Monday, January 30, 2012

Lid or No Lid, Boulevard Plan Comes Full Circle

With the Arch connector plan finalized, proponents of highway removal are wondering what happens next with the boulevard plan? Is the idea of removal of the I-70 barrier between downtown and the riverfront dead? Not really. The truth is, it's in about the same place it was three years ago when the idea first started getting serious attention.

Linking highway removal with the changes to the Arch always had one major obstacle: timing. Proponents of the remake to the Arch grounds and the lid connector set an October 2015 deadline for completion. There's no way highway removal could be completed by then, so in the world of the Arch remix, highway removal was a non-starter. Highway removal, or the boulevard, however you want to think of it, needs to be its own effort.

Which gets us to where we are today. We know that highway removal will not be part of the Arch 2015 plan. What we don't know is who or how the idea of highway removal happens. Who leads the effort? One thing we do know about St. Louis is that this place is an organization town. Things happen through people collaborating together through organizations, networks, and coalitions. Neither outspoken individuals nor blog posts will ever result in something like highway removal becoming reality.

The only local organization really pushing highway removal is "City to River". City to River has done a lot to raise awareness of the idea and generate support, but on its own, City to River is not enough. The organization needs more partners. The movement has to grow.

And why is that? Because for one thing, there is built-in opposition to the idea of highway removal. Topping the list is the way St. Louisans are resistant to change. Taking out a highway is a big change, so anyone leery of change is going to have big raised eyebrows on something like this. Next is what I like to refer to as the "Community of Commuters". The Community of Commuters is a sort of silent majority.

The Community of Commuters is powerful and comes from all over the region. The community of interest they share is the unfettered use of the highway and road system. Every day they get on the highway to go to work or make their daily trips to school, the doctor, you name it. They battle traffic and long commutes. They don't like to be delayed. They will be a big part of the larger discussion of highway removal, and elected officials and MODOT answer to them.

So where to go from here? For starters, supporters of highway removal need to be better organized and strengthen their network. By strengthening their numbers, supporters of highway removal start to build the critical mass it will take to get the attention of elected officials and highway departments. Until that time, the boulevard or the idea of downtown highway removal will be just that, an idea.

If you want to get more actively involved in the ongoing, working effort to remove I-70 from the downtown landscape, replacing it with an at-grade boulevard, one place to start is by contacting City to River and offering to become part of the organization. Contact them via email at for more information.

Or contact the moderator of this blog and I will put you in touch with the organization.

Friday, January 27, 2012

(Near North) City to River?

With the depressed lanes in front of the Arch apparently a permanent fixture downtown as part of the City Arch River 2015 plan, does it make sense to look to the near northside and the elevated lanes of I-70 for removal and replacement with an at-grade boulevard?

The elevated lanes create a major barrier between the Bottle District, the near north side, and the riverside areas including and north of Laclede's Landing. As the economic benefits map above shows, there is still a lot to be gained by building a boulevard to the north of the Arch grounds.

A near northside boulevard could be accomplished at lower cost than the full length boulevard between the Poplar Street Bridge and the New Mississippi River Bridge, and still would be over a half mile in length.

(image courtesy City to River)

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

82 degrees of difference

If you're a weather fan (like we are), today might be the most impressive day on the STL calendar.

For this date, January 25th, the spread between the record high temperature (75 degrees on 1/25/50) and the record low temperature (-7 degrees on 1/25/40) is an amazing 82 degrees!

There are not a lot of places that can make that claim. On the downside, such wild temperature swings are what give birth to the severe weather conditions we also risk here.

Today was in the more normal 35-40 degree range, with about an inch of rain. Had it been a few degrees colder, we'd be shoveling almost a foot of snow right now.

Except, it's not. So all the wet stuff coming down is landing, and staying, the form of liquid precipitation. This time.

Like the old saying goes: don't like (STL) weather? Just wait a few minutes (or degrees!) and it'll change.

Okay, so we confess: strange as it may sound, STL Rising actually likes it this way. It feeds our sense of community. Let's talk (and do something) about the weather!

Sustainability Planning in STL

There are two major sustainability planning initiatives currently underway in our region. One is being led by East-West Gateway Council of Governments, the second by the City of St. Louis.

What sorts of things would you like to see come from such plans, and would you be interested in participating in any public events to help shape the final product?

More importantly, have you heard of either of these two projects, and what would it take to get you personally involved?

Free food? Child care? Complimentary movie passes? Seriously. There is a role for the public in these efforts. Do you plan to participate? If not, why not?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Odds Against the Avalon

It's been maybe ten years since the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway showed its last movie. Since that time, the building has gone through a slow decline until its demolition which started yesterday. In the meantime, the building and its ownership have played out a long struggle in the court system, the building division, the newspaper, and in plain sight, with many negative impacts visited upon its South St. Louis neighbors.

The building's ultimate demise points to one challenge we face with our decentralized system of community planning and development in St. Louis - that by maintaining local control over the planning and development process, the public loses leverage it would otherwise have through a more centralized system. The challenge gets at a classic St. Louis question: which is better - local control over development decisions or city-wide, centralized planning and redevelopment?

It may seem odd that by maintaining local control over development, all the way down to the neighborhood and ward level, that the public loses leverage, but that is exactly what happened in the case of the Avalon. Communities in the St. Louis region are set up with very divided leadership. Within this framework, it is difficult to maintain sustainable redevelopment strategies. The loss of the Avalon is an outcome of this fragmented system.

Left to rely on the resources of a single neighborhood or ward, the tools available to save one blighted building from loss are few. Outside of Southampton and perhaps the South Kingshighway Business Association, the dilapidated building did not represent much of a concern. And after about a decade of decay, local residents and businesses are mostly happy to see the building come down, regardless of whatever potential it might have once had.

In most cases, STL Rising supports the long-standing St. Louis tradition of local control over planning and development. Neighborhood residents are the people with the greatest stake in the future of their communities so they should have a powerful voice in the process. However, in cases like the Avalon, we see the downside of what happens when neighborhoods are left with little leverage to influence outcomes of problem situations.

Looking to the future, we should consider alternatives that increase opportunities for sustainable redevelopment initiatives while protecting the role of local residents and community organizations in the process.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Did Surface Parking Save (Downtown) Cardinal Baseball?

The abundance of surface parking lots in downtown St. Louis is the bane of most urbanists. But is it possible that because there was that huge surface parking lot right next to old Busch Stadium, that downtown St. Louis is the place for Cardinal baseball today?

All the complicated financing aside, if it wasn't for the availability of a buildable downtown location for a new stadium, the Cardinals would have been a lot more likely to leave town for "greener pastures" outside of the city.

Where once there were lifeless surface parking lots, today stands one of the most prominent landmarks on the downtown skyline. Now if we could just get something built on the Ballpark Village parking lots, we'd have two big destinations where there was once just one.

Part of what makes St. Louis attractive for the future is the availability of redevelopment sites. We just need to figure out how to use them.