating the public on important energy efficiency information.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Downtown scenes

With warmer weather, there are usually interesting sights to see downtown. Today, in no particular order, a few come to mind.

The windows are being installed in the Roberts Tower. They are in about a third of the way up the building. Looks good.

Shade trees along Washington Avenue have grown to the size where they are providing real shade. Walking back from a meeting, I took a turn down the sunny side of the street to enjoy the shade of the trees on the sidewalk.

A man was walking around the Ballpark Village site wearing a Depression-styled sandwich board sign. It said "No More Bars".

Lastly, a row of cars, motorcycles, and RVs were all parked on Memorial Drive in front of the Arch. Tourists probably. Traffic was moving around them with no problem, but there was a city police officer writing them all tickets.

Maybe its time to consider street parking on Memorial Drive during non-peak traffic hours. Given how seldom people park there, and the revenue potential from parking meters, it could be a good money maker. $1 for every 15 minutes?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Doubling Downtown

What would it mean to St. Louis in the developable sites in the core of downtown doubled, if downtown formed a frame around the Arch grounds, and if connections throughout downtown and with the riverfront were substantially improved? What would change like that look like?

Friday, May 22, 2009

STL Rising launches new "NorthSide Blog"

The "NorthSide Blog" will be dedicated to discussions about the proposed "NorthSide" project, planned for the near northside of St. Louis, adjacent to downtown.

The first topic for discussion is: What do you think of the proposed name of the development, "NorthSide"?

Follow the project and join the discussion at northside-stl.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Targeting the hole in the donut

One of the negative descriptors for St. Louis over the years has been that it's like a donut: hollowed out in the middle. That description hurts, but there is some truth to it. Ground zero for the hole in the donut is where Paul McKee has set his sights for redevelopment.

There has been a lot of speculation for years about McKee's plans. The only thing known for certain is that his companies have bought up a lot of land inside the hole in the donut.

In that area, there remain some long time residents, a collection of historic buildings, the original city street grid, and lots of work to be done. Given the long time disinvestment in the area, it doesn't fit the traditional CDC driven model of community development.

There are community development corporations with capacity working in adjoining neighborhoods, such as Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. However, at the center of the "Blairmont" area, they are hard to find. There's not much left, especially in terms of "critical mass". Nonetheless, there are lots of organizations and other constituencies with an interest in what happens.

The hole in the donut creates an opportunity. The challenge is how we remake the area. Not just physcially, but by what means and through what community model.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Tin House

One of the best things about blogging is the comment section. You never know where someone might be reading and commenting.

This weekend, STL Rising received a comment from Australia on an old post we did about trivia nights. The reader was googling about organizing trivia nights, and found us here in St. Louis. Turns out trivia nights are popular in Australia too!

Based on her bio, the poster is a journalist, teacher, and broadcaster living in New South Wales, Australia. She blogs at the tin house, where she writes about simplifying life and sustainability, principles we can share here. You can read her comment about trivia nights here.

The Tin House looks like a pretty cool site, so we've added it to the links. The latest post there is about community work.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Macklind Days

With a few hours of yard work done, and in between our next scheduled plans, we remembered that yesterday was "Macklind Days". We were thinking of going to get something to eat, so why not check out the options at the neighborhood event?

Organized by the Macklind Avenue Business District, Macklind Days brought together neighbors, local businesses, the curious, and by estimates well over 2,000 people to enjoy music, art, food, and friends all within the confines of a 1920s-30s vintage neighborhood commercial district.

Macklind Avenue starts near the Science Center and Forest Park, and runs south through the Hill, Tilles/Lindenwood, Southampton and Princeton Heights neighborhoods. Along the way you pass historic architecture, a neighborhod recycling center, the impressive Buder School (replete with upgraded playground), and in Southampton and Princeton Heights, you experience what is becoming one of the region's fastest rebounding pedestrian-scaled, neighborhood commercial districts. It's no wonder, within a couple of blocks on either side of the Macklind corridor, there are enough residents to make up a small town, with Macklind the local "main street".

Festival organizers could not have been happier with the weather. It felt more like fall than late spring. The air was clear and cool without a hint of humidity. EcoUrban, Manzo's, Onesto, Macklind Deli, along with a number of other southside businesses and organizations were represented. There was a large, professional sound stage with a full day's lineup of performers. Games, people walking dogs, visitors of all ages, were all around, affording many chance meetings for friends new and old.

Pete Manzo, owner of Manzo' Market (makers of arguably the finest salsiccia sausage in St. Louis) told me the event was many months in the planning and a substantial financial commitment on the part of organizers. To keep the project going, they will be looking for corporate sponsors for future years. Given the excellent PR for the neighborhood, I suggested they do it twice a year. With the amount of work for volunteers, Pete wasn't convinced about that idea. Yet, with the fun atmosphere and community building opportunity realized, building on the success of this first event would be a great goal for neighbors, local organizers, and the business association alike.

The Macklind Avenue Business District is a membership association. I will do some more research on the organization and update the post accordingly. If a 501.c.3 nonprofit, charitable contributions to fund future Macklind Days events would be tax deductible. In the meantime, congratulations to all the organizers for a great event!

One final note...the stretch of Macklind between Manzo's and Southampton Presbyterian Church is coming along nicely. Manzo's is a mainstay, along with EcoUrban, Big River Running Company, Macklind Deli, and the wonderfully rehabbed home office of Rainieri Construction (note to Landmarks Association that the Rainieri building at Macklind and Nottingham would make a great "most enhanced" candidate). However, in the middle of the block, south across the alley from Manzo's and across Macklind from EcoUrban and the Mack pub, there's one building left in need of TLC.

The building is solid, but over the years, it has suffered from inappropriate alterations, especially in the form of filling in sections of the original window and door openings with vinyl siding. The building appears to have 4-6 small bays, and, if historically rehabbed, would make a fine addition to the charm and walkable destinations within the Macklind Business District. Presently, the vacant bays all have little "for lease"signs in them.

Without an income, the owner has little incentive to improve the building. Southampton, not yet on the city's list of national register historic districts (but surely eligible) doesn't qualify for historic tax credits. So the pretty building with its terra cotta ornamentation, and strategic location in the heart of the Macklind Avenue Business District, sits looking quiet and tired. A challenge for neighbors is how to nudge the building owner to make progress with the building as part of the long range community efforts in Southampton. Maybe events like Macklind Days are part of that equation!

Oh, and as far as that bite to eat...for about a year now, Manzo's has been serving hot sandwiches. We had one of their signature Italian beef sandwiches: beef sliced very thin, piled high on a hoagie roll, adding aus jus and pepperoncini, then washed down with a sampling of Schlafy. We dined at one of the sidewalk cafe tables in front of Manzo's Market. Excellent!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Business Unusual

So far, the general public has not seen a rendering of Paul McKee's plan for the north side. However, from word that is coming out, the project sounds like it is a monumental undertaking.

During a time of a national economic slowdown, with very challending financing markets, Paul McKee is proposing a revolutionary community development project for the City of St. Louis. From what it sounds like, the project is a city of the future.

It is being called transformative in the way it takes an area that has been largely neglected for half a century, and replaces it with a highly green, mixed use community. If the project succeeds, the narrative of St. Louis changes.

A project of this scale builds on themes promoted by the Obama administration and the nation's economic stimulus effort. There will be jobs created, and they will be green jobs. The opportunity exists to develop new, green infrastructure, lowering utlity costs across the grid of the redevelopment area.

While the plans are grand, and if successful remake St. Louis, are they on a track to make the chances of success the highest? Is there a way to improve those chances?

Does it makes sense to consider the formation of a blue ribbon panel of community development experts and city residents, to serve in an ad hoc capacity strictly for this project? The committee could include people from the areas of green building, community development, economic development, historic preservation, community representation, and transportation.

The committee could be established with no official power, but rather to serve as an initial advisory group to help build broad based community support for the project. With the right group, such a committee might bring added value to the overall design of the community.

Here's an example of a similar effort in Dallas:

Trinity River Corridor Project

The Trinity Commons Foundation - created to fully realize the vision of the Trinity River Corridor Citizens Committee

Monday, May 11, 2009

If Blogs United

What would the top issues be? Here's a list of possible items...

The schism over the San Luis

Reconnecting the Arch/downtown - A lid or?

Form-based zoning

Empowering city planning efforts

Historic preservation, tax credits

Downtown development, public financing incentives

Public school reform

What does this list suggest? Urban blogs must be dominated by city planners and architecture enthusiasts, because most of the stuff on this list is built- environment related.

Outside of the built environment, what are the other top issues that might be addressed?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Arch camp?

One way to enliven the Arch grounds would be to allow camping. In Europe, camping is a popular way to travel. It's fun and relaxing. Would you be interested in being able to camp at the Arch?

How much would you pay for an overnight campsite? What amenities would you want? Allowing camping on the Arch would be a low cost way to create a fun and unique downtown tourist attraction.

Imagine if camping were allowed at the Arch, and on Friday and Saturday nights, there were historic re-enactors who would come around, telling stories of life on the old riverfront of St. Louis.

Campers would sit near a campfire, the actors would tell a story, families and friends would listen, maybe sing some songs or roast some marshmallows, enjoy refreshments, and spend quality time downtown on the riverfront.

What do you think? What would it take to get something like this going?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Overgrown, dead vegetation a major eyesore

At STL Rising, we like to highlight the positives. Seldom do we focus on negative aspects of neighborhood life. However, as we are in the height of spring, with the summer growing season right around the corner, the subject of neighborhood greenery comes to life.

Street trees are a wonderful asset. On the other hand, unmaintained, overgrown, or dead vegetation is the exact opposite. Nothing can make a block look more neglected than poorly cared for plant life. And when plants go unmaintained for years, the cumulative appearance of years of neglect magnifies the eyesore.

There are places where wild trees have grown up in fence lines, enveloping the wood or metal fencing, then growing to maturity, only then to be cut down, perhaps with blocks of dead tree trunks left suspended in the air, floating in the overgrown fence parts.

To beautify neighborhoods, we need to make an effort to clear neighborhoods, alleys, and public rights of ways of these forlorn trees and plants. Operation Brightside Blitz Days are happening now across the city. This is the time of year for clearing away unwanted vegetation and junk.

New cases in urbanity

Even in this slow economy, development projects are still happening in the urban core of St. Louis City. I saw three under construction just yesterday.

The first one was the new shopping center being built across the street from the City Hospital condo development. Foundations are being framed, a sign with a rendering of the total project is erected, and the project has financing.

The second was at North Florissant and Cass. It's a nearly completed multi-tenant neighborhood shopping center serving the near northside. Guessing, it looks to be about a 30,000-40,000 square feet.

The third was the new CVS pharmacy going in at Gravois and Germania. The store is replacing an abandoned Amoco/car wash. It appears that it will also take down four houses, relocate utilties, and involve an alley vacation.

I titled this post, "New cases in urbanity" because all three of these projects involve building on previously developed city locations. They are all urban core developments, neighborhood serving, being carried out by private developers in established neighborhoods. They are getting it done!

Kudos to the investors, neighborhoods, and all involved for bringing these projects online!

Good dog!

Yesterday's wonderful news that the three year old lost boy had been found safe was great relief. As details of the story started coming out, apparently two dogs played a big part in the boy's rescue.

On what was probably the last day of hope for finding the boy alive, a construction worker, who was home for the day due to rain, decided to enter the search. He didn't spot the boy, but he saw two dogs standing in the forest. He approached the dogs and found the boy being protected by them. And according to the news, these dogs didn't even belong to the boy. They belonged to a neighbor.

If memory serves, wasn't there a similar story last year? A boy was lost for a couple of days, and when they found him, he was with a dog that had stayed by his side?

We have always been around dogs, but I don't think I've ever had the appreciation for dogs that I have now. We have one and her degree of loyalty and love of children amazes me. It seems the tinier the person, the more she gives her love to them. It's like she makes them her people.

Congratulations to everyone involved in rescuing this young boy, and thank you to the people who care for the two dogs that were there when this little boy needed them most!

Best Spring in 20 years?

St. Louis is known for having some rough transitions from winter to summer. Sometmes it seems Spring only lasts around a week. We can go from the 50s to the 80s with nothing in between. Not this year.

The Groundhog was wrong. Spring came early and has lasted. No violent storms (yet). No heavy rain. Mild temperatures. Flowers came early and have lasted longer than usual. This Spring is one for the books!