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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Can We Compete? My Thoughts.

I love how the Post-Dispatch is forcing the conversation on St. Louisans: can we compete in a changing economy, with a lot of the metrics stacked against us?

There is no simple answer to this question. It's an impossibly complicated, messy question with an even more tangled answer. But there are good steps we, as a city and region, could be taking to get to that elusive answer (answers, in reality).

One obvious one to me is: openness. Let's be an open city--a place where ideas big and small are discussed and debated openly, involving all parties.

In my mind, our government and our larger power structure in the city is essentially conservative and concerned with self-preservation. No one in the system wants to surrender power. Remind me why we can't have an open discussion of just how many aldermen we need. Tell me again why we don't have a huge public forum discussing how aldermanic courtesy is hurting our city. Or why we have primaries or political parties at all in an essentially one-party system? Preserving age-old divisions (white vs. black vs. other; North Side vs. South Side vs. Central Corridor; etc.) is the last thing St. Louis needs. Yet few want to take a dip into these murky waters to try to change the status quo.

Few leaders put forth good ideas or any ideas at all. Most of our local government officials still operate under the rubric of damage control. They react to constituent complaints and try to mop up after each one.

We need an open government that involves residents at all turns. We need our elected officials floating ideas about how to improve our city. We need our corporate underwriters to get on board with helping ideas come into fruition.

The ideas don't have to be literally big--like the NorthSide project or China Air Cargo Hub. In fact, as it relates to development, they should probably be small, organic, and incremental. But there should be a constant stream of ideas to improve our city. Let's reexamine our circa 1949 zoning code. Let's look into completely obliterating the "North of Delmar" stigma. Let's all have a discussion about what's right for the Ballpark Village site. And on and on and on and on (crime, schools, etc.).

But we can't have this discussion if we're not all at the table--or if there is no table at which to discuss.

Take a look at what one rapidly improving city has done. Pittsburgh's Public Square Project is all about connecting citizens to their government, opening it up, and demystifying its ways. PopCity Pittsburgh has a great article that sums up the group's goals. While St. Louis is working on similar projects in different capacities (see UrbanSTL, which is uniting urbanist voices into one super-network), there's still no one place that we all come together--whether online or in the physical realm of our large, fragmented region. We need this discussion table more than anything right now--so that a lot of the ideas floating around can gain currency and spread. Most importantly, those at the table should be from all the varied backgrounds St. Louis can offer. While projects like Citygarden are great and improve our city, their public consultation process is limited and doesn't represent the city's denizens as a whole. In large part, St. Louis is either apathetic about its government, doesn't understand it, or doesn't trust it.

Our first step needs to be: open up our government! Part and parcel to this is more regional cooperation and coordination between our many governments. This is all easier typed than done; but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be rebuilding our own "Public Square" and letting the light shine in on our government. That way we can get people involved and motivated to discuss how to move our city and region forward.

(Thanks go to Jeff Vines for forwarding me the Pittsburgh Public Square Project!).

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Itaska Castles Make For Yet Another Delightful St. Louis Streetscape

I grew up on Itaska Street in Bevo Mill. At a very young age, I lived on Itaska Street in the Southampton neighborhood. One of my first self-guided, no-passengers driving architectural tours through the city was to cruise the entire length of Itaska Street, which had been my home address for most of my life in St. Louis. While I quickly learned that I-55 made that an impossibility in the strict sense, and that Itaska jogs several times and is never a straight shot, I saw a street that is in so many ways quintessentially St. Louis.

From the sturdy red brick late 19th/early 20th century structures of Dutchtown to the fanciful Tudor stylings of St. Louis Hills' section of Itaska; every moment of it oozed uniqueness and told the story of St. Louis's westward expansion and development. I suppose this was all fitting. Itaska Street is named after Minnesota's Lake Itasca--the headwaters of the Mississippi River. One special street of a great American city, like our nation's great river, is sinuous, complicated, and gripping all at once.

No stretch of Itaska is more notable than its run between Virginia, on the east, and Grand, on the west. It's here that some developer or developers built some of the South Side's most interesting little shaped-parapet "castles". I don't believe I've seen another city that has whole rows of these little romantic brick ramparts. Some have polychromed arches above doorways and windows; others have "Beetlejuice" themed awnings. Some even have dueling griffins! Here are some of Itaska Street's greatest hits in Dutchtown.



If you're still not convinced and don't think it looks like much from Google Streetview captures, go walk the street for yourself. How do such small houses command such an urban presence?

You'd think that we bloggers, with our environs becoming increasingly crowded, would run out of facets of St. Louis to freak out over--but they keep on coming. That's because St. Louis rocks your face.

Monday, March 29, 2010

What Does a "Real City" Look Like?

As promised in the previous post: let's get to what constitutes a "real city".

The background for this question comes from this Craigslist apartment ad on Cherokee Street (yeah...I might have been looking...).

Unique and spacious open loft in the fast growing Cherokee street arts district. Easily walk to an array of interesting shops and restaurants including APOP Records, The Archive, The Mud House, The Stable, Foam, O'Malleys, Off Broadway and Firecracker Press. The area is also known for a great selection of authentic Mexican restaurants and grocers, eclectic clothing and antiques. Probably the only Street in St. Louis that actually feels like a real city and can provide your every need without having to drive.

The emphasis is mine.

A litany of questions comes to my mind. What does the author mean by "real city"? Is it simply a function of being able to walk to satisfy all of your needs? If that's the definition of the term, do you agree or disagree that Cherokee Street is among the only spots in the city that fit this term? Or is "realness" also associated with diversity of ethnicity and income?

I'm sure the poster of this apartment advertisement is just doing a little up-selling of the Cherokee District and intended no harm to our fair city. But I still balk at language that dismisses other parts of the city as less "real" simply because they're not quite as active at all hours of the day or because they don't have certain types of businesses. Many people live a car-free or car-lite lifestyle in the Central West End, Skinker-DeBaliviere, DeBaliviere Place, Forest Park Southeast, and South Grand, too (not to mention places in the city where people can't afford vehicles and walk/take transit most of the time).

I would rephrase the ad to say: "Cherokee Street is the city's most creative, diverse, exciting, and collaborative street..." or something to that effect. I don't think that's too much of a stretch. But many parts of the city are still "real" to me without some of the energy of Cherokee Street. What are your thoughts?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

McKinley Heights Billboard Now Advertises Art, Not Slots

I don't know how I feel about urban billboards. Usually, they're ugly and dwarf the buildings they're superimposed upon. Sometimes, at their best, they add color and life to barren streetscapes. The venerable Skyscraper Page forums have a great thread dedicated to urban neighborhoods that take billboards to an awe-inspiring extreme--lighting them and allowing them to consume entire facades of buildings, a la Times Square in New York City. Check that out here.

Here in St. Louis, we don't have a Times Square. We just have some rusty billboards often attached to turn of the century commercial buildings--such as on Gravois Avenue.

Well, one art gallery in McKinley Heights (on Gravois) has taken a billboard and made it a true urban asset. According to an excellent Post-Dispatch article highlighting unconventional art galleries, Good Citizen owner Andrew James chose a spot on high-speed Gravois due to the billboard that came packaged with the building. Now the south side of the billboard is handed over to artists who wish to promote their shows, while the north-facing side is open for arts organizations to rent. The vacated billboard used to advertise Casino Queen slots. Below is a shot of artist Jennifer Flores' work on the Good Citizen billboard. To see others, click here to visit their Facebook page.



While the following discussion deserves its own post, I recently had a brief Twitter back-'n'-forth on whether/what parts of St. Louis constitute a "real city"--and what that terms means. To me, a real city is surprising and interesting around every corner. St. Louis's architecture--and often its people--pull these requirements off already. But one thing under-represented in St. Louis's landscape is both informal and formal art--murals, thoughtful graffiti, and other random and possibly unsanctioned bursts of color and ideas on city objects. Don't get me wrong--I know some of this is here already. We just need more. Artists reclaiming billboards is a great step in the right direction! This reads "real city" to me--whatever that means!

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Be Confident, St. Louis

Do me a favor. Caption this photograph, provided by urblogger Mark Groth:


Did you say something along the lines of "Compton Hill Reservoir - A South St. Louis Landmark"?

A contributor to the Atlas of American Architecture (2009), which features the Gateway Arch on its cover, summed up the most romantic of our famous water towers with the following statement.

"Few American communities are as adventuresome and self-confident as St. Louis. Its Compton Heights Water Tower is one of several municipal fantasies in this visually marvelous city."

Wow. If our city fathers built our city so adventurously and confidently (the Bevo Mill is featured in the book as well), why can't we be more confident in what we've inherited? While some us are more than proud of this city, the majority suffers from the misguided notion that St. Louis is somehow not as good as other places. It may not be the trendiest, smartest, slimmest, greenest, or other such superlatives. But it's wholly unique. And interesting. And accessible (affordable!)! Shouldn't that matter most when we assess the lot of our fair city?

I think we found our feel-good tagline! St. Louis: A Visually Marvelous City.

Someone agrees with the unnamed editor of the Atlas referenced above--the Los Angeles Times.  Their travel writers called St. Louis one of the most underrated destinations in the world in 2009! (Scroll to #25 on the slideshow on that link). Somehow I missed that one.

I think the lesson here, St. Louis, is: be confident. We have a lot to be proud of. Spread the word.

Friday, March 26, 2010

South Grand Searching for Artists

According to a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) released yesterday, the City of St. Louis Board of Public Service is searching for an artist or artists to create two-dimensional artwork to be embedded in the reconstructed sidewalks of South Grand. The call for art is a result of a major streetscape overhaul now underway thanks to the East West Gateway Council of Government's Great Streets Initiative.

I love the idea of sidewalk art for South Grand! The RFQ notes:


The selected artist team may include, but is not limited to, visual artists, graphic designers, writers, and poets. Prior public art experience is helpful, but not required.

The artwork will need to fit into discrete sections of the reconstructed sidewalk. The size, location and dimensions of these sections can be determined by the artist, and will need to be coordinated and finalized prior to construction. The artist will be responsible for the final design, fabrication and installation of the artwork into these discrete sections. Final design specifications will be reviewed by members of the project design team and/or City officials.

The new sidewalks will be constructed with pervious concrete. The artwork inserts can be a non-pervious material, but must be durable and approved by the project team. Possible materials may include colored and/or textured concrete, lithocrete, lithomosaic, mosaic, stone, brick, metal, terrazzo or other materials. The inserts could include imagery, text, poetry and/or designs that reflect life on South Grand.



The project budget is $30,000 and the deadline is April 9, 2010. If you're an artist reading this blog, please apply! South Grand needs you!

Here are some examples of sidewalk art I came across:

Village of Rochester Hills, Michigan...sidewalk insets would be the most common form of sidewalk art. What would you recommend for insets along South Grand?


















SOURCE

Okay...so this is faux-3-D chalk art, which I assume can't be permanent. But it's nevertheless something to think about.















SOURCE

Tile mosaic sidewalk

















SOURCE

Text-based art. If you stand from a certain angle, it looks as if the word "DOWN" is floating. Sure this is inside a parking garage, but since the RFQ allows for text-based art, there seem to be many possibilities here.















SOURCE

As I said, if you're an artist or poet, get to work for South Grand! But send your plans to this blog first.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

St. Louis 2009 Population Estimate

The Census just released July 1, 2009 population estimates. These will be the last estimates before the official count of the 2010 Census.

Here is the breakdown of the three core counties (plus St. Louis City) on the Missouri side:

Click to expand

If the table is too small, or if you'd like to see more counties, please visit the Census website.

As you can see, the Census estimates that St. Louis City declined every so slightly from its July 1, 2008 population--a loss of 143 people. The current figure--356,587--is still significantly above the 2000 population of 348,189. This is probably a good sign in a city that has been shedding people for a half century.

If I were to guess what the April 1, 2010 Census base estimate for St. Louis will be, I'd go with a number right around the 2009 figure. With the recession and the difficulty moving residential units during the economic crisis, I doubt St. Louis has seen much more growth. Look for a figure of 357,000 at the highest. For what it's worth.

Continued, though slowed, growth in St. Charles County likely means that the 2010 Census will show that county overtake St. Louis City as the region's second most populous "county".

Last Day to Show Your Support for Google Fiber in St. Louis!


Contributed by Joseph Decepida.

Google is planning to build ultra-high speed broadband networks in a small number of trial locations across the country. The plan is to deploy 1 Gbps, fiber optic connections directly to people's homes and businesses. This connection would be over 100 times faster than what most Americans have access to today.

You can learn more about the project here: http://www.google.com/appserve/fiberrfi/public/overview


What will Google Fiber mean for St. Louis?
Securing ultra high speed internet infrastructure in St. Louis will provide strong momentum for the creation of next generation internet infrastructure services, companies, and jobs. Many of the internet-based services like YouTube that have come to be a part of our daily lives weren't possible until broadband. Google wants to accelerate the next era of innovation by testing fiber optic cable to the premises in a community. We think that community should be St. Louis! With fiber optic cable coming directly to St. Louis homes and businesses and the enormous media attention that could come with being chosen as a trial community, our City would strengthen its ability to attract companies, new talent, and capital.


What Can You Do to Help?
The City is responding to the Request For Information (RFI) released by Google. The deadline for submissions is March 26th. (EDITOR'S NOTE: YES, that's TOMORROW!) We will be competing with many other communities across the country to be chosen for this experiment.

One part of the RFI requires us to demonstrate our community support for this project. To this end, we've created the following website:


Please show Google we deserve ultra high speed broadband by doing any or all of the following:

1. Share the site and our effort via Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, or through your own email.
2. Embed a link to the site on your business or organization’s website.
2. Nominate St. Louis as a resident. (Note: You must be logged in to a Google account.)
3. Get an organization of which you are a member to support our effort.
4. Leave a comment of support on our map.
5. Upload a video discussing what an ultra high speed connection would do for you, your
    business or organization, and your community.

We’ll measure support through the number of  Facebook fans, re-tweets on Twitter, organizations who’ve added their support, and comments on our map. Don't pass this opportunity up. So far, we're just nearly breaking 1,000 Facebook fans. With all the pride and swagger the online community has when talking up St. Louis, now is one of those times where we really need to demonstrate it. Whether you're a die hard professional blogger or anonymous forum lurker, please show your support for the City of St. Louis!

If you have any questions, please reply to stlwantsfiber@gmail.com and the team will get back to you.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Metro (St. Louis Transit) Now Has...


...new and effective leadership. Bob Baer (pictured above) has reversed the public relations nightmare of the Larry Salci-era and all of its bungled law suits and expensive, over-budget Metrolink expansions. As a result of Baer's leadership and other restructuring, Metro transit now has all of the things below as well.

...credit card machines to make those of us who travel without bills and coins happier. I had a picture, but it's not working. Sorry. You can imagine what they look like though!

...heaters at nearly every Missouri-side Metrolink station. Sorry, no picture...yet.



...a new website interface. They also have started an excellent blog called Next Stop. Beyond that, Metro is on Twitter and Facebook. The agency participates in a bi-weekly live chat on STLToday.com every Wednesday at noon. So keeping up with developments and news with Metro is easier and more fluid than ever. If your questions still aren't answered, Facebook, Tweet, or live chat with them and get a nearly immediate response!


...plans for a new transit plaza at the Grand Metrolink stop (see above).

 Map of the proposed transit network, courtesy of Moving Transit Forward.

...a long range transportation plan, which has been approved by the East-West Gateway Council of Governments. The plan calls for an expanded system, including light rail, bus rapid transit, and commuter rail over the next 30 years. The plan is appropriately titled Moving Transit Forward and has its own website.

 Rendering of potential Transit-oriented Development project near Forest Park, via West End Word.

...plans for REAL transit-oriented development! Metro is working with McCormack Baron to develop a mixed use building atop its current parking lot at DeBaliviere and Pershing. The adjacent strip mall may be torn down and incorporated into the development as well. While development has occurred around Metrolink stops, there has not yet been a self-consciously urban transit-oriented development, with the stated goal of appealing to transit users.

A screen capture of Google transit directions.

...Google Transit compatibility. When Google Maps began adding a transit feature, St. Louis was one of the first cities to provide Google with the information needed to place transit-based directions on Google Maps. That's owed to Metro. Another great side story here: Metro initially abandoned its clunky though functional TripFinder feature available on its website in favor of more streamlined Google Maps. When several users complained about not being able to figure out the Google Maps feature, Metro put TripFinder back up and uploaded a video tutorial about how to use Google. That's great customer service if you ask me!

 The Hive, located at the Delmar Metrolink station. Courtesy of Next Stop; photograph by Dan Donovan.

...more art at Metrolink stations. While a controversial expenditure for the cash-strapped agency, art in transit is important for the system. Metro was quick to respond to its critics about why art is crucial to transit...and how it's a requirement for agencies receiving federal funding. I think the art adds a visual punch to transit and makes our transit system look invested and full of character. See the Arts in Transit website here.

...transit schedules available via text message! Note that this is NOT officially provided by Metro, but by a third party company, but still...it's an important feature that improves the whole transit experience.

Metro has been working hard to reverse its image as a poorly run and inefficient agency. All of the above improvements help tremendously to that end.

St. Louis County voters will decide the fate of a one half of one percent sales tax increase dedicated to Metro on April 6, 2010. While I intend to write a longer post explaining my reasons and reservations, I wish to let readers know that this blog endorses Proposition A and asks all St. Louis County voters to support it. Please vote yes on April 6!

The above improvements are only the beginning. An expanded funding source for Metro will only see to it that a system poised for greatness is not instead cast into third class status. What will become of these investments if Proposition A fails? Not just a civic embarrassment, a crippled transit system will hurt our economy and put us well behind peer cities in the enhancement of transportation infrastructure.

Vote "Yea" on A come April 6, 2010, St. Louis County!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

City Pride in Everyday Places

"St. Louis: the Greatest City in America"


How would that tagline look plastered all across the city, on billboards, city vehicles, and benches?


The City of Baltimore's ubiquitous benches indeed feature this tagline. The benches are located all across the city, at bus stops and in business districts. I can't stress enough the importance of a little civic confidence--even cockiness, as Baltimore is displaying here. We can change attitudes about our city if we start by changing our own.




Come to think of it, the City of St. Louis's government vehicles do have license plates that read "St. Louis: The Place to Be". But I think we need to aim higher, like Baltimore. I think uplifting civic messages like this, on everyday objects, subtly transmit happiness and civic pride. What do you think? If you agree with me, what similar text would you put on a St. Louis bench?


UPDATE (2:10PM): How about this tagline? (Photograph is courtesy of Flickr user Pruitt-Igoe).




St. Louis: The City of a Thousand Sights. I like that.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Preservation Board Updates

Quickfire update! (Click here if you have no idea what this post is referring to...).

-6169R Pershing, owned by Washington University Quadrangle Housing, was denied its retroactive demolition permit and will be going to housing court.

-4269 Westminster (AKA 414-18 Boyle); Board upheld staff denial of demolition permit.

-6102 Michigan; Board upheld staff denial of demolition permit.

Great news! But will they be back on the agenda next month?

Information Source: Michael Allen

Fishing for Flounder Houses in Alexandria, Virginia

I recently visited Alexandria, Virginia and was delighted by that city's bustling streets and historic ambiance.

I was keeping my eyes peeled while walking around historic Old Town because I have heard Alexandria is one of the only other cities besides St. Louis to feature "flounder houses". These homes (and commercial buildings) are called flounders because their roof lines steeply lean to one side, resembling the head of the fish of the same name. (As far as a reference to the fact that St. Louis and Alexandria share this unique housing type, take a look at this article about one such flounder house in Virginia).

Sure enough, I found several. Here is one of my favorite Alexandrian flounders, located the corner of King and Lee Streets. The image is courtesy of Google Streetview.


The above example reminded me of this home in Soulard, on S. 10th Street at Emmett.


The interesting thing about the Soulard example, though, is that it was built in the late 2000s!

While there are plenty of historic flounder houses in St. Louis remaining, it's nice to see new construction reference this rare housing type, nationally speaking. I also love the little local folklore surrounding them: that the St. Louis flounders took their shape to trick tax assessors into thinking the house was only half of an apparently under-construction twin unit. I don't know how much I believe this, but the story is all part of the local culture of a unique, understated place loaded with surprises.

On a related note, I look forward to the handful of Old North St. Louis flounder homes, under construction now thanks to Habitat for Humanity! Click here for a rendering.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Full March Preservation Board Agenda Online

You may access it here.

As reported earlier, the agenda contains three demolition-related items. All photographs used within this post are courtesy of the Cultural Resources Office.

6169R Pershing in Skinker-DeBaliviere is a rear structure that has already been demolished. Applicant Washington University Quadrangle Housing is applying for a retrograde demolition permit to approve work that is already completed. The structure was built in 1910. Cultural Resources staff recommend denial of the permit application and referral of the owner to Housing Court.

6169R Pershing prior to demolition.


4269 Westminster (414-418 Boyle) in the Central West End is a one-story, brick commercial building in a largely residential section of the neighborhood. Core Holdings, LLC is seeking the demolition permit for public safety reasons. However, the building has not been condemned by the Department of Public Safety and is considered sound under the historic district ordinance. The Cultural Resources Office staff recommends   upholding staff denial of the demolition permit.

A front profile of the commercial building facing Boyle.

A detail of the parapet.

6102 Michigan in Carondelet is a two-story residential building. Owner James B. Fritz is seeking a demolition permit to create a garden and planted area. The Cultural Resources Staff notes that this building is a High Merit and structurally sound contributor to the third extension of the Central Carondelet National Register Historic District. Cultural Resources speculates that, due to the pitch of the roof and the rear flounder-style construction, this is likely a mid-19th century building that was later altered to fit its decidedly Arts and Crafts surroundings. The blockface of 61xx Michigan is entirely intact. Cultural Resoures recommends upholding staff denial of the demolition permit, as the building is an important structure and rehabilitation is likely feasible.

Front detail of building proposed for demolition.

Rear detail. Note the historic flounder-style roof pitch.

As always, I encourage readers to show up to Preservation Board meetings and testify!

Without the voice of the public present, the case for demolition is stronger. You really could be the difference in saving some of St. Louis's unique architecture! If you absolutely can't show up in person, at least make sure to email the Board. Contact information and meeting information is below!

Contact: Adonna Buford

Monday, March 22, 2010
1015 Locust, Suite 1200
4:00pm

Friday, March 19, 2010

Ferguson Says 'No' to CVS

As recently reported by NoCoSTL.com, CVS officials have dropped plans for a CVS store at North Florissant and Hereford Avenues in the North County municipality of Ferguson.

CVS wished to demolish seven historic homes in Ferguson to shoehorn one of its generic suburban stores onto a lot conveniently located across the street from arch rival Walgreens.

We've seen this move by CVS before. The pharmacy giant built a store catty-corner to a Walgreens on Gravois in Boulevard Heights, taking several homes down with it. A proposed CVS on Lindell nearly demolished three buildings off of the landscape before being called off, more than likely due to issues with usage of the alley for the drive-through. The Walgreens on Lindell is less than a block from this site.

It's nice to see a citizens' group rise up and defeat one of these proposals to demolish sound and attractive buildings for duplicative services. Bravo, Ferguson!

Here's a Google Streetview shot of two of the homes slated for demolition:


View Larger Map

St. Louis: Let Ferguson be our guide. Historic character is more important than allowing chain pharmacies to steal away some market share from one another!

On a slightly different note: just because a CVS promises to build up to the street and screen parking, it doesn't mean the building is "urban" in format or that gestures toward urbanism justify squandering historic buildings for unneeded services. That Central West End CVS was dangerously close to being approved if it "urbanized" itself a bit more. To me, architectural diversity and pedestrian-friendliness spell urbanism. If CVS can't reuse a building, or find a vacant parcel in the city to build on and to build a new store appropriate to the urban environment, then CVS is simply not welcome.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Two Great South Side Avenues: Jefferson and Gravois

Like many neighborhood or business groups of today, the Jefferson Gravois Business Association (JGBA) maintains a Facebook page.

Their page contains over 150 photos of the commercial buildings that line both streets: Jefferson, from I-44 to Arsenal; and Gravois, from Russell to Arsenal.

The photographs display a bevy of sound, though altered mixed use buildings that, together, could be something great. Unfortunately, both streets are too wide. This means that each side of the street is divided by a gulf of asphalt; not a friendly environment for a walkable, pedestrian-oriented district. Gravois is often busy during rush hour, while South Jefferson never seems to carry the traffic load to justify its width. I have called for a median to be placed on South Jefferson to slow traffic; Gravois needs wider sidewalks, taller and more consistent tree cover, new pedestrian lighting, and a transit right-of-way as well (light rail, streetcar, or bus rapid transit).

But improvements to each street is not really the subject of this post. It's to point readers to the individual buildings on each street. One can see their potential to be sewn together into a cohesive, even vibrant district if the nature of their host streets were to change. Gravois, for one, is a street I've been up and down hundreds of times, whether by bus or car. There are always surprises and secrets missed when using a street as a highway rather than a pedestrian pathway. If you scroll through all of the photos, I think you'll agree with me that both streets are surprisingly full of character despite their often very ugly and unfortunate gaps (gas stations, fast food, etc.). Thanks to the Jefferson Gravois Business Association for the pictures below!

2600 Block of Gravois

2600 Block of Gravois


2700 Block of Gravois

 2800 Block of Jefferson

These are just a few underutilized examples. Again, you can view all of the photos here. The JGBA service area includes some famous St. Louis landmarks as well as some newbies who have taken their chances. Trader Bob's Tattoo has been on South Jefferson since the 1930s, while Bittersweet Bakery has risen quickly in status to become a must visit Gravois spot having just opened last year. Let's help the JGBA keep these and other businesses viable! After South Grand's road diet and streetscape improvement project is completed, the Great Streets program should turn its gaze toward Gravois and Jefferson in what the JGBA calls the "heart of south St. Louis".

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who Wants to Live by Free-Standing Fast Food Restaurants?

I'm not sure there's anyone in St. Louis City government asking this question.

I'm also not sure if anyone has suggested the obvious: why not force fast food restaurants to reuse old storefronts in mixed use buildings?

Of course, I know the answer to both questions. Surely some consumers of fast food wouldn't mind living near a Burger King, McDonalds, or Wendy's. They may even relish such "amenities". But to live across the street or next to one? With their lights, their constant stream of trash, their late night traffic, their plastic buildings and oil-stained parking lots, their regular truck deliveries? Well, I at least know that I don't want to live adjacent to one!

To the second point: obviously, fast food restaurants make more money when they have a drive through attached. Unfortunately, this often requires a specialized building that subsumes several urban parcels and includes at least two curb cuts and plenty of parking spaces as well.

But these two questions are clearly related. If fast food restaurants are such a drag on their surroundings, yet they "must" have drive-throughs to compete, then we have to make a value judgment. Do we want attractive urban main streets or profitable suburban strips? Unfortunately, St. Louis has chosen--and continues to choose--the latter in nearly all cases.

The latest example is the new Wendy's on Gravois in the completely pedestrian-hostile Gravois Plaza development. Instead of correcting the many mistakes of that strip center, we're about to add to them.

A new Wendy's restaurant will be located on the former site of Cuddles Daycare and, previous to that, a Shoney's restaurant. I presume it will be the standard store, with drive-through, curb cuts, etc.

This is a shame to me, making an already compromised area less livable. In urban environments, land values rise when amenities are nearby, attractive, and walkable. A grocery store, for example, should be a huge value added to an urban neighborhood, but the Shop N Save is practically a fortress inside Gravois Plaza. Now Wendy's will be its moat.


Above, a fine row of apartment buildings faces Gravois Plaza and the future Wendy's site. Gravois Avenue itself is already too high-speed and has little in the way of pedestrian amenities. Adding more vehicular traffic, car-scaled lighting, and trash to the area will be further detrimental to these surrounding residential and mixed use properties.

St. Louis has so many great old urban commercial buildings that are vacant or underutilized. It would be nice to see Wendy's open inside one of the storefronts in the area, examples of which can be seen in this photograph. In spite of the rather quiet look of the street shown above by Google Streetview, this stretch is usually heavily walked by St. Louis standards. A pedestrian-oriented Wendy's could work in this portion of the city, though I know it would be less successful than what is currently being built. Again, though, choices present themselves: urban or suburban format, pedestrians or vehicles, attractive or ugly?

St. Louis's main roads (Kingshighway, Hampton, Natural Bridge, Gravois, etc.) are too often the city's least attractive streets to live on. This should not be so! Concentrating residential density on these main roads turns the retail/restaurants present into salable amenities, but the streets must be attractive and mitigate, not exacerbate, the effects of busy traffic and intense use. A revised zoning ordinance or well-crafted zoning overlay district for St. Louis should address these problems and make our main streets beautiful and convenient places to live.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Urban St. Louis v2.0

The Urban St. Louis forums (http://urbanstl.com/forum/), usually referred to simply as "UrbanSTL", have spent the past couple months undergoing a series of changes. The site has long been St. Louis's go-to source for urban-related news and developments. To those of us who have enjoyed the website since the mid 2000s, the UrbanSTL of those shaky few months was a shadow of its former self. As the forum regularly crashed or froze up, users dwindled and posts became more infrequent.



The new interface

What was once a good source for finding out just about any built environment news, new developments, or other issues in St. Louis became a wholly frustrating experience.

Thankfully, some creative (and patient!) minds have gotten together and retooled the site, adding several new features. Most importantly, the new UrbanSTL is fast and reliable. May its network and frequent posters repopulate so that St. Louis can again brag of this more-than-useful resource!

What I am calling Urban St. Louis v2.0 is integrated with Alex Ihnen's St. Louis Urban Workshop blog, meaning that UrbanSTL now has a companion/host website to aggregate news and developments. Furthermore, the site contains a "social" section to connect with other forumers and a wiki so that users can avoid wading through 400 pages of rumors and chatter about Ballpark Village and find only the latest news.

I encourage every reader of this blog to register and contribute to the discussion. For those who have sworn the site off due to its past problems, rejoice and reconcile!

UrbanSTL is (or at least was) a truly thriving online community unique to St. Louis. Even larger and more prosperous Boston, with its ArchBoston forum, once expressed envy over St. Louis's urbanism forum. Let's make that the case once more! Click here to visit the forum directly.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Guest Piece: Sun Ministries in Hyde Park

The following is a guest piece by Jason Calahan of Sun Ministries. Mr. Calahan contacted me after reading a previous post on the vacant buildings bill. Sun Ministries' "Board Up Hyde Park" effort--as well as other undertakings in the neighborhood--are, I feel, more than worthy and deserve space on this blog.


Sun Ministries is launching a nationwide effort to rebuild America's most devastated inner cities.  We are calling this undertaking the Isaiah 61 Initiative.  We hope to unite people to serve these areas, and are calling for missionaries to relocate to the inner cities, in order to live and work, rebuild decaying structures, minister to the neediest residents, and make a generational impact on these desperate areas.  We want to minister to the whole person and the whole community by addressing physical, emotional, spiritual, and educational needs, providing creative opportunities, as well as restoring homes and buildings, starting new business and cooperating with existing ones, and beautifying public spaces. 



This house, which actually faces Hyde Park, exemplifies the neglected state of the skillful artisanship found in the Hyde Park neighborhood.  It is one of the better preserved structures.


We are starting in the historic Hyde Park neighborhood, located in North St. Louis.  Although Hyde Park is beautiful in its layout, classic old-city brickwork and architecture, welcoming sidewalks and parks, the area has been subject to generations of poverty, oppression, and neglect.  There are over 900 vacant buildings in the ward, half the population lives below the poverty line, and a third are single parent households.  The neighborhood is one of the most desolate in St. Louis.  There is little tax base, as many residents and businesses have left.  You can walk down streets where one whole side consists of abandoned, decayed buildings, many of which look like they have been bombed.  Pruitt-Igoe was a notorious failed segregated housing project, and though it wasn't located in Hyde Park, it sent damaging shock-waves throughout all of North St. Louis, and is a symbol for the kind of abuse and division affecting the area.  

A common sight in Hyde Park.  Good examples of the architecture and brickwork of the area.


One of the many "bombed out" buildings.




Desolation.




Unfortunately, this is not a rare sight in Hyde Park.


We hope to partner with groups of any kind, including schools, colleges, churches, police forces, city governments, student activity groups, and other social entrepreneurial organizations in order to reach our goals.  We will be moving into homes in the area and restoring buildings.  We hope to provide job skills and training, start businesses, help the homeless enter the workforce, and provide business/retail incubator space.  We are working on providing community programs in sports, arts, and tutoring.  We hope to address spiritual and emotional needs in a one-on-one manner.  We aim to lay foundations of change and attack root problems to poverty and hopelessness in the area. 


Our current base of operations is a building on Newhouse that was given to us by G. W. Helbling and Sons, a silk screening business that had been in the neighborhood for 45 years.  We are currently working on bringing the building up to code and beautifying the property and surrounding city block. 


We hope to transform this huge, beautiful house into our Leadership Center, which will house missionaries and interns and provide space for them to develop community service ideas.


We are planning to restore this building and create our Opportunity Center, which will have offices for providing job skills and training, and a retail space for providing work for poor, homeless, and missionaries.


This building features exceptional brickwork, a cast-iron facade and corner entrance, beautiful architecture, and it is decaying at an alarming rate.  We want to preserve and restore it and use it to provide employment.




In ministering to this community, we have noticed that racism and division are still very alive in St. Louis and the surrounding counties.  St. Louis suffers from little tax support from its county.  People in the suburbs warn us of violence in the city, oblivious to the violence happening in their own “safe” towns.  It has been difficult getting groups with highly-aimed mission statements to come into a poor area.  Individuals and groups in the city have been confused by a group that seeks to build nothing but community.  But we have met really great people in the neighborhood.  Our neighbor Ralph was eager to help us clean out our building.  We played football and wrestled with a group of about ten rowdy young boys.  The people at Cornerstone Cafe have been very kind and welcoming.  Alderman Bosley and his staff have been cleaning parks and alleys with us, and have assisted us greatly in getting established in the neighborhood. 


In ministering to the whole person and the whole community, we hope to preserve and restore the architecture and history of Hyde Park, to retain the beauty and artistry of the neighborhood and increase the sense of community identity.  Most of the structures in Hyde Park are beautiful, classic, St. Louis-style brick buildings with ornate brickwork, and some even feature cast iron facades.  In an effort to protect and preserve these properties, beautify the area, and make a declaration that someone cares about these people and this neighborhood, Sun Ministries is partnering with Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. in an effort we are calling Board Up Hyde Park.  We are looking for groups of all kinds who want to help us decorate boards with positive words and images that we will then install in the vacant properties.  If you want to be a part of this effort or learn more about our work, you can see the flyer below or visit http://www.sunministries.org or http://www.isaiah61initiative.org.

The flyer:



Friday, March 12, 2010

South City "Quirk-itecture"

Ever pass by buildings and objects in the built environment that force you to double take?

How about this assisted living facility, appropriately titled the Silver Spur, on Texas Avenue at Utah in Benton Park West? Yes, those are wagon wheels, pitchforks, and other Western accoutrements attached to the facade. Photograph is courtesy of Google Streetview. By the way, the sign on the corner of the building reads: "Smile Pardner: You're Being Taped by the Police".



What about this home, on Missouri Avenue just north of Broadway (in Marine Villa)? The lavishly painted side of the home shown (barely) by this capture is not even the main attraction: swing around the front for some seriously strange (and oddly attractive) bulging, glassy, post-modern windows on this classic red brick St. Louis structure. For a better view, make sure to walk, bike, or drive by yourself. Photograph is courtesy of Google Streetview.



The dueling griffins on this too-cute Itaska Street cottage are one of the many notable attractions on a stretch of Dutchtown road that certainly deserves its own post. Interesting little South Side castles dominate Itaska from Virginia to Grand, but none are as fantastically decorated. Image courtesy of Google Streetview.


This blog has actually already covered the next entry: the "Tree-House" in Compton Heights. When the homeowners' favorite tree succumbed to the elements, they swiftly outlined its shadow onto the facade of their building to mark its historic position prior to its removal. Photograph by me.


When I passed by this structure on the 2800 block of Missouri in Benton Park last December, I wondered if it was a home or a street-fronting garage for nearby condominiums. Let's see though...it was decked out for the holidays while surrounding structures were not. Who would only decorate their garage and not the main house? It also had its own mailbox and an address prominently displayed. It looks like it could have been a former auto body shop or something of that nature and might now be residential. It's a real head scratcher! Check out the Google Streetview of the property here. Photograph is mine.


All across the city there are dozens of examples of quirky structures that lend real character and "weirdness" to their host block. Do you know of one not shown here? If so, submit a picture and I'll add it to the list! North City and Central Corridor (and elsewhere!) examples are permitted; I just named the topic after where all of my examples came from.

Fiber FAIL? St. Louis's Bid for Google Fiber Network Deemed "Lagging"

KMOX believes that St. Louis is "sitting on the sidelines" when it comes to competing with its Midwestern peers for the coveted experimental Google Fiber network. Google Fiber would deliver home internet speeds over 100 times faster than anything available today. It's possible only one city will get to be the host of this trial network.

KMOX points out that Columbia, Missouri aired a pitch for the Google network with thousands of Mizzou basketball fans holding up signs in support of that city hosting the Fiber network on national television. As was mentioned in my previous post, Topeka recently changed its name to Google, Kansas. St. Louis's Facebook page for its Google bid  has just under 200 fans; Columbia has 5,342, while Topeka...err, Google, Kansas claims 14,777 Facebook fans.

What do you think? Is this enough evidence to show that St. Louis is truly lagging in its bid? The city's website is a nice gesture. What else do you think St. Louis should be doing? Why is our Facebook lobbying so far behind much smaller Columbia and Topeka?

UPDATE: Kudos to the St. Louis Social Media and Tech Report for finding a list of cities that have bid for the Google Fiber network. The competition is stiff--many cities large and small are already in the running.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Gas Stations in the City

A recent Your Local Messenger article (yourlocalmessenger.com) on the renovation of an old fueling station into meeting space in Soulard got me thinking about gas stations in the City of St. Louis.

First, that renovation, at 12th and Gravois just adjacent to the monstrous I-44/I-55 interchange: it's great!

Photo credit: The Messenger

Instead of a large paved lot at a highly visible intersection, we now have a renovated and attractive old gas station structure fronting a lushly landscaped triangular lot. This is a win for the city. The building itself looks to be of that 1920s or '30s Spanish Colonial vintage and is now safe from demolition. The paved lot that made it such a detractor to the cityscape is now a contributor to the neighborhood's beauty and a much better gateway.

Sure, a corner hugging, triangular-shaped building would have been ideal, but this is still a victory in my book.

The City of St. Louis would do well not to wait around for successes like that shown above in Soulard. Public policy can influence what becomes of parcels formerly dedicated to gas stations (and other autocentric uses). It can also regulate new ones in a way that benefits the city and its residents.

To the first point: St. Louis has lots of gas stations. Way too many for a city of its current size and any realistic future size as well. The history of the fueling station, of course, extends back to the early 20th century, when cars first made an appearance in cities. Because car ownership did not reach levels of ubiquity until after World War II, early fueling stations were often small, having one or two "bays" for refueling at most. Even more interestingly, the architecture of the gas station (yes, gas stations once involved design beyond the level of stacking cinder blocks) was often meant to match the surrounding neighborhood in residential contexts, or possibly play on current architectural styles. This is why Soulard, a 19th century red brick neighborhood, saw the construction of a Spanish Colonial 20th century fueling station--that style was in vogue at the time. If you need an example of a gas station meant to "fit in", look no further than Brannon and Pernod in the Northampton neighborhood:


In a neighborhood chock full of charming "gingerbread' Tudor Revivals, this gas station adopted the same design motif.

In most cases, I believe these historic gas stations should remain, even if they're not the most urban in form and allow a gap in the streetscape. They're often attractive and can even host other uses, such as retail or even restaurants. This gas station at January and Eichelberger in Princeton Heights contained a florist for a long while. I'm not sure that it's still open, but it still goes to show that these buildings can be reused. It may even be worthwhile to list all of the city's historic fueling stations on the National Register of Historic Places under its Multiple Property Submission (MPS) format.

But the most important policy should go towards future (and current) gas stations operating as gas stations. The city needs an ordinance limiting the number of pumps at gas stations. Such an action should be coordinated with a reexamination of zoning. In certain areas of the city--such as the long, autocentric stretch of South Kingshighway between Arsenal and Tholozan--larger gas stations are less obtrusive. Their lights don't shine into neighboring houses, bringing down property values. Their multiple curb cuts and constant stream of traffic do not disrupt pedestrian flow quite as much as other, more residential areas.

I think it would make sense to limit the number of pumps at each gas station in more residential areas to six pumps, or three bays. Along with the limit, there should be absolutely no liquor sales. Liquor makes gas stations very profitable--and therefore lucrative--enterprises. There should be only one curb cut per station. In addition, each gas station should have urban design guidelines--as should every new building in the city of St. Louis. The city should look to close (via eminent domain?) several gas stations due to their extremely negative effects on surrounding property values, crime, light and noise pollution, pedestrian hostility, and general aesthetic concerns. One such target should be the Grand and Gravois station adjacent to the South Side Tower redevelopment. It's an eyesore and destroys what could be a picturesque corner that would stabilize its surroundings (I'll do another post on fast food restaurant regulations...). All gas stations, current or proposed, should have to comply with stiff landscaping regulations, replete with many trees and flowers--not just small hedges. Signage and lighting should be shortened and softened, respectively. Each station should have to obtain a special operating permit, whose overall number should be capped at a sensible number and distribution. Licenses should never be awarded to adjacent gas stations.

Gas stations are a noxious, but necessary use in a city. As such, they should be present, but limited. They should be fewer in number, more expensive than suburban stations, and better designed in truly urban environs. Removing some incentives (such as liquor and lottery sales) and adding regulatory measures to stations (landscaping, special permits, etc.) would accomplish these goals.

You might be asking: well, can you really make a gas station attractive? Take a look at these modernist gas stations, which I find highly appealing.

The Netherlands:


Sacramento, California: imagine this one with some landscaping.



See more examples here.

We should be demanding a more attractive, walkable environment for the City of St. Louis. Today's crop of gas stations simply misses that mark. Better and more regulations would make sure current stations are retrofitted...or even that older, smaller stations are reused while newer, larger, and uglier stations are closed and redeveloped into something more urban. The worst that could happen to the city by enacting legislation would be that gas stations would find it less profitable to operate in the city and would focus on the periphery. To me, that's a worthy sacrifice.

Smaller gas stations across the city that have been vacated have been transformed, many for the better. Community gardens and green space are becoming increasingly popular re-uses for former gas stations sites, as was done in Lafayette Square (at Dolman/Park). New residential construction has arisen in Fox Park atop an old service station (Russell/California), while Washington University student housing is being proposed for an old auto repair shop in the Loop (Eastgate/Delmar). These are all positive uses for former gas stations or autocentric sites; public policy in St. Louis should be pressing for more success stories like these.

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