Friday, April 30, 2010

Arch as Destination or Arch as Urban Fabric?

Or both?

For the past 40 + years, the Arch has been a destination. Unfortunately, in the way it is cut off from downtown by the highway, the Arch is not much a part of the urban fabric of St. Louis. Sponsors of the design competition compare the setting of the Arch to an island. Others have less charitable words to describe it.

Now we are entering an historic competition to determine the future of the Arch grounds and hopefully transform our downtown area, the Arch, the riverfront, and the connections between all of them.

This week the five finalist teams for the Arch design competition introduced themselves to St. Louis. They have a big job ahead of them. Estimates on the numbers of visitors to the Arch each year approach 3,000,000. Getting those visitors to stay longer in St. Louis after an Arch visit is a goal for our community and the competition.

Another goal of the competition, perhaps the most of all, is to "weave the Arch into the City". We will know in a few months what that looks like in the eyes of the design teams. If the plan succeeds, weaving the Arch into the city will help keep more Arch visitors in St. Louis, and that means increased economic activity for St. Louis and a healthier downtown and region.

The Arch is framed by barriers. The competition is called "Framing a Modern Masterpiece". Ironic? Maybe. The designers are challenged to overcome those barriers - principally the highway - "frame" the Arch, create an iconic setting worthy of the landmark (and St. Louis!), and connecting everything together with the riverfront.

At the "Meet the Design Teams" event, all the designers seemed intrigued by the challenge. This project isn't just about building one building, designing a park or memorial, reinvigorating a dead waterfront, or revitalizing a historic downtown, it's about all of that!

MoDOT to Arch Design Teams: "We are open to highway removal"

From a recent "Road Crew" Live Chat at STL Today comes the following Q and A with local highway officials including MoDOT Spokesperson, Linda Wilson:

Pat: "There has been a lot talk about possibly removing the section of Interstate 70 downtown when the new Mississippi River Bridge is finished. It could potentially revitalize a lot of the St. Louis riverfront with more pedestrian friendly areas and more commercial space if it was removed.

How opposed is MoDot to removing that section of I-70 in the future? I have heard reasons against the removal because people coming from 55 can't go to north st. louis and vice-versa (which makes sense). Has MoDot done or will they do any studies determining how much the removal of that section would affect drivers? Does MoDot take into account the possible benefits a removal could have for downtown St. Louis?"

Linda Wilson, Todd Waelterman and David Wrone: "Our district engineer is serving on the technical advisory committee for the Arch contest. Our position is that after we build the new Mississippi River bridge downtown, there will still be a demand of 50,000+ vehicles per day to drive the section of highway that runs in front of the Arch. Some of that traffic is north-south driving from north county to south county or vice versa. It does serve as an alternate north-south to I-270. The other significant portion of traffic is people who go to and from work in downtown St. Louis every day. We have told the groups that if they can develop a plan to accommomdate how these 50,000+ vehicles can get through, we are open to looking at it".

Linda Wilson, MoDOT

Monday, April 26, 2010

Blog Watch: STL Energized

A native Midwesterner has returned from a life in Northern California to raise a family in St. Louis and take part in our region's renewal.

He (or she?) is a practicing real estate attorney with some very positive ideas about the present and future of St. Louis. The person has started a blog called "STL Energized".

For its first post, STL Energized lays out a detailed proposal for how to revitalize the Arch grounds and reconnect the City to the River.

On a personal level, being another former Northern Californian, I hope to read more on this writer's views about relocating to St. Louis from the Golden State.

Best Alley Award

Living in a house with a garage sized more for smoking meat than parking cars makes me yearn for the day when we might have one that offers the service utility and alley charm as the one shown above.

This beauty is in Shaw and would be a welcome addition to most any home or alley.

Friday, April 23, 2010

If LRA properties were free, would you take one?

The city has a major budget deficit. It also holds title to a lot of abandoned real estate through the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). The land owned by LRA costs the city money to maintain and does not generate any tax revenue. The city offers these properties for sale but still has a heavy cost burden maintaining the inventory.

What if these properties were offered to the public for free? Not all of them say, but starting with just the vacant lots? If you could acquire a vacant LRA lot for free, with a guaranteed tax bill of say $100 per year and requirements to keep the lot cut, would you want one? Two?

What would you do with the property? Assume it has a collapsed building buried under the ground. Cost to excavate and haul away the old building would likely run in the $10,000 - $15,000 range. If you left it there, the land wouldn't be good for much construction, and it would be hard to grow trees with all the brick and stone debris just a few feet below the surface.

Nonetheless, you'd own the ground - and everything in it. Over time, if development came your way, the land might be worth something. If you were a neighbor, you could fence the lot and expand your own yard. And you'd be saving the city money.

Free land. Would you take the offer?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Tokyo Meets St. Louis

I have never been to Tokyo, but from the images and stories you see on TV, it seems like a highly energetic place with lots of cool high tech gadgets and electronic stuff mixed into the environment. Now St. Louis has something like that right here.

At the corner of 8th and Olive, across the street from the Old Post Office and a block from the new Schnuck's Culinaria, there's an interactive video game installed in the storefront window of the Alexa Lofts building. I tried it. It works.

People on the sidewalk play the game by touching the windows and activating the flat screen panels. It's a flashy, high-tech production, and you can win prizes including value towards discounted air travel.

STL Tradition Needs Your Support

The news is reporting that InBev has started charging a $2,000 appearance fee for bringing the famed Budweiser Clydesdales to your community event. $2,000 is a low price to pay for one of the world's most recognized corporate symbols. It's downright cheap. For comparison, an inflatable jumpie rents for about $450.

The season for parish picnics, school parades, and block parties is right around the corner. Why not consider hiring the Budweiser Clydesdales to be a featured attraction? You would be doing your part to maintain a long time local tradition and your event would have bragging rights for years to come!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

What economists say

Listening to NPR yesterday about the future of the US and world economy, one of the guests being interviewed said that an economy based on limitless growth is unsustainable. If a sprawl economy is based on constant growth, then does it follow that an economy which retrofits and maintains its older areas is more sustainable?

As we look to strengthen communities and our economy over the next 20-30 years, are there long term opporunities both in terms of jobs and economic growth by focusing on a program of community renewal? What would something like that look like? How would an economist measure the costs and benefits? We can use the St. Louis region as a case study.

Parts of the core of the St. Louis region have seen decades of dramatic disinvestment and decline. At the same time, the region has seen a nearly equal amount of sprawl based growth on the edges of the metropolitan area. Today, growth at the outer reaches of the region has slowed dramatically.

Housing developments in those areas have stalled, homebuilders have gone out of business, and property values are flat or decreasing. At the same time, values closer to the center of the region have been stable to slowly increasing. Are we better served working to maintain our established systems and built environment rather than constantly expanding them?

Are there opportunities to create a combination of more community gardens, farmer's markets, and expanded use of green building practices; increased school choice, expanded supply of affordable housing and more public transportation options; and support for small businesses, and retrofitting of commercial corridors to help position St. Louis as a region of choice for families and businesses over the next 30 years?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Neighborhood Commercial Corridors

St. Louis is filled with neighborhood commercial service areas. We have hundreds if not thousands of small commercial buildings suitable for small businesses. Many of these buildings front wide boulevards with multiple lanes of fast moving traffic.

Drivers in slower moving cars are more likley to notice and patronize neighborhood businesses. For wide streets like Natural Bridge, Page, Hampton, Gravois, S. Broadway, are there ways to accomodate traffic flows while making the areas more supportive to small business?

One option is to reduce the number of through lanes and create center turn lanes. There is an experiment underway doing just this along South Grand between Arsenal and Utah.

A little further south, on Gravois through the Bevo Mill area, a similar experiment was done a few years ago. There was a backlash of opposition to the lane restriping, so the city returned the street to its previous lane configuration.

Perhaps these experiences demonstrate that uniform planning policies are more difficult to accomplish than one might think? What are some strategies for St. Louis to improve the market and investment potential for neighborhood commercial districts?

Friday, April 09, 2010

New Sign of City-County Cooperation

There is a new highway sign up in the City of St. Louis on westbound I-44 just east of the Southwest Avenue exit. The sign directs drivers to "Historic Downtown Maplewood".

For years, there has been a similar sign at 44 and Elm about historic old town Webster Groves.

Southwest is one of the best streets in St. Louis, and now it's the preferred route to one of our region's coolest destinations! Congratulations to all who made this happen.

Boulevard Attractions

A landmark boulevard connecting downtown St. Louis assets and opening new land for development creates unique development opportunities. Some have suggested Apple stores. What about new tourist destinations? Is a downtown with more tourist attractions the kind of city we want to encourage?

Friday, April 02, 2010

Rare downtown alley

There used to be lots of alleys in downtown St. Louis. Now, not so much. This alley connects Olive and Locust between 7th and 8th Street.

What's wrong with this picture?

This view is taken from the corner of Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive. The corner is very much in the heart of downtown St. Louis.

Despite the fact that you're already there, signs on the roads are plastered everywhere to direct drivers into downtown St. Louis and Memorial Drive.

The heart of downtown St. Louis is so carved up by highways, we need signs directing people to get to where they already are. That can't be a good thing. Will the Arch design competition help solve problems like these?

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Boulevard plan adds value to downtown, City to River says

Learn more at this event tonight: City Affair, 7:30 pm, Morgan Street Brewery, Laclede's Landing

Image courtesy City to River. Click for expanded view.

Parallel Arches

Form-based zoning - for pizzas!

When planning the perfect pizza, it is always important to put the big things under the little things.