Thursday, September 24, 2009

"Urbanexus Next American City" finds St. Louis

Urbanexus - Next American City came to town this week and is finding a place where creative people are working together to remake St. Louis.

A meeting of Urbanexus representatives, local creatives, and out of town experts convened at the downtown Left Bank Books. The event started at 7, with most people lingering long after the 9 PM scheduled conclusion.

There were well over 100 people in attendace. The standing room only group overflowed into the upstairs balcony.

Had this event occured ten or fifteen years ago, there would have been likely fewer than a dozen persons on hand. And there would have been little to do afterwards. Attendees at last night's event had many venues to choose from for after meeting gatherings.

Among the issues presented included creating a 1% for the arts program. Former 28th Ward alderman Dan Maguire was in attendance and encouraged attendees to promote such ideas to current members of the Board of Aldermen.

Panelists included current alderman for the 21st Ward, Antonio French. Alderman French stressed the need for an update to the city's zoning and development process. His point was supported by another panelist and Trailnet representative who mentioned the importance of an understandable and predictable development process.

A German born architect and current UC Berkeley professor stressed the importance of cross collaboration. Cherokee street creative entrepreneur and start up business advocate Galen Gandolfi spoke eloquently about the importance of providing capital to low and moderate income persons and businesses.

St. Louis American editor Chris King moderated the event. It's always good to meet the people whose blogs we read. King did a good job emceeing the event and sharing his love for St. Louis. King described Alderman French, as exactly the sort of bright, educated, young professional person St. Louis needs to retain.

The need for strong leadership was a recurring theme. Whether its for passage of a tax for a regional trail system (have) or a 1% for the arts program (need), it takes leaders to make such ideas into reality. Question: How does St. Louis nurture the increase in such leadership that gave us the regional trail system to do more progressive things for St. Louis? Case in point: if a revamp of the planning and zoning code for St. Louis is a desired goal, how do we build leadership around that issue?

Downtown St. Louis has become the focal point for the discussion. But its important to remember that many of the principles discussed last night have already been happening in St. Louis for a long time. Alderman French cited the success of the Loop as an example of a creative person, Joe Edwards, making change happen. The role of gays and the sustainability of the Central West End was emphasized.

Tough issues such as a challenged public school system and attracting middle class families were debated. Some suggested writing off the idea of attracting middle class families. Others said a "quiet tax" exists for families choosing to live in the city and paying to place their kids in private schools.

What is never brought up in the schools debate is the fact that most enrollees into private high schools in the St. Louis region live outside the city of St. Louis.

Here's a related question. The City of St. Louis has a residency requirement for most public employees. As a former public employee, I support the policy. What I don't understand is why are employees of the city public libraries and city public schools exempt from a residency requirement? You must be a city resident to serve on the school board, but you don't need to live in the city to be a city school teacher.

Wouldn't city school teachers have a more vested interest in the success of city schools if they were city residents themselves?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Urbanists: are you "hitting the hustings"?

I had to look that term up on Google to learn what it meant. "Hitting the hustings" is an old English expression that means campaigning and debating for an issue.

We read a lot of ideas about ways to improve St. Louis. There is lots of debate online and in the blogs. However, most citizens don't follow blogs. They get their information by attending meetings or talking with friends and neighbors.

If you're passionate about an issue, are you out there in person making presentations to promote your ideas?

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mapping St. Louis urbanism

There is much talk on the blogosphere about revitalizing neighborhoods and improving our city's urban assets. Most of the talk centers around built environment issues. Concerns over building scale, setbacks, demolition of historic buildings and neighborhood walkability are frequently mentioned.

There is such intense debate about the built environment, some advocates of urbanism suggest that parts of St. Louis are not urban. If this is so, then does it mean we could map the urban parts of St. Louis?

STL Rising differs from the above point of view. We see the whole city as urban. We'd add some adjoining areas outside the city to our urban fabric as well, but we'd definitely not remove any parts of the city from what is urban.

The city proper is a whole, with one overall tax base and many distinct neighborhoods and 28 individual wards. When we pay our 1% earnings tax, annual real estate taxes, or buy a gallon of gas, it doesn't matter where in the city we buy it, the tax revenue from the sale supports the whole urban community of St. Louis.

If I'm a city resident, then I'm 1/350,000th of our city's urban fabric. It doesn't matter what neighborhood I live in or what my house looks like. I'm part of the city. When you visit the city, and spend money here or attend an event, then you're part of our city's urban fabric too. STL Rising's position is the most important ingredient in sustainable urbanism is people.

So I'd be curious to hear from others, with anonymous comments welcome. If you believe parts of St. Louis are urban, while others are distinctly not, how do you make the distinction?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

City wants to super-size your block party

An article in the Beacon describes a plan to close long stretches of city boulevards for several hours at a time to create miles long play areas connecting multiple neighhborhoods. With our abundant street system, this idea sounds fun and feasible.

Closing long stretches of city streets has been done for parades. Market was closed during the Final Four a few years ago for the "March to the Arch". We participated with thousands of others, dribbling basketballs down a mile or so stretch of Market Street. We brought the dog and a group of our son's friends. It was fun.

The plan is being developed by the Mayor's office and Trailnet. It's an effort to get neighbors outside, away from the television, doing healthy activities with friends and families. Boulevards closed for the day might link with city parks, creating an open space and recreational network. Lindell has been mentioned as one of the possible streets.

Okay, so STL Rising doesn't like to complain, but it seems like some places get all the cool stuff. Lindell and the CWE is a great choice, but what about doing this in lesser known parts of the city?

Last weekend I attended the Gateway Cup bike race around Francis Park in St. Gabriel's parish in South St. Louis. A former U-City resident now Chesterfield resident, and lifelong St. Louis area resident in his sixties approached me. He said he had never seen Francis Park in his life. He was amazed at the neighborhood's beauty. I suspect he's never been to Natural Bridge and O'Fallon Park or South Grand and Carondelet Park either.

I hope if the city does move forward on its plan to close long stretches of major city boulevards, the lesser known parts of St. Louis get to participate. We have lots of streets to celebrate.

Broadway through Baden. Natural Bridge, Page and MLK on the north side. Hampton, Manchester, S. Grand and Jefferson on the South side.

Why hold back?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Morning bits

Smells are powerful mental cues. They can remind you of things from decades ago. I had one of those scent triggered memories today.

Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, I spent about half my childhood in downtown San Francisco visiting my mom at her "Upper Tenderloin" or "Lower Nob Hill" (depending on your point of view) apartments. My sister and I would ride the bus from our suburban home in the East Bay to the South of Market area A/C transit station on Friday nights or Saturday mornings. From there, we'd walk the ten or so blocks up the hill to mom's Leavenworth or Bush Street apartments.

Along the way, there were lots of activities and various smells. Some good, some not so good. Fresh newspapers being delivered. Flower stands on the sidewalk. Along with the fresh flower stands, good food aromas coming from coffee shops, restaurants and hotels were my favorites. This was way back in the early 70s.

Fast forward to the present. I've worked in downtown St. Louis for about 15 years. Good smells haven't really been part of the experience. Dust and cold concrete mostly. Today, that changed. I exited the parking garage onto Olive near 7th street and for the first time, I noticed the smell of breakfast cooking. It immediately took me back to those early morning walks in downtown SF.

It may not seem like much, but the smell of breakfast cooking sure beats the alternative of cold concrete and musty air that used to greet morning visitors to our downtown.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The Gateway Connector project

The Illinois Departmnent of Transportation has plans to build a north-south running highway known as the "Gateway Connector" through the metro east intended to connect communities from Troy through O'Fallon to Columbia.

The project has a price tag of $500,000,000. Its price is very comparable to the $460 million cost of the Highway 64 rebuild from Interstate 270 into the city of St. Louis, but its size is much different, running 41 miles compared to the 11 of the Interstate 64 rebuild.

As one would expecet, the project has both opposition and support, but rather than debate the merits of the plan, what I find interesting is the timelines involved. It seems like the project has been on the drawing boards for at least 10 years and planners estimate it could take another 20 years before the road is ready to drive on.

Opponents cite urban sprawl as the reason to block the project and among the supporters are businesses working in real estate and home building. They say the project will open land for development.

The thing that amazes me is the way we are looking at decade after decade to plan such a project. Why does this take so long? Wouldn't it be better to either commit to move forward or outright kill the project? The slow funding and decision making process is torture for the participants on both sides.

If we have STL Rising readers in the metro east, it would be great to hear your take on the proposed Gateway Connector. Given the extremely long lead time for this project, one gets the sense that the road building industry and highway lobby has some of the longest horizons in American society. Sort of like the 50-year business planning strategies of the Far East.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Carondelet to bookend its southern flank

Redevelopment takes time. Sometimes a long time. Today, St. Louis celebrates a milestone in one of its longest term redevelopment efforts.

Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay and other community leaders will take part in the groundbreaking of a new business park to rise on the site of the decades abandoned and once environmentally unusable Carondelet Coke site.

The new business park will bring jobs to the Carondelet neighborhood and the city of St. Louis and complement what's happening across the River Des Peres at the new River City Casino project.

Visitors to the area will see new businesses, more workers, and the historic South Broadway commercial area will have new traffic from the increase in activity. It's a win-win for all, and the result of coordinated effort between the City of St. Louis and its development agencies, the State of Missouri and its development agencies, the EPA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and residents of Carondelet.

With new historic rehab housing developments underway, a new community center nearly complete, the Ivory Triangle area experiencing rapid growth as an entertainment and dining destination district, and now the redevelopment of the Carondelet Coke site a reality, Carondelet is making rapid progress in becoming one of the city's latest neighborhood improvement success stories.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

1988 - 2013

In 1988, the Dow Jones Industrials were under 2,000, Ronald Reagan was president, the Iran Contra affair was in the news, and a 25 year time capsule was set at the northeast corner of the Metropolitan Square building in downtown St. Louis.

In our household, we were in the middle of a three year relocation from California to St. Louis. We lived in an apartment in West County, spent weekends exploring St. Louis neighborhoods, and had no kids. We weren't involved in city affairs much at all. We paid little attention to the new high rise being completed downtown and didn't think much about long term efforts to revitalize the city. We were already though, captivated by its neighborhoods, its history, and lifestyle.

Back in 1988, people more involved in St. Louis were keenly aware that its future was in question. Maybe that's why the builders of Met Square only set a 25 year time horizon for their time capsule? The time capsule is set to be opened in just a few years, and many of the same people on hand for the sealing of the capsule are still working in important roles to guide St. Louis forward.

We moved away from St. Louis in 1989. But in 1993, we returned, moving into the city proper. A month later, our son Matt was born. Now he's a junior in high school and we're still city residents. He's seen first hand a lot of the positive changes of the past two decades.

In 2013, when they open the time capsule at Met Square, son Matt will be 20 years old, and St. Louis should be on track for celebrating further progress. Many had written off the city's chances for renewal, but enough people stuck around to see things through for better days today and a brighter future tomorrow.

If you were in St. Louis in the late 80s, what sorts of things were you and your friends and associates thinking about St. Louis and its future? Maybe you were on hand for the placing of the time capsule or topping out of Met Square. Was there a sense of optimism or doubt?

When we moved away in 1989, it was a tough decision for us. We weighed the pros and cons and decided on returning to California, even though St. Louis rated higher on a side by side comparison we did at the time.

For a place like St. Louis city, twenty five years is a good timeframe for planning and implementing community progress. If we look ahead over the next twenty five years, what should be the top things we prioritize for action?