Thursday, March 29, 2007

STL 2017

With so many efforts underway to improve the St. Louis area, there is a wide range of possibilities for supporting our region's growth. How do you think we should prioritize our efforts?

Tutoring kids in school?
Neighborhood cleanups?
Historic preservation?
Home repair or rehab?
Demolition of certain beyond-hope structures?
Park and greenspace improvement?
Outdoor/farmer's market support?
Economic development?
Senior services?
Stream cleanup?
Tourism promotion?
Neighborhood involvement?

In the past ten years, we've made great progress...

Major improvements downtown...
Historic rehab across the city...
New downtown stadium...
City population stabilized and increasing...
Substantial redevelopment on the city's northside...

For the next ten years, what should we set out to accomplish?

New Mississippi Bridge?
Restructure public education?
Revitalize Dr. Martin Luther King commercial corridor?
Redraw certain neighborhood boundaries?
Increase our bio-tech status?
Gateway Mall?

We have momentum. How should we leverage it?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Old North St. Louis House Tour - May 12

This is a tour for all St. Louis. The positive changes happening in Old North are proof positive that community development does work. Check it out so you can be part of the change.

Missouri Takes Lead in SLPS Debate

When Missouri's Department of Elementary and Secondary Education ("DESE") removed accreditation from the St. Louis Public Schools, I think most people were under the impression that the state's board of education would now take charge of the city's public schools.

However, subsequent to DESE's move, the debate has quickly shifted to the state legislature in Jefferson City, where elected officials from all across Missouri are now debating the future of the city's public schools. Did anyone see this coming?

The debate has evolved from a local issue into a statewide discussion about the future of urban education in the City of St. Louis.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Metrolink Convert?

Yesterday I rode the new Shrewsbury Metrolink extension for the first time. What a beautiful ride! Great views, fun, and convenient! Very modern.

I rode it to the end of the line, and then walked the rest of the way home. The walk took about 30 minutes.

Let's see....if I start riding Metrolink to work, I could...

Save $$$ on gasoline...
Save $$$ on car repairs...
Eliminate the $120 per month payroll deduction for parking...
Get regular daily exercise...
Have a safe and relaxing ride to and from downtown...

Monday, March 26, 2007

2-Way Streets Rising

Traffic safety and how we can make our neighborhood streets more inviting are favorite neighborhood topics. One of the simplest and lowest cost ways to slow down cars is to have 2-way way streets. Making a narrow city street 2-way really works!

It may seem counter-intuitive to have 2-way traffic on a one lane street, but you should see the difference in the speed of cars. Drivers are forced to slow down for oncoming traffic, and they a lot more in general to pay attention to, so they naturally lower their speed.

Yesterday, we found one of the narrowest 2-way streets anywhere in St. Louis. It's Bonita, in the first block west of Macklind, one block north of Loughborough. This block of Bonita leads you to one of the coolest alleys in the city, a semi-circular one serving the homes on Woodbine Court.

The next time someone tells you your street is too narrow to be 2-way, take them over to Bonita and show them how calm the traffic is.

Prefer speeding traffic down your block? Make it one-way.

For more info on the neighborhood-friendly aspects of 2-way streets, check out:

Friday, March 23, 2007

Mississippi Bluffs Update

According to a reliable source in the Carondelet area, Michael Curran's Mississippi Bluffs project is about to commence construction.

Will this be the first high-end riverfront housing development in the City of St. Louis in over fifty years?

Bevo Rising

There's a lot of rehab going on in Little Bosna. Old storefronts are being reopened. There's an attractive new coffee shop opened just southwest of the old Gravois Bootery. Closer to the viaduct there's lots of mixed use rehabs. Even Bevo Mill is getting in the act, with frequent radio advertising on KTRS announcing "...Bevo Mill Game Time is..."

A couple of years ago, the city changed the lane configuration along Gravois through the area to create a 2-way center turn lane. However, after receiving complaints from concerned citizens, it was changed back. I must be in the minority, but I prefer the center turn lane alternative. It always feels safer making left turns when you aren't afraid someone is going to rear end you at 45 mph.

QuikTrip just closed its store across from the Bevo Days festival lot in favor of a much expanded offer a few blocks in at Chippewa and Gravois. Gas prices at the new store were 20 cents a gallon cheaper than what I paid yesterday at the Hampton and I-44 Shell.

With QuikTrip now doing some strategic store relocations, it will be interesting to see what happens to their closed locations. They are trying to sell them. The one at Gravois and Heege has been for sale for sometime, and they've lowered the price at least once.

For competition reasons, they probably would not allow a gas station to reopen at the sites. Maybe they're looking for quick oil change or auto repair uses?

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Stairway Together

Yesterday's mail came with a letter from Matt's high school containing the electronic transfer forms required to pay tuition. The cost will be more than double what we've been paying through eighth grade. The school has an excellent tradition, so we are looking forward to an exciting new phase in our lives. On the same day the mail arrived marking a milestone in Matt's education, he made another in his efforts as a young musical artist.

For guitarists, it's a rite of passage to learn Zeppelin's classic, "Stairway To Heaven". I can't remember how old I was when I first played it, but it was a very long time ago. For the past couple of months, Matt's been working on learning the song himself.

He's had formal music training since first grade, including three years' piano lessons, and playing trombone for his school's jazz and concert bands. This year, he made first trombone for an all-metro honor jazz band at UMSL.

However, guitar has always been his creative diversion. There hasn't been any structured training, just occasionally ne passing along pointers while he's playing. His guitar playing's all self-directed, and he's a pure ear player.

It's interesting the parallels between sports and music. Both are creative physical pursuits, and the earlier one starts the easier they are. Last night, Matt calls me downstairs to play accompaniment bass while he practices improvising leads.

He's getting pretty good, and's already far better than I was at his age. He and a couple of his friends have started a rock band, and they're getting pretty good. Darn good. Instead of just pounding on drums and electric guitars, they're working out instrumental and vocal harmonies. For eighth graders, they're good.

In the middle of last night's practice session, he asks me to show him some more of the passages in Stairway to Heaven. We're sitting in chairs, facing each other, as I walk him through the changes. He can't read a note of music for guitar and knows maybe three or four chords if you call them out to him. But he was hungry to learn the remaining parts of this song.

We went over them a couple of times, and he was real close. I asked him if he had the song loaded on his Ipod, which he did. The Ipod is connected to a sound system, so upon scrolling to the song, it's like inviting Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to play alongside in our basement.

We're playing along with the Ipod, and Matt is doing well keeping up. The length and repetitive nature of the song gives us multiple opportunities to work on the parts he's working out. He's making rapid progress through each verse. The hard rock ending is standard power chord fare, so we were jamming in stride to the finish.

Connecting families across generations through music is a reward none of us thought of during all those years of lessons and practicing. Mom and Dad, thanks to you guys for providing a music tradition to us, and Matt, thanks to you for carrying it on.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Taking Out the Trash

Fortunately, we don't witness scenes like the one in the picture above in St. Louis. But we have enough of our own decay to keep redevelopers busy. When things hit rock bottom, whether in terms of abandoned buildings or vacant land, we need tools to repair the damage.

Assemblying sites for redevelopment in blighted areas is a key first step in the redevelopment process. Sometimes, eminent domain is the only option. The next time you hear someone critical of the use of eminent domain, think of vacant land or buildings in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Losing the Haircut Lottery

There's a race underway on the top of my head. It's between my gray hair and receding hair line, and at this stage, it's pretty much a draw.

I'm not much into haircuts, and have never established loyalty to a particular barber shop or salon. When it's time for a cut, I go for convenience.

Saturday we're at the ScholarShop in Webster. After about twenty minutes, I've got what I'm looking for and Kerri's still shopping. Hey, I can get a haircut! So, I take off in the car to scope out Big Bend for a salon. There's Music Folk, then KFNS, and a few doors further, sure enough, there's a hair cut shop.

It seems like hair salons are all pretty much the same. When you walk in, you're hit with a wall of air heavy from the smell of hair products, and on the coffee tables, there are stacks of style magazines filled with pictures of gorgeous models.

I look for the places with a couple stylists sitting around. As I enter this shop, it fits the bill: in the back, two ladies are reading the paper.

One stands up, gives me a big smile, and offers her hand in introduction. She asks if I'd like a shampoo, and I say "yes" and follow her to the shampoo sink. For me, the next twenty minutes will be torture. It always starts with the same question: "How do you like it?"

I don't know anything about cutting hair, and can't describe how I "like it". So I say, "Uh, take about an inch off, and make it even with the top of the ears". Okay, I know it's not much of an answer, but that's my stock reply. Next off come the glasses and for the next ten or fifteen minutes, I'm legally blind and at the mercy of the stylist.

She starts cutting. Now comes the small talk. "Do you work?" she asks. We small talk about job stuff. "Oh, that sounds interesting!" she says. Next she tells me about the 18-year old home she and her newlywed husband purchased in December in Valley Park. They wanted something "newer" and Webster Groves was too expensive.

I'm thinking about asking her how it's working out for the Valley Park City Council and their anti-illegal immigration ordinance when she starts telling me about her friends who bought an older home in St. Ann, Missouri. She said how her friends had done a lot to fix it up. I said I thought St. Ann was nice. She said how one time she and her husband got lost trying to find St. Ann, and how some people don't like "to venture". Then she said how her friends wanted to move to Valley Park, too.

I'm trying to figure out what she means by "venture" as she starts finishing up the haircut. She asks me how I like it. Everything is blurry, so she hands me my glasses. It looks a little uneven. I reach up and start mussing with it. "Oh, you like it messy!" she asks.

It has that Woody Woodpecker flip thing working in the front. "Well, looks a little uneven...Could you take a little bit more off the top?"

Back off with the glasses and she starts cutting some more. Her motions are more feverish this time. Now a feeling of dread starts to weigh in my gut. She stops cutting and hands me my glasses. She gives me a mirror and says, "Look at the back! The back is so important, and we never stop to look at it!". She whirls me around and I'm looking back through the mirror.

Now there's a noticeable left to right slant. "It looks good!" I say. I need to leave. "I like it!" She takes the smock thing off of me and I get up and reach for my wallet. We walk to the cashier's station and she tells me it will be $21 for today. She fills out a little temporary business card and reintroduces herself.

I leave out the front of the store, taking in a big breath of fresh air, glad to have the haircut done. Looking in the vanity mirror in the car, I can see that the bald head has built a solid lead over the gray hair.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Loughborough Commons Update

Based on the number of cars in the parking lot, activity at the new Loughborough Commons shopping center in South City is getting busier by the day.

From the "Carondeletter", newsletter for the Carondelet Community Betterment Federation (CCBF), here is a report about the new shopping center:

"In September Schnuck's opened their new and larger market at the Loughborough Commons Shopping Center (I55 and Loughborough). The store provides for any needs and is beautifully designed.

In mid-October Lowe's opened their very large store at the same shopping center. Lowe's manager, Jacob Lutes says "We're excited about this being the first store inside the city limits." The store has 154 employees-60 percent are full-time. In addition to the 116,000 square feet of retail sales, there is a garden center of 31,000 sqare feet.

The ribbon cutting was held on October 21st with the following present: Mayor Francis Slay, Alderman Matt Villa, Alderman Fred Heitert 12th Ward, Alderman Fred Wessels 13 Ward, Sr. Marie Charles Buford, Executive Director of CCBF-represented by Ted Naegel. CCBF received a gift of $1,000 on opening day.

Desco, the developer for the shopping center, reports another 43,000 square feet of retail space is planned to include 7-12 retailers."

Thanks to CCBF for this information. For more information about CCBF, please call (314)752-6339 or visit them online at

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Mullally Field Fundraiser

St. Mary Magdalen parish on the city's southside is holding a trivia night to raise funds to improve the soccer field next to the parish center. The date is March 24, the price is $120 for a table of eight, and includes beer, soda, and popcorn.

Funds are being raised to install lighting for the soccer fields. Lights are vital to increasing the use of the facility. Increased use means more revenue to support the long term viability of the facility.

For more information, please contact Mike Schwartz, parishioner at St. Mary Magdalen church, 314-481-6542. Thanks.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Magnolia Square Church Key

The new name for the Manchester strip in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood is "The Grove". The Grove is a hot night spot in St. Louis. I met Calvin last night during our first night time visit to The Grove.

The Church Key in The Grove doesn't allow smoking in the main bar. In the back they have put up a little one-room building with a fire pit where smokers gather. Calvin's job is to stoke the fire. The Church Key is owned by the same family that owns Bellon Wrecking.

The little building with the fire pit is made out of pallets of salvaged brick, stacked three high. The bricks are fastened to the pallets with steel straps. The fire pit is in the center of the room, and the roof is reinforced by huge steel I-beams and covered by salvaged steel plating. Adding to the casual atmosphere, there are a couple of strands of large-sized, Christmas lights hung from the ceiling. There's a small boom box in the corner playing music, but you couldn't hear it until very late at night when the conversation and the crackling fire had quieted down. The little room is cozy and inviting. From the outside, it looks like a primitive brick mound.

Calvin and I talked about demolition. Calvin works for the Bellons. Bellon lost out on the bid to Spirtas for the Gasometer demolition over on Chouteau. Spirtas and Bellon are competitors in the demolition business. Calvin said that Bellon and Spirtas are the two biggest demo contractors in St. Louis behind Alberici. Calvin laughed when he told me how Bellon won a bid to a demolition right next door to the Spirtas office.

The Grove is rapidly improving and it has a feel different from any of the other hip destinations around St. Louis. It's an old highway. Last nite, we had to park a few blocks away from the Church Key to find a parking space on Manchester. The other nearby bars and restaurants were packed. One member of our party said the new "R-Bar" is the latest hot spot. The Chouteau viaduct just reopened, making it easier to get to The Grove from the east. Calvin said this part of Manchester Road is the old Route 66.

Bellon demolished the old Chouteau viaduct. The viaduct travels over lots of rail lines. Calvin said the railroad has its own rules. They wouldn't let Bellon work during daylight hours, so the demolition had to all be done in the middle of the night. The new viaduct is beautiful and reconnects St. Louis east and west.

I spent most of my time back in the little brick room with the smokers around the fire. Even though the weather has warmed up, it was still cool enough outside to enjoy a warm fire. Calvin and I took turns stoking it. Occasionally, I'd walk back inside the main bar. The Church Key is a beautiful historic rehab on the north side of Manchester.

Out back, next to the little building with the fire pit, there's a concrete patio with some stone benches. One of the benches is next to the back fence. I climbed up on it to look over the fence and into the neighborhood. About ten yards past the fence, on a formely vacant lot, there's a brand new, beautiful playground for children and families.

The north side of Forest Park Southeast is now on the National Register of Historic Places and the Church Key is one of many historic rehabs completed or underway in the neighborhood. When the Bellons renovated the Church Key, they used some of the contents from the old St. Aloysius Church near Cunetto's on the Hill to finish the rehab. Bellon demolished St. Aloysius last year to make way for the new, upscale Magnolia Square housing development.

The demolition of St. Aloysius reminded me of the demolition of the old Arena. I had many fond memories, all sports related, of St. Al's. The gym at St. Al's had a Lamella roof, just like the Arena, only smaller. The coolest thing about a Lamella roof is the wide, unsupported span of wood-framing it creates. It makes for great sight lines. If you were ever in the Arena, you know what I mean. At St. Al's it was the same thing, only smaller. We used to watch CYC basketball games in the St. Al's gym. It was my favorite gym on the CYC circuit and one of the oldest.

Now the church, the school, and the gym are gone and the site is being developed into a subdivison of upscale homes. The parishioners have been assigned to St. Ambrose on the Hill. Neighbors of the old St. Al's were happy to see the new homes come in. The houses at Magnolia Square have nice designs, with alley-facing garages, front porches, and many quality features. Selling in the middle-upper three hundred thousand dollar range, Magnolia Square has raised the bar substantially for home prices in the area.

Back at the Church Key, some of the custmers, neighbors of mine, were talking about the reuse of old St. Aloysius church parts. Pews had been converted to booths, a stained glass window is back-lit into a nice wall feature, and the old kneelers are now foot rests for the bar. Using old church parts in bars and restaurants is nothing new in St. Louis.

The most famous example was the old Talayna's pizza place across from Washington University. Talayna's was filled with sculpture and stained glass from many old city churches. Talayna's closed and the old building was torn down. The religious artworks all found new homes. An attractive new building has taken its place.

We talked some more about the pews and the kneelers inside the Church Key, and how cool the whole place is. One person said how maybe someday the pews in our church would end up in a restaurant. Or maybe something like Ninth Street Abbey? It could happen.

A couple years ago, St. Aloysius was a vacant, surplus church and Manchester Road in Forest Park Southeast was mostly filled with vacant old brick buildings, left behind when Highway 40 bypassed Manchester Road. There was no such thing as "The Grove".

Today, the old St. Aloysius church site has been transformed into an upscale housing development, and there is new life in "The Grove", some of it transported from St. Aloysius Church.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Springtime In the Garden

With nice days stringing together, the ground is warming up and bulbs are starting to flower.

The dead, grey days of winter are fading and giving way to a colorful spring and summer. Welcome the change!

Friday, March 02, 2007

Botanical Heights

On the eastern half of the old McRee Town neighborhood, a new housing development is remaking this once blighted area. For years, drivers on Interstate 44 traveled passed blocks of mostly abandoned, derelict buildings in the heart of the city. News stories of violent crime were frequent. In the larger McRee Town area, this eastern half was by far the most deteriorated.
Today, new homes nearly fill out the site. At the grand opening, there were lines of homebuyers awaiting the opportunity to make deposits on their new homes. The location is conveniently situated, near the SLU Hospital complex, the neighborhoods of South Grand, the Hill, and downtown.
The vacancy factor in the former residential housing stock was significant. There are those in the community who decry the full-scale demoliton of buildings, and displacement of the few remaining, very low income, residents. There are others who see the project as a much needed, huge success, one which draws new homeowners to the city, and reestablishes the housing market.
There is no doubt the view from Highway 44 is vastly improved, especially compared to what it was five years ago.