Thursday, December 13, 2012

Traffic Compromise

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Vacancy and the Opportunity for Realizing Growth in Our Urban Core

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

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

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

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

Our History of Successfully Reusing Vacant Land

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

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

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

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

What to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where Do We Go From Here?

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, June 18, 2012

St. Louis Parks - New (Locally Produced) Book

St. Louis has some of the best parks in the country, and St. Louisans are deservedly proud of them. Noted historians Nini Harris and Esley Hamilton lead readers through a tour of St. Louis city and county parks, large and small, in their new book, St. Louis Parks (published by Reedy Press).

The history of St. Louis parks dates to the 1830s with the establishment of Lafayette Park, to the recent completion of downtown’s newest park, Citygarden. County parks featured include the Museum of Transportation in Kirkwood and Laumeier Sculpture Park in the Crestwood/Sunset Hills area.

Photography by Mark Abeln and Steve Tiemann support the histories and detail the evolution and variety of the region’s parks. St. Louis parks are an important legacy, started by visionaries and leaders more than 150 years ago. St. Louis Parks is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about life in the St. Louis area and its rich history.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

2012 Sustainable Backyard Tour

Coming up on Sunday, June 24, is the 2012 Sustainable Backyard Tour, a project initiated by Home Eco located on Macklind in the city's Southampton neighborhood. The tour is free and self-guided. Online registration is available here

A website with more information about the event and how to get involved can be visited here.

Building a more sustainable St. Louis starts in our own homes and yards and with the choices we make every day. Thanks to the tour organizers, now in its second sustainable year!

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Sustainability and Bending the Cost Curve

St. Louis is blessed with a rich heritage of historic buildings. It's also challenged by low property values and high construction costs.

It's the perfect storm. Great buildings and historic neighborhoods are resources worthy of preservation. But low values and high costs make that work more challenging; and, the lower the property values in certain areas, the harder the challenges are to overcome.

As part of the effort to create a sustainable St. Louis, planners, architects, contractors, developers, and government are tasked with finding ways to bend the cost curve into a more affordable range.

Do you have ideas on how to do it? Now would be a good time to start offering those ideas.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Green Machine

This time of year, the garden grows. Fast. Based on the filling up of garden pales and rain gauges, lately we've been getting 2-3 inches of rain per week. A mild winter, coupled with all that rain, has put the green machine into high gear.

The only way I can keep up is to work a little bit each weekend, section by section. Or, to keep things interesting, work a little bit in different sections, twenty minutes or so at a time. Still the green machine keeps ahead.

This weekend, I did a little of both. Cutting back sucker branches on trees in the high reaches, and working at ground level in the alley. In the alley, there's a stone terraced garden, home to daylilies, and an invasion of wild onions.

You never know who might drop by when you're working in the garden. All that digging up of wild onions attracted a new friend. He was following where I was digging, looking for his breakfast. We worked side by side for about twenty minutes until we both moved on to other things (him winging away to a telephone wire and me a glass of ice water waiting in the kitchen). Here's a picture of my garden friend, finishing his breakfast.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Open for Business: The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce?

The St. Louis Business Journal just released its 2012 list of the region's top 25 chambers of commerce. Nowhere on the list will you find the City of St. Louis. Why? Because there is no such thing as the "St. Louis Chamber of Commerce".

Chambers of Commerce serve as business associations for area businesses. They are by and large membership organizations, with businesses making up the membership. Businesses pay dues to join, and the chamber provides services to member businesses.

A standard mission statement of a chamber of commerce often reads, "The Mission of the ____ Chamber of Commerce, in close association with the City of ______, is dedicated to developing a strong network for potential and existing local business to prosper and thrive in our community".

Another example is, "The Greater _____ Chamber of Commerce is a trusted business organization working for the development and voice of business success in ______. We provide opportunities for all businesses and individuals who invest in the _______community. Our goal is to keep ______ a healthy, thriving community with an exceptional quality of life. We invite you to join us today and help build a sound foundation to support the economic momentum in ______!"

So why doesn't St. Louis have its own chamber of commerce? One reason is that there are already a number of smaller business associations serving neighborhood business districts. There is the South Broadway Business Association serving the Carondelet area, the Hampton Chippewa Business Association serving the Hampton Village, Southwest City area. In Baden, there was a Businessmen's Association formed in 1913.

A chamber of commerce builds sense of community. It creates a sense of shared purpose and interest among community stakeholders. If St. Louis had a city-wide chamber of commerce, connections would be made across neighborhood, ward, and bigger city boundaries.

In the past, people may have believed that the most important thing to them was to have a healthy neighborhood business district where they lived. They weren't too concerned about what was happening in another neighborhood or the other side of town.

With efforts on today to build a more sustainable city, does it make sense to establish a citywide chamber of commerce for the entire city of St. Louis? It might go to number one on the St. Louis Business Journal's list of the region's Top 25 Chambers of Commerce!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

City of St. Louis Sustainability Summit Meetings: May 8-12

The second round of community meetings for sustainability planning for the City of St. Louis has been set. More info is available by visiting this page:

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Lid Study Officially Underway

Today at 3:00 pm, MoDOT will hold a public hearing regarding the proposed lid over the depressed lanes in downtown St. Louis, now referred to as the "Park over the the Highway". Here is the official MoDOT announcment:

MoDOT St. Louis District Press Releases Page

Prepared by Andrew Gates 314/453-1808

April 02, 2012

MoDOT to hold public meeting on Park over the Highway alternatives

ST. LOUIS - The Missouri Department of Transportation will hold an open-house style public meeting to allow the public to discuss MoDOT's portion of the CityArchRiver 2015 project.

The public meeting is scheduled April 10, between 3 and 5 p.m. in the St. Louis City Hall Board of Aldermen boardroom (on the second floor), 1200 Market Street, St. Louis, Missouri, 63103.

During the meeting, MoDOT engineers will be on hand to discuss several proposed alternatives for the Park over the Highway portion of the CAR2015 project, to include what the department believes is the preferred alternative. Engineers will also be able to discuss potential impacts of each alternative.

This meeting will allow the public to provide input, and comments, either directly to the engineers or in written comments, on the alternatives presented. This meeting is part of the process to complete necessary Federal requirements for the project.

Since there are no formal presentations during the public meeting, participants may attend at any time during the open house.

The purpose of today's meeting is to fulfill MoDOT's legal obligation to seek public comment on plans to spend tens of millions of public dollars.

The public has already weighed in on this issue, during years of meetings on the remaking of the Arch grounds. Based on NPS published comments, the public overwhelmingly favors planning for highway removal.

However, those comments were deemed "out of scope" by the National Park Service, as MoDOT has jurisdiction over the highway portion of the City+Arch+River 2015 project.

This morning on KMOX radio, news anchor Doug McElvin played an interview of MoDOT district engineer Ed Hassinger announcing today's meeting, where Hassinger stated that the Lid over the highway plan is pretty much "set in stone".

With the Lid plan apparently already decided, is it still important for the public to weigh in with its comments about the Lid?

Either way, if you do decide to go, you will get to see one of the most awesome meeting rooms at St. Louis City Hall!

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Minority Contractor Initiative (MCI)

When it comes to economic development, it's important for all members of our community to be part of the picture. Sal Martinez and George Robnett, two long-time St. Louis leaders, have co-founded the "Minority Contractor Initiative" (MCI).

The MCI is located at 1712 Macklind, at the north entrance to the famous Hill neighborhood, sharing office space with state-of-the-art printing company, Cross Rhodes Reprographics, right around the corner from one of St. Louis' best night spots and lesser known music venues, Pops Blue Moon.

Although the open house was held back on March 8 (the night a lot of other Good Ideas for St. Louis were presented), if you contact MCI's Executive Director, Kem Mosely, (tel. 314-371-1548) you can learn how to find out more about the program. In the meantime, here are some of the details provided the night of the open house (click on each image for a larger/printable view):




Tuesday, February 28, 2012

STL Regional Plan for Sustainable Development

Focus St. Louis and East-West Gateway Council of Governments are leading the effort to create a Regional Plan for Sustainable Development for the Bi-State region. The first in a series of public meetings will be held throughout the region from March through early May. Click on the image above for more information about the times and locations of upcoming meetings.

Please review the info, attend one or more of the meetings if you are available, and forward this flier to your contacts and other interested groups. The goal of the public engagement effort is to engage as broad a cross section of the St. Louis community as possible.

For more details about the project, click here:

East-West Gateway RPSD

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

SLPS to offer Charter Schools?

Word around town is that the St. Louis Public Schools may open its own charter schools.

This would be a huge change in policy given that for years the public school system has opposed the expansion of charter schools in St. Louis.

I must say that the development is confusing, but maybe in a good way. Charter Schools are operated outside of the regular public school system. By proposing its own charter schools, is the SLPS trying to distance itself from some of its own challenges?

Charter Schools need a sponsor to get a charter. They can be geographically based. Or with a certain educational emphasis. They are a little experimental in that they provide families an education option outside of the regular public schools and are an attempt at a school reform.

Not everyone is convinced that Charter Schools outperform their regular public school competitors.

Nonetheless, if this information is indeed true, that the SLPS is getting into the Charter School business, would you call this move the "If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em" strategy?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Lid or No Lid, Boulevard Plan Comes Full Circle

With the Arch connector plan finalized, proponents of highway removal are wondering what happens next with the boulevard plan? Is the idea of removal of the I-70 barrier between downtown and the riverfront dead? Not really. The truth is, it's in about the same place it was three years ago when the idea first started getting serious attention.

Linking highway removal with the changes to the Arch always had one major obstacle: timing. Proponents of the remake to the Arch grounds and the lid connector set an October 2015 deadline for completion. There's no way highway removal could be completed by then, so in the world of the Arch remix, highway removal was a non-starter. Highway removal, or the boulevard, however you want to think of it, needs to be its own effort.

Which gets us to where we are today. We know that highway removal will not be part of the Arch 2015 plan. What we don't know is who or how the idea of highway removal happens. Who leads the effort? One thing we do know about St. Louis is that this place is an organization town. Things happen through people collaborating together through organizations, networks, and coalitions. Neither outspoken individuals nor blog posts will ever result in something like highway removal becoming reality.

The only local organization really pushing highway removal is "City to River". City to River has done a lot to raise awareness of the idea and generate support, but on its own, City to River is not enough. The organization needs more partners. The movement has to grow.

And why is that? Because for one thing, there is built-in opposition to the idea of highway removal. Topping the list is the way St. Louisans are resistant to change. Taking out a highway is a big change, so anyone leery of change is going to have big raised eyebrows on something like this. Next is what I like to refer to as the "Community of Commuters". The Community of Commuters is a sort of silent majority.

The Community of Commuters is powerful and comes from all over the region. The community of interest they share is the unfettered use of the highway and road system. Every day they get on the highway to go to work or make their daily trips to school, the doctor, you name it. They battle traffic and long commutes. They don't like to be delayed. They will be a big part of the larger discussion of highway removal, and elected officials and MODOT answer to them.

So where to go from here? For starters, supporters of highway removal need to be better organized and strengthen their network. By strengthening their numbers, supporters of highway removal start to build the critical mass it will take to get the attention of elected officials and highway departments. Until that time, the boulevard or the idea of downtown highway removal will be just that, an idea.

If you want to get more actively involved in the ongoing, working effort to remove I-70 from the downtown landscape, replacing it with an at-grade boulevard, one place to start is by contacting City to River and offering to become part of the organization. Contact them via email at for more information.

Or contact the moderator of this blog and I will put you in touch with the organization.

Friday, January 27, 2012

(Near North) City to River?

With the depressed lanes in front of the Arch apparently a permanent fixture downtown as part of the City Arch River 2015 plan, does it make sense to look to the near northside and the elevated lanes of I-70 for removal and replacement with an at-grade boulevard?

The elevated lanes create a major barrier between the Bottle District, the near north side, and the riverside areas including and north of Laclede's Landing. As the economic benefits map above shows, there is still a lot to be gained by building a boulevard to the north of the Arch grounds.

A near northside boulevard could be accomplished at lower cost than the full length boulevard between the Poplar Street Bridge and the New Mississippi River Bridge, and still would be over a half mile in length.

(image courtesy City to River)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

82 degrees of difference

If you're a weather fan (like we are), today might be the most impressive day on the STL calendar.

For this date, January 25th, the spread between the record high temperature (75 degrees on 1/25/50) and the record low temperature (-7 degrees on 1/25/40) is an amazing 82 degrees!

There are not a lot of places that can make that claim. On the downside, such wild temperature swings are what give birth to the severe weather conditions we also risk here.

Today was in the more normal 35-40 degree range, with about an inch of rain. Had it been a few degrees colder, we'd be shoveling almost a foot of snow right now.

Except, it's not. So all the wet stuff coming down is landing, and staying, the form of liquid precipitation. This time.

Like the old saying goes: don't like (STL) weather? Just wait a few minutes (or degrees!) and it'll change.

Okay, so we confess: strange as it may sound, STL Rising actually likes it this way. It feeds our sense of community. Let's talk (and do something) about the weather!

Sustainability Planning in STL

There are two major sustainability planning initiatives currently underway in our region. One is being led by East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the second by the City of St. Louis.

What sorts of things would you like to see come from such plans, and would you be interested in participating in any public events to help shape the final product?

More importantly, have you heard of either of these two projects, and what would it take to get you personally involved?

Free food? Child care? Complimentary movie passes? Seriously. There is a role for the public in these efforts. Do you plan to participate? If not, why not?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Odds Against the Avalon

It's been maybe ten years since the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway showed its last movie. Since that time, the building has gone through a slow decline until its demolition which started yesterday. In the meantime, the building and its ownership have played out a long struggle in the court system, the building division, the newspaper, and in plain sight, with many negative impacts visited upon its South St. Louis neighbors.

The building's ultimate demise points to one challenge we face with our decentralized system of community planning and development in St. Louis - that by maintaining local control over the planning and development process, the public loses leverage it would otherwise have through a more centralized system. The challenge gets at a classic St. Louis question: which is better - local control over development decisions or city-wide, centralized planning and redevelopment?

It may seem odd that by maintaining local control over development, all the way down to the neighborhood and ward level, that the public loses leverage, but that is exactly what happened in the case of the Avalon. Communities in the St. Louis region are set up with very divided leadership. Within this framework, it is difficult to maintain sustainable redevelopment strategies. The loss of the Avalon is an outcome of this fragmented system.

Left to rely on the resources of a single neighborhood or ward, the tools available to save one blighted building from loss are few. Outside of Southampton and perhaps the South Kingshighway Business Association, the dilapidated building did not represent much of a concern. And after about a decade of decay, local residents and businesses are mostly happy to see the building come down, regardless of whatever potential it might have once had.

In most cases, STL Rising supports the long-standing St. Louis tradition of local control over planning and development. Neighborhood residents are the people with the greatest stake in the future of their communities so they should have a powerful voice in the process. However, in cases like the Avalon, we see the downside of what happens when neighborhoods are left with little leverage to influence outcomes of problem situations.

Looking to the future, we should consider alternatives that increase opportunities for sustainable redevelopment initiatives while protecting the role of local residents and community organizations in the process.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Did Surface Parking Save (Downtown) Cardinal Baseball?

The abundance of surface parking lots in downtown St. Louis is the bane of most urbanists. But is it possible that because there was that huge surface parking lot right next to old Busch Stadium, that downtown St. Louis is the place for Cardinal baseball today?

All the complicated financing aside, if it wasn't for the availability of a buildable downtown location for a new stadium, the Cardinals would have been a lot more likely to leave town for "greener pastures" outside of the city.

Where once there were lifeless surface parking lots, today stands one of the most prominent landmarks on the downtown skyline. Now if we could just get something built on the Ballpark Village parking lots, we'd have two big destinations where there was once just one.

Part of what makes St. Louis attractive for the future is the availability of redevelopment sites. We just need to figure out how to use them.