Friday, June 27, 2008

The Case for a New Memorial Drive

The National Park Service is updating the management plan which governs the use of the Arch grounds. Now is the time to attend meetings and give public comment. The first meeting happened earlier this week, and the next meeting will be from 3:00 pm -6:30 pm on Tuesday, July 1, at the Old Court House.

The meetings are being held open house style, with professional planners from the consulting firm EDAW on hand facilitating the process and recording public input. In addition, planning and design professionals with the National Park Service are present.

I attended the meeting this week at Forest Park to help promote the idea of removing the depressed and elevated lanes of I-70 through downtown, and replace them with a new, landscaped Memorial Drive. Here are some of the possibilities we discussed:

NORTH SOUTH ORIENTATION - PARALLELS RIVERFRONT For years, St. Louis has been devising ways to turn our backs on the riverfront and remove people from downtown. Most major roads lead away from the river or follow an east-west orientation. Broadway, an important north-south running street, on the west side of the Old Court House and away from the riverfront and Arch grounds, would connect with an extension of Memorial Drive on the north side of downtown. Other than Broadway, the first major north-south running through street in downtown is Tucker, 12 blocks west of the river.

A new Memorial Drive recreates the entrance to our city, on a north-south axis parallel to the river, in a way that connects most of downtown's main anchors, including the Mississippi river. For years we have looked for ways to restore the city's connection to the Mississippi river, and a new Memorial Drive could make that happen, and a lot more.

CONNECTIVITY - A new Memorial Drive connects downtown assets and anchors: the Eads Bridge, the Dr. Martin Luther King Bridge, Washington Avenue, the Arch Grounds, exit and entrance ramps to the Poplar Street Bridge; Laclede's Landing, the Edward Jones Dome, the Old Cathedral, the Bottle District, the Riverfront, Lumiere Casino, the Old Court House, and downtown hotels.

VIEWS/DAYLIGHT - The elevated sections of I-70 adjacent to Laclede's Landing, the Edward Jones Dome and the proposed Bottle District block views of the Arch grounds, historic downtown architecture, and much more. Removal of the elevated lanes as part of the plan to rebuild Memorial Drive adds open space, improves views, enhances the walkability, and improves the overall experience of people downtown.

PARTNERS AND STAKEHOLDERS - A plan to improve Memorial Drive has many possible partners and stakeholders, including the Downtown Residents Association, the Partnership for Downtown, Downtown Now, Laclede's Landing, the National Park Service, Lumiere Casino, the Rams, the Cardinals, downtown hotels and businesses, downtown workers, city and regional residents and leaders, the RCGA, and others. Basically, anyone interested in the future and quality of life of downtown St. Louis is a potential partner in this effort.

TIMING - The sooner the better, or timed to coincide with the new Mississippi River Bridge.

LEVERAGES OTHER FEDERAL and LOCAL INVESTMENTS - The new Mississippi River Bridge will lessen traffic demands on the I-70 depressed lanes, and is bringing hundreds of millions of dollars in public investment to the St. Louis region, including a substantial federal share. A plan to rebuild Memorial Drive, made possible in part as a result of the new Mississippi River Bridge, leverages substantial public investment in the new bridge into additional benefits designed to enhance the quality of life for downtown St. Louis and the entire region.

NO SITE ACQUISITIONS OR DISPLACMENT - Unlike most major highway construction projects, this plan requires no private site acquisitions or displacement of existing businesses or residents - a major cost savings. Everything necessary to rebuild Memorial Drive can be accomplished on existing public rights of way. In fact, the National Park Service already owns the land under the depressed lanes and both sides of Memorial Drive adjacent to the Arch grounds.

OPENS NEW SITES FOR DEVELOPMENT - Rather than displacing businesses or residents, there is the real possibility that removal of the old interstate will open up new sites for development with excellent views of the Arch.

TRAFFIC MANAGEMENT - We have learned through the rebuilding of Highway 40 that the closing of an interstate highway doesn't automatically bring on Armageddon. We are surviving the 2-year shutdown of Interstate 64 pretty well.

A new Memorial Drive will make available increased north and south access through downtown, connect drivers to the new Mississippi River Bridge on the north and the Poplar Street Bridge and Interstates 44 and 55 on the south, and gives us the opportunity to fix the rush hour gridlock around the Old Court House by redesigning our traffic system along Memorial Drive.

Timing of signalized intersections along the new Memorial Drive based on peak and reduced traffic periods will minimize delays for traffic entering or exiting downtown during commute hours, while maximizing pedestrian access at all other times.

CONSTRUCTION CONSIDERATIONS - Building a new Memorial Drive and vacating the depressed lanes and removal of the elevated highway section next to Laclede's Landing is not as big an endeavor as it might sound. It's mostly demolition, fill, and the building of a new, landscaped, surface boulevard. There are no high cost bridges or tunnels, and no right of way acquisitions involved.

COST FACTORS - The biggest construction project underway in the St. Louis region is the rebuilding of a 10.9 mile stretch of Highway 40 from the City of St. Louis to Ballas Road in West St. Louis County. The total cost of the project is $535,000,000, with a $420,000,000 construction cost. The I-64 project includes demolishing and rebuilding 25 bridges over the highway, plus the massive reconstruciton of the 40/170 interchange.

The current proposal to build a 3-block lid over Memorial Drive is estimated to cost between $80,000,000 - $100,000,000. One reason for the high cost of the lid plan is that since 9/11, new safety standards for tunnels require extensive ventilation systems. For the same $80,000,000 - $100,000,000 (nearly a quarter the cost of the full I-64 rebuild), how much could we do to build a new Memorial Drive?

From a construction standpoint, since there are no bridges or tunnels to build, the project involves the demolition of the old highway sections, filling in the depressed lanes, and building the new section of Memorial Drive. More work is needed to design and engineer the project, however based on the information we have to date, it might be considerably less expensive to vacate the highway and rebuild Memorial Drive than building the 3-block lid over the depressed lanes.

FOLLOWING BEST PRACTICES - Other regions are improving their downtowns by the removal of highway sections cutting through the heart of their downtown areas. By replacing Interstate 70 with a new Memorial Drive, we would be following a proven strategy of successful urban revitalization, one that restores our connection to river.

LET'S FACE IT - THE CURRENT SITUATION STINKS Our downtown and the Arch deserve a lot better than the current configuration of Memorial Drive and I-70. Memorial Drive is dangerous, univiting and tired. I-70 forms either a moat or a wall dividing the Arch, Laclede's Landing, and the riverfront from the rest of St. Louis.

For one of the most beautiful manmade monuments on the planet, the Arch suffers from some, if not the worst, staging of any of them. No one benefits from the current situation - not visitors, not residents, not businesses, not anyone - well except perhaps for those drivers trying to get out of downtown St. Louis as fast as possible.

This is our opportunity to make a major change to the entire area. The change would be a dramatic improvement - the sort of thing that most people understand intuitively - they just think can't be done due to an assumption that the depressed lanes will always be there, but they don't have to be. Other regions have removed obsolete interstate highways from the heart of their downtowns, and we can too!

PROCESS - Ultimately, this is up to us. Senator Danforth is right when he states that for anything to happen in the effort to improve the access to the Arch Grounds and Riverfront, it will require the local community to buy in to the vision and work together. Key regulating agencies will be looking for a locally driven plan and financing strategy.

TRANSFORMATIONAL PROJECT - Over the past ten years, St. Louis has made phenomenal progress in revitalizing downtown. The removal of the depressed and elevated lanes of Interstate 70 through downtown, from the Poplar Street Bridge on the south to approximately Carr Street on the North, (roughly a one mile stretch), would be another huge step forward in our renaissance. A new Memorial Drive will give people entering downtown and approaching the Arch a true sense of arrival. Travelling a beautifully landscaped boulevard, visitors entering our city will see the Arch on one side and the Old Court House on the other.

Civic anchors will be connected. Daylight and views will be dramatically improved. New prime sites for development will be created. Not only will access to the Arch grounds be improved, but the overall connection between downtown, Laclede's Landing and the riverfront will be improved throughout a one-mile north-south section on the eastern edge of downtown.

Now is our time and this is our opportunity. Whatever we decide, we have this chance to make a major improvement to downtown, our riverfront and the Arch. We are in the planning and decision making phase now. St. Louis will live with the decisions we make today for the next 100-200 years, and for all of us around now, certainly the rest of our lives. If you love St. Louis and are excited about its future, this is an extremely important issue.

The next meeting to discuss the future of the Arch grounds is this coming Tuesday afternoon, July 1, at the Old Court House. If you like this idea or have other ideas about how to improve the Arch grounds, please attend the meeting or send your comments to the new Arch Superintendent, Tom Bradley, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, 11 North 4th Street, St. Louis, MO 63102.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Downtown 2-Ways

Walking through the streets of downtown this morning, I passed the Old Post Office and the under construction Old Post Office Plaza.

The street on the west side of the Old Post Office, 9th Street, also fronting the Roberts Orpheum theater, has reopened. It's operating as a two-way street between Olive and Washington.

Having to look both ways before crossing a narrow downtown street, felt like a throwback to Old St. Louis, and it was a good feeling.

Maybe with one section of a downtown street working as an "un-medianed" two-way, there's a chance for more?

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Open Seating?

Today is an absolutely gorgeous day. The city is winning the war on lead poisoning, and the weather outside is perfect.

Walking downtown, there are lots of people outside. Tables at sidewalk cafes are full. It's warm, and a seat at a table under an umbrella is very inviting. Why not have more?

It takes years for a shade tree to grow up and produce shade, but a table under an umbrella offers instant shade.

What do people think of the idea of creating a sidewalk table program for the heart of downtown? There would need to be a sponsor, but we could set it up so anyone could grab a seat for free. Under an umbrella. Watching the world go by.

The owners of Gitto's and Starbucks might not like brown baggers taking up their cafe tables, but certainly people bringing their lunch to work would like a place to sit outside and eat on a nice day like today.

What about the homeless, wouldn't they take up all the free tables? Probably not. They don't seem to congregate outside the Christian Science building next to the Post Office. Besides, we're sharing downtown with homeless people anyway, and a homeless person needs a place to sit for a while the same as everyone else.

Yeah, there are benches in parks already, so why would we need to add tables and umbrellas to sidewalks? The best reason I guess is that it puts more people on the street. For me, personally, given the choice? I think I'd rather sit at a table and chair on the sidewalk than under a tree on a grassy field in a park. That's just me.

I wonder if any other cities have adopted free sidewalk cafe table programs to improve street life? It seems like a low cost way to inject some much sought after pedestrian activity. I like it.

It's Here!

Gas prices in the St. Louis area hit $4.00 per gallon for regular unleaded yesterday, while the news is reporting that Missouri has the lowest priced gasoline in the nation.

Remembering not long ago, when $2.00 per gallon gas seemed expensive, paying double that is borderline surreal.

We're making adjustments, and figuring our future decisions we'll be permanently shifted based on higher fuel costs.

For starters, we're car sharing on the home front, only operating one vehicle. Any car purchased in the future will average a minimum of 30 mpg, and we'll likely share that car as well.

Future residential moves will be withing walkin distance of Metrolink and shopping, and jobs will be in places along the Metrolink line. It's fortunate to have these options in St. Louis.

Having friends living in Jefferson and St. Charles County who deal with long commutes to work makes me wonder how the higher fuel prices are impacting them.

Having family living in California, where gas prices are running around $4.50 per gallon and long drives in heavy traffic are a routine part of the lifestyle, makes me wonder how California and other western states can sustain their car cultures.

Driving the highways on the weekends around St. Louis, and you notice a significant reduction in traffic. There's no doubt that people are definitely cutting back on unnecessary trips.

In the long run, higher fuel prices will encourage greater use of public transportation and walkable, close in communities. This should help make the urban core of the St. Louis region more competitive when people consider their neighborhood choices.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Heart for STL Corporations

St. Louis has enjoyed being headquarters for lots of major corporations. Unfortunately, for the past ten years or so, we've lost some. Southwestern Bell moved to Texas. Boeing bought out McDonnell Douglas. And now, the grandaddy of StL corporations, Anheuser Busch, is facing a takeover threat.

When we lose corporate headquarters, the whole community suffers. Visit the Zoo, and you see the names of many St. Louis corporate sponsors underwriting our free Zoo. Losing a corporate headquarters hurts us on the asset side of our civic balance sheet.

There's a grass roots move to keep A-B a St. Louis based company. Read more about it here:

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Hard left or hard right?

With so much attention focused on the democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, it's been easy to lose sight of the major showdown about to happen in our country this fall. While the democratic candidates have been fighting to pin down their parties nomination, it's important to remember, they're playing on the same team. The real choice for this country comes in November. And this time around, the choices for president offer Americans a real difference.

For the republicans, we have an older, white, pro-Iraq war, veteran and former P-O-W. For the democrats, we have a young, black, anti-Iraq war, Harvard trained lawyer. While the candidates will work to keep the campaign respectful, there is no telling what their party operatives and supporters might do.

In the end, this election will move our country in one of two completely opposite directions. The economy, oil prices, the war in Iraq, health care, oh, and the economy, will be central themes. How does McCain lift the economy? How does Obama address the issue of rising gas prices? What will Hillary add to the debate? Where are we headed in Iraq and Afghanistan? Where will all those Bush cabinet people go?

Does McCain pick Romney for VP to strengthen his domestic economy hand? Does Obama bring in Hillary to solidify the democratic base? While the primary race between Clinton and Obama was great political theater, it was just a warm up for what promises to be a fascinating and close general election.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Metro Proposing Fare Increases

Metro, our public transit system which includes Metrolink, is predicting budget shortfalls. To maintain current levels of service, the system is proposing rate increases.

Monthly passes for Metrolink are available for $60 (not sure if that gets you unlimited bus ridership as well). One-way Metrolink tickets are $2 apiece.

With the cost of gasoline and downtown parking, Metro fares seem low. I don't know how our rates compare to those in most other regions, but I do know that Metrolink fares are a tiny fraction compared to the fares charged on the Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART).

Increasing public transit fares during tough economic times will be a large pill for some to swallow, especially those living on low and fixed incomes. On the other hand, given the rapidly increasing cost of operating single person occupany vehicles, maintaining the capacity of our public transportation system seems a necessity.

Ridership is growing to record levels. Perhaps increased ridership will offset some of the fare increase?

Monday, June 02, 2008

Goodbye Old Paint!

Today the tow truck from the Kidney Foundation arrived to haul off our 1996 Dodge Caravan. For two years now, the A/C has been dead, and a couple of weeks ago the transmission locked up. A few minor dings primered over, along with noticeable wear and tear on the interior trim, and it was time to make the decision to part with the car.

There's some sadness in seeing the vehicle that's been a part of so many of our memories being towed away for the last time. On the other hand, it's nice freeing up a parking space in front of the house, not having to budget any repair costs for the aging machine, and to remove it from the insurance policy. The one thing I will miss about it is that full tank of gas I paid for just before the transmission died.

Looking forward, there will be more trips by bicycle to the grocery store and the Metrolink Station. That's not a bad thing. And we can take our time thinking about what/if we should replace the dead van with a new one. With the high cost of the gasoline these days, buying a vehicle that averages less than 30 mpg is a tough decision.

On the bright side, if you're in the market for a new vehicle, they say they're practically giving them away. There are ads running promoting $5,000 cash rebates on new vehicles or three-year guarantees on $2.99 per gallon gas prices. I'm thinking an offer of a high mpg car, with a higher mliegage scooter thrown in the deal, just might turn us into buyers!