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Monday, June 30, 2008

Since we deleted our French Colonial heritage, try Ste. Genevieve!

If you've been to New Orleans, and are a bit of a history nut, and are a St. Louis resident, you are likely very depressed and disappointed that very little of St. Louis's French Colonial Heritage still exists.

Sure, Soulard is evocative of old St. Louis's Frenchtown (even though it was heavily German-influenced by the turn of the 20th Century). But none of it's from the Colonial period.

The founder of St. Louis, Pierre Laclede, for whom "the Landing" was named, was a New Orleanian Creole businessowner sent to the the Upper Louisiana Territory to carve a trading post out of the wilderness in 1764.
Had the territory east of the Mississippi River not suddenly transferred to British hands, St. Louis would have likely been a hamlet of a trading village. Instead, Laclede thought it wise to establish a settlement, so that the new French town could defend itself.

St. Genevieve--the only existing French settlement so far north along the Mississippi--quite nearly became such a trading post. If it had abutted the river, it would have been today's "St. Louis". Because the village was two miles inland, Laclede passed it up.

The original French city of St. Louis--with street names like Rue d'Eglise (Church Street) and La Grande Rue (Main Street)--is totally lost. Not a single colonial structure remains.

But visions of it, that Creole St. Louis, controlled by famous names such as the Chouteaus, remain in Ste. Genevieve, the city that could have been us.

See them below,
compliments of Ste. Genevieve's website:

















These homes--many open to the public--were constructed between 1770 and 1820.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Congratulations, Shaw neighborhood!

It was voted by This Old House as being one of the "Best Places in the Midwest to Buy an Old House".

The beautiful picture on their site, of course, says more than such a clunky title: (it's also by Circa Properties' own blogger and real estate guru Dawn Griffin, who has already blogged about this)


Congratulations go to a well deserved neighborhood, diverse in its stock of people, buildings, and greenery all alike.

[UPDATE: Upon further investigation, the editors of This Old House also selected Shaw for "Best Places for Fixer-Uppers" and "Best Places for City Slickers to Buy an Old House". Excellent!]

Silly thought...

How about an ordinance that would not allow a developer to demolish anything on its intended site until it is damn near ready to start building!

With talk on UrbanSTL that the proposed Bohemian Hill grocery megaplex might be dead, it sure would be nice to have the rest of Bohemian Hill back...

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Three Paragraphs You Need to Read (no, seriously, do it...)

From Jane Jacobs' "The Economy of Regions": A slap in the face to economic development as we know it. If you're too lazy to read the following, SUPPORT LOCAL.

The standard diagnosis of the trouble with supply regions, abandoned regions, and clearance regions as well as stagnated and declining cities is "not enough industry." To be sure. But the standard prescription for the deficiency is "attract industry." What are these industries that can be lured and hooked? Where do they come from and why?

For the most part they are industries that originally developed in cities or city regions but are no longer tethered there by localized markets or by everyday dependence upon multitudes of producers and services close by. Their markets have become far -flung, and they supply so many of their own everyday needs for producers' goods and services internally and have become so practiced at acquiring those they must buy from others, whatever the source, that these enterprises have developed great freedom in choosing where to expand or to relocate. They can move to virtually any place providing other special advantages they seek: for instance, exceptionally cheap labor, close proximity to raw materials they use, release from environmental regulations, or the chance to cash in on tax forgiveness and other subsidies commonly offered to enterprises that will move into depressed areas.

The very freedom of location that enables these industries to leave city regions for distant regions means freedom from local markets and freedom from symbiotic nests of other producers. Therefore, their presence does nothing, or little, to stimulate creation of other, symbiotic enterprises. This outcome becomes starkly obvious whenever these transplants pull up stakes and leave for yet a different location, perhaps one with still cheaper labor or still lower electric rates. What they leave behind when they move are merely economic vacuums, very different from what they left behind originally in the cities or city regions of their origin. And as long as they remain in a region with a transplant economy of this sort, they produce only little and only narrowly for the local economy itself. Their markets are distant. In effect, such transplants shape a kind of industrialized supply region incapable of producing amply and diversely for its own people and producers as well as for others.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

What's the difference?

...

What's the difference between this:





And this?:



I'll tell you.


The first is in St. Louis, whose official line has always been against its historic architecture. The building, on the vanquished 300 block of Poplar, told the story of a French and Spanish Creole reign in the Upper Louisiana Territory.




The second is in New Orleans, which embraced its history to the fullest extent possible. Millions of tourists flood the streets of the French Quarter annually to marvel at the Creole cottages. Large or small, bedecked in balconies or bare--it matters not. The above example was being rehabbed earlier this year (meaning, of course, that it's still there, unlike the St. Louis example).




It sure would be nice if as many amateur photographers found downtown St. Louis a worthy subject as they do New Orleans.

Monday, June 23, 2008

My latest rants: for once, in brief!

#1

Why, why, why, why, why, why, why tear down more of Laclede's Landing? Did the original footprint of our once booming river city harm the City, or the Lumiere Casino, or something? In a better St. Louis, a whole intact row of Switzer buildings would stand in place of Lumiere, gleaming all the more brightly without all of the same annoying to-do.

#2

Please, Built St. Louis, no more! The Daily Dose of Blairmont series on Rob Powers' blog continues well past the century mark, now on day 108. Unfortunately, it's been about 7X that many days since the mayor or McKee himself should have addressed residents with their plans.

#3

Really, SLU, your new law school couldn't have wrapped behind the now gone Lindell manse?

This is not brain surgery, city leaders. Places that speak to a human scale are bound to be reclaimed. Why would we ever think of destroying these things when we cannot, or will not, replicate such scale?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

The Best News in a Long Time!

This is late in coming, but reading this Post-Dispatch article almost brought a tear of joy to my planner's eye:

Crowds flock to Metro's trains, buses

Best of all is this quote:

Metro has reported serving nearly 5.5 million passenger trips in May — believed to be the highest one-month tally since the early 1980s.
With any luck, St. Louis County will pass a proposed sales tax to support Metro, which is the least publicly subsidized transit agency in the country.

New Orleans' Regional Transit Authority (RTA)'s bus and streetcar fare is $1.25--much cheaper than St. Louis's $1.75.

Fare increases should not be an option if Metro wants to assist residents in ditching their cars.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Does St. Louis need more corners?

I live in New Orleans.

If you thought St. Louis had an iron street grid, come to this city. We are talking endless rows of neat squares--not rectangles--throughout most of the 19th Century and early 20th Century city.

In comparison, St. Louis has superblocks. When I was back in town a few weeks ago, I drove through some North Side neighborhoods that troubled me for reasons other than their relative decay. The blocks are far, far too long in many parts of the city, I noticed.

What are the advantages of the short block? Late urban planning guru (inventor?) Jane Jacobs sums it up best.
  • Short blocks provide more corners. More corners means, or can mean, more opportunities for retail and mixed-use structures. More activity on corners means more eyes on the street. More eyes on the street means a safer and more vibrant community--with services (a dentist? a small grocer? you name it) right down the block!
  • Short blocks are less forbidding to the pedestrian or cyclist. When you live on a looooong block, you're much less likely to desire to disembark from your house and make the trek down the same block every day. We're humans. We like things that are visually, aurually, olfactorily(?) interesting and exciting. Yes, many of us prefer routine as well. But that's the beauty of the short block. Your commute to, say, the commercial main street two blocks away from your shorter block, means: 1) you will pass more corners, which may divert your trip and 2) you have choices in your journey! Shorter blocks means you can take any number of rational routes to get to your destination. With large blocks, we feel entrapped and restricted. The best way to deal with entrapment, it seems, has been the presence of an escape pod--an automobile.

I come to you not without visual aids.

Take a look at Kingsway West, a neighborhood about as far out from the original core as New Orleans' Uptown (Kingsway is actually a bit closer to its respective downtown!).

Kingsway West:






and Uptown New Orleans:






Absolutely NO cross streets between Kingshighway and Union? That's too long, especially since we're talking a series of blocks. Let's measure.

Walking west on Northland Ave. from Kingshighway to Union: 0.36 miles.

Walking west on Loyola from Napoleon to Jena in Uptown New Orleans: 0.06 miles.

That means, out of this one sample block, both of which are representative of their immediate surroundings, St. Louis's block is 6 times longer--6 New Orleans blocks!

When my mother came down to visit, she was forced to walk a lot. She would often ask me how far our destination was, since traveling on foot is not her preferred transit system. I found myself saying "2 St. Louis blocks" when it was 4 or more New Orleans ones.

Only Soulard seems to have blocks close to New Orleans' size--which makes sense. It was laid out by a French Creole.

Now, this is not the largest problem you can have. And there are very stable South Side blocks that are extremely long. Check out all of the Southampton neighborhood's residential streets for examples.

But the North Side got me thinking. Why not take advantage of vacant lots and create new through streets? It would help redensify the neighborhoods, add some commercial or office space, and make the North Side more pedestrian friendly in the process.

St. Louis, in my opinion, needs shorter blocks wherever it can get them. Ballpark Village, Pruitt Igoe site, the N. 22nd St. Urban Prairie--listen up! No superblocks!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Are you pro-Life or pro-Choice?

Sorry. This is no Election 2008 plug of any kind.

My post title is about a much different topic--land use.

Doing research at work, I stumbled upon a site with a nothing short of amazingly extensive cache of demographics.

It is appropriately called Demographia.

It's run by a man named Wendell Cox out of St. Louis's Metro East's own Belleville.

Essentially, it is pro-sprawl, or, as Cox would have you call it:

"pro-choice" with respect to urban development. People should have the freedom to live and work where and how they like.


His whole mission is to derail theories surrounding urban planning. His public enemies: density as a positive urban attribute, Portland, mass transit as something other than a tourist shuttle, any government intervention in land use, to name just a few.

Let me spare you most of the heavy reading: the site is a joke. It's intellectually dishonest as it absolutely bludgeons you with study after study, site after site of urban theories "disproven". Usually, demographics, as it were, are the culprits for condemnations of urbanism. You know, density causes poverty, right?

Anyhow, the pinnacle of it all that does deserve a click is his rental car tours of various cities across the world.

He labors to show that Boston is less dense than Los Angeles, though he somehow rambles his way through a couple pages without ever realizing he's admitted the central city is pretty dense, especially by American standards.

He calls Brasilia, Brazil--that country's capital, planned in the mid-century according to the autocentric "skyscrapers in a park" model of Le Corbusier--an unlikely merger of walkability and drivability. While Brasilia seems to have an impressive stock of modernist architecture, I doubt that its mini-interstates offer much in the way of a pedestrian culture. Not that that's really on Cox's mind, though.

Finally, he stops in St. Louis, which he compares to Carthage due to its population loss. Keep in mind, with every city, planners have done everything wrong, except when they've planned for automobiles in places with the right demographics--so he then can say that that automobility is what people want and it works.

Why a "rental car" tour? Because, unfortunately to Cox, tourists are typically subjected to mass transit, which is "a great way to the city as it used to be"--the historic cores. But now, he says, it is not representative of the fact that everywhere has sprawl, and a lot of it. By his logic, that's the building style of choice, where, away from the auspices of invasive planners peddling a lifestyle, community really happens.

Taking it all in, I liken Cox, and much of America, as can be seen on any media outlet, to a scrambling and fidgety crack addict. They're addicted to cars, the personal liberties they afford, and they have the greatest and most pressing agenda to cover up the social costs of a society utterly reliant on automobility. I am not merely talking environmental effects--surely, down the road, hydrogen fuel cell cars will replace the auto giants as they die a horrible, noisy, and painful death as defunct industries. I am talking political, social, and cultural effects--the privatization of our democracy.

The car has conveniently allowed many of us--most of us--to further stack already hectic schedules that become dependent on the speed and convenience of auto transport. It has allowed us a personal pod through which to avoid interactions that might be had on a bus, or a subway train, or some other form of mass transit. It has allowed us to retreat from our democratic ideals of community-building and instead to adopt a "what's in it for me?" mentality not just about government, but in our own lives as well.

When I see the talking heads on the news rattle on about gas prices and what do we do and how do we do it and how can we get back in our cars and oh, why me and pain at the pump and videos of people at gas stations saying I can't do this much longer...I really see the shriveled up crack addict rocking in the corner.

No, Mr. Cox, the government shouldn't force new urbanism down your throat. But it also shouldn't take a neutral stance when so much is at stake. Incentives, if you agree that there should be any for development, should go to the "smart growth" policies you so despise. I am "pro-choice" as well--but I think the supply side should not have received so many subsidies. No matter though--Cox is just another addict, pushing his own lifestyle on other people by way of bunk science and demographics.

Sadly, we, St. Louis, are responsible for him.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Wanted: exemplary infill

It's no secret that St. Louis's typical infill projects involve some rehashing of the red brick, two story foursquare plan--perhaps mansarded.

There has been very little vision in the area of infill in our city.

I will begin to scour the net for ideas and examples of successful infill that the city should emulate--or, at the very least, capture the same bold spirit of.

I will start with a Seattle example, a mixed use structure on a "main street" of sorts.



Notice the not-unprecedented but still interesting scale--a bit taller than the neighbors but nearly the same height as the structure a couple doors down.

The color scheme is, in my opinion, a complete success, drawing attention without looking overly flashy and resisting the temptation to go strictly for a temporary novelty.

The building is at once modern (the materials combined with tall, slender windows) and traditional (presence of a [cantilevered] cornice, maintenance of street wall). It looks neither tried and tired nor overly trendy.

If there were infill of this sort along Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. or some of St. Louis's many other decimated Main Streets, I'd be in tears of joy.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Just say NO to InBev!

I won't make any sort of rational argument here. I think all St. Louisans are aware, at least now, of Anheuser-Busch's stagnant stock price and America-reliant market in an internationalized business.

Still, as a preservationist and a lover of this city, I simply cannot fathom the possibility that St. Louis might lose control over its flagship company--an independent holdout from the 1850s. German immigrants transformed the then mostly French and Creole city during that decade.

In a brewer's paradise, A-B was one of the few that survived Prohibition.

Unlike McDonnell Douglas, the May Company, and AG Edwards, A-B seemed a fixture of our city that could never be taken away. Somehow, to those of us who don't have our noses in the business journals every day, A-B seemed immune to the vicissitudes of the corporate world in a globalizing economy.

With the takeover, regardless of whether or not InBev leaves A-B mostly the same (minus, of course, the several high-paying jobs they're bound to slash locally), part of the soul of this city will be lost.

Typically, on this blog, I talk about incremental losses to the city's heritage. It is disheartening to think that with all of that sort of loss going around in the city, A-B may compound it.

Like a child who's been warned to "just say no" to drug propositions, I wish the A-B board would do the same.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Miami and Louisiana - a remarkable intersection


View Larger Map

[You can play around with this map, by the way. It's not a screen capture!]

Using Google's Streetview option, I was gliding through Gravois Park when I stopped at this intersection. An immediate nostalgia for old south St. Louis swept over me. Here, at the southwest corner of Gravois Park, stand three intact storefront buildings (though none of them seems commercial anymore). The neighborhood around them, though down at the heels, is also mostly physically present. Just west on Miami looms the South Side National Bank Building (or SouthSide Tower), providing an excellent terminal vista for the street.

Not the park, not any one of the three buildings, and very few of the surrounding residential units seem masterfully designed, worthy of any awards or other recognition. And yet, in many ways, they are just right. I don't mean that in a "Three Bears" sense. I mean, the streetscape, the park, they're simply...correct. How things should be built: to the street, with individuality and uniqueness and yet humility, offering mixed uses and more shelf life, sturdy and sensitive all at once.

Our present built heritage represents enormous potential. It's an intersection like this one--which hopefully will not see demolitions anytime soon--that restores my faith in St. Louis's potential as a functioning, healthy city.

I had to do this post out of my severe depression over Ecology of Absence's devastating 1985 photos of North Florissant.

(Another great thing about this intersection? Dad's Cookies is juuuust down the road! Yummy!)

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Yes! Google Maps now has St. Louis Street View!

As was broken by the Post-Dispatch today, Google finally added St. Louis to the list of cities with Google Maps Street View features!

Go to maps.google.com, type in your St. Louis address, hit Street View, and surf away!

Very nice!

I checked out my parents house, which was totally decked out in Halloween decor, so I'm taking it these photos were taken around October 2007.

Enjoy.

Horrific murder rate this year is looking more and more likely.

Despite the overwhelmingly positive response to the recent Call to Oneness March, violence has continued at an unacceptable rate.

The latest P-D article tells of four slayings in one night in the city; one in Academy, one in Kingsway West, and two in Hyde Park.

I checked the Police Department's website for the most up to date crime stats. There were 63 murders between January and May 2008--only five months. We are on pace to top 150 homicides in one year. That's an unbelievably high murder rate of 50 per 100,000.

Our cities and our nation need leaders who will not shy away from bold, progressive policies that will reduce crime and reinvest in education so that our cities can be stabilized. This is a moral issue, whether or not the victims of violence we witness nearly every day are involved in gangs, are drug addicts, or any other factor that people typically use to diminish the weight of a particular crime.

We need unqualified action.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Tucker Boulevard should be, could be an urban street...

..if not for things like this:



That's the rendering for the new parking garage at Tucker and Clark. Even the announcement that the garage will feature LED lighting (changed periodically for sports and civic events) is simply not enough to distract from the simple fact that downtown needs no new parking provisions at all.

It should be clear enough by now that the more "convenient" (read: plentiful, cheap) parking is in an urban area, the less urban that area becomes. Visitors to and even residents of downtown may find it easier to drive everywhere and walk the least amount possible. All of the potential points between point A and point B are missed, leading to squandered opportunities for urbanism.

I saw the pared down plans for the Tucker facade of Park Pacific on Downtown St. Louis Business, and I am not impressed either. Another parking garage to front Tucker?

Already, the two bare minimalist high rises on Tucker just north of Chestnut and Pine are perhaps the most hideous high profile buildings anywhere--this coming from a supporter of mid-century modernism, mind you.

Tucker is so wide it appears to spar with Market Street for the title of preeminent downtown boulevard. It is tempting to say that the parking garage is better than the surface lot, but the surface lot is much more likely to be turned into offices, residential, clean industry, shops, or all of the above in the farther future.

We do not need two extra parking garages on this nearly (urbanistically speaking) dead street. It has the potential to be a real showcase street--a moniker New Orleans' similarly wide Canal Street is fighting valiantly to attain once more.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Honda Metropolitan Owner!

My household now has access to a Honda Metropolitan 49cc scooter. Dealing with New Orleans's Regional Transit Authority is doable, but not ideal.

The scooter goes about 38 m.p.h. max. Ours is a clean green.

But you already know about this scooter from Steve Patterson's Urban Review.

Here it is:

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Former Peabody/Darst Webbe Neighborhood now "Near Southside"

Just a nerdy update: on the City of St. Louis CIN Neighborhood page, it appears that the neighborhood formerly known as Peabody/Darst Webbe is now officially called the Near Southside Neighborhood.

Once upon a time, this was Bohemian Hill.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Mayor's Chief of Staff indirectly reveals that Blairmont has "major plans"

"This is the first guy who's gone up there with major plans in fifty years."

That is KMOX's Charlie Brennan quoting Mayor Slay's chief of staff Jeff Rainford, defending McKee's activities on the near North Side.

The broadcast is a couple days old, so this isn't news per se, but the quote bears repeating.

This is the first official (albeit secondhand) announcement that McKee actually has plans for the area. Now, we all expected the same. And they are apparently, as we also imagined, "major". But is it not the worst smack in the face to hear that the Mayor indeed has known McKee's plans for some time but has not said so much as a sentence to ease the minds of his worried constituents?

This is poor, conservative leadership in a city that needs bolder change.

Simply applying for whatever awards come up for "redeveloping cities" and aggressively campaigning for these PR opportunities is not enough, Mayor Slay. The citizens of St. Louis deserve to know what McKee's plans are and to be included. Our built environment should never have been so intentionally chipped away at.

Ironically, the whole to-do over the World Leadership Forum's award to St. Louis for "urban renewal" was predicated on rehabilitation of historic buildings. Former lead St. Louis Planner Rollin Stanley entitled the presentation "From Vacancy to Vibrancy". Both Slay and Stanley seemed to suggest their leadership brought about all the new rehabber activity in the city of St. Louis. It wasn't mentioned that the Mayor had nothing to do with the writing of the historic tax credit act in the late 1990s (pre-Slay) that is the actual reason for the newfound "vibrancy". It was also not mentioned that Slay and/or the Board of Aldermen not only presided over but had a major role in the dismantling of Gaslight Square, McRee Town, Bohemian Hill, the Century Building, and now the Blairmont neighborhoods.

That's a lot of neighborhoods to have joined the lengthy list of demolished neighborhoods in the relatively short span of Slay's two terms. And yet, he's at it again, promoting St. Louis's being named a finalist in the 2008 All-America City Award (dubbed the "'Oscar' of Community Recognition"). Interestingly, the "St. Louis Region" is up for an award typically given to cities, and occasionally to counties. Still, Slay is willing to accept credit for regional innovations such as the Great River Ring.

All I can say is I am happy I kept my voter registration in Missouri!

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Valentine Street: gone, like much of the rest of downtown

In an 1868 map of the city of St. Louis, an inconspicuous five blocks along the St. Louis riverfront bore the name of Almond Street.

At some unknown point, Almond became Valentine Street, named after St. Louis's first resident Catholic priest.

HABS has a photo of one of the buildings that used to line the street:



The intimate interaction with the street is, of course, unrivaled today. This photo was taken in 1936. Valentine, an east-west street that ran just between Spruce and Poplar and ended at Broadway, was erased for the Arch Grounds.

It's easy to pick out these HABS photos and note the mass devastation to the St. Louis built environment the clearance for the Arch project caused. But perhaps the piecemeal destruction of downtown post-Arch is worse--the Gateway Mall's replacement of Real Estate Row, the Mercantile (now US) Bank building's destruction of the Ambassador, the senseless loss of the Century Building to petty and shortsighted politics, and all stories of corporate boxes replacing real urbanism downtown.

Will we ever see a downtown St. Louis with lively blocks, human scale architecture, pedestrian friendliness at the expense of interstates, corporate boxes, etc.?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Preservation Directory has published my post on Paul McKee and the Blairmont scheme!

Hopefully this will give the story a bit more national exposure! Check it out at Preservation Directory's preservation blog, listed under "Endangered History".

Here is my earlier post with an excerpt.

Awesome! I wish they had accepted my later edited version though. Oh well.

[Oops, by the way. I fudged on the beginning of McKee's buying spree--saying 2006 rather than 2003. And McKee owned more than 500 parcels even on April 25, 2008, at the time of my writing. Ah well, hopefully it stirs someone up nonetheless!)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Can our north side borrow this mural from Cincy?



Thanks go to the Skyscraper Page forum's grasscat.

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