Friday, September 28, 2007

STL Rising: Resurrecting St. Bonafice

When the St. Louis Arch Diocese decided to consolidate some parishes, and close and sell some of their old city churches, historic St. Boniface church in Carondelet was on the surplus list. Apparently, the sale of the church carried with it some form of morals clause as a deed restriction.

St. Boniface Church is an anchor building in the recently created St. Boniface National Register historic district in Carondelet. Visit the area today, and there are a growing number of quality historic rehabs both completed and underway. Old St. Boniface, built in the 1850s, has been rehabbed and is re-opening as the "Ivory Theater". It's first show, "Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll", is set to open this week.

However, today's news is reporting that the Arch Diocese is suing to block the opening of the show. The use restriction placed on the property prohibits activity in the building which would be deemed harmful to the community, including adult-oriented entertainment.

The developer agreed to the deed restriction, but was under the impression that the Arch Diocese was aiming primarily to prohibit strip clubs and other adult businesses from operating in the building. There is disagreement over whether the restriction applies to live performances such as the grand opening show, which some have described as barely "PG-13" in content.

The PD story is here.


An 11th hour meeting with top officials from the Arch Diocese averted a shutdown of the play, and observers noted that for its grand opening, the new Ivory Theater could have never afforded to pay for so much publicity.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"This city is on a roll!"

"Howard" commented yesterday that "this city is on a roll". While Centene prepares to spend hundreds of millions at Ballpark Village, Howard is getting a new dumpster for his alley. Today, the expanded St. Louis Centre "Mercantile Exchange" redevelopment is announced, adding another $600,000,000 downtown investment to the city's progress.

Ten years ago, no one would have imagined the things happening today in St. Louis. Downtown development has far outpaced the goals set in the Downtown Now plan. Taken together, the revitalization of the city is reaching astronomical proportions. Major out of town developers are adding muscle to the growth.

The turnaround has been nothing less than phenomenal. Projects are jumping off the drawing board and being brought to life. These are exciting times to be a St. Louisan. How far will the rebound go?

Even with all the growth taking place in St. Louis, as a region, we are still very affordable. Compared to the high-growth markets of the Sunbelt States, we are still a bargain. The housing crunch that is hitting hard in other parts of the country is relatively mild in St. Louis. We are one of the few markets actually recording price increases. Could it be that tough times in other regions will continue pushing growth in St. Louis for years to come? Why not? Growth is a magnet for more growth.

We met a young couple last weekend newly relocated to St. Louis from the San Francisco Bay Area. In California, they were paying $1,200 per month for a 750 square foot apartment. Housing costs in their San Francisco suburb averaged over $700,000. They accepted a relocation offer to St. Louis, where the husband manages an upscale retail operation. Sales per square foot at the St. Louis location are on par or higher than the California store where the man worked.

The couple purchased an Art Deco brick home in the City's Lindenwood neighborhood. Their house payment is less than what they were paying in rent in California. Meanwhile, the same home in California would have been priced around $1,000,000. They could never have dreamed of owning such a home on the west coast.

Is it possible that the national economy, and outrageous housing prices in the traditionally hot growth areas of the country will work to the long term advantage of St. Louis? Could it be that our well kept secret of a high quality of life at an affordable price is starting to get out?

How far might we go in our renaissance, and how should we keep building our momentum? Maybe we shouldn't change a thing. Right now, like Howard says, this city is on a roll!

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Today's news is reporting that while FBI crime statistics still show St. Louis at the top of the list of US cities for major crimes per capita, crime is nonetheless way down in the City, with August crime the lowest since 1990. When you consider our city's skewed crime statistics due to our odd city not in a county status, it's hard to get too excited about the city's crime ranking.

The list I'm waiting for is Steve Wilke Shapiro's 50 things he'll miss most about St. Louis. That should be an interesting list. Given that we are twice relocated to St. Louis (we came, we left, and came back again), we know first hand how it feels to miss St. Louis.

When we moved away, we felt that pang of missing St. Louis every day. In fact, we missed it so much, we eventually moved back. Of the things we missed, most of all, it was the people. Next was the quality of life.

Monday, September 24, 2007

DT Rising: Ballpark Village Scores Centene!

They say "timing is everything", and for downtown's Ballpark Village, it appears the timing of the project is a perfect fit for the major expansion plans of Centene Corporation. Centene's planned 1,000,000 + square foot office, hotel and retail development will bring over 1,000 new jobs to downtown, and will be the anchor tenant of Ballpark Village.

It is difficult for mere words to communicate the magnitude of this announcement. For those seeking increased urban density, the Centene deal is a 1,000,000 square foot project to be located on less than one third of the overall Ballpark Village site.

In only two years, the impact of keeping the Cardinals downtown has been huge for St. Louis. In 2006, the Cardinals won their first world championship in over 20 years. Now in 2007, downtown St. Louis is announcing a major office relocation connected to Ballpark Village. Vision and dreams are becoming reality in the City.

With downtown St. Louis securing Centene over dozens of other potential sites across the country, could this deal represent the "tipping point", when local and national observers agree: The City of St. Louis is back!

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Site Acquisitions Stall Webster Redevelopment Plan

Efforts to redevelop a 7.5 acre site on the west end of Webster Groves have stalled due to a lack of site control. The city had established a redevelopment plan for the area and issued an RFP for developers.

One development group offered a proposal for a $51 million mixed use project, however the redevelopment has been put on hold with landowners and developers unable to reach terms on land sales. The developer does not want to use condemnation for acquisition, and would prefer site control be established by the city.

The developer's plan was responsive to the city's desire for a high quality, mixed use project. More information about the effort is available online in a this story from today's Post Dispatch.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Kirkwood Historic Preservation Efforts

Some Kirkwood residents are organizing around the issue of historic preservation. Lately, more and more of Kirkwood's historic building stock is being demolished in favor of building expensive new replacement or "infill" homes.

The situation is similar to what the St. Louis region has witnessed transpire recently in Clayton, another historic St. Louis suburb. Just a few years ago, old town Clayton was a highly intact, historic residential area. Visit the old town section today, and you see more and more of the original homes being replaced with large, very high-end, new infill construction.

In response to this same tear-down-and-build-new trend, some in Kirkwood are working to establish local historic preservation codes. These new codes could place strict limitations on the demolition of historic buildings.

The issue is controversial. Not everyone believes such government restrictions are reasonable. On a personal level, we love visiting the historic sections of Kirkwood. However, is it reasonable for government to prevent a private property owner from selling a historic home so that a developer might tear it down to build a larger, more expensive home on the same site?

There are no signs pointing to an end to the controversy. To the contrary, this past weekend, outside Kirkwood's wonderful Greentree Festival, "Save Historic Kirkwood" signs could be seen in the front yards of historic homes all around Kirkwood Park.

One of the most appealing features of the St. Louis region is our historic neighborhoods, with parts of Kirkwood certainly among our best examples.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Youtube Extra: Free Music Lessons from the All-Time Greats

A long time ago, when I started playing guitar, we didn't have much sound equipment at home. My dad took our heavy old Magnavox hi-fi to an electronics shop and had it converted to play as a loudspeaker for the Yamaha box guitar we had mounted with a portable DeArmond pickup. The net result was an amp'd acoustic and that was about it. There was no stereo in the room, and cheap boom boxes weren't on the market yet.

My parents paid for me to take guitar lessons from 5th through 12th grade, studying jazz and popular music. It was all formal training, reading music, and working from one song to the next, with increasing difficulty over the years.

It wasn't until I went off to college that there was a stereo in the same room where I practiced. My roommate had the stereo and this would be the first time I ever played along with records. It changed everything. After 8 years of playing, it would be the first time I ever tried playing by ear.

At the beginning, it felt like I didn't know how to play. What note should follow what? All those years of practicing wasted, and I'm feeling like a total beginner again! Talk about frustrating! But then, after about a month of practice, it started coming together, and a whole new world was opening up for me.

Lots of formally trained musicians never learn to play by ear. They can be masterful classical performers, but have no trained ear for improvising. It's sort of a left brain/right brain sort of thing. Ear playing is all intuition and feel.

When you play by ear, you start instinctively recognizing various chord patterns and style. Good ear players can play most popular music on a "casual" (sitting in) basis, without rehearsals, fitting in with other players on their first set.

Which gets to the point of this post. Our son Matt has had formal music training since first grade on piano and trombone. However, his growing passion is the guitar. And he can't read a lick of music on one. For guitar, he is a pure ear player. Ask him what chord he's playing, and half the time he has no idea. But it's the right one.

He's been playing guitar for a few years now, and recently, his improvement has been incredible. Almost on a daily basis he is playing some new classic hit song. I'm asking myself, where is he getting all this material? Now I know.

He's getting free lessons from the all-time greats right off the internet. You can too. All courtesy of Youtube. Check it out. It's all out there.

Wanna learn from John and Paul? Click here.

Velvet Revolver and Slash more your style? Then try this.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Another one bites the dust

Having spent a fair amount of time in timber country, the whine of chainsaws is a familiar sound. With it usually comes the smell of freshly chewed wood, tiny wood dust particles in the air, noise, and heat. The smells, the crunching sound of falling tree limbs, it's all very familiar in timber country.

It's not a good sound in our urban neighborhoods. Today, there it was. That loud, screaming of 2-stroke motor and the crunching and snapping of tree limbs. And the roar of a wood chipping/grinding machine at work. A tree service was removing one of the behemoth trees from the rear yard of a 2-family across the alley from us.

The tree guys are amazing. They work like high-wire artists. The way they can bring down these giant trees, with little if any disturbance to the yard or neighbors nearby, is great talent. And it's an expensive proposition. We once passed on buying a new old home because of the humongous oak tree in the middle of the back yard.

Not only do those big dudes get scary when bending over in high winds, they can cost a fortune to have removed, easy over $5,000 apiece.

As sad as it is to see a big tree removed, in most places around here, given the hundreds of thousands of trees shading our St. Louis region, the occasional loss of one or two is hardly noticeable. And it cuts down on raking! Just don't let the situation get too far out of hand. We once sold a house and moved because the block we were on had too few street trees and not enough shade.

For an interesting discussion about what others think of the "look" of St. Louis, check out this forum thread.

Odds and Ends

This time of year, as leaves on the trees start their color change, I look forward to getting out the wool clothing and pleated fall jackets. Leaf raking, fall lawn prep, and other outside projects are enjoyable in the mild weather. Halloween is fast approaching, and neighborhood block parties are a common occurence, featuring outdoor fire pits, lawn chairs, "jumpies" for kids, lots of barbequed meat, good red wine, and comfortable nightime temperatures.

The 7th ward must be one of the places where you're allowed to bring your dog to sidewalk cafes. For the past two mornings, a woman has been accompanied by her two dogs while sitting at a sidewalk table at the corner of 6th and Olive. One of the dogs looks exactly like a long-haired version of our humane society adoptee. Seeing people with friendly dogs makes downtown feel friendly, welcoming, and safe.

The Hilton (nee ballpark Mariott) is showing some of the multiplier benefits of downtown ballpark expansion. The hotel is going through a major remodel of its Broadway and Market corner entrance with an expanded steel and glass-framed conference facility facing the street.

97.1 FM talk show host Dave Glover, in an interview with STL Police Chief Joe Mokwa yesterday, characterized himself as a long time skeptic of efforts to revitalize the city. For years, he was not a believer. On the air with Mokwa, he conceded that efforts to improve St. Louis "are working".

The St. George police stop video going round the world on YouTube is causing some in the St. Louis area to take a fresh look at our many repetitive layers of government and public services. On KMOX this morning, Debbie Monterey explained that the reason St. George exists in the first place is because two moms some years ago wanted to work out a local school bus arrangement for their kids. Monterey and co-host Doug McKelvin went on to suggest that it might make more sense for St. George to consolidate their police services under a contract with St. Louis County.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Good for Another 9 Months

We just finished another summer in our paid for, low mileage, '96 mini-van, the one without air conditioning. Yeah, there were some hot times driving in July and August, but we survived.

The cost to repair the A/C would run somewhere north of $1,000, and I doubt we could even sell the car for that much, so why put the money into it? Better to suffer the heat, driving a car that doesn't attract much attention.

Out of towners often wonder how people can stand living in the heat and humidity of a St. Louis summer. Hey, it's only three months, and in exchange, we get lots of beautiful weather in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall.

Last weekend we overseeded the front lawn, and, thanks to the milder weather and rains over the past week, the new seedlings are already up over an inch tall.

The van is ready for the winter, with a heater that blasts warm air. Come next June, hopefully she'll still be running strong, and we'll hit summer ready to go at it again with 4 x 60 A/C (that's four windowns down, 60 MPH...).

Friday, September 07, 2007

Old St. Louis Shoppe

On the mantle in my parent's California home there is a commemorative beer stein sold as a souvenier at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. The memento has been passed down through our family over the years and looks like new. I didn't even know we had it until a couple of years ago. It's pretty cool. I love old St. Louis stuff.

A few years ago a guy showed up at a community meeting. We were talking about something, maybe Forest Park or charter reform. He brought along a fascinating conversation piece. Over the years, he had amassed a huge collection of historic St. Louis post cards. Some of the buildings in the cards were still standing, but many had been long since demolished. Viewing the collection was like taking a trip through St. Louis history.

Which makes me wonder, has anyone taken the idea of Old St. Louis and tried to make it into a commercial venture? I'm not talking about historic tours or bed and breakfast inns, but rather a store specializing in historic St. Louis collectibles?

The store could carry old photographs, maps, sports items, furniture, clothing, advertisements, anything from Old St. Louis. Is there such a place? We have tons of great antique stores, but have any of them made St. Louis history the main attraction? Maybe in these days of the internet, bricks and mortar stores just can't compete?

Sure enough, you can actually buy historic St. Louis bricks on ebay. However, wouldn't you rather be able to browze through a real store, perhaps in a historic building, and see the items in natural light?

The inventory could be expanded by offering reproductions as well as originals. There have got to be some long-time St. Louis families with great collections of historic St. Louis stuff.

On the public/museum side, the Mercantile Library, now at UMSL, is a good place to view lots of St. Louis history. Personally, I haven't been to the UMSL site. For years, the museum was housed in the top floor of a Boatmen's Bank branch location across from St. Louis Centre. Visits to the museum were free, with guests having to sign a register prior to entry. This fall we'll have to plan a trip to the UMSL Mercantile Library. We're overdue.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

The Mellanby Effect

Scott Mellanby, NHL bruiser who played a couple of his seasons right here in St. Louis, is retiring from the NHL. He closed out his NHL career playing in Atlanta. Like many NHL players, Mellanby comes from a Canadian hockey family. His dad is a legendary Canadian hockey TV announcer who received Emmy awards for his work on hockey broadcasts.

Pro hockey players make good money. The current minimum salary is something like $500,000 per year. Mellanby had a long career, so he must have made millions. So what is he doing now that he's retiring from the pro game? He's moving his family back to St. Louis to make this their permanent home.

And Mellanby's not alone. Didn't retired MLB stars Andy Van Slyke and Ozzie Smith do the same thing? These professional athletes have fame and fortune and the freedom of choice. They could live wherever they want. And where do they choose to make their homes? St. Louis. Maybe its the water. It's got to be something.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Labor Day Weekend Travels

One of the comments in the "Unique St. Louis" thread noted how St. Louis is like a "big small town". You know what they say about small towns: everyone knows everyone. In St. Louis, it's sort of the same thing. Even though our metro are has around 2.5 million people, we're always bumping into people we know out in public. I wonder if the closer you live to downtown, the more likely your path is to cross with people you know?

We checked out the new Lindewood School lofts, and while visiting these very nice and moderately priced historic rehab condos, there were two of our old neighbors, the ones who kept the nicest yard on the block.

We attended the Blues Festival at Laclede's Landing (packed with lots of fans from the Mizzou/Illinois game), and there, walking through the narrow streets of the Landing, was one of our neighbors and fellow car pool patrons.

Watching the main stage, there was fellow side man Matt D playing bass. From down the alley, there walked up two more of our car pool friends, and standing beside them, a couple of long-time co-supporters of youth baseball here in town. Up the hillside a little, checking out the music, there was KSDK morning host, Art Holiday.

Yesterday we hit the CWE for the annual Greek Festival at St. Nicholas. The young man shucking corn comes from a family we've known for over ten years, and we saw two of his sisters up on stage performing traditional Greek dances. Enjoying the dance performance from a table in the audience was my former music director with his wife and child. And then as we were standing in the food line (the place was packed), two teenage girls from our parish, who had arrived to the festival via Metrolink, walked up for a visit.

We walked over to see a movie at the Chase, where we bumped into the theater director, someone we've just met recently, who just so happens to also be one of this town's greatest built environment advocates.

Then taking a seat behind us at the show was another long time acquaintance, Shaw neighborhood resident, and professional collegue working in St. Louis County.

Out of all the places we've ever lived, we've never experienced anywhere near the number of random, on the street, meetups with friends and acquaintances like we have here in St. Louis. These chance meetings are among the things we like to think of as "St. Louis moments".

They say St. Louis has a good sense a community. For a big city, it's a pretty tight knit community. Unplanned visits with your friends and neighbors around town are another of those things that make this city a fun and more interesting place to live.