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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blairmont. McEagle Project. NorthSide.

With so many bloggers shedding further light and offering constructive comments on the recent Blairmont plan (the Post-Dispatch has caught on, too), I hope you forgive me for a somewhat narrative-style post more laden with commentary than solutions/suggestions.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was in St. Louis last week and was able to attend Thursday's public announcement--McKee's first public appearance and official announcement of his plans for dozens of acres of the Near North Side.

It seems that the planners have gotten everything right for this project. I fully endorse sustainable design, new and improved transit options, urban formatted retail, and new jobs for the city.

The one thing they completely botched? Scale.

By now, St. Louisans should be wary of the promises of a silver bullet scheme. There have been so many in the city's history and its recent past.

Lumiere Casino was going to salvage Laclede's Landing. I see more traffic and people within an area generally thought of as the Landing, but it's doubtful that the project has improved the viability of the compressed little district. Somehow, it's still not possible to rebuild the fallen Switzer Building. And the only thing possible for the former Port St. Louis residential development? An "observation wheel" that's bound to turn the Landing into even more of a dysfunctional and unfriendly urban funhouse. In addition, Lumiere requested and was granted the demolition of the McPheeters warehouse complex (for what?) along with a swath of North First Street for a surface parking lot. The city has simply handed the keys to the city over to Lumiere and there is little evidence that it's actually benefiting the area it was meant to benefit. (Granted I'm sure it's revenue added to the city's coffers, but what happens when the glitz and glamor wear off and Lumiere becomes a tired-looking megastructure with an odd lighted crest?).

A new ballpark for the Cardinals complete with an adjacent village was supposed to build on a revitalization in the southern portion of downtown. "Ballpark Village" will be a softball field and surface parking lot for years, in all likelihood, before development begins. When built, Ballpark Village will likely be a smattering of boring Class A office space that will suck space from other parts of downtown. I hope I'm wrong, but this is the stated goal of our mayor with the Ballpark Village development. With a narrow vision, the city sees a wedge of land north of the stadium as a silver bullet project, not realizing that working in tandem with the Cupples redevelopment, the Chouteau's Landing project, and rebuilding the life-sucking parking garages around the stadium would already constitute a "village".

So suddenly Paul McKee, Jr. awoke to discover that north St. Louis matters to the whole city and region--much like Laclede's Landing and downtown. Yet the myopic vision is still the same, no matter how well the urbanistic concepts (mixed use, walkability, etc.) seem to be incorporated. The notion of one developer with total control simply doesn't work for vibrant urban areas. Sure, "NorthSide" is set to have development partners, but I tend to think this is more out of necessity than a realization of the organic nature of urban growth and development. Plus, MODOT, one of the partners, has shown itself to almost completely disregard the residents of St. Louis City. Where was the series of public meetings that should have occurred regarding the alignment of the new Mississippi River Bridge? I'm sure there were some, but should there not have been a massive, massive campaign to inform all affected parties? I may not have been in St. Louis, but I didn't see too much coming from the Post-Dispatch either.

The scale of NorthSide is too large and the development team already suspect. The promise that McKee will "save every building he can save" and designate them "Legacy Properties" is already rendered moot by the fact that Near North Side architectural gems--vernacular, mid-19th century architecture not to be found anywhere else in the country and certainly never to be replaced--have been felled by the dozens. Plus, as Robert Powers has articulated on his blog, McKee could have shown himself a North Side hero if he had simply renovated all of his owned properties within the reviving Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Instead, he has slowed down that neighborhood's remarkable progress and now nonchalantly insists he'll gain control over the property that is the resilient neighborhood's future renovation showpiece--the Mullanphy Emigrant House. This development team--and its partners--have little sense of the history and importance of north St. Louis no matter whose father operated the Cass Avenue streetcar. If they did, they'd understand that buildings like the Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings that they owned--on Cass--were crucial to the existence of that very streetcar.

Yet we can already see the pattern renewing itself: the city is handing the keys over to McEagle. Political backing? Check. Massive TIF? Check. A PR campaign that markets the project as the "only way to save" north St. Louis? Check.

The scary part of this development is how little trust the citizens can have in their own government. The involved North Side Aldermen have gone from outrage to co-optation. The Mayor and his Chief of Staff have known of the development for a long, long time. Michael Allen and Rob Powers' work in exposing the deplorable conditions of Blairmont properties has made a liar out of McKee. How? If he thinks the only way to assemble vast tracts of land (a questionable task in and of itself) is to remain secretive so as not to stir up the speculators, then his scheme's cover was blown long ago. That would have given said speculators enough time to imitate his actions. But no one did. Government has been behind this from day one. And there is no Planning Agency with teeth to speak of that, when the government pushes this development through despite any and all opposition, will then review the plans and make sure they fit in an urban and historic context. There is also no Preservation Review because Clarence Harmon had the forethought to make Preservation Review an opt-out, ward-by-ward system. So there is basically no governmental mechanism to either resist the development outright or demand that it be better.

That leads me to my assertion that, despite all of this, I am optimistic. There is a group of "wired" St. Louisans--bloggers, UrbanSTL forumers, and other young professionals--that genuinely want to improve the quality of life of their city. They're educated already or are educating themselves on what makes a vibrant city and what quashes vibrancy. They're learning to scrutinize "economic development" and to critique plans that promise jobs/development but are inappropriate in scale, design, or implementation. Beyond that, there is also a good group of dedicated residents of the project area who are willing to fight for sound development. I had the pleasure of meeting Sheila Rendon of the Neighbors for Social Justice in St. Louis Place, and I believe her voice, and other residents, will be critical in crafting a better plan.

Despite Lumiere, there's still a huge interstate barrier that reduces the Landing to a single-use nightlife district with extreme parking pressures. Despite clearance of the old Busch stadium, there's still an undeveloped parcel with dreary parking garages surrounding it. Silver Bullet projects need more than one developer's vision. They need a public to refine their visions and see them to proper implementation.

A public voice founded on civic optimism and community betterment is growing stronger, louder. The NorthSide project could provide the tipping point where a broad coalition of St. Louis residents unites, finally, to ensure that these silver bullet schemes are refined and do what they're supposed to do: enhance the quality of life in the City of St. Louis.


Bridgett said...

I think that's well put.

Unknown said...

I agree with you completely and I'd like to add one point. The biggest problem inhibiting the revitalization of the city is that there is far too much available redevelopable land and greenfields which are zoned for suburban development on the outskirts of the metropolitan area. Until there is strong bistate regional planning and a cap on outward growth, the city will never have projects other that ball park villages, downtown casinos, and large scale redevelopment efforts such as this one. Until you restrict the supply of available land in the suburbs there will never be the required market conditions for the redevelopment of the city's core. If you want small scale organic growth within the core you have to cap available land on the outskirts of the city.

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