Thursday, December 22, 2011

Time to Illuminate the Bridges?

Some years ago, an effort began to illuminate the Gateway Arch. It took overcoming some red tape and raising funds to install the lighting and pay the bills, but the results are striking.

Maybe it's time to try something similar with downtown's three bridges, the Poplar Street, the Eads, and the Dr. King? There would be more red tape to overcome, costs, and maintenance. But the results would be similarly beautiful.

Right now, for the most part, downtown's bridges stand in darkness. They are mostly invisible at night, especially when viewed from the St. Louis riverfront. The darkened bridges are an underutilized asset.

Lighting the bridges would create an inviting atmosphere for the riverfront and help attract more people. From the highways and air, illuminated bridges would create a sense of arrival downtown and help emphasize St. Louis standing as a river city.

The old joke is, "will the last person to leave downtown turn out the lights?". With more people returning downtown than leaving, maybe it's time to start lighting up the place.

Thursday, December 08, 2011

This is what brick theft looks like:


I hope they like their awesome driveway down in Destin!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

STL Union Station: TOD Opportunity?

With the challenges facing Union Station, does it make sense to redevelop the property with an emphasis on transit-oriented-development at or under the current train shed/surface parking lot area?

The site is large enough to support a mixed income, multi-family, rental and/or homeownership development of 100 units or more.

The train shed superstructure could remain or be removed. If it were preserved, the development would be similar to gasometer adaptive ruse projects in other parts of the world.

The location has convenient access to jobs and light rail, and would support the retail, restaurant, and hotel uses of the historic train station.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Increased traffic volume, lower property values, and more accidents?


Are these some of the possible negative environmental impacts of the proposed South County Connector on city neighborhoods? The preferred alternative has been narrowed down to the option which adds substantial commuter traffic to River Des Peres Boulevard in the city of St. Louis.

River Des Peres Boulevard is a street fronted by a large number private homes with multiple intersections leading into residential neighborhoods. This is especially true in the Boulevard Heights neighborhood. For homes fronting on River Des Peres Boulevard, it is already dangerous to pull in and out of driveways, especially during peak commute times.

How will this situation be impacted by adding 20,000-30,000 (or more?) cars per day to the street? It doesn't seem possible that adding more traffic to an already hazardous situation can improve things.

Are there any studies showing that residential property values increase when automobile traffic in front of the home substantially increase? That would seem very doubtful. Personally, althought we loved our neighbors and house, we moved off our old block because of an excess of speeding traffic. More traffic in front of your house is not what most people want.

Nonetheless, the South County Connector project is moving through the system. If built, it will add traffic to city streets. Yet, to date, there have been no meetings for the general public held in the City of St. Louis on this project.

There will certainly be more meetings on the South County Connector plan before finalizing the Environmental Impact Statement. Hopefully organizers will arrange a public meeting in the affected area of the city of St. Louis before they complete the planning process.

current project newsletter

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Demolition by Neglect

St. Louis tears down lots of buildings. It's part of our history. We've historically torn down lots of buildings, and today, we tear down historic buildings.

Some. Not all. It all depends. Try to tear down a historic building in Soulard or Lafayette Square, and lots of people will try to stop you. Try to tear down a piece of sentimental history, like an old flying saucer shaped building, and lots of people will try to stop you.

But try to demolish a building by neglect, and hardly anyone notices. Demolition by neglect is hard to detect. It usually starts on the inside. When a building is vacant. Or when the rents no longer support the operating expenses.

Then the building might get into the hands of a slumlord, or "cash flow investor", or a bank through a foreclosure. Or maybe all three through a slow, grinding process, while, all along the building slowly decays. Perhaps in a few years the building ends up in the city's LRA inventory. But by then, most of the damage has already been done.

Look at a privately owned, run down building. Check out its building history on the city's online database. Chances are you'll find records of code violations, Citizen Service Bureau complaints, and maybe even a notice of condemnation for demolition.

Who prevents such losses? In a city with scarce resources, where does the issue of demolition by neglect rank? I think the best answer in St. Louis is that these sorts of things are handled at the neighborhood level, through a partnership effort starting at the individual city block by the people impacted the most: the neighbors. Then efforts build up from there.

If things happen to prevent such problems from taking hold, it usually starts with the neighbors, but it would be good to do more. It would be good to crack down on slumlords, although the housing courts are logjammed. It would be good to carry out emergency stabilization on buildings, liening the owners for the cost, but city funds for such purposes are very tight.

The truth is, looking at any one piece of community development in St. Louis outside of a broader context usually reveals very about the real story behind the raw numbers and photographs. When you dig, you find lots of little stories, all layered together, making for a complex world that doesn't translate easily to quick solutions.

Real solutions require lots of work, usually a lot of money, and working within the system. In time, we can hope that everything comes together to result in slow, gradual progress.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Balkanized Region Takes One Step Toward Reunification

On Tuesday, voters in the tiny St. Louis County town of St. George voted to disincorporate the city, returning it to unincorporated St. Louis county government status. By so doing, one layer of local government was dissolved. The vote to disincorporate passed by a wide margin.

Could the next ten to twenty years see more mergers, consolidations, and disincorporations in and around St. Louis? Perhaps tiny St. George will turn out to the be leader in a good government era in St. Louis.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Free the Rally Squirrel!

They say major league baseball is all about the Benjamins. The inevitable legal battle brewing over who owns the rights to the Rally Squirrel would further that cynical view.

The 2011 Cardinals were the underdog in the National League Division Series between the Cardinals and the Phillies. But in the middle of Game 4, in an at bat featuring Phillies veteran Roy Oswalt against Cardinal utility player Skip Schumacher, a squirrel ran onto the field, well, he more bounded in little flying jumps, running straight toward home plate in the middle of an Oswalt pitch.

The pitch crossed inside the plate, the Squirrel ran in front of Schumacher, headed from the Cardinal dugout toward the Philly dugout, the umpire called the pitch a ball, Oswalt stood slump-shouldered, wanting a do-over, the Cardinals rallied to win the game, and with all of that, a little squirrel set of a craze in St. Louis. He (or she?) became a sensation, and St. Louis had its Rally Squirrel.

In the 2011 post-season, the Cardinals would have many more rallies, and with each one, the legend of the Rally Squirrel would grow larger. When the Cardinal won Game 7 of the World Series, the Rally Squirrel became cemented in Cardinal baseball lore.

The Cardinals started the post season a 1000-1 long shot to go all the way. At the start of their historic run, a a magical thing happened: a little squirrel picked St. Louis. And the Cardinals and their fans rode the charm of the squirrel all the way to a world championship.


Rally Squirrel Shrine (pictured above)

The Rally Squirrel is not like "Fredbird", a corny, corporate created mascot. The Rally Squirrel is a magical thing that was created by no one, except possibly the fans. From day one, all sorts of impromptu Rally Squirrel sightings started to appear. Fans were attaching little squirrel tails to their hats. They'd sport a squirrel on their shoulder. They had fun with it and it added a level of charm to the post season.

Baseball always says it's about the fans. The Rally Squirrel either belongs to no one - or it belongs to the fans. It does not belong in a court room. It does perhaps belong on a statue in front of Busch Stadium, with a placque commemorating this incredible 2011 championship season.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Ghost Towns of St. Louis

With Halloween just a couple of days ago, and daylight hours dwindling, now is a good time to think about the haunted places of St. Louis. A good starting point is:

Zombie Road

There are lots of others. Have any of you heard the stories of Castle Park?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

A first on Halloween night


Walsh Street scene on Halloween night

St. Louis rocks Halloween. It leads the nation in commercial haunted houses. Year after year we get over 200 trick or treaters at our door. Lots of neighbors decorate their houses. We close the street with a block party permit, just like the block next to us. Parents walk with kids. Beers and fall treats are exchanged. It's a highlight of the year in the neighborhood.

Enjoying ideal weather, this year we had a first on Halloween. A little girl, about 7, trick or treating by herself with her parents watching from the sidewalk, came up to our porch, told her obligatory joke, and then received her treat from our candy filled treasure chest. Then she gave something back to us.

It was a little, handmade thank you note. She had cut yellow construction paper into the outline of a tiny picture frames. Then she glued a little orange spider to each note and wrote the words "thank you" in pencil across the top. She was maybe seven years old.

Each year, we make up special decorated gift bags with extra candy to give to the immediate neighbor kids on our block. We had one of those left, so we tracked down the little girl's parents to make sure she got one of the special treats. Her mom smiled and told us the idea of the thank you notes was all hers. Pretty awesome thing for a seven-year old to do, wouldn't you say?

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Tony LaRussa Rising

After leading the St. Louis Cardinals to their eleventh world championship, yesterday morning Tony LaRussa announced his retirement. Although not always a fan favorite, LaRussa is the winningest manager in Cardinal history, having led the team to three World Series and two titles.

Some thought LaRussa would return for the 2012 season, possibly to overtake the next manager on the all-time wins list. That apparently wasn't enough to keep LaRussa in Cardinal uniform. Instead, leaving on top makes Tony LaRussa the first manager in baseball history to retire after winning a World Series.

Some of his peers are suggesting that LaRussa is perhaps the best baseball manager of all time. Maybe, maybe not, but he's definitely among the top three or four. Let that question stand as one of those perpetual baseball debates.

LaRussa has a big heart. His love of animals probably exceeds his love of baseball. Does he have a star on the U City Loop Walk of Fame? I don't know if he does, but it won't be long before he gets his due in the baseball's Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

So how to commemorate the career of Tony LaRussa in St. Louis? Will the Cardinals retire his number? Will they erect a bronze statue in his likeness with the other Cardinal Hall of Famers in front of Busch? Here's a suggestion for a way to honor two birds in one bronze.

Erect a status of Tony Larussa in his Cardinal uniform (being a lover of animals, LaRussa always says how he believes the Cardinals uniform, prominently displaying the birds on the bat, is the best uniform in all of baseball). Then, standing beside LaRussa, add a likeness of the unofficial 2011 mascot of the St. Louis Cardinals: the Rally Squirrel. I think LaRussa would like it that way.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

South County Connector Proposed for South City

Options through South County have been eliminated. Public input was a deciding factor. No public meetings were held in St. Louis City.

The idea is to bring a grade-separated, freeway-like structure from I-44 in Shrewsbury and connect it to an urban boulevard at River Des Peres.

The plan is similar to the highway to boulevard concept proposed by City to River. The goal of the City to River effort is to help reconnect the area between the riverfront and downtown.

The connector concept has legs in South City but has been a difficult sell downtown.

Map of refined study area

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sustainability In Action: South Grand Delivered



"South Grand Delivered" Service Area

Serving the neighborhoods and businesses of the South Grand Area with a bicycle delivery service is "South Grand Delivered". For more imformation, check out their website.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sustainability Planning in the STL Region

Did you know that the St. Louis region is working on a plan for sustainability of the region? The project is underway and here's the latest newsletter:


To learn more information about the program, contact East-West Gateway Council of Governments.

(Click through the image for a larger version)

Monday, October 03, 2011

STL Rising: Crime Patrol

With the holiday season fast approaching, and a bad economy weighing down on us, the threat of crime is a serious concern. A few weeks ago, STL Rising attended a neighborhood crime watch event.

In attendance were a number of representatives from the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, aldermen, NSOs, neighborhood association representatives, and Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce.

A number of suggestions were made to reduce crime and convict criminal defendents. They are summarized here for your information.

1) An engaged citizenry is the number one deterrent to crime. You can have lots of police officers and prosecutors, but without engaged citizens, it's hard to control crime.

2) Citizen Patrols work. There is training available. Even noting the little things for attention helps cut down on crime, including such things as reporting the locations of street lights that aren't working to the proper authorities to get them repaired asap.

3) Victim Support Networks help. They help neighors and crime victims deal with the system. They set up a trained group of volunteers to reach out to victims, letting them know they are not alone.

4) Neighborhood impact testimony makes a difference. In the courtroom, whether it's pushing for a higher bond amount, or a longer sentence, judges listen to the testimony of neighbors and victims. The defendent will show up in a suit and with a new haircut, sometimes with family members present. They seek sympathy from judges.

If no one is present from the neighborhood or victim's side, the sympathy factor is more likely to come into play. To prevent this, engaged citizens offering neighborhood impact testimony can strengthen the judges resolve to listen to the concerns of victims and neighborhood residents.

Questions from the audience were discussed.

First, was a call for more officers on the street. With budgets tight, this is a dificult time to be hiring more officers.

Second, someone asked for an explanation of the difference between "clearance rates" and "conviction rates". Clearance rate means the percentage of crimes solved, but not necessarily with a conviction. Conviction rate means percentage of cases resulting in convictions. Clearnace rates are higher than conviction rates.

Third, a question about the use of surveillance cameras in the 21st ward. Law enforcement people like surveillance cameras, but they are a cost. Circuit Attorney Joyce reiterated the value of surveillance cameras when prosecuting crimes.

Fourth, a question came up about how to describe a suspicious person. Such things as age, height, weight, clothing, facial hair, race were all mentioned as key information.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Fall Green Up

With cooler weather in the air, STL lawns (the non-Zoysia varieties) get a chance to recover from summer heat. The next month or so is an ideal time to aerate, overseed, and fertilize.

If you're interested in improving your yard and the look of your block, STL Rising has the people to call: W and H Lawns. We don't do a lot of company recommendations on the blog, but W and H Lawns is a good small business deserving a mention and your business.

Warren Holloway runs the company and does all the work himself. Well, this spring, his daughter helped too. Warren brings a commercial lawn aerator to your property, carefully core aerates the lawn, overseeds by hand, and fertilizes. Prices are very reasonable. If you want to improve the health of your lawn, you will be pleased with the results.

Here's the contact info:

Warren Holloway
W and H Lawns
w.h.lawns@gmail.com
314-541-3240

Share this info with your friends, family, and neighbors. STL Rising and its owner is not affiliated with the company and accepts no compensation for this endorsement.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Rebuilding Connections

St. Louis is working on connections. It's exploring reconnecting with St. Louis County. It's improving connections with Illinois over a new Mississippi River Bridge and high speed rail to Chicago. It's pursuing worldwide connections with a new China Hub. And it's building a light rail connection between University City and St. Louis City along Delmar Boulevard, our region's traditional dividing line.

Connections happen though partnership and collaboration. They are key to creating a successful 21st century regional economy. They happen through the removal of barriers and take time to structure. They are often more doable when taken on in small pieces rather than huge chunks; and, they always require finding shared benefits and common ground. For example, it's much more likely that STL City and County will collaborate on sharing services than making the big step of a full city-county merger.

While regional connections are on the increase, there is a big disconnection in downtown St. Louis. The biggest disconnection is between downtown and the riverfront. The barrier is the interstate highway and it extends all the way from the Koskiousko neighborhood to Cass Avenue.

It's more than just the riverfront that is cut off by highway infrastructure. Fully one-half of downtown St. Louis is carved up by the presence of highways, creating barriers of many different shapes and sizes. An entire post could be written just on the subject of highway barriers in downtown St. Louis. The barriers created by highways 55, 64, 70 and 44 form a broom ushering people out of the downtown area.

As a result, many of the region's most important destinations and investments are cut off from each other, creating a downtown that is difficult to navigate and unfriendly to pedestrians and cyclists and confusing to motorists. In contrast, if downtown's many destination spots were connected, we wouldn't think of them as unique destinations.

If those destinations were part of one unified and connected downtown, it would be a lot easier finding your way around the downtown neighborhood. Downtown STL has invested hundreds of millions in disconnected downtown assets, creating untold opportunity costs. Pulling them together with renewed connections helps build a stronger network for sustainable economic growth.

A damaging side effect of the highway network entangling downtown is the evolution of a dispersed array of cheap parking lots. Today's downtown St. Louis offers an abundance of low grade, surface parking lots. Some of these lots, located within just a block or two from downtown highrise office buildings, offer daily parking at rates less than $5 per day. The current situation devalues downtown real estate and prioritizes highway access over a connected downtown neighborhood.

Work is being done to repair the damage. Efforts are underway to reconnect the Arch grounds to downtown. A plan to bridge the highway with a pedestrian lid will restore the connection between the Gateway Mall and the Old Court House to the Arch grounds and the riverfront. This one step will make a huge positive difference, and is scheduled to happen by October, 2015, as part of the revitalization of the Arch grounds.

There are more opportunities to rebuild connections. Those connections can take the form of physical improvements and community connections. In a region famous for fractured government, there are opportunities where strengthening government connections can lead to improved productivity and community services.

Rebuilding physical connections helps create the infrastructure for regional sustainability. Improving these connections brings multiple benefits to St. Louis. Economic growth, a more vibrant downtown and an improved quality of life for our region are all possible when we work together to bring down barriers and reconnect our city and people.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

More Money Than Mystery

Arch project could be in line for federal infrastructure funding, but is it “shovel ready”?

One week from today, President Obama will outline his jobs plan for the country, and it is expected that the centerpiece of the plan will be major investments in the nation’s infrastructure.

The American Society of Civil Engineers estimates that for every billion dollars in infrastructure spending, 35,000 US jobs are created. St. Louis could use some of that funding.

Meanwhile, as Congress debates federal domestic spending, the news is reporting that the Iraq war has seen between $35 and 60 billion in US tax dollars completely wasted as a result of fraud, waste, poor planning, and abuse. That doesn't count any of the actual costs of fighting the war.

Here in St. Louis, we have one huge potential infrastructure project right under our noses: the remaking of the Arch grounds and its connections to downtown, the riverfront, and the Illinois bank. The project is intended to have a transformative effect on the region and promises to create thousands of St. Louis area jobs.

Cost estimates for the project have ranged from $350,000,000 - $700,000,000, a tiny sum compared to the waste going on in the war in Iraq. But will St. Louis get the funding? Is the Arch project ready? How do we make sure we take advantage of this rare opportunity where funding, local and national priorities, and planning are all converging?

The National Park Service is completing the planning process for the Arch project. Public comments on the environmental review closed Tuesday. Meanwhile, MODOT is completing its own planning work on possible highway changes surrounding the Arch, including the possibility of closing Memorial Drive, adding new north and south bound highway ramps in the depressed lanes, and building a new lid to connect the Old Court House to the Arch.

The lid plan has been studied for a long time. The Danforth Foundation spent over $2,000,000 and determined the lid as originally conceived would not be feasible without major changes to the management of the Arch. The Danforth study was the catalyst triggering the National Park Service's update to the General Management Plan (GMP) for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

That GMP update was completed in 2010, with the preferred alternative calling for an international design competition to update the management and improvements of the park. The cost of the new General Management Plan and the Arch design competition was over $1,000,000.

Recently it was announced that federal funding will be provided to complete the studies and plans for the long awaited Lid project. While the final programming for the Arch project is still unclear, one thing does seem certain: the Lid over the depressed lanes is something most people want to happen.

The cost of the Lid is estimated to be in the neighborhood of $60,000,000. That number is likely to increase by the time of final design and construction to possibly in excess of $100,000,000.

Ultimately, a list will be created. That list will be for a Congressional appropriation and have a budget. St. Louis will be working to get projects on the list. The list will have a lot of big ticket items from all around the country.

What should St. Louis work to get on the list? If the big push in a federal jobs program is infrastructure spending, the door may be opening for St. Louis to go big on its plans. Liberals are encouraging President Obama to go big on his jobs plan, and maybe its time for St. Louis to think big on its effort to reconnect downtown to the Arch and riverfront.

While the lid provides a one to three block connection between the Arch and the Old Court House area, why not bury the highway, build a boulevard over the buried highway, and really restore the connections of the downtown street grid leading to the Arch and the riverfront?

With just a billion or two of all the money being wasted in Iraq, we could really transform downtown St. Louis.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Conditions on the ground mirror Arch planning challenges

The future of the Arch grounds and its connection with downtown St. Louis are being decided. The process has been a long one and it's hard to tell how engaged the public is in this mega effort. The total cost of the end product is sure to exceed $500,000,000.

It's been about 6 months since the completion of the Arch design competition. The competition was more an idea competition than a firm determination. A winning team was selected, but much of the detail of the design was left very open. We really haven't seen a final product.

Nontheless, today the process takes a major step forward. Today is the deadline for public comments on the National Park Service's environmental review of the proposed Arch project. But it doesn't close the door on the process. While today ends the NPS review, there's an even bigger decision coming: the future of the highway system surrounding the Arch.

Given that the biggest knock on the Arch is the way it is cut off from downtown by highway infrastructure, it's unfortunate that the highway planning process is separate from the larger Arch environmental review. Or is it? It's hard to say. Is the public supposed to connect Arch plan comments with highway change comments? It's unclear.

There have been no firm plans released to the public for proposed highway changes. There have been no cost estimates. So it's difficult to make an informed comment about how highway changes will impact the future of downtown and the Arch.

It's possible the future highway may feature a substantially widened trench between the northern half of the Arch grounds and downtown. Unfortunately you would not know that from any of the information provided through the Arch design competition. The design competition did not focus on the problems created by the highway.

This is a big deal. The highway has long been identified as the greatest barrier between downtown, the Arch grounds, and the riverfront. The public is being asked to comment on the environmental review of the plans for the Arch. But there has been no official information released about plans or costs for changes to the highway surrounding the Arch.

The highway constrains the Arch site today, and the highway planning process appears to have a constraining effect on the planning effort for the future of the Arch as well.

To make your comment on the environmental review for the Arch (deadline today), visit the National Park Service page for that purpose here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Grocery Suits Descend on Culinaria

While walking the aisles of the downtown Culinaria today you could not avoid the impression that corporate heavyweights were in town. Whether it was their crisp professional attire, taller than average heights, or the way they were all testing out the computer gadgetry in the food lines, it was clear this group was on some sort of field trip/fact finding mission.

Indeed they were. I asked a staff member what was up, whether there was a corporate meeting or gathering of grocery execs, and she said there was. Grocery professionals, colleagues from different companies around the eastern 1/3 of the US, were in St. Louis, checking out Schnucks stores with a particular interest in its Culinaria, urban grocery store model.

Cleveland and Kansas City have "Constantinos" markets, St. Louis has "Culinaria" and more and more old urban centers are getting their own cool varieties of downtown, full-service grocery stores. It's a sign that sustainable, urban-centered living is on the rise.

Standing in the Kaldi's line, I saw a friend of mine who lives 30 miles away and works downtown leaving the store. The Arch may be the symbol of St. Louis, but Culinaria is quickly becoming her crossroads.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Barack Obama Boulevard

Delmar Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between north and south St. Louis, has been honorarily renamed "Barack Obama Boulevard" at Compton, just east of North Grand Boulevard.

It's a good thing to honor America's first black president with a street named after him. But I don't know about choosing Delmar as the one to do it.

It would have been a good thing to see the street be one that connects north and south St. Louis. Barack Obama is everyone's president and the Delmar divide is something we need to erase. On the other hand, perhaps selecting Delmar as the street for President Obama is part of the cleansing of that old division?

If so, then maybe the old Delmar Boulevard signs should be taken down for the whole run of Delmar through the city (instead of on just a few blocks), and replaced with new Barack Obama Boulevard signs? In this way it would be similar to the renaming of Easton Avenue after Dr. Martin Luther King.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tea Time


As the summer heat fades, STL enters her best time of year. Kids are back in school, the weather is ideal, and it's block party season; football games and homecoming celebrations on the weekends, haunted house attractions set up in vacant historic buildings, Halloween, and Thanksgiving; and, then, the festival season culiminates with beautiful lighting displays all around the region for Hannukah, Christmas and New Years'.

My favorite tradition is Halloween. Over the years, we've assembled a variety of Halloween props. When Halloween comes, I take the day off to convert our place into a fantasy Victorian graveyard and haunted house.

The usual domestic setting is changed for day to a scary scene, outfitted with antique-looking wrought iron fencing, a wandering skeleton, and a little girl ghost greeting you on the front porch; a cemetery among the hostas and fallen dogwood leaves, wispy ghosts arising from the graves, and haunting music; and purple, orange, and strobe lighting, and scary, deep bass, sound effects.

The kids love it and so do the parents. They pose for family photos up and down the block. Grownups tow wagons with coolers for the exchanging of beers. We average over 200 kids on Halloween night. It's awesome and a highlight of the year.

Last year, we even had a famous conservative radio talk show host come to our door. So for this year, I'm wondering, should I have a tea bag set aside as a special treat just for this trick-or-treater?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's a fact: STL commutes are a breeze!

MODOT has released data showing the worst commutes in the St. Louis area.

The worst commutes are on I-64 in West County and crossing into St. Charles County. But even for our region's worst commutes, a tiny change in driving patterns could improve your whole day:

According to the MODOT press release:

"By knowing the worst time to travel, we are asking all I-64 drivers to consider adjusting their travel times to spread out the peak demand. By leaving 15 minutes earlier or waiting until closer to the end of the peak period, you could actually get to your destination faster," said Tom Blair, MoDOT assistant district engineer. "It's not feasible to widen the highway due to the extreme costs that it would entail, but we can all work together to spread out the demand on the road."

There are lots of regions where rush hour extends throughout the day and on weekends. Smooth traffic and free parking are the expectation in St. Louis.

Are our region's low traffic volumes and overall cheap parking prices good economic indicators? Or do they suggest we have surplus infrastructure for the automobile and an opportunity to strengthen our community in other areas?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding a new home for the estate of Kirkwood's Henry Shaw


Most St. Louisans know the story of Henry Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Shaw moved to St. Louis from England in the early-19th century, making a fortune selling hardware in the growing city of St. Louis and outfitting travelers headed west. Shaw then shared his wealth with his adopted home town, endowing St. Louis with Tower Grove Park and the world famous Missouri Botanical Garden.

On the other hand, most St. Louisans do not know the story of Daniel Sidney Brown. Brown was a cooper (barrel maker), supplying barrels used at the Cupples Warehouses in downtown St. Louis. Like Shaw, Brown's passion was horticulture.

Brown traveled the world collecting rare species of orchids. Much of his collection became the growing stock supplying the beautiful and rare orchids we all enjoy today at the Missouri Botanical Garden. But Brown was more than just a plant fancier. Because of his work, at least one rare species of orchid was saved from extinction.

Today, Brown's historic home, "Brownhurst" in Kirkwood, sits vacant and deteriorated on the campus of Vianney High School. The building has suffered a lot of deferred maintenance, but is overall in very good condition. Buildings in far worse shape have been preserved in St.Louis. Nonetheless, Vianney is pushing for its demolition to free the site for other uses.

There is a slim hope the building might be saved. Vianney has offered $30,000 to anyone willing to relocate it to a new site. Moving large historic buildings might seem an overwhelming task, but it is becoming more of a common practice. As you might imagine, there are lots of logistics involved to make it happen, requiring a coordinated community effort.

There is one big catch. Vianney is requiring that the building be moved by October 9, 2011 in order to take advantage of the $30,000 offer. Also the owners are selling it for $1 to a buyer who can move it and prove financing.

The question is, where would be a good site for the building, and who would cover the cost? Here's a long shot idea: Perhaps the building could be moved to a site on or near the Botanical Garden and preserved in the city of St. Louis?

With the connection between Brown and Shaw's Garden, and the historic significance of both, perhaps a new home for Brownhurst could be along Shaw Avenue near the Garden?

The move would add another interesting chapter to Brown and Shaw's story. With the help of Brown, the Garden saved a rare plant species for the world, and with the help of the Garden, the legacy of Brown's historic home might be saved.

In one other interesting twist, unlike many wealthy industrialists of his time, Brown did not choose to live out his final years in the peace and quiet of the lush suburbs of St. Louis County. Instead, Brown moved back to the City of St. Louis, moving into a home on Washington Avenue.

So maybe, about a hundred years later, his Kirkwood mansion might follow him back to the city?

(Note: Thanks to Matt Bivens for the historical details of this story. Matt is a Kirkwood resident and expert on St. Louis history and architecture.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Engaging Conversation

Senator John Danforth once said that "St. Louis is not a spectator sport". His point was that it's going to take people getting off the sidelines and into the game to make a difference.

One way to get in the game is to participate in public hearings on proposed development plans. Big projects in the public comment phase today include the proposed South County Connector and the proposed highway changes around the proposed Arch redevelopment.

The Arch hearings are a sort of two-fer. The National Park Service is holding hearings about the Arch master plan and MODOT is holding hearings for proposed highway changes adjacent to the Arch.

These are big projects involving tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in public expenditures. Federal and state law requires public comment and environmental review. So what's the purpose?

It's a little unclear. Is the purpose of public comment to solely focus on the proposed plan? Or is it to open a dialogue soliciting ideas for a range of alternative solutions through public input?

On the environmental review side, alternatives are analyzed. The baseline option is the "no project" alternative. What are the environmental impacts of doing nothing? Then options become more extensive along a scale of cost and degree of intervention. Each option is analyzed for its benefits and impacts and any negative environmental impacts must have mitigation. Federally funded projects are not permitted to have a negative net environmental impact.

Environmental review makes sense. It's counter-intuitive that a project involving substantial public spending would result in negative environmental impact. Which brings us back to the question of the role of public comment: should the public's role solely be one of reaction to specific proposals of others or should it be to foster creative partnerships in making collaborative decisions?

An approach where the public's role is to react to proposals of others would be considered a top-down approach. An approach where public comment is used to develop a vision and plan of action would be a strategy of real community engagement.

St. Louis needs engaged citizens, particularly younger and creative ones, if we are to succeed in building a sustainable future. The process of engaging the public on government funded projects is one way to bring people together, challenging us all to find the best strategies to improve St. Louis.

Such has not always been the case. Some feel St. Louis is an exclusive place, where it's difficult for new and young people to get involved. It's time for St. Louis to move forward together, with all voices being heard and encouraged to be part of the process.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Time to Raise the Roof at Lambert's East Terminal?


With Southwest's recent acquisition of AirTran, parking at the East Terminal's short term parking garage is frequently unavailable. According to airport parking garage and security workers, from Monday through Friday, the East Terminal short term parking garage is regularly maxed out.

While a packed parking garage is a good sign that travel volume is on the increase, does the shortage of supply warrant a possible exansion of the East Terminal garage? Does anyone know if the building was designed to add a few more decks of parking spaces?

A shortage of parking in STL. Who'd a thunk it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Amtrak's Slow Food Diet


Already Four Hours Late - Amtrak Makes Passengers Sit on Train Extra 20 Minutes before De-Boarding

A friend rode Amtrak from Dallas to St. Louis, arriving Saturday just before noon. The scheduled arrival time was about 7:30 am. No big deal, Amtrak trains are known to often run behind schedule. Not having their own tracks makes it hard for them to avoid delays. Amtrak updated the schedule, letting everyone know the train was due in St. Louis around 11:30.

Right around 11:35, the train approached the station. Then, about 100 yards before its destination, the train stopped. Those of us gathered to pick up passengers couldn't why. Was this the train we were waiting for? Why did the train stop? Were they going to let the passengers off? We waited. And waited. And the train just sat there.

Then my friend texted me. They were servicing the train. The place they had stopped was a little auxilliary building right next to the main station. The service was taking over 20 minutes. I'm thinking, "You've got to be kidding".

Why not let the St. Louis bound passengers off the train, then back the train up a couple hundred feet for servicing? I can understand delays that are beyond Amtrak's control, but this delay was avoidable. Why further inconvenience the public?

Monday, August 01, 2011

STL Inception

If you haven't seen the hit movie "Inception", it's worth a look. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio leads viewers through a maze of multiple levels of the subconscious. By way of entering the dreams of others, DiCaprio and his team of co-stars travel into deeper and deeper levels of a person's subconscious.

If it sounds confusing, it is. It took me two or three times watching it to start to piece the story together. After the fourth time seeing the movie, something dawned on me. The story of Inception is a lot like the day to day experiences we have right here in St. Louis.

We walk and drive through neighborhoods going back as far as the 1700s, many of them bearing no resemblence to their origins. The most extreme example is on the riverfront.


Where today there is a sleek, majestic, urban park, there was once a vibrant riverfront commercial area, and, before that, the original settlement village of St. Louis. No sign of those early days remain, except for the Old Cathedral, and across a section of depressed highway lanes, the Old Court House. In between, the area has completely changed.

The St. Louis riverfront would be mostly unrecognizable to her earlier inhabitants. And, despite the fact the area is in at least its third or fourth iteration of form, the current landscape, dating back only to the 1960s - a timeframe within the dreamscapes of many of us living today - it is designated a national historic landmark.

Travel around town and there are many examples of multiple time horizons sharing the same space, or city block, as it were. On Cass Avenue in north city, the cousin of Samuel Clemens, James Clemens, built a mansion.


In its prime in the middle 19th century, the Clemens House was one of the city's finest homes. Today, it is wracked with weather damage and overall decay. The area around it is almost completely redeveloped, the historic Clemens House standing in lonely juxtapostion to the 1970s and 80s vintage rental apartment buildings that dominate the area around it today.

There are hundreds of similar examples around town. And with each situation comes different human experiences. Many with fond memories, others with stories of neglect, abandonment, and pain. In some places, the personal possessions from previous generations are still present on sites abandoned for decades. There is little sameness in these places and always opportunity for new discovery and the imagining of a new present or a variety of futures.

Have you seen "Inception"? Have you sensed the multiple levels of human experiences under your feet? Have you noticed how often those many levels are present around us? In St. Louis, do you feel how you are adding to the layers of the story?

Monday, July 18, 2011

500,000,000 by 2050

The US needs goals. We need to aim high.

The country is in the middle of a struggling economic recovery, facing massive federal deficits and a mushroomed national debt.

All of this happening as our last generational population boom, the baby boom, gets ready to retire. What to do?

Let's grow our country. Let's grow it by leaps and bounds. Let's set a goal of reaching a population of 500,000,000 by the year 2050.

A couple hundred thousand of those folks could easily fit inside the boundary of the city of St. Louis, and a million or three could join us here in the state of Missouri.

Monday, July 11, 2011

PD: Stastny suggests reducing traffic lanes on N. Grand

The Post Dispatch reported over the weekend that planner Don Stastny is suggesting reducing traffic lanes in front of the Fox Theater and Powell Hall from five to three.

The three lane configuration sounds like a possible one lane in each direction, plus a two-way center turn lane. The intent of eliminating traffic lanes is to make the area more pedestrian friendly, encourage outdoor activities such as sidewalk dining, and overall improve the quality of life.

Road diets are being employed more and more across St. Louis:

City to River proposed a major road diet between the riverfront and downtown.

9th Street in front of the Culinaria has gone from three lanes to one.

Statsny is suggesting reducing North Grand from five to three lanes.

Manchester through the Grove is undergoing a road diet.

South Grand from Arsenal to Utah has gone from four lanes to three (or is it two?).

With the overabundance of road capacity on St. Louis city streets, what other roads would you like to see restriped with fewer traffic lanes?

A few worth considering:

S. Broadway
Hampton
Natural Bridge
Kingshighway
Page
Gravois
North and West Florissant
Jefferson
Delmar
Grand north of Grand Center and south of Gravois

A common compaint about St. Louis is that our neighborhoods are beautiful but they are weak on the edges.

Road diets on major streets would be a low cost way to soften the edges of St. Louis neighborhoods.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Culinaria puts downtown on a diet

Workers are out today painting angled parking spaces in front of the downtown Culinaria. The new parking arrangement narrows the space for traffic lanes on 8th street and increases the number of on street parking spaces in front of the store.

The new parking spaces are short term, free, and limited to fifteen minutes. The new parking increases convenience for Culinaria customers while calming traffic on 9th Street. (corrected thanks to a reader comment.)

Restriping traffic lanes and parking configurations is an inexpensive, fast, and effective strategy to make real improvement to the quality of life in neighborhoods. With the abundance of excess capacity on St. Louis city streets, there are many more opportunities for such retrofits.

More of these please!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Cherokee Street

The redrawing of ward boundaries has created new opportunities for Cherokee. Cherokee will soon become the dividing line for much of the southern boundary of the 9th Ward and the northern boundary of the 20th Ward. Previously, it was difficult to tell which ward was which, as both wards shared a sawtoothed connection, criss-crossing back and forth across both sides of Cherokee.

With Cherokee Street now serving as the seam connecting two wards, the opportunity is prime to create a unified strategy across ward boundaries for the future of the area. Speaking recently with a property owner in the area, I was told that as far as he knew, there is no "Cherokee Street Plan". His impression is that development decisions are made on a case by casis, with some decisions governed by individual ward policies.

As the street is about to be more evenly shared by both the 9th and 20th Wards, is there a possibility that development and business policies would differ from one side of the street to the other? If so, that would create confusion for people interested in investing. We need our city neighborhoods to be sensitive to the concerns of existing residents and businesses, but also a welcoming place for new people and businesses to want to locate.

If you know of official plans or guidelines governing development or businesses activity in the area, please share the information in the comment section below. It would be especially helpful to hear from representatives of the Cherokee Street Business Association.

Friday, June 10, 2011

South County Connector Alignments Released for Public Comment

Five options considered:

Laclede Station Road Corridor
Shrewsbury Avenue Corridor
River Des Peres Boulevard Extension Corridor
South Outer Road Corridor
Local Roads Corridor

Maps of each are posted along with an analysis of the pros and cons of each alternative.

Thoughts?

Monday, June 06, 2011

Free Screening of Pruitt-Igoe Documentary June 13 at Fontbonne


Reviews of this film have been excellent. If you haven't seen it, here's a chance to catch it in STL.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Targeted Home Repair Fund Would Create Jobs, Help Neighborhoods

A source of accessible, affordable, home improvement financing in St. Louis could mean great things for the revitalization of St. Louis neighborhoods.

Loans from $25,000 - $50,000 would go a long way towards building a strategy for preservation and improvement of the city's historic homes and neighborhoods.

Targeting the investment at homes at least fifty years would help in a lot of ways:

** Older homes are the ones in the greatest need of updating and repairs

** Most of the city's original housing stock would qualify

** More, smaller projects would be happen

** Small businesses would create jobs

** Homeowners would be able to target improvements

** Smaller projects with less government involvement are attractive to homeowners

** Neighborhood improvement efforts would expand across the city

** Financing would be available to households in a wide range of incomes, strengthening economic diversity

The challenge is to structure the program with competitive terms attractive to both homeowners and lenders.

In the past, gaming revenue has been used for this purpose. In today's tight economic climate, with government revenues shrinking, public funding for such an effort is difficult to obtain.

But the need is there. Inquiries for such loans are common, but resources are scarce. Perhaps starting small, and building up over time is a way to create such an initiative?

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Looking for the next big thing



St. Louis is on the move. There are always things happening. It's an exciting place, filled with interesting people and cool projects. There's something for almost everyone.

The big issues get lots of media focus, but it's the little stuff that needs our daily attention. A new motto for me is "everyone wants to change the world, but no one wants to clean up their own block" (can't claim credit for that one; it was shared with me by a local historian/neighborhood advocate).

Over in Jefferson City, one of the big issues is the fight to restore local control of the St. Louis police department to St. Louis citizens. It's a big issue that dates back 150 years. It was looking like 2011 might be the year that St. Louisans are re-enfranchised with their own police department. But now, it appears the bill might be blocked over pending tax credit reform legislation.

So, while the legislature works the politics over the local control issue, residents in St. Louis neighborhoods continue to work to strengthen the quality of life on their own blocks. The big thing of local control may never happen. Addressing quality of life challenges will be with us no matter the outcome over local control.

Up in Hyde Park, the long abandoned and severely dilapidated North St. Louis Turner Hall (officially known as the Nord St. Louis Turnverein) has finally been demolished. The demolition marks a milestone in the history of the site. Presently it is a vacant lot with salvaged bricks stacked on pallets. It might be years before the site has a new use. The bricks might end up in a driveway in Dallas.

In the meantime, Hyde Park residents have lots of little things to do, just as they always have. Care for Hyde Park. Insist on strong maintenance of quality of life priorities. Work together. Keep an eye out for one another.

The Avalon Theater has been the subject of controversy for over ten years. It sits a blight on South Kingsghway in the Southampton neighborhood. Poll area residents and you might learn that the majority prefer demolition. But that's not happening for a variety of reasons. Something will happen with the Avalon someday, and some people will be pleased and others disappointed. When that will happen, no one knows.

Meanwhile, not so far away, I saw a locally owned real estate office, branded with the names of two upstanding St. Louis families. Meanwhile, the lawn in front of the building had grown to over 1 foot in height! What is up with that? It's in a high traffic location and is an embarrasment.

Walking through the neighborhood the other day, I saw the most uplifted section of sidewalk I've ever seen. The section was elevated a full five inches, the mother of all trip hazards. I don't know if I should call my alderman, the homeowner, the parish priest, or the street department. But someone has to pay attention to these sorts of things.

We may not be able to effect much change on the things that seem the the biggest issues. Those big things will work themselves out on their own time. Think Ballpark Village. But we can be effective in making sure the little things get the care they deserve. In the end, keeping up with the countless little things - even things so mundane as weeding the yard - can make the biggest positive impact on our quality of life - today.

Monday, May 09, 2011

You Can't See This from Alaska!


Terrace View Cafe at City Garden

May is prom season in St. Louis and just about everywhere else. So early Friday evening, we found ourselves playing catchup to a group of high school seniors riding a rented coach to snap a few pictures of the sharply dressed young people enjoying a big night out.

Via text message and cell phone we were told we could catch up to the crew at the Arch grounds. Spaces on the Old Cathedral parking lot were being sold for $10 apiece for that night's Cardinal game, but when we explained to the lot attendents that we were only there to snap a few photos, they let us park for free.

While we were waiting, a somewhat lost looking late-20-ish man walked by. He was marvelinig at the Arch. He was utterly amazed by it. "How old is it?", he asked. "Why isn't it more corroded?" "Can you go up in it?". "How do you get up in it?".

Being the astute STL Rising observers that we are, we asked if he was from out of town. He was! He was visiting St. Louis from Alaska and was checking out the Arch. But, sadly, his girl had left him there alone.

We couldn't tell if he had a ride to his next stop or not, but he was friendly enough and eager to chat. So I asked him if he'd like some ideas for places to see. Yes, he was interested. I suggested he make the short trip south to visit the Soulard and Lafayette Square neighborhoods, famous for their historic architecture, fine restaurants, and live music scene. He said he thought maybe he had already been there. He took out his smart phone.

He played a video on it that he shot earlier in his trip. The video was taken from a moving car and showed house after house built of brick and stone. I recognized the street. These buildings weren't in Lafayette Square or Soulard; they were about sixty years younger. These were from my neighborhood! He had been riding around shooting video of random city neighborhoods.

"We don't have anything like this in Alaska!", he proclaimed.

"But that's not Soulard or Lafayette Square", I replied. "In fact, that's my neighborhood! Soulard and Lafayette Square are waaay older. They pre-date the arrival of the automobile. You really need to go check out those places if you like neat old neighborhoods".

Now, I've never been to Alaska, nor is it on my short list of places to visit. Some people say you can even see across the Bering Strait from there. I didn't think that was possible. And I understand that the government
pays its residents to live there.

On the other hand, here in St. Louis, we pay a premium to live in a place where folks from out of town come and marvel at the beauty.

So, we finally caught up to the prom goers at Citygarden. Once there, we found the place filled with teens from across the region stopped to take prom photos amongst City Garden's many photo-friendly spots.


Two St. Louis seniors on prom night enjoying Citygarden in downtown STL

To our new friend from Alaska: welcome to St. Louis and thanks for visiting our fair city! We hope you were reunited with your girl sometime later that evening and had a good time together, perhaps visiting Soulard, Lafayette Square or one of the city's many other unique and interesting neighborhoods!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Cherokee Street Tossup

The emerging Cherokee Street neighborhood (not its official name), is getting more and more positive press, both locally and around the country. It's famous for its creative arts and business scene, Mexican restaurants, and historic architecture.

However, while the outside world is paying lots of attention to the street itself, a local online magazine, the Cherokee Street News, is calling attention to the adjacent historic residential areas on the north and south sides of Cherokee.

A current feature at the site presents a range of opportunities to purchase historic residential properties, all at or below $15,000 apiece. That's fifTEEN thousand, not $150,000. To readers of this site from other states, that is not a typo.

At those prices, the market is very soft, or the buildings are in very poor condition, or both. If you're a supporter of the renaissance of Cherokee Street, you have to be concerned about the strength of the real estate market flanking the strip.

Looking at the efforts to revitalize the Cherokee area, especially its supporting residential blocks, what are the key strategies and goals being pursued? I'm asking because I don't know. If you know, please reply in the comments section. Thanks!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Elevated Lanes Being Removed in St. Louis

Minimal Traffic Delays Observed

No, we're not referring to the eyesore elevated lanes of I-70 which cut off downtown from Laclede's Landing and the north riverfront, but rather the elevated lanes of Grand Avenue between Chouteau and the main St. Louis University campus.

Approximating that Grand through this stretch usually carries about 30,000 cars per day*, closing it down and seeing minimal traffic delays demonstrates the vast amount of excess road capacity in St. Louis.

The elevated lanes of Grand are being demolished because they have come to the end of their useful life. The same is true of many of the 1960s and older sections of elevated roads around the country, including the elevated lanes of the soon to be former I-70 through downtown.

With I-70 being rerouted north of downtown over the new Mississippi River Bridge; with gas prices approaching $5 per gallon; with governments running out of money to rebuild aging elevated highway structures; and, with a growing emphasis on reconnecting downtown to the river, is the foundation being laid for the eventual removal of the elevated interstate structure from downtown St. Louis once and for all?

*: revised based on reader "Herbie's" comment.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"Respect the Loop - Foul Language is Offensive"

On Metro trains there are signs that read, "Respect Your Ride - Foul Language is Offensive". The signs seem to be working because rides on Metro are pleasant without the nuisance of people cursing in your ears.

Meanwhile, for the past couple of weeks, news reports have been coming out of the UCity Loop about crowds of unruly young people on the sidewalks disturbing the peace in the area with cursing and rude behaviour.

The news reports gave me ideas for a couple of other possible different titles for this post. "Victim of Its Own Success" was one. Or maybe "We've Never Seen the Loop Like This Before".

"Victim of Its Own Success" is obvious. The Loop is a fun place to be. Spring is here and young people are finishing their school years. It's natural they'd be looking for a good place to go, and the Loop is an obvious choice. It's popular. I wish the town of my youth had a place like it.

"We've Never Seen the Loop Like This Before" is not so obvious. It was a statement made on the air in today's radio news. The comment seems to refer to conduct or groups of people in the Loop that are making the person uncomfortable.

The same person went on to say, "you can't leave a cell phone on a table or it will get stolen". The point of the news story is that there are growing safety and security concerns in the Loop.

It will be interesting to see how the spring and summer go. I suspect things will be good. There may be stepped up security patrols on busy nights. More people coming out to enjoy the area will make the place safer for everyone.

What about adding signs on the sidewalk, "Respect the Loop - Foul Language is Offensive"? They work on Metro. Is is legal to use foul language in public? I think it depends on the municipal ordinances in the city.

If it's illegal to spit on the sidewalk, then it seems reasonable that you shouldn't be able to say "F&%K!" in a loud voice. Maybe the use of loud profanity is protected free speech? I doubt the founding fathers had that in mind when they guaranteed us the right to free speech.

Passing more ordinances doesn't seem like the answer. More people on the street and a stepped up security presence are probably the most effective solutions. Stay tuned. This issue is likely to be around for at least the next month or so.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Pity the Poor Traffic Circle

For the past week, new measures have been put into effect to address the continuing backups at the Hampton Avenue entrance to Forest Park. Traffic gets so congested that it can take forty minutes for cars to get from Interstate 64 into the park. The situation gets dangerous as cars back up onto the traffic lanes of the highway.

This week, Metro started a new trolley in the park to help move people around. The beautiful new traffic roundabout at the southeast corner of the Zoo was closed, forcing drivers entering from Hampton to the eastern side of the park. Unfortunately, these measures don't seem to be helping much.

According to Sunday's Post-Dispatch, there were still long delays for drivers to get into the park on Saturday. The ironic part of this is there are only delays at one entrance: the Hampton entrance off of Interstate 64. This is an easy problem to fix. In fact, it's really a self-imposed "problem". Drivers bring this problem on themselves by all trying to squeeze through the same entrance.

The Post-Dispatch ought to run a "WAR HAS ENDED" style, 3-inch tall banner headline on the front page of the paper, all week if necessary, notifying the public that Forest Park has THREE SIDES, all with multiple entrances. Sub headline: "No Waiting at Kingshighway, Lindell, and Skinker Entrances!".

Imagine instead of an entrance to Forest Park, we're inside a grocery store. At checkout, there are ten cashiers waiting for customers. But everyone lines up to go through the same checkout lane, creating a massive backup in that one lane. All the other lanes are wide open with no waiting. We would think that was pretty silly, wouldn't we?

It's not that different in Forest Park. So long as everyone tries to enter the park through the same entrance, there will always be delays. Pity the poor traffic circle. The traffic problems in Forest Park certainly weren't its fault...

Friday, April 01, 2011

Prop E Highlights Need for New Missouri Compromise

When Missouri entered the union, it was under the Missouri Compromise, whereby Missouri was admitted as a slave state and Maine was admitted as a free state.

Before the Civil War, Missouri wanted to keep slavery, but wanted to remain in the Union. During the Civil War, the governor of Missouri took control of the police department. After the Civil War, the city slowly expanded its boundaries in a westerly direction.

In 1876, St. Louis voted to separate itself from St. Louis County. By 1940, the city, for all intents and purposes, was built out. Between 1950 and 1960, its population peaked at about 850,000.

Since 1960, the city's population has dropped by over 50%, while suburban growth stretched out across Missouri and Illinois, putting St. Louis city at the center of the region.

Today, a little over 1/10 of the regional population lives in the city proper, but many of our regions 2.8 million or so residents think of themselves as St. Louisans. There's a general sense that everyone in the region has some stake in the city, but only a tiny percentage get a vote in the future of what happens here.

Next week, that idea of regionalism will be put to the test. Lots of people are advocating for a "Yes Vote on Prop E", the proposition to retain the city's earnings tax, but only a handful of voters will decide the issue.

The St. Louis Business Journal has come out in favor of Prop E, but in their editorial they state that most of their employees don't live in the city, so they have no vote. They work here, so for now, they pay the earnings tax. In its editorial, The Business Journal warns that if the earnings tax is defeated, they would for the first time be forced to consider moving out of the city - for the health and safety of their employees.

Many are making dire predictions about huge cuts in city services - including cuts to fire and police protection - if the earnings tax is defeated. At the same time massive increases in other taxes, such as sales taxes and real estate taxes, are predicted to follow. It's the sort of one-two punch in the civic gut that could potentially bring the city to its knees. The predictions are not much of a stretch when you consider that 1/3 of the city's budget is funded by the earnings tax.

While Prop E will decide the future of the earnings tax, at the same time, the legislature in Jeff City is debating local control of the city police department. A 150 year old debate about how St. Louisans should be governed continues to this day. While Jeff City debates returning local control of the police department to St. Louis, the region is debating how St. Louis should be governed via its tax structure.

As it was when the city divorced from St. Louis County, a very close vote at the time, so it will be in 2011 when a tiny number of individual voters will have a say in a matter of major regional significance for the future of all St. Louisans.

Out of curiosity, does anyone know if the St. Louis Police Officer's Association has taken a position on Prop E? There is some irony here, because a few years ago the state controlled board of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department significantly reduced the residency requirement for city police officers. So today, like many employees of the St. Louis Business Journal, large numbers of city police officers are not eligible to vote in city elections.

Maybe it's time for a new Missouri Compromise, but this time, make it the St. Louis Compromise, one that creates a sustainable, equitable tax structure for the city of St. Louis as the center of the St. Louis region. Compromises work when there are mutual interests at stake. Under our current system, there are many mutual interests, but our ability to reach a compromise, is, well, seriously compromised.

Too many people have a vested interest in the city of St. Louis with no voice in the outcome of local elections. It's hard to make good decisions about government when there is such a high percentage of our citizens ineligible to participate in the most important decisions.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

But, but, but, bt, bt....

Our 2001 Dodge Stratus is on the 4-year plan, namely, we need to keep it running until we're off the tuition train. And that train has at least another 4 years to go.

So it's time for our annual renewal of license plates, this time involving a safety and emissions test. The check engine light has been on for some time, but the car is running strong and there's no visible exhaust coming out of the tail pipe. So it burns a little oil.

Anyway, our mechanic is having a problem getting it to pass the emission test. And today, I'm afraid the updated situation won't be much better. My hunch is that there's some issue with the catalytic converter. Apparently, a car can't pass an emission test with the check engine light on. Or maybe it's a transmission problem.

I have no idea how much it costs to replace a catalytic converter, but from what I've heard, it ain't cheap. And if that's indeed the issue, then I guess we're faced with the lousy choice of sinking a lot of money into an old car, or junking it? And if it's something major with the transmission, well, we know that's a fortune.

I thought there was some limit on how much the state could force you to pay to repair a car under the emission testing requirements? Maybe not.

So, from the sound of this, if indeed we're faced with a choice of repairing the car or junking it, we're in a way dealing with a case of eminent domain - unfortunately with no compensation.

The state may indeed be forcing our otherwise strong running car off the road, with no compensation to us, all for the benefit of the public welfare. Correct? I'll update the post as the situation unfolds...

Monday, March 28, 2011

"The Top 100"

The recent "Open/Closed" conference has lots of people talking about the future of St. Louis and the challenges presented by vacancy and abandonment. In St. Louis, a lot of the vacant land and building inventory is held by the city's Land Reutilization Authority (LRA).

LRA acquires these properties at the end of a long process which ultimately leads to a tax foreclosure sale held on the courthouse steps. By the time LRA gets them, the private market has fully rejected any interest in the properties. As you might expect, most of these suffer from serious deferred maintenance.

Out of the 10,000 or so total properties held in the LRA inventory, fewer than 15 percent of them still have buildings. These 1,000 or so buildings are in varying degrees of condition - generally ranging from bad to worse. Still, some are in better shape than others. And while it's true that many of the buildings in the LRA inventory need to be demolished, the best of them are definitely rehab-able. Call them: "The Top 100".

Would it be possible to start a campaign around these "Top 100" LRA properties? A campaign built on sustainable development, job training, and neighborhood revitalization? Put a value on "The Top 100" LRA buildings of say $10,000 apiece, and if the city were to donate these buildings to the initiative, that puts the city's contribution to the program at $1,000,000 (100 X $10,000).

Identify a foundation purposed with sustainability, community and economic development, and job training, and approach them with a proposal to match the city's contribution to the initiative. Then open up the program to individuals and organizations seeking partnerships and collaboration. YouthBuild and Ranken Tech come to mind as groups looking to train people in the construction trades.

Out of the initiative, a new narrative involving vacancy is possible, one of creative partnerships, community reinvestment, wealth building, and job creation. Is this the sort of possibility that might follow on the path of Open/Closed?

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bee Sanctuary, Greenbelt, or Art Space?

These are some of the possibilites suggested for repurposing abandoned real estate in St. Louis at the Open/Closed Conference held this past weekend at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park.

Other ideas included the rebuilding of depleted neighborhoods one parcel at a time. If you look at things this way, the vacant areas of some neighborhoods resemble the St. Louis of 1876 as depicted in Compton Dry's Pictorial St. Louis when the city was first being constructed.

The most likely result will include some combination of all of the above. Indeed there are distressed neighborhoods being rebuilt a parcel at a time and artists are finding their way into abandoned buildings. Such was the start of the revitalization of Washington Avenue's loft district long before the arrival of major tax incentives for the area.

Another opportunity is to begin the unglamorous slog of remediating abandoned properties one lot at a time. Often when you see a vacant lot in a distressed neighborhood, what you don't see are the remains of the former building, now buried under one or two feet of soil.

For years, demolition practices involved simply collapsing unwanted buildings into their basements. At the time, it was the cheapest way to deal with the vacant, abandoned building. Unfortunately, the expedient practice of yesterday leaves us with a legacy of difficult to reuse sites today.

The remains of old buildings under the ground leave behind unbuildable sites today. To build on these usually requires that the old building be excavated and hauled away. As you can imagine, depending on the subsurface conditions, this is a high cost endeavor and from a practical standpoint, renders many redevelopments financially infeasible. With massive buried remains, the land currently has a negative value, especially in weaker market areas.

A dramatic example of this situation is the Pruitt-Igoe site in north St. Louis, whose epic failure and subsequent implosion of dozens of public housing highrise buildings leaves us a vast hole of vacancy on the near north side. Much the same situation exists, albeit on a much smaller scale, for many of the vacant lots in St. Louis.

If the money could be found, especially in the form of a charitable or patient equity investment, the opportunity exists to remediate these sites today. It's a laborious, unglamorous chore, but if we were to create a program to systematically remediate these properties now, we would be creating usable development sites for the future.

How to do it? It's not that complicated. It requires a team of workers (brings jobs), with heavy excavating equipment (brings more jobs), working in concert with neighborhood groups, civic organizations, and planners (yes, more jobs), to phase a mass remediation initiative as the leading edge of a sustainable effort to revitalize currently abandoned properties.

A crew of 6-12 workers, with two or three large excavating tractors and dump trucks, could make major progress at reasonable cost. The more workers and equipment, the faster the process happens. The end result is clean, developable land in the heart of the region. That means more jobs.

To do this, we need to build a list of supporters and seek out those investors of charitable dollars or patient equity. This is doable. Yes, a lot of work, but it's definitely doable.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Cherokee Street Blues

Cherokee Street is one of the storied streets of St. Louis. Over the years it has maintained its focus as one of the city's neighborhood commercial corridors. It runs from the old Lemp Brewery on the east to Gravois on the west. In between, it's a narrow commercial strip, lined with historic buildings, shops, and apartments.

Over the past ten years or so, it has become one of the city's emerging creative areas. Today it is an eclectic mix of ethnic restaurants, small business creative entrepreneurs, and residents. Mostly, it's a group of passionate, dedicated people working together to make the area a better place to live and work.

The greater part of Cherokee Street is shared between the 9th and 20th wards, all of which may change after the next aldermanic ward redistricting. The reason for the change is population losses in the city. The 2010 census showed about an 8% loss in city population, heaviest in the north, but generally pretty even throughout. The net result in terms of ward redistricting will likely be a pulling south of ward boundaries.

So why call this post "Cherokee Street Blues"? Because the blues are about suffering, and we all know there is a lot of pain in St. Louis. The process of ward redistricting is no different. For many, it will cause lots of pain and indigestion.

Since the census was released, there's been a lot of pain expressed about the city's loss of people. Maybe "St. Louis Blues" is another song waiting to be rewritten. A rap version maybe? Whether it's ragtime, blues, or rap, St. Louis is a place of creativity, art, and - yes - pain; and, even though people here don't like it: change.

Most of the city's historic population losses have happened north. In fact, Cherokee Street's 20th ward was formerly part of North City, around the intersection of Kingsighway and West Florissant roads. The ward was moved to south city in the last redistricting of aldermanic wards, and was designated an "opportunity ward" for the election of an African American alderman.

The old northside 20th ward seat had long been held by an African American alderman, and in order to move the ward south, without violating the Voting Rights Act, the city needed to draw a new ward boundary where an African American candidate stood a good chance of being elected. The new southside 20th ward was created, and, since 2000, a white alderman has been elected in the strongly black ward - twice.

In the meantime, north city continues to lose population. According to the 2010 census, since 2000, some northside wards have lost over 20% of their populations. There's no doubt that the next aldermanic ward redistricting will create more pain. Loss of wards in north city creates much concern, as does potential loss of African American elected officials. The new census is foreshadowing of more St. Louis change. As city and regional residents, our challenge is how we move forward.

The first things cited when it comes to city population loss are high crime and lousy schools. There are lots of other reasons, but those two are almost always at the top of the list. Families with school age children move out and people living in high crime neighborhoods leave. In some parts of St. Louis city, population losses have created huge vacancy.

On March 19th, NextSTL is presenting "Open/Closed", a conference on vacant land in St. Louis. The conference will bring together a variety of community leaders and regular St. Louisans to discuss the challenges and opportunties of vacancy in St. Louis.

Thinking back on the challenges causing vacancy, add jobs to the top of the list. With abundant vacant land, shouldn't St. Louis be able to create affordable, attractive site locations for new employment?

What about education? Building on St. Louis' standing as one of the top bio-tech centers in the country, are there ways to connect local institutions, such as our strong universities and biotech companies, with young people in St. Louis to leverage underutilized urban land into opportunities in the emerging fields of green urban agriculture and the green economy? These are some of the ideas which will be explored at the Open/Closed conference.

Heading back down to Cherokee Street, the creative energy will continue. It too shows population losses, but the built environment of the area remains largely intact. Its population losses are not immediately evident, and are more a result of a reduction in household size and number. Old four-family flats might now house one family and a studio or home office. Raw numbers of population loss make headlines, but they do not tell the whole story. As in so much of St. Louis, there are interesting nuances below the surface.

The blues can be slow with lots of pain, or upbeat and filled with hope - like when Chuck Berry and an electric guitar transformed the blues into rock and roll. So whether it's a new version of the St. Louis Blues or the still unwritten Cherokee Street Blues, the way the songs come out will be based on the way we work together. We have the resources. It's up to us to make the best good with them.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Bet: Most STL Traffic Lights Could be Switched to Flashing Red...

...and overall traffic would move easier. Sure, it might sound crazy, but I bet it's true.

Some lights would need to remain on normal cycles, but countless others could be switched to the equivalent of "signalized" stop signs.

Granted, I don't have the scientific facts to back up the bet, just years of anecdotal evidence that every time a light is switched to flashing red, you almost always get through on the first or second waiting of your turn - much faster than you do waiting from a change from red to green. Why? Bottom line: St. Louis just doesn't have that much traffic.

Besides, given the overall extremely courteous nature of St. Louis drivers, it just might work.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Seismic Shifts Coming to St. Louis Political Landscape?

Could the battle for local control of the St. Louis police department be the catalytic event to trigger major structural changes to local government in St. Louis? For years, there has been a struggle over control over the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

Since the Civil War, the department has been controlled by a board appointed by the governor. And since at least the 1960s, St. Louis leaders, have been fighting to bring control back to the city. Now their call for local control has been joined by Civic Progress and Focus St. Louis.

This year, for the first time since the Civil War, a bill has passed in the Missouri House to return local control of the police department to the City of St. Louis. The Police Officers Association vehemently opposes this effort and has many political allies, both within and outside of the city limits.

The Police Officers Association holds that returning local control to the city will result in two things they don't like: the possibility of political interference with the police department from St. Louis city elected officials, and, of greater concern, local control of their pension system.

The Police Officers Association has an ally in a state senator from University City, Maria Chappelle-Nadal. Senator Nadal opposes local control.

In the past few days, Senator Nadal has raised two interesting ideas. The first was to insert language into Senate version of the local control bill to reduce the number of aldermen in the City of St. Louis from 28 to 14. And today the news is reporting that Senator Nadal is proposing a bill to call for a vote by citizens for the re-entry of the City of St. Louis into St. Louis County.

A return of the City of St. Louis into St. Louis County increases the liklihood of there one day being a region-wide metropolitan police department on the Missouri side of the St. Louis area. Such a system has the potential to save significant cost to Missouri taxpayers.

While STL Rising strongly favors having a local city police department in the City of St. Louis, where neighbors get to personally know their local police department representatives, the idea of a region-wide metropolitan police force is worth serious consideration.

And if all of this work by local leaders results in further streamlined yet strenghtened local government, then perhaps these will be remembered as times of great progress for the St. Louis region.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pujols...not looking good!

"Albert", "El Hombre", "the man", whatever you want to call him, is not looking too good thanks to his agent and recent contract negotiations flap with the St. Louis Cardinals. Pujols is a great player. However, the handling of his "walk year" is not serving him well.

At the end of this season, if he does not sign a new contract with the Cardinals, Albert Pujols becomes a free agent. So, without a lot of explanation, Pujols imposed an arbitrary "deadline" on negotations of this week. The deadline came and went without an agreement.

The deadline became the top national baseball story. Dozens of reporters are hounding Pujols at spring training. Pujols is featured in sportscasts, standing in the center of a pool of reporters, cameras and microphones in his face, saying things like, "you guys don't have a clue", "if people think I'm greedy, they don't know me", and "we are laughing about this, and so are the Cardinals, I think".

Really? Albert, you're not helping yourself. These are rough economic times. The Cardinals have an imbalanced situation and you're debating between $200,000,000 and $250 or $300 million. Fans are paying $9 for a beer. Ownership is considering giving you an equity position in the team while Ballpark Village sits empty.

I'm over the whole thing. Really, was never too worried about it in the first place. Quick, can anyone even name the Cardinals likely starting infield? Probably not. But everyone can name Pujols. Albert, if you leave town for more money, lots of little kids might get their hearts broken. That's your choice. But for the rest of us, there's a lot more to life than your contract. Hey, you just keep telling everyone that they have "no clue".

When this is all done, you might want to find a new agent.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Big Pepper

For a variety of reasons, I found myself dining alone last night at El Paisano Mexican Restaurant in South City. Suffice it to say that the customer service function at ATT-UVerse has driven us out of our house.

Anyhow, so after looking over the menu while seated at a booth in the bar area of the now smoke-free restaurant, watching Manchester United get roundly spanked by a rival, I order the poblano pepper and pork tamale combination. I asked the waiter how big the pepper was.

With a nod of his head and a muffled grunt, he held his hands out in front of him, creating a space of about 4-5 inches between the palms of his hands. Good enough.

When the plate arrived, the poblano looked like a size 10 shoe. And delicious!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Will NPR Drop Its Needle on St. Louis?

This week NPR is running a series on cities. Today's edition focused on Washington DC. In particular, the series is looking at changing demographics. In DC, a noticeable trend has been the return of white families to the city.

DC has been a majority black city for a long time. But that's been changing, and soon, DC will be less than 50% black. Meanwhile, suburban Prince George County has been a popular destination for middle income African-American families exiting DC. That county is becoming majority African-American. So in DC, there's a trend where white families are returning to the city and black families are moving away.

DC's Anacostia River is a dividing line where traditionally lower income, depressed neighborhoods are located. Low cost by DC standards, home prices in Anacostia are in the $250-$300,000 range. Many DC neighborhoods see prices 3 to 4 times that amount. With its low prices and sense of upside potential, Anacostia is becoming a vogue target area for developers and white home buyers.

In today's segment, NPR previewed that they will also be covering Portland, Oregon. Portland is often held out as the vanguard of progressive hipness and cool urbanism. NPR noted that Portland is one of the "whitest cities in the country". That surprised me. When people think of big cities in particular, or urban places in general, they usually don't think of them as being heavily white. They think of them as places of diversity. Portland has its own challenges: how cool it is to be known as one of the "whitest cities in the country"?

The DC story featured a delivery driver and his wife, a two income black family who had moved from Anacostia to Prince George County. The husband felt sad about leaving his old neighborhood, but moved away to get more house for the money, and because of pressure from his wife who had grown up in the suburbs. In Prince George County the family could buy a 4-5 bedroom home for the same price as a 2-3 bedroom home in the old neighborhood.

So what does all this have to do with St. Louis? When cities are compared, how will St. Louis fare? St. Louis' challenges are much different than Portland's or DC's. St. Louis isn't the cool destination that Portand is (but maybe it should be). And, unlike DC, St. Louis city neighborhoods, especially the blighted ones, don't outprice its suburban neighbors.

St. Louis is high cost in terms of construction, and low priced in terms of values. Like DC, for decades, St. Louis experienced heavy black and white flight from its neighborhoods, especially on the north side. Today St. Louis is experiencing renewal in many parts of the city. There is a noticeably white demographic at city booster events. "City Affair" gatherings are usually 90% percent white, and meetings for the renewal of the Arch grounds were about the same percentage white.

Cherokee Street, the emerging hip district of South St. Louis, is largely a mix of white and hispanic entrepreneurs, while the surrounding neighborhood is high percentage African-American. With an election for alderman coming soon, given the interesting demographic mix of the area, what will the lead issues of the campaign be?

Trends in St. Louis seem to be more elusive. It's hard to make broad generalizations. Things vary greatly from block to block and neighborhood to neighborhood. There are places such as Old North St. Louis and Cherokee Street which get a lot of attention in terms of their renewal, but geographically they represent a tiny percentage of the city. Look at the city's strategic land use plan and you see that roughly 75% of the city's area is designated "Neighborhood Preservation".

Maybe the story of St. Louis is that we have a good thing, and our goal is to keep it that way by working smart on a combination of things both large and small, those with the biggest impact and greatest leveraging?