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Sunday, July 19, 2009

The St. Louis Business District: Walkable, but is it Walked?

Having just returned from Pittsburgh, I was absolutely blown away by their mile-after-mile of not-just-active but vibrant business districts in every corner of the city. Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill commercial district, or South Side on Carson Street, or Liberty in Bloomfield, etc. are not just walkable--they're walked!

Pittsburgh has about 310,000 residents at last Census count. Its metropolitan region has 2.4 million. St. Louis has about 355,000 residents with an area of around 3 million.

So what gives? Without delving into the two cities' respective histories and demographies, I want to know what your ideas are for increasing St. Louis's pedestrian friendliness with the ultimate goal of increasing the number of pedestrians. I know crime, racial tensions, weather, overly wide streets, lack of pedestrian amenities, lack of vital public spaces and other factors hold St. Louis down to a degree that Pittsburgh just does not.

But it is amazing to me that a city of St. Louis's size, compared to Pittsburgh, has only the Loop as a traditional urban business district where one can walk several blocks and see dozens of other individuals walking with them.

A lot of St. Louis's problems seem to rest in its leaders and residents' belief in the mantra: if you provide parking, they will come. Yet, as we can see with the popularity of the Delmar Loop, it's the goal of having a commercial street with high foot traffic that really draws people. The people-watching appeal is undeniable when walking through any commercial area--whether a mall, the Loop, or Carson Street in Pittsburgh. Yet St. Louis's leaders (and even residents, often) are complicit in providing plentiful parking spaces.

New Orleans's Magazine Street is another great example. In its six miles, most of it retail and mixed use buildings, there are no parking garages. The street is active and heavily foot-trafficked.

St. Louisans also often cite a lack of parking as the reason for a particular business's failure. Yet is the equation that simple? Might that driving customer have struggled to find a space (what--2 blocks away tops?) if that same place had an awesome sign out front that drew them in; had amazing customer service or a unique product; had several stores and restaurants nearby to make the parking experience worthwhile? Better yet, what if more residents surrounding the establishment had walked from home?

Having visited and lived in cities of similar size to St. Louis--Pittsburgh and New Orleans--I have to say that this is one of St. Louis's greatest downfalls and one of its biggest detractors from claiming urbanism. There is a pronounced dearth of healthy business districts that are not only walkable (Manchester, Macklind, South Grand) but also regularly walked. Luckily, this seems to be slowly changing as some commercial areas become more popular and see new business openings (see previous three examples).

Yet the model of reinvigoration of a St. Louis business district always seems contingent on developing "destinations" out of individual buildings rather than marketing the whole district as a commodity. This leads to adjacent parking lots and the notion that a business district must "graduate" to walkability only after being deemed a "parkable" destination.

I have much hope for Cherokee Street as St. Louis's first and foremost example of relatively unbroken, walkable, and walked urbanism outside the Loop and Euclid in the CWE. With the Great Streets Initiative, South Grand could finally reach the critical mass of pedestrians as well. And North 14th Street in Old North at least sports the two blocks with an almost intact street wall.

Where do you fall on this discussion? Should we allow parking lots for the burgeoning district to reel people in, then allow demand to the fill those parking lots in with buildings? Or should we aggressively market existing business districts as urban places and significantly restrict all but on-street parking in order to encourage a) people to park farther away and therefore walk farther, b) people to simply walk to the district if they are within, say, one half mile distance, and c) people to take mass transit to arrive at these business districts?


STLgasm said...

I have spent a lot of time in Pittsburgh and I couldn't agree more. There is definitely a walking culture in that city that has long been absent in most of St. Louis. I partly chalk it up to being the "Gateway to the East Coast" - after all, Pittsburgh is within a days' drive of New York City, and I think that definitely influences the urban character of the city.
The neighborhoods of Pittsburgh are also much more contained than neighbhorhoods in St. Louis. The mountains and rivers force neighborhoods to remain compact and cohesive.
Pittsburgh is also one of the safest big cities in America, which probably adds to the vibrancy on the sidewalks. I also notice that there is not the same negative stigma of "riding the bus" in Pittsburgh. Little old ladies, hipsters, businessmen, etc. all gather at the bus stations to get around much more so than here.
St. Louis has the bones to be a strong pedestrian city again. It's sad to observe that the majority of pedestrians seem to be walking from their cars to a restaurant (or vice-versa). Enough with the goddamn parking. We will never create a critical mass as long as adjacent parking accompanies every business and development project.

Brian said...

I think there's just a general lack of connectivity in a lot of parts of the city - maybe filling in the gaps will help improve the number of walkers. The gap between SLU and the CWE seems to be filling in, as does the gap between SLU/Midtown and downtown. But still, it seems like so many places feel like islands. Soulard really isn't far from downtown when you think about it, but with the sea of surface lots south of Busch Stadium, it certainly feels like it.

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