Thursday, February 26, 2009

Vernal Equinox at Cahokia's Woodhenge

March 20 is the date of this year's Vernal Equinox. That's one of two days in the year when day and night are of equal length and the path of the sun splits the heavens.

It's also a day when people gather over at Cahokia Mounds to witness the event from inside Cahokia's Woodhenge.

At least that's what one of the regulars gathered at Iron Barley told me last night...

Cahokia is on the UN list of World Heritage sites. Now there's talk of adding the Gateway Arch to the same list.

There's all sorts of cool and creative stuff going on around St. Louis.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

They Heard Us!

Walking outside in search of a cup of coffee, I looked over with an empty feeling to the corner of 6th and Olive where workers were scheduled to box things up and close the one downtown STL storefront Starbucks location.

Jaywalking to Met Square, things didn't look right at the Starbucks. It looked like employees were wearing their green service aprons and white oxford shirts. And there weren't just employees in the store, it looked like a short line of customers. What was going on?

I walked up to the front door and found an impromptu sign taped up. It said they were staying open! Management decided to renew the lease and keep the store. People in St. Louis voiced their concerns, and the corporate decision to close the store was reversed! Today they are restocking everything and coffee and pastries are being given away free all day!

Us customers stood together smiling and half stunned. The employees were joyful. One man said it was like showing up to class to take a test you hadn't studied for, only to hear the teacher say the test had been postponed. Another man said it was like finding money in a pair of pants you hadn't worn in months. I'm going back for another free cup of coffee!

"Park Into the City" - an approach for Chouteau's Landing?

Improving connectivity is the one common theme throughout most of the discussions about how to enliven the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. In the draft General Management PLan, there are multiple alternatives and one preferred alternative. The preferred alternative is called "Program Expansion". Another alternative is called, "Park Into the City" and the last action option is called "Portals".

Through the design competition, combinations of the various alternatives may emerge. During the student design charette, one proposal showed the park growing across Memorial Drive, into the heart of downtown. That may be among the interesting but undoable ideas, but what about considering this approach for the connection with Chouteau's Landing?

Yesterday we described the no-mans land under the Poplar Street Bridge between Chouteau's Landing and the Arch grounds. At Chouteau's Landing, there's good potential for historic rehab, artists lofts, and new investment. Could a "Park Into the City" approach breath life into the Chouteau's Landing neighborhood?

Thinking of improving connectivity in an incremental way is one approach to making progress in manageable stages, that over time add up to a better connected downtown and riverfront.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Richard Florida on the Economic Crisis, National Reset

Interesting take by writer and academician Richard Florida on our current economic problems. Florida is best known for his work promoting the important role of the "creative class". He was a guest yesterday on NPR.

Florida is not a fan of the term "depression". He thinks it's too, well, depressing. Instead, he prefers the term "reset", and that's what he thinks our nation is going through now.

According to Florida, the days of long commutes, unsustainable sprawl, and homeownership based economies are fading. Instead, he sees an era of emerging mega-regions, increased emphasis on affordable rental housing, and a concentration of creative talent in fewer select areas.

Florida sees tough times ahead for second tier, rustbelt cities, with most Americans being drawn to mega regions. On the other hand, he offers Pittsburgh as an example of how smaller cities can remain competitive. From a current piece in the Atlantic magazine, Florida writes:

"Finally, we need to be clear that ultimately, we can’t stop the decline of some places, and that we would be foolish to try. Places like Pittsburgh have shown that a city can stay vibrant as it shrinks, by redeveloping its core to attract young professionals and creative types, and by cultivating high-growth services and industries."

One of the points Florida made about the revitalization of Pittsburgh during the NPR interview was the important role of "CDCs - Community Development Corporations". He described the way CDCs work at the neighborhood level to rebuild community.

I wish someone would made it on the air to ask a question about St. Louis. St. Louis also has a major CDC presence. I wonder where Florida would rank a sense of community in the heirarchy of things attracting the creative class? Given his support of CDCs, probably pretty high.

You can read the entire Florida article from The Atlantic here.

Chouteau's Landing - Connections Waiting to Happen

When you exit northbound 55 onto Memorial Drive, you have two options, continue north on Memorial Drive past the Old Cathedral, or make an immediate right turn to the east, heading down the levee toward the riverfront.

Making the right turn, you're driving along the southern edge of the Arch grounds, the Mississippi River flood wall is a couple of blocks ahead, and on your right side is the sea of concrete support columns for the Poplar Street bridge. It's a sort of no-man's land now. But is there potential for something better?

Chouteau's Landing lies across the divide created by the Poplar Street bridge. You can see it from the Arch side, but you're looking through the eerie landscape of a mostly abandoned area with dozens of cylindrical concrete columns holding up the PSB. The original city street grid under the bridge is intact. The space between the columns is paved with asphalt, striped for surface parking, and is mostly empty and fenced off with 6' cyclone fencing.

It's sort of a haunting feeling, driving the original riverfront street grid, under the PSB, between the support columns holding up the bridge, seeing mostly vacant or underutilized warehouse buildings in the Chouteau's Landing area, and being directly adjacent the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial.

With so much dead space, existing road network, and underutlized building stock, redevelopment of the area and connection with the Arch and the rest of downtown doesn't seem so much a question of if but how and when?

Planners like to talk about buildings or neighborhoods having "good bones" for redevelopment. In this case of the southern edge of the Arch grounds and its connections to Chouteau's Landing, driving through the support columns of the PSB feels like you're in the middle of big, dry, urban bones. Is there life in those bones? Can the planning for the future of the Arch help bring back the area and improve the vitality of the Arch and downtown in the process?

Monday, February 23, 2009

Misery and Flexibility

Way back in the 1980s, when I first started work in the field of community development, an architect friend and mentor passed along to me two principles of his practice that he always tried to factor into his work: the concentration of misery principle and the flexibility principle.

When it came to concentrating misery, he always tried to combine the negative aspects of things spatially and chronologically. He wanted lousy experiences to be minimized, so he worked to put them close together, and get them out of the way. If he had a bunch of unpleasant things to do, he tried to get them all done together. That way, the rest of his time would spent on more positive work.

On the other hand, when it came to making choices or finalizing alternatives, he took an opposite approach. He always worked to preserve as much flexibility into the planning and development process as possible. Rather than painting oneself into a corner by making firm decisions too soon in a planning or development process, he would create room for new ideas and options to emerge in a forward moving, collaborative process.

This week, the planning process for the future of the Arch moves forward. There will be two public meetings regarding the Draft General Management Plan for the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. When the General Management Plan is adopted, it will establish the direction for future management of the Arch site. This is a key process for defining the future of our riverfront and downtown.

Thinking back to my old architect friend's advice, he would recommend that the final product promote flexibility. With the top issue of agreement being a lack of connectivity, are there flexible approaches about how to improve connectivity?

Regarding the concentration of misery, I think he would like the way the Arch site concentrates its new service area all on the southern part of the site. But what about the parking area on the north end of the site? What ways might it be repositioned to increase flexibility at the site?

In terms of difficult connections, they are found all around the Arch grounds. Poor connectivity is a problem surrounding the entire park. Is there a way to minimize the bad connectivity experience at the Arch and maximize the better connections? Where are the key connection points?

As Laclede's Landing and Washington Avenue as well as the Chouteau's Landing areas continue to draw more downtown businesses, visitors and residents, how can we best connect those activity generators to the Arch site?

Information about tonight's public meeting for the future of the Arch can be found here.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

St. Louis Stimulus

Today President Obama signs the $787 billion dollar economic stimulus package. The plan calls for a wide range of interventions aimed at reviving our nation's struggling economy.

The plan calls for major infrastucture investments, aid to state governments, and tax breaks for working Americans and corporations. At $787 billion, the amount works out to about $2,600 for US citizen. That doesn't sound like much. So government leaders have been working to decide how best to target the resource.

A major priority for the stimulus plan is jobs. Whether job creation or job preservation. President Obama states the plan will generate approximately 3.5 million jobs. Second on the priority list is housing. The third leg is infrastructure.

The nation's housing market is in trouble, with millions of foreclosures and declining property values. St. Louis is one of the nation's major centers for automobile manufacturing. The future of the US auto industry looms large in determing the direction of our region's economy. For years' we've had a national call to rebuild our nation's aging infrastructure, and contained in the stimulus plan is billions for new light rails, road construction, and education projects. So what about St. Louis?

At about 3,000,000 (give or take), the St. Louis region has about 1% of the US population. If we receive a prorata share of the stimulus plan, our region would realize $7.87 billion in stimulus help.

With the City of St. Louis having about 1/10 of the region's population, the city would see about $787 million in help (thanks to a reader for correcting this amount). However, knowing that things won't be doled out on a prorata basis, there's likely going to be a substantially larger amount of funding coming to St. Louis for local stimulus efforts.

The National League of Cities has made the case for projects to managed at the local, not state level. They are working to get the help to the project locations more quickly. St. Louis submitted a proposal for local priorities as part of the League of Cities request. The package included light rail and multiple public infrastructure investments.

A website, "Stimulus Watch", details proposed economic stimulus spending. St. Louis has a request in the amount of $2.45 billion pending. The breakdown is available here. The site is interactive and allows visitors to vote on individual projects.

Knowing that stabilizing housing markets, building new infrastructure, and providing for job creation and preservation are the nation's top goals of the stimulus plan, what projects would you like to see prioritized in St. Louis?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Straggler Lounge

Last night we were scheduled for a meeting of one of the working groups of our Arch connections committee. We planned to hold the meeting at the swanky and historic lounge of the Roberts Mayfair hotel. However, at the last minute, the meeting was rescheduled.

Never knowing how many people read their email on any given day, I went to the Mayfair just in case we had any stragglers show up. Sure enough, promptly at 6 PM, one member of our committee, Paul, arrived. So the two of us worked on the name thing for about a half hour. More on that in a minute. First some appreciation for the Mayfair Hotel.

The lobby and lounge at the Mayfair are right out of the old mob days of 1930s St. Louis. They drip with historic charm. The lounge is dark with a smokey feel, and lots of stained glass. If you're looking for a quaint, private, historic setting for dinner or a drink after work, this place is a good choice. When the adjoining condo tower opens, it will be a great combination of historic and new in the heart of downtown.

Back to the name of our connections group. Paul and I passed ideas back and forth until we came up with "Riverfront Connections Task Force". We liked "riverfront connections" because our group is about improving connections between downtown, the adjoining neighborhoods, the riverfront, and Arch grounds, and we like "task force" because the group is about working toward solutions. Incremental solutions, big ideas, altogether any good ideas that move St. Louis in the direction of reestablising its identity and lifestyle as a riverfront city.

With the two of us in agreement on a possible name, Paul got up to leave. While I was waiting for my ride to arrive, I decided to test market the name with the bartender. By this time, it was just the two of us left in the bar. I made the acquaintance of "Tom", bartender of the Mayfair hotel.

I introduced myself and told him about our group and its efforts to improve connections between downtown and the riverfront. I mentioned the one idea of removing the I-70 depressed lanes between the Arch grounds and the Old Court House and replacing them with a new urban boulevard. His face immediately lit up, and he compared the idea to the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Amazing coincidence, Tom and I were both living in the Bay Area during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake which led to the removal of the Embarcadero Freeway along the San Francisco waterfront.

Tom and I shared stories about life in the Bay Area. The two of us had similar experiences. We both lived in St. Louis once before, moved to California, and then returned to St. Louis. Back in the 1960s, Tom was a bartender in the Gaslight Square district of St. Louis. After getting held up at gunpoint 4 times in one day, Tom had enough of St. Louis and moved to California. It was the mid-1960s.

Back then, the Bay Area was a great place. Rock and roll was coming to life, and the place was affordable. Up through the late 80s, apartments could be found for under $1000 per month. But by the early 90s, things had gone crazy. Tom described situations in the upscale communities of Mill Valley and Sausalito, with rents reaching upwards of $4000 per month, forcing three and four families to live together in the same house, just to afford the rent.

With overcrowding of housing, traffic problems ensued. Tom described bumper to bumper traffic at 11:00 o'clock at night through some parts of Marin County. With people struggling to get by, but still "enjoying" life in the Golden State, I suggested the notion of living with a "false sense of prosperity".

So at about the same time, Tom and my wife and I all came to the same decision. Time to move out of California and somewhere more reasonable. We chose St. Louis. Tom lives in the Central West End. When his friends visit from California, they're jealous of the hip and comparably affordable CWE neighborhood.

So I ran the name "Riverfront Connections Task Force" by Tom and he liked it. He had some other suggestions for improving the visitor experience there. For starters, get rid of the cobblestones. He noted how in the CWE, when they removed the cobblestones from the north side of the Chase Park Plaza, along Maryland Plaza, lots of new businesses opened up. There's no doubt that little stretch of the CWE is much more pleasant now, not to mention easier on the undercarriage of your car and high heeled shoes.

Maybe something as basic an improvement as removing the cobblestones from areas around the riverfront would improve connectivity? Maybe so.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Point of View

Closing out a week featuring some downtown dining options, we recently visited Patty Long's Point of View restaurant.

Point of View is one of the few St. Louis area restaurants located on a top floor of a high rise building. They are way up on the 30th floor of the Laclede Gas building. On a clear day, the view extends at least 15 miles. It's cool looking that far down river. Three words: try this place.

This is an easy choice. Outstanding views. Excellent service. If you know Patty Long (think 9th Street Abbey), you already know about her great menus. Beautiful decor. The restaurant fills the same space once occupied by an exclusive private dining room open only to lawyers and their clients. This place is a gem.

With so much to recommend it, I was amazed by the reasonable prices. Most items were $10 or less. White tablecloths. Classy service. Great food. Breathtaking views. And prices comparable or below most other downtown sit down restaurants.

Lunches Tuesday - Friday, 11-2. Reservations being accepted for a special set menu Valentines Day dinner.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Soup Man?

There was a commercial on the radio yesterday advertising a new downtown restaurant that's based on the "Soup Man" character from the Seinfeld show. It's in the historic Bee Hat building on Washington Avenue.

"The Original Soup Man" website

It sounds good. Any recommendations?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Newcomer Perspectives

A new blog is up dedicated to the experiences of someone recently relocated to St. Louis from Chicago.

Given the inferiority complex many St. Louisans have toward Chicago, it will be interesting to read what our new neighbor thinks about St. Louis.

Check out Arch Observer for a newcomer's perspective on the Gateway City.

Local Leaders to Discuss Arch, Riverfront

February 12, 2009
Kemper Art Museum and Steinberg Auditorium at Washington University
Saarinen Exhibit Tours: 5:00 - 8:00 PM
Panel Discussion 6:30 - 8:00 PM

Confirmed panelists:

Barbara Geisman, Executive Director for Development, City of St. Louis
Hon. Phyllis Young, Alderman, 7th Ward, City of St. Louis
John Hoal, PhD, Architect, Washington University Associate Professor
Tom Bradley, Superintendent, Jefferson National Expansion Memorial
Peter Sortino, Executive Director, Danforth Foundation
Bill Burke III, RLA, Principle, Arcturis

Moderator: Bruce Lindsey, Dean of Architecture School, Washington University

Given the top leadership and decision making roles of the panelists, this meeting is important for anyone interested in the planning process relative to the future of the riverfront, downtown, and the Arch grounds. Free and open to the public.

Link to official website

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Links Updated

Links have been updated on the right side of the page. The newest addition is Brian Spellecy's Downtown St. Louis Business Blog.

If you have a suggestion for blogs promoting the St. Louis area, please let us know about them and we will add them to the blog roll. Thanks.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Starbucks to Close 6th and Olive Store

Noting a falloff in business, mostly unnoticeable to customers used to standing in lines, Starbucks Inc is planning to close its 6th and Olive store in downtown St. Louis, at least according to workers in the store. The planned closing date is February 24.

This store is across the street from the tallest building in the St. Louis metropolitan area, Met Square, and is a frequent morning stop for downtown workers, politicians, business people and travelers.

According to workers, no other downtown stores are affected by the closing. If you want to voice your concerns over the 6th and Olive store closing, contact Stabuck's corporate HQ here.

Designing Around The Arch

With two days being too little for the amount of activities going on this weekend, I wasn't able to attend this weekend's meetings at Washington University focused on the Arch as a community design opportunity.

Artists and designers from around the country convened in St. Louis to discuss the Arch as an important asset from a community design standpoint. Did you go? Are there any news stories out there? Did ideas about restoring connectivity between downtown, the riverfront, and the Arch grounds come up? Any feedback, links would be appreciated. Thanks.

UPDATE: the Post-Dispatch has a feature story on the new Wash U Saarinen exhibit, linked here.