Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Conditions on the ground mirror Arch planning challenges

The future of the Arch grounds and its connection with downtown St. Louis are being decided. The process has been a long one and it's hard to tell how engaged the public is in this mega effort. The total cost of the end product is sure to exceed $500,000,000.

It's been about 6 months since the completion of the Arch design competition. The competition was more an idea competition than a firm determination. A winning team was selected, but much of the detail of the design was left very open. We really haven't seen a final product.

Nontheless, today the process takes a major step forward. Today is the deadline for public comments on the National Park Service's environmental review of the proposed Arch project. But it doesn't close the door on the process. While today ends the NPS review, there's an even bigger decision coming: the future of the highway system surrounding the Arch.

Given that the biggest knock on the Arch is the way it is cut off from downtown by highway infrastructure, it's unfortunate that the highway planning process is separate from the larger Arch environmental review. Or is it? It's hard to say. Is the public supposed to connect Arch plan comments with highway change comments? It's unclear.

There have been no firm plans released to the public for proposed highway changes. There have been no cost estimates. So it's difficult to make an informed comment about how highway changes will impact the future of downtown and the Arch.

It's possible the future highway may feature a substantially widened trench between the northern half of the Arch grounds and downtown. Unfortunately you would not know that from any of the information provided through the Arch design competition. The design competition did not focus on the problems created by the highway.

This is a big deal. The highway has long been identified as the greatest barrier between downtown, the Arch grounds, and the riverfront. The public is being asked to comment on the environmental review of the plans for the Arch. But there has been no official information released about plans or costs for changes to the highway surrounding the Arch.

The highway constrains the Arch site today, and the highway planning process appears to have a constraining effect on the planning effort for the future of the Arch as well.

To make your comment on the environmental review for the Arch (deadline today), visit the National Park Service page for that purpose here.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Grocery Suits Descend on Culinaria

While walking the aisles of the downtown Culinaria today you could not avoid the impression that corporate heavyweights were in town. Whether it was their crisp professional attire, taller than average heights, or the way they were all testing out the computer gadgetry in the food lines, it was clear this group was on some sort of field trip/fact finding mission.

Indeed they were. I asked a staff member what was up, whether there was a corporate meeting or gathering of grocery execs, and she said there was. Grocery professionals, colleagues from different companies around the eastern 1/3 of the US, were in St. Louis, checking out Schnucks stores with a particular interest in its Culinaria, urban grocery store model.

Cleveland and Kansas City have "Constantinos" markets, St. Louis has "Culinaria" and more and more old urban centers are getting their own cool varieties of downtown, full-service grocery stores. It's a sign that sustainable, urban-centered living is on the rise.

Standing in the Kaldi's line, I saw a friend of mine who lives 30 miles away and works downtown leaving the store. The Arch may be the symbol of St. Louis, but Culinaria is quickly becoming her crossroads.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Barack Obama Boulevard

Delmar Boulevard, the traditional dividing line between north and south St. Louis, has been honorarily renamed "Barack Obama Boulevard" at Compton, just east of North Grand Boulevard.

It's a good thing to honor America's first black president with a street named after him. But I don't know about choosing Delmar as the one to do it.

It would have been a good thing to see the street be one that connects north and south St. Louis. Barack Obama is everyone's president and the Delmar divide is something we need to erase. On the other hand, perhaps selecting Delmar as the street for President Obama is part of the cleansing of that old division?

If so, then maybe the old Delmar Boulevard signs should be taken down for the whole run of Delmar through the city (instead of on just a few blocks), and replaced with new Barack Obama Boulevard signs? In this way it would be similar to the renaming of Easton Avenue after Dr. Martin Luther King.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tea Time

As the summer heat fades, STL enters her best time of year. Kids are back in school, the weather is ideal, and it's block party season; football games and homecoming celebrations on the weekends, haunted house attractions set up in vacant historic buildings, Halloween, and Thanksgiving; and, then, the festival season culiminates with beautiful lighting displays all around the region for Hannukah, Christmas and New Years'.

My favorite tradition is Halloween. Over the years, we've assembled a variety of Halloween props. When Halloween comes, I take the day off to convert our place into a fantasy Victorian graveyard and haunted house.

The usual domestic setting is changed for day to a scary scene, outfitted with antique-looking wrought iron fencing, a wandering skeleton, and a little girl ghost greeting you on the front porch; a cemetery among the hostas and fallen dogwood leaves, wispy ghosts arising from the graves, and haunting music; and purple, orange, and strobe lighting, and scary, deep bass, sound effects.

The kids love it and so do the parents. They pose for family photos up and down the block. Grownups tow wagons with coolers for the exchanging of beers. We average over 200 kids on Halloween night. It's awesome and a highlight of the year.

Last year, we even had a famous conservative radio talk show host come to our door. So for this year, I'm wondering, should I have a tea bag set aside as a special treat just for this trick-or-treater?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

It's a fact: STL commutes are a breeze!

MODOT has released data showing the worst commutes in the St. Louis area.

The worst commutes are on I-64 in West County and crossing into St. Charles County. But even for our region's worst commutes, a tiny change in driving patterns could improve your whole day:

According to the MODOT press release:

"By knowing the worst time to travel, we are asking all I-64 drivers to consider adjusting their travel times to spread out the peak demand. By leaving 15 minutes earlier or waiting until closer to the end of the peak period, you could actually get to your destination faster," said Tom Blair, MoDOT assistant district engineer. "It's not feasible to widen the highway due to the extreme costs that it would entail, but we can all work together to spread out the demand on the road."

There are lots of regions where rush hour extends throughout the day and on weekends. Smooth traffic and free parking are the expectation in St. Louis.

Are our region's low traffic volumes and overall cheap parking prices good economic indicators? Or do they suggest we have surplus infrastructure for the automobile and an opportunity to strengthen our community in other areas?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Finding a new home for the estate of Kirkwood's Henry Shaw

Most St. Louisans know the story of Henry Shaw and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Shaw moved to St. Louis from England in the early-19th century, making a fortune selling hardware in the growing city of St. Louis and outfitting travelers headed west. Shaw then shared his wealth with his adopted home town, endowing St. Louis with Tower Grove Park and the world famous Missouri Botanical Garden.

On the other hand, most St. Louisans do not know the story of Daniel Sidney Brown. Brown was a cooper (barrel maker), supplying barrels used at the Cupples Warehouses in downtown St. Louis. Like Shaw, Brown's passion was horticulture.

Brown traveled the world collecting rare species of orchids. Much of his collection became the growing stock supplying the beautiful and rare orchids we all enjoy today at the Missouri Botanical Garden. But Brown was more than just a plant fancier. Because of his work, at least one rare species of orchid was saved from extinction.

Today, Brown's historic home, "Brownhurst" in Kirkwood, sits vacant and deteriorated on the campus of Vianney High School. The building has suffered a lot of deferred maintenance, but is overall in very good condition. Buildings in far worse shape have been preserved in St.Louis. Nonetheless, Vianney is pushing for its demolition to free the site for other uses.

There is a slim hope the building might be saved. Vianney has offered $30,000 to anyone willing to relocate it to a new site. Moving large historic buildings might seem an overwhelming task, but it is becoming more of a common practice. As you might imagine, there are lots of logistics involved to make it happen, requiring a coordinated community effort.

There is one big catch. Vianney is requiring that the building be moved by October 9, 2011 in order to take advantage of the $30,000 offer. Also the owners are selling it for $1 to a buyer who can move it and prove financing.

The question is, where would be a good site for the building, and who would cover the cost? Here's a long shot idea: Perhaps the building could be moved to a site on or near the Botanical Garden and preserved in the city of St. Louis?

With the connection between Brown and Shaw's Garden, and the historic significance of both, perhaps a new home for Brownhurst could be along Shaw Avenue near the Garden?

The move would add another interesting chapter to Brown and Shaw's story. With the help of Brown, the Garden saved a rare plant species for the world, and with the help of the Garden, the legacy of Brown's historic home might be saved.

In one other interesting twist, unlike many wealthy industrialists of his time, Brown did not choose to live out his final years in the peace and quiet of the lush suburbs of St. Louis County. Instead, Brown moved back to the City of St. Louis, moving into a home on Washington Avenue.

So maybe, about a hundred years later, his Kirkwood mansion might follow him back to the city?

(Note: Thanks to Matt Bivens for the historical details of this story. Matt is a Kirkwood resident and expert on St. Louis history and architecture.)

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Engaging Conversation

Senator John Danforth once said that "St. Louis is not a spectator sport". His point was that it's going to take people getting off the sidelines and into the game to make a difference.

One way to get in the game is to participate in public hearings on proposed development plans. Big projects in the public comment phase today include the proposed South County Connector and the proposed highway changes around the proposed Arch redevelopment.

The Arch hearings are a sort of two-fer. The National Park Service is holding hearings about the Arch master plan and MODOT is holding hearings for proposed highway changes adjacent to the Arch.

These are big projects involving tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in public expenditures. Federal and state law requires public comment and environmental review. So what's the purpose?

It's a little unclear. Is the purpose of public comment to solely focus on the proposed plan? Or is it to open a dialogue soliciting ideas for a range of alternative solutions through public input?

On the environmental review side, alternatives are analyzed. The baseline option is the "no project" alternative. What are the environmental impacts of doing nothing? Then options become more extensive along a scale of cost and degree of intervention. Each option is analyzed for its benefits and impacts and any negative environmental impacts must have mitigation. Federally funded projects are not permitted to have a negative net environmental impact.

Environmental review makes sense. It's counter-intuitive that a project involving substantial public spending would result in negative environmental impact. Which brings us back to the question of the role of public comment: should the public's role solely be one of reaction to specific proposals of others or should it be to foster creative partnerships in making collaborative decisions?

An approach where the public's role is to react to proposals of others would be considered a top-down approach. An approach where public comment is used to develop a vision and plan of action would be a strategy of real community engagement.

St. Louis needs engaged citizens, particularly younger and creative ones, if we are to succeed in building a sustainable future. The process of engaging the public on government funded projects is one way to bring people together, challenging us all to find the best strategies to improve St. Louis.

Such has not always been the case. Some feel St. Louis is an exclusive place, where it's difficult for new and young people to get involved. It's time for St. Louis to move forward together, with all voices being heard and encouraged to be part of the process.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Time to Raise the Roof at Lambert's East Terminal?

With Southwest's recent acquisition of AirTran, parking at the East Terminal's short term parking garage is frequently unavailable. According to airport parking garage and security workers, from Monday through Friday, the East Terminal short term parking garage is regularly maxed out.

While a packed parking garage is a good sign that travel volume is on the increase, does the shortage of supply warrant a possible exansion of the East Terminal garage? Does anyone know if the building was designed to add a few more decks of parking spaces?

A shortage of parking in STL. Who'd a thunk it?

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Amtrak's Slow Food Diet

Already Four Hours Late - Amtrak Makes Passengers Sit on Train Extra 20 Minutes before De-Boarding

A friend rode Amtrak from Dallas to St. Louis, arriving Saturday just before noon. The scheduled arrival time was about 7:30 am. No big deal, Amtrak trains are known to often run behind schedule. Not having their own tracks makes it hard for them to avoid delays. Amtrak updated the schedule, letting everyone know the train was due in St. Louis around 11:30.

Right around 11:35, the train approached the station. Then, about 100 yards before its destination, the train stopped. Those of us gathered to pick up passengers couldn't why. Was this the train we were waiting for? Why did the train stop? Were they going to let the passengers off? We waited. And waited. And the train just sat there.

Then my friend texted me. They were servicing the train. The place they had stopped was a little auxilliary building right next to the main station. The service was taking over 20 minutes. I'm thinking, "You've got to be kidding".

Why not let the St. Louis bound passengers off the train, then back the train up a couple hundred feet for servicing? I can understand delays that are beyond Amtrak's control, but this delay was avoidable. Why further inconvenience the public?

Monday, August 01, 2011

STL Inception

If you haven't seen the hit movie "Inception", it's worth a look. In the film, Leonardo DiCaprio leads viewers through a maze of multiple levels of the subconscious. By way of entering the dreams of others, DiCaprio and his team of co-stars travel into deeper and deeper levels of a person's subconscious.

If it sounds confusing, it is. It took me two or three times watching it to start to piece the story together. After the fourth time seeing the movie, something dawned on me. The story of Inception is a lot like the day to day experiences we have right here in St. Louis.

We walk and drive through neighborhoods going back as far as the 1700s, many of them bearing no resemblence to their origins. The most extreme example is on the riverfront.

Where today there is a sleek, majestic, urban park, there was once a vibrant riverfront commercial area, and, before that, the original settlement village of St. Louis. No sign of those early days remain, except for the Old Cathedral, and across a section of depressed highway lanes, the Old Court House. In between, the area has completely changed.

The St. Louis riverfront would be mostly unrecognizable to her earlier inhabitants. And, despite the fact the area is in at least its third or fourth iteration of form, the current landscape, dating back only to the 1960s - a timeframe within the dreamscapes of many of us living today - it is designated a national historic landmark.

Travel around town and there are many examples of multiple time horizons sharing the same space, or city block, as it were. On Cass Avenue in north city, the cousin of Samuel Clemens, James Clemens, built a mansion.

In its prime in the middle 19th century, the Clemens House was one of the city's finest homes. Today, it is wracked with weather damage and overall decay. The area around it is almost completely redeveloped, the historic Clemens House standing in lonely juxtapostion to the 1970s and 80s vintage rental apartment buildings that dominate the area around it today.

There are hundreds of similar examples around town. And with each situation comes different human experiences. Many with fond memories, others with stories of neglect, abandonment, and pain. In some places, the personal possessions from previous generations are still present on sites abandoned for decades. There is little sameness in these places and always opportunity for new discovery and the imagining of a new present or a variety of futures.

Have you seen "Inception"? Have you sensed the multiple levels of human experiences under your feet? Have you noticed how often those many levels are present around us? In St. Louis, do you feel how you are adding to the layers of the story?