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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.


Chris said...

I agree that we've treated our main thoroughfares terribly. Gravois is a perfect example of a neglected street from a policy standpoint. Not only is it way too wide, it is pedestrian unfriendly at every intersection, it seems.

That being said, the transformation of the major avenues of St. Louis from residential to commercial has been unfolding for over 80 years since the bond issue passed allowing for the widening of streets. Commercial interests have been converting homes to shops and restaurants since the 19th century (Pho Grand is a great example).

Alex B. said...

I spend (waste?) a lot of time on Google Maps, and always have to laugh when I see an American fast food restaurant in a beautiful old building of the type that they would tear down in their homeland to build a new automotive dining center. Let's see if I can link to an example:,14.42046&sspn=0.431748,1.234589&ie=UTF8&view=map&cid=16655030229103579212&ved=0CBsQpQY&hq=mcdonalds&hnear=&ll=50.080663,14.423504&spn=0,359.990355&t=h&z=17&layer=c&cbll=50.080021,14.423302&panoid=rFwvBSxOmUca0MELxayBqg&cbp=12,345.04,,0,-13.42

Matt M. said...

Prague is so beautiful it's ridiculous.

Thanks for posting that example.

Kara said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

I once went to a McDonals in Cambridge, England made to look like Roman ruins.

Anonymous said...

I really agree on your statement that "t would be nice to see Wendy's open inside one of the storefronts in the area"..Thanks for sharing..
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