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Friday, February 6, 2009

SLU says "Be Urban"...Really?

Check out this promotional video for St. Louis University. Click on "Be Urban" to see what I'm talking about.

It's nice to see SLU try to market their urban location; the brief shots of downtown, Midtown, and Central West End were nice and did pique my interest as a lover of cities.

But I am a little bothered by their emphasis on the amount of greenery they have, since, of course, a lot of respectable and even beautiful urban buildings came down to produce that coveted "green space".

I can only imagine the Midtown of the era between 1970 and 1995. I'm sure it was a dark place, with ever increasing vacancy and crime. Pruitt-Igoe, not too far away, had failed; the notion of "progress" as a linear flight of stairs was dying, and a whole generation of rapid suburbanization seemed to, once and for all, render struggling urban neighborhoods obsolete.

Yet SLU has torn so much of that vilified built environment down that it's difficult to describe them as products of their time--especially because their ongoing attempts to buy up all of Midtown/Grand Center and hold a monopoly over dining, entertainment, and boarding options is a terrific threat to urbanism today. Their grafting of historic buildings here and there shows the carelessness and arrogance of an amateur painter blotting out the details of a masterwork to produce a desired "cleaner" or more organized vision.

While I realize that SLU must try to increase enrollment, and thinks that this is the best strategy ("we have greenspace--lots of it--in the heart of the city!"), truly they have only held this neighborhood back and kept it from connecting the east-west spine of Downtown-Midtown-Central West End. I suppose the greater question, to me, is where are the city residents who care? I realize that the neighborhood has been drained of its non-SLU residential units long ago. Why do the citizens of St. Louis never get to dictate, at least in part, what their built environment looks like? The keys to the city are in the hands of megadevelopers and huge landowners that are not at all accountable to the citizens of St. Louis.

McKee. SLU. The Catholic Church. You name it: they own this city and have the right to do what they want with it because they receive little, if any, protest. It's time for a wider vision of St. Louis, one that sees SLU's closure of Josephine Baker Street and demolition of the Livery Stable for a surface parking lot as an affront to the City of St. Louis, not just to the Locust Business District and to Midtown.

SLU, please, follow your own advice: Be Urban!

Help develop a master plan to guide future developments. But don't dominate the process.

Encourage, do not shun, small entrepreneurs and investors from revitalizing what is left of the small- and mid-scale historic core of the neighborhood.

Do not demolish buildings for parking lots. If the campus is truly connected to those surrounding neighborhoods as was shown on the video, there is no need for a car at all, right?

Look to Olive Street between Spring and Vandeventer for future student housing, if the demand is there. Consult an architect to do so--no more historicist crap with faux-patinaed roofs.

In an urban neighborhood, an overabundance of green space with no defined street walls causes a vacuous effect that is unsettling to the average urban dweller. Create intelligent green spaces that will be well used and enjoyed. Surrender dead zones to urbanization.

Personally, I would reopen Spring as a through-street. The corner of Spring and Laclede could then be restored, its urban buildings replaced. Even the clock tower area could be reconfigured to allow urban buildings to flank the circle.

Enough from me, though. What did you think of the video? It's nice to hear and see SLU say the words "Be Urban"; I just want them to learn what "urban" really is. Because, to me, urban is not a mere ability to see tall buildings rising from endless expanse of empty parkland from your window. Urban is a function of density, activity, visual complexity (not coherence, necessarily), walkability, et cetera--all things that Midtown is presently lacking.


ablank said...

Michael said that video would remind me of the idiots I went to school with--and it did! Also, did you notice that the girl from the small town in the video basically said that going to school at SLU made sure that she *didn't* have to "be urban?" And that they used the more effeminate male to talk about Central West End? And the more ethnic-looking female to talk about South Grand's ethnic restaurants? Oh, SLU.

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