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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mayor Slay Talks LRA Successes, but Cites a Failure

Mayor Slay's blog,, is host to a variety of discussions about city politics and development as well as general announcements from City Hall.

Recently, Mayor Slay took to explaining how LRA works in a three part series. You may read each section here: Part One / Part Two / Part Three.

This blog appreciates when an elected official--or his staffers--take the time out to explain circuitous processes of governmental agencies. I will note that I think all of what was in the Mayor's posts should be clearly laid out on the LRA's web site. But at least we attentive ones now know.

I was most interested in the third part of the series, explaining LRA successes.

In this portion, the Mayor mentions that the LRA worked with the Guardian Angels Daycare Facility to sell them a vacant commercial row for their newly constructed facility on North Vandeventer at Finney. I don't count this as a success--at all. See below.

This is the building that was demolished, via a blog post at Ecology of Absence entitled "Commercial Rows Fall on Vandeventer":

The handsome Italianate row occupied only the far northeastern corner of a large group of parcels eventually controlled by Guardian Angels.

Now take a look at the replacement:

From an urban design standpoint, we've steered straight off a cliff. Why--at the very least--could Guardian Angels not have used the facade of the old building as its face to the city? Proper urban zoning should have made the new structure's setback illegal anyway. But now we have a building with all the architectural charm of a QuikTrip occupying the spot of a reusable North Side commercial building. I realize the costs would be higher to preserve and stabilize a facade, but the public benefit of a more pedestrian-friendly facility and a preserved historic street wall would go far. The surrounding Vandeventer neighborhood is quickly becoming another St. Louis urban prairie; buildings like the former 1121-33 N. Vandeventer lent a sense of character and stability to the struggling neighborhood, even in their vacancy.

It's also worth noting that Guardian Angels could have built around this building, given their land-wasting suburban site plan. But the LRA is connected in no way to urban planning and design. Mayor Slay himself says that the LRA tries to preserve all buildings located in a city historic district, but this Vandeventer site isn't even protected by preservation review, much less a historic district.

Here the Mayor hits upon an important point: the only time our urban landscape receives any planning and design considerations is when a piece of land is inside a historic district. Historic preservation activities should not be a city's only legal teeth to demand a better, more urban built environment. Our city deserves comprehensive planning so mistakes such as this Guardian Angels building do not occur across the cityscape.

The point is illustrated further by Mayor Slay when we read that the (two) aldermen representing the surrounding neighborhoods are attempting to recreate a former commercial district (Sarah-Finney) atop a series of LRA-owned vacant lots. See them here, on Finney, on the Google Map.

Why try to recreate a commercial district when you've just trumpeted the demolition of a crucial piece of that former district? If the building were preserved, the LRA could have helped Guardian Angels to construct a new facility on the commercial street that is to be resurrected. In ideal terms, there would have been urban design guidelines in place as well. The old Italianate row could have been spared and used as part of the commercial district reconstruction.

These kinds of senseless decisions happen when you have a vacuum of urban planning and such decentralized leadership (note that two aldermen are involved, not one).

This may be a success in the broad term of "development", but, to me, it shows a failure of the LRA to integrate their activities with urban planning and design.

But not to Mayor Slay, who says:

None of these new developments – or others — would not be possible if LRA did not thoughtfully administer the land parcels under its control with a vision for the best possible bright future for our neighborhoods. That’s why LRA has the policies it has.

I respectfully disagree.


Anonymous said...

Pretty ridiculous. Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

Vanishing STL said...

As you mentioned Matt, this is clearly a zoning problem. Good zoning could have forced the new building to the sidewalk line, and if a commercial district is really wanted, zoning could force a first floor commercial use. Alderman saying they want to re-create a commercial district here without either zoning or a specific detailed redevelopment overlay plan is a sick joke.

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