This Week in Urbanism: The Problem with the Suburbs | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

Missouri Metro’s weekly podcast, This Week in Urbanism, just released its second episode titled “The Problem with the Suburbs”. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify Fridays at 7AM and supporters on Patreon have exclusive access to the content one day early. If you would like to support the channel, head over to patreon.com/brianadler.

For those who cannot listen to the podcast, below is a text readout of this episode’s contents:

You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro

I’m your host, Brian Adler, and I am excited that you’re joining me for our very second episode. If you’re new here, This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.

Today is February 11th, 2022 and I’ve had some great conversations with some of our listeners over the past week and I have some new ideas that I hope to implement over the next several weeks. Most importantly, I want to do more to educate folks who are new to the idea of urbanism and work to build a larger coalition. Whether you’re an environmental activist, affordable housing enthusiast, a pro-growth, market-lovin’ business person, historian, academic, or already a staunch urbanist – I believe there’s a home for you in this big tent of a movement.

I firmly believe that urbanism is both essential and oft forgotten as one of the most important means to combatting climate change, but I also know that the world rightly or wrongly revolves around money. The fact of the matter is that economic growth as we see it today cannot continue inevitably without causing serious harm. That doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot find ways to make money. I will posit over the next however many podcasts that we can grow, and we can grow fast, if we change the rules of our cities. We can make money, support one another, make our cities better, and keep the planet habitable for generations to come. There’s so much we can do, but we have to do it together and build that coalition.

But how do we build a coalition when so many people have never considered urbanism? Although I’m in an Echochamber, residing in academic circles, I have been out enough to see that most people see nothing wrong with single-family zoning, sprawl, cars, parking, or the suburbs more broadly. And, for that matter, why would they? That’s what I want to talk about today. Today’s question is “What’s bad about single family homes, suburbs, and single-family exclusive zoning?”. And, of course, before diving in, I want to be crystal clear that there is nothing inherently wrong about living in a single family dwelling. What I want to make clear is that the market and policy choices that ultimately led to single family homes being the default for cities was (1) founded upon intentional segregation by race, (2) designed to gut urban areas, (3) one of the single biggest causes and contributors to climate change, and (4) costing you and our cities huge, unnecessary sums of money. What we can do about this will come at a later date!

I admittedly have a lofty goal for this single, short podcast, but I think this is really important. We have to first get more people to see the problem with the suburbs before we expect to bring them into our coalition or to support policies that progress urban causes.

So let’s start with our first goal. Calling out the racist intent with single family homes and the suburban sprawl we see today is really rather easy because the effects are still visible and they were literally codified, AKA written down and more recently than you probably thought possible. The US has been selling a uniform “American Dream” for decades that emphasizes a single family home, golden retriever, nuclear family, and a white-picket fence. The GI Bill and introduction of the Federal Housing Administration in the early to mid-1900s laid the groundwork for a white flight to the suburbs. The FHA introduced the practice of redlining in the 1930s, refusing to insure loans in predominantly Black communities that existed near the city center. The GI Bill was, for some time, almost exclusively available for white veterans.

As these early programs introduced another form of institutional racism and segregation, they also ensured that growth sputtered in city centers and occurred almost exclusively on the outskirts – creating what we know today as the suburbs. The FHA subsidized builders who produced massive, soulless subdivisions and many of these included restrictive covenants, which for those who haven’t heard of them before, are deed restrictions that prevented Black, and often other minority groups, from being allowed to purchase any of these homes. In the St. Louis metro area, many of the homes in the suburbs still have these deed restrictions in place even though they are not acted upon or legally enforceable anymore. A recent report from the St. Louis Public Radio showed that over 30,000 properties in St. Louis still have those restrictions.

Again, I want to emphasize that this was not just in St. Louis. This was Federal policy. The FHA had an underwriting manual that said, and I quote “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities”, meaning that they would not insure loans to Black families looking to purchase homes in the suburbs that white Americans were headed toward. Moreover, the FHA recommended actual barriers, like highways and walls, to separate races.

To boil it down, the suburbs were created largely after World War II, white veterans were given huge subsidies through the GI Bill and the FHA to buy suburban homes, which were also subsidized heavily on the manufacturing end, and Federal policy did not stretch to offer the same benefits to Black Americans or veterans. Instead, they were literally denied loans, restricted from suburban neighborhoods, and steered toward communities that looked like them. Yikes.

It feels like an injustice to move on when there is so much to talk about here, but I want to save some time for the other three points. I think we can come back to the racist themes of city planning and policy frequently on this podcast because they’re so apparent in our history.

Number two – the rush to the suburbs was designed to gut existing urban areas. Some of this is really simple, too. White flight, or the large movement of white families from the cities to the suburbs, must inherently exist to the benefit to one area and to the detriment of the other. The areas they left would be deprived of tax revenue, whether we’re thinking sales taxes or property taxes, and this created positive feedback loops that continually worsened city services like schools, parks, public safety, and more. This also increased vacancy and abandonment. Social scientists have shown a high correlation between increased vacancy and increased crime, not to mention that reduced funding for other social services like schools and infrastructure can have hugely detrimental impacts.

But there was also a more sinister element at play. And trust me,  sinister actions toward Black communities were common place in the 1900s. Just look to the burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. One of the most prosperous Black US communities was burned, block by block, by white Americans. Or, we can also see this in the East St. Louis riots in 1917, where White Americans murdered between 39 and 150 Black citizens and burned homes to the ground in 3 days of continued violence.

Sinister actions can be seen even in dull policy, however. Post World War II, planners and policy makers were rushing to eradicate areas that they seemed to believe were slums. These areas were typically very high density within cities and often had large, non-white populations. This was a process called Urban Renewal, and contrary to some popular belief, there was actually some pretty big support for urban renewal, even by some Black Americans, in the early days….but that did not continue for long. While some actual slums were cleared, the US already had policies that were in place and working, like the anti-tenement law of 1901, that were designed to improve living conditions. While there were still high density neighborhoods with poor living conditions, many of the neighborhoods that were bulldozed were actually thriving, predominantly Black, communities.

City planners, while building out the suburbs, wanted their urban areas to be free of density and instead host large monuments, expressways, and institutions. This is an idea that has often been called the City Beautiful movement. In St. Louis, we have a couple of crazy examples of how this played out. To accommodate the Gateway Arch, a massive monument, the City of St. Louis cleared not one, not two, but 37 city blocks by the river in the heart of downtown. This was a real, walkable neighborhood that sat vacant for years until the Arch was completed. Planners chose a monument over thousands of residents. Another neighborhood, Vandeventer Place, was torn down to build a hospital. Or, the neighborhood of Mill Creek, was all bulldozed strictly to clear slums that weren’t actually slums, for industrial uses. The homes of Mill Creek resembled some of the finest homes that we preserve and adore in Lafayette Square today. I encourage you to check out some of the historical archives. What we lost is unimaginable, and few discuss the huge impact these decisions had on the communities that lived there.

So what we can see here, to summarize, is that white Americans moved, Black families couldn’t, and simultaneously their neighborhoods were bulldozed. Not a great combination there.

Let’s do a bit of a 180 now to discuss why we should care about this from an ecological perspective, which, I know, is really quite different from what we were talking about. Let’s first start with some uncomfortable facts. According to the EPA, the transportation sector accounts for 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Yikes. That’s huge. Of that amount, 58% can be attributed to light duty vehicles, and 24% to medium and heavy duty trucks.

According to Edmunds.com, the top 3 grossing vehicles sold this last year are, in this order, the Ford F150, the Chevrolet Silverado, and the RAM 1500. These are all pickup trucks, and big ones at that. This is troubling because they’re huge, heavy, and take a whole lot of gas. These are not efficient, and yet they are extraordinarily popular.

This is important because if you live in the suburbs, chances are that you’re going to have to commute via a car. There are a few reasons for that: (1) US cities woefully underfund transit, (2) US Cities tore out transit systems like street trolleys in the early 1900s to accommodate gas-guzzling vehicles (actually, Los Angeles and St. Louis had huge trolley systems, but they’re literally just gone), (3) it’s hard to build transit in low density neighborhoods and not waste a lot of money, and (4) people are unreasonably scared of transit.

Suburbs, naturally, are built along the edges of cities. It’s too expensive to build single family homes on large lots in the middle of cities because there are so many higher and better uses for those areas. So they have to be built far away, and if you live far away, you still have to get to work, to the grocery store, etc. The way to do that is via the highway, and boy, have we built those. Unfortunately, this commute is devastating for your health, our shared health, and our climate.

Okay, so some of you might then reasonably conclude that this will all begin to get better with the onset of electric vehicles. Those of you who pre-ordered the electric F150, those of you who drive Teslas or BMW I3s, this one is going to hurt. Your persona vehicle is still going to have a huge contribution to climate change and cause horrible damage to the environment. Sorry.

To access your lovely suburban house, the city has to build a road to get there. It also has to build an absolutely insane amount of utility connections: Sewers, fiberoptic cables, electric, gas, etc. A lot of people don’t realize this, but development and expansion is crazy expensive, and the entire city’s tax base usually subsidizes these single family developments in most subdivisions. Then, of course, there’s the cost to maintain the roads. To police the roads. To maintain the utilities. In fact, cities often take out debt to build further into the suburbs, which can only be paid if they continue to grow, out into the suburbs. It is extremely unsustainable. And, of course. All of that asphalt, all of that square footage and the energy it takes to heat and cool it, and all of that water usage for those lawns, it adds up. So your electric vehicle is still going to use those road and utility and energy networks, and with how heavy electric vehicles are, road maintenance will have to increase too. Not to mention that the recycling of batteries is disastrous and that the chemicals can have horrendous consequences.

No, no matter how you put it, living out there is unsustainable. Electric vehicles don’t change that even if they’re marginally better. These developments still contribute to automobile dependency, which ultimately contribute to climate change. A great study from the University of Ottawa (and yes, I know this is a Canadian institution, but they have similar zoning) suggested that suburban families usually drive 3x more on average than those who live in urban centers.

In the interest of time, I think I should move on to number four: discussing how single family homes cost our cities a ton of money. I already touched on this a moment ago with the road and utility connections, but there are also huge opportunity costs, negative externalities on other communities, and costs that you, yourself will bear when trying to buy into the crazy market.

I think I’ll start with how you will lose money first and foremost. That same study suggests that people who live in the suburbs will generally spend, on average, a little over $3400 in annual costs that are borne due to their location in the suburbs. That is compared to an average cost of a home in an urban area of $1400.  So what costs more? Everything. Transportation (think car repairs, gas, miles, depreciation, no bus or train access), fire and police, trash, roads (this one was over 10X as much), water, school bussing, and more. You’ll pay for that directly and indirectly. Unfortunately, we’ll also pay for that if you live in the same municipal boundaries, subsidizing the higher costs by your side.

OF course, you’ll also feel these costs when you’re trying to buy a house in the first place. Because of single family zoning, you’ll find that properties tend to only have, well, one house. This creates huge inventory issues, something that buyers are feeling right now across the country. With decreased supply and stagnant or upward demand, which is likely with population growth, then prices will considerably increase.

One thing that I want to hit home here is that, perhaps single family usage can be okay, but our zoning laws are really messed up. In Los Angeles, apartments are banned, literally banned by zoning, on approximately 80% of all residential land. That means that even if a developer bought your property, they could not build apartments on it. That means that, save for only a few areas, they cannot build dense housing at all. This also can create huge competition for the areas in which developers can build, driving up costs, and making it just about impossible to feasibly build anything less than market rate or luxury units because developers cannot make any profit doing affordable housing. Los Angeles is not unique, in fact, many Western cities are some of the worst in this regard. They lack a middle housing of medium density that can often be found in legacy cities.

So if you’re wondering why there’s a housing shortage, single family zones are one of the foremost causes. When you can’t build anything with density in most of the city, how are you supposed to provide affordable housing for your citizens? You can’t. It’s almost impossible. These rules disadvantage those already struggling the most, and planners and citizens alike do their best to preserve the status quo – preventing condos or apartments being built next to them all the time. The amount of effort that goes into preserving communities for only those who live there now, and not to welcoming more in the future, is astonishing. Of course, this also amounts to humungous opportunity costs. There is so much value that could be created for residents and developers alike if our zoning rules allowed for it. Then, the buildings that result would have retail opportunities for small businesses, offices, and help create more walkable communities. The value is there, but we aren’t allowing it to take place.

How are you supposed to fight climate change like this?

Well, you’re going to have to fight to change these policies.

That’s why this episode, and admittedly a pretty feisty one, is designed to get you on board. I want you to realize how important this topic is. Urbanism is a tool we can use to change our cities for the better. To make our communities more welcoming. To grow our economically equitably and environmentally. It is one of the best tools we have, and here’s what you can do:

  1. Go to your city council meetings and fight for smart density and walkable cities
  2. Welcome more neighbors, because while you own your house, you have no right to your entire neighborhood, not if you want to create a more active, diverse, affordable, and inclusionary community. Not if you want to fight climate change.
  3. Use transit if you can, when you can
  4. Vote for pro density candidates
  5. Show up to zoning commission, planning commission, or similar meetings. Usually only those who are angry show up. Let’s change that. If you’re in St. Louis, ask me when, and ask me how, and I’ll be the first to join you.

This Week in Urbanism, I want you to help me create a better world. Let’s get on this, together. Next week we’re going to keep the conversation going, and hopefully have a few exciting developments to showcase. Also be on the lookout for some interviews with local leaders and academics in the near future. Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

Missouri Metro Launches New Weekly Podcast: This Week in Urbanism

Episode 1 of This Week in Urbanism is now available and ready to stream on Spotify!

New episodes Fridays at 7AM.

This Week in Urbanism is designed to showcase latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis.

This episode touches on new infrastructure that promotes pedestrian and bike safety, housing developments in the Central Corridor, and affordable housing in Dutchtown.

WU Med Breaking Ground on new CWE Siteman Ambulatory Center

After weeks of speculation and curiosity among CWE residents and St. Louis urbanists that enveloped a highly visible lot in the heart of the Central West End, Washington University School of Medicine has finally revealed their highly anticipated plans to the community.

Although a massing study (shown below) indicated that a large building would front Forest Park Parkway, work was beginning before official renderings were publicized – an unusual step for an organization that generally does the opposite. The rendering and a news release from Washington University School of Medicine shares information on a brand new facility in the Central West End. The site, located at the intersection of Forest Park Parkway and Taylor Ave., fronts a building occupied by the University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy and is currently just a surface parking lot.

Siteman Ambulatory Care Center – Rendering from Washington University School of Medicine

The Washington University School of Medicine and Barnes-Jewish complex continues to grow as the hospital solidifies its status as one of the best treatment centers in the United States. In particular, the Siteman Cancer Center was recently rated as the 11th best cancer center in the country by U.S. News and World Reports. As its capacity is still limited, WU Med is embarking upon the project rendered below to add to their capacity to treat and support its patients.

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Massing Released prior to Rendering

The Siteman Ambulatory Center is intended to consolidate most outpatient care needs into one facility. The plan calls for over 650,000 square feet of total usable space. As the St. Louis Post Dispatch reports, there will be “96 exam rooms, 88 infusion pods for chemotherapy and immunotherapy, plus radiology, breast imaging, and hematology and chemistry laboratory space”.

Although work on the foundation is now underway, the estimated completion date for the project is in 2024. By then, the Cortex, CWE, and Midtown will host a number of new, dense constructions. With the neighboring Neuroscience facility underway less than a mile away on Duncan, the Cortex K project on Sarah, and apartments proposed on Lindell by Lux Living, the area will see a continued emphasis on density and walkability in the coming years.

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Ronald McDonald House on Chouteau Poised to Revitalize Whole Block, Help More People

The Ronald McDonald House, an organization dedicated to providing affordable housing for families visiting St. Louis for children’s medical care, has long been planning to upgrade its facilities in the region. The organization currently has a capacity limited to 59 families due to their facility limitations, leading to a wait list that they hope the additional room will alleviate.

While St. Louisans may not be the direct beneficiaries of the Ronald McDonald House, sick children and their families across Missouri often must come to St. Louis to access needed medical care. Often that means staying for a long time at Barnes-Jewish Hospital, Children’s Hospital, or Siteman Cancer Center. With that in mine, it is very important that the Ronald McDonald House should be as close as possible to relieve the burden on families.

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The proposed development will be located on the 4300 block of Chouteau in Forest Park Southeast. It will sit adjacent to the highway (64/40), just across from the Central West End where all of the healthcare facilities are located. According to RMHC, “The House will be equidistant from St. Louis Children’s Hospital and SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital adjacent to Shiners Hospitals for Children – St. Louis. “

Location pin pointed on Google Maps

Despite the quickly accelerating property values in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood and dwindling land availability, the North side of 4300 block of Chouteau (much like the Drury-held properties on Kingshighway) is vacant and blighted. A former church, Emmanus Baptist, sits at the corner of Tower Grove Ave and Chouteau, abandoned for years and slowly seeing its fortunes and structural integrity decline. The more industrial looking building is a former warehouse, though it may look more like a prison than anything else with large, barbed wire fencing on the Eastern half of the property.

Image from Google Street View

The proposal itself will significantly improve the block, consolidating the three parcels into one for their construction. As the organization will be also consolidating the units from two other locations into this development, it will also be quite large. According to minutes from the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association from a 2018 meeting, the proposal calls for 60 units at this location, over 10000 square feet of public space, and 11000 square feet of office for RMHC. Although we are now well past the anticipated start and completion dates indicated in that meeting, it appears now that the Ronald McDonald House is gearing up for construction.

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Just this weekend, the group finally put up large signs with renderings and information in front of the site. Moreover, there have been large teams of people inspecting the property over the past few weeks. Missouri Metro has reached out to RMHC for more information regarding a new timeline. Regardless, the design seems to be just about finalized and residents can expect the finished result to look like the rendering below:

Rendering of the Ronald McDonald House – RMHC

If the rendering is a good indication of the final product, then RMHC will be using high quality materials across most, if not all of the façade. The streetscape will also be improved significantly with repaired sidewalks, trees, and more pedestrian activity. The organization is also suggesting that the building will be significantly more energy efficient than their current setup, while also indicating that the staff-on-site will substantially improve the patient and family experience.

This development will go a long way toward revitalizing one of the few vacant stretches in Forest Park Southeast and provide a truly beneficial service for families and children across the state of Missouri.

Controversial Developer Proposes Apartments on Kingshighway near CWE

This featured article has been split into multiple sections to better organize the ideas discussed and the many moving parts of the story. Thank you for your patience and I hope that you find it to be informative. I invite you to engage in the conversation either in the comments below or on our Twitter page.

Introduction

Site of the FPSE Project – Brian Adler

Just after announcing its latest apartment development in the Central West End at the Optimist International Building (intersection of Taylor and Lindell), developer LuxLiving released its big plans for the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. Those who have travelled on Kingshighway any time over the last two decades have witnessed the steady decline of several multifamily buildings owned by Drury Development Corporation. As Drury’s plans for a two-tower hotel adjacent to the CWE stagnated and faltered, their properties declined significantly with little to no maintenance. Missouri Metro covered their “Demolition by Neglect” strategy last year.

The blighted properties contrasted the stunning growth and evolution of the Forest Park Southeast and Central West End neighborhoods, even as housing inventory in the neighborhoods remained low. The highly visible location, so close to the highly sought after amenities of some of the City’s most expensive neighborhoods, stood out for long-time residents and visitors alike. Residents hoped for action for years, but faced stiff resistance from Drury Development Corporation and a lack of transparency as the corporation continued to acquire more properties.

Map of St. Louis with Forest Park Southeast Highlighted – Google Maps

After nearly two decades of this prolonged process and limited neighborhood approval for a two-tower design and a surface parking lot that would replace handfuls of historic residential homes, Drury finally announed it had cancelled its hotel plans in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood. This year, they begun selling some homes to residential buyers and investors alike, while also choosing a large developer to take on the most notable parcels facing Kingshighway. That developer is LuxLiving.

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The Proposal

Preliminary Rendering Facing Kingshighway: LuxLiving

DISCLOSURE: Brian Adler is the current Vice President of the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association and will have some say in the community engagement process. He also lives on the 4500 Block of Oakland, which will be directly impacted by this proposed development.

LuxLiving is proposing a 7-story, 163-unit apartment building to replace these structures. While I generally am in favor of preserving many of the city’s historic brick structures, the buildings facing Kingshighway have been open to the elements for years, lack walls in some cases, and have foundations that are crumbling significantly. The proposed structure would activate a stretch of land with significant density that has not been occupied for two decades. While the design is still in preliminary stages and far from finalized, the current plans call for the usage of 15 parcels and the construction of a 177 space parking garage that will be partially underground and concealed.

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On Oakland Ave and Arco Ave, LuxLiving plans to construct two-story buildings with 14 units and amenity spaces to fill in the gap between the various other residential homes on the street and the larger, 7-story structure. The designs of the two-story buildings seem to be similar in materials, massing, and overall design to the other homes on the two blocks. With that said, to accommodate these additional buildings, a few currently occupied and vacant structures would have to be demolished. LuxLiving states that they are in various late stages of disrepair and while they may not be entirely unusable, this very author lives within this stretch and agrees for the most part on that assessment.

This article cannot be as neutral as I would otherwise hope for it to be because of my very close proximity to the site, but I do want to emphasize the kind of feedback that I have been hearing from the community. For the most part, community members have few, minor qualms with the overall design, density, and massing. In fact, many (including myself), are downright excited at the prospect of removing the blight that has FREQUENTLY contributed to visible crime and dangerous drag racing across the 4500 block of Oakland and Arco.

Behind the Kingshighway Buildings – Brian Adler

Causes for Concern: Safety, Fraud, and Bad Practices

With that said, there are significant concerns about LuxLiving itself as the selected developer for the site. While LuxLiving has been generous with information and access to its developments including the SoHo, Hudson, and Chelsea covered frequently on this website, it has a troubling reputation that has consistently dogged the company. Surprisingly numerous reviews from tenants at even their newest buildings suggest lackluster property management, shoddy building materials, thin walls, and various issues. LuxLiving also allegedly utilizes Airbnb to rent out vacant units for short-term visits. While Airbnb is not inherently bad, it can pose security concerns for actual residents of the building or pose challenges in terms of trash, noise, or usage of the building’s amenities.

There are also potential issues relating to various other business practices of the organization. The CEO of LuxLiving, Vic Alston, previously defrauded investors in a revealing Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) document. Alston reportedly omitted key information from investors and submitted SOX certifications that “were materially false and misleading“. He was banned from engaging in similar investments for five years following this judgement.

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While financial accounting requirements can be complex and perhaps it would be unfair to make judgements off of one case, Alston has repeatedly led business practices that are at best scorched earth-competitive, and at worst, deeply and fundamentally dishonest and dirty. For example, LuxLiving is currently wrapping up the nearly completed apartment building in DeBaliviere Place, dubbed “The Hudson” – poised to become another luxury, amenity-packed community. I have reported on its progress multiple times and lauded how it adds significant density to a well-trafficked transit corridor. Those facets of the project are unabashedly positive, and additional units online relieves pent-up demand that would otherwise raise rent prices.

Unfortunately, LuxLiving worked to undermine their competitors and the neighborhood itself at the onset of the development. While praising their contribution to a transit-oriented district, Alston and LuxLiving sabotaged the under-construction apartment just across the street. The Expo at Forest Park would offer hundreds of apartments at a similar price range and with similar amenities. In response, as first reported by the St. Louis Post DIspatch, LuxLiving had their lawyer Ira Berkowitz “reincorporate a long-dormant property owners association that claimed to hold review rights over the competing apartment development and declined to support the project.”

The complaint resulted in a lawsuit against the Expo at Forest Park developers and then, of course, a countersuit alleging that resurrecting an organization that had not existed for 30 years was nothing more than a means to denying a competitor’s approval. LuxLiving and the other firm ultimately settled, but another legal battle ensued – this time with LuxLiving suing the City of St. Louis’ Development Corporation, SLDC. Lux claims an entitlement to tax incentives including tax abatement and a tax break on construction materials. They allege that they must receive this support due to a letter of support from Alderman Shameem Clark-Hubbard from the 26th ward. The suit has not yet been resolved, and the decision to grant tax breaks was tabled at the June 22 meeting.

This context is important because Lux has gained some positive publicity from not requesting tax incentives for its proposed project at the Optimist International site in the Central West End, just minutes away from Forest Park Southeast. While the development will ultimately lead to a large and noticeable property tax receipt that will benefit St. Louis Public Schools, it would admittedly be awkward for Lux to request incentives from the same organization that they are currently feuding with. Notably, Lux has been mum on its intentions for tax incentives at the parcels in question in Forest Park Southeast.

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Unfortunately, tax breaks, lawsuits, and fraud cumulatively barely scratch the surface of the controversy surrounding the company and its owners. LuxLiving is but one name of many for the company and its principle actors. Some St. Louisans might remember their apartments under the portfolio of Asprient Properties, CityWide, and others. They are all the same buildings, the same company, and the same team. Lux tends to rebrand when controversy hits a fever pitch, like when Asprient mishandled residents’ security deposits.

Even more worrisome, at one of the Central West End properties under the STL Citywide brand, residents had to be evacuated for a structural collapse at the Euclid + Pine building. Residents interviewed by KMOV reporters, while horrified, expressed not being surprised due to the general conditions that the building was kept in. Perhaps you may have been urged to give the company the benefit of the doubt, choosing to assume that the company surely has improved since then. That would be unlikely, however, because this happened this last May.

What’s Next

The proposal is likely going to go through a community engagement process facilitated by Alderwoman Tina “Sweet-T” Pihl, Park Central Development, and the Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood Association. Although Park Central Development and its Development Committee often led the process in years prior following former Alderman Roddy’s decades-long design, Alderwoman Pihl is looking to reshape the process and involve more members of the community.

There will likely be community engagement sessions in the next couple months to inform both the community about the developer’s plans and the developer on the community’s concerns. It will ultimately then receive the approval or denial from the Alderperson.

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A Nuanced Conclusion

While some might have expected my take to be one of pure opposition based on the sizable list of concerns outlined above, it might surprise you to know that I am still begrudgingly, mostly in support of the project. It is difficult to shake the feeling of “ick” that surrounds LuxLiving and it feels wrong to reward the company with my support, especially as a member of the FPSE Neighborhood Association. Remember, and this is important, the association itself is a neutral party and will not lend its support or lack thereof to any project, and the views of its members and board members are diverse.

That said, I am also a current resident of the 4500 block of Oakland that I presume that I will one day share with LuxLiving and the many residents who will occupy the community. I am writing this piece with little to no distance at all between myself and the anticipated consequences. As a resident of this block, I know all too well the damage and hardship currently caused by the derelict Drury-“maintained” buildings facing Kingshighway. The alley is littered with broken glass, impossible-to-count bottles of spent liquor, drift marks, and more. The majority of nights feature speeding down Oakland and Arco in unlicensed vehicles opting to not use their headlights. Recognize that this is not a short-term problem: this has been the reality on this block for decades. It is not as though we have been given the choice of various optimal developers, or even that matter for residents to buy up these individual buildings facing Kingshighway. Drury has selected LuxLiving, and I know well that what we will get is better than what we have.

There are other benefits I look forward to including a prettier streetscape, way more neighbors, density that will at some point add to our tax base our students, and a bit of relief for a rental market very short of inventory in this neighborhood. Perhaps I speak from a point of privilege in a multitude of ways as well, in that I am not one of the few families that will likely have to move for the project. I also am keenly familiar with development and have a hand in the community engagement process. That heightens my responsibility and that of my fellow neighborhood volunteers to ensure we don’t let LuxLiving skate through this process without answering for its reputation and demanding a robust community engagement process that allows for real concerns to be given real answers.

What’s your take?

OPINION: St. Louis CITY SC Disappoints with Downtown Parking Garage despite plans for “District”

The anticipation for the new MLS stadium and team has been profound for St. Louisans across the metro area. A huge construction effort is currently underway in Downtown West, poised to bring significant activity to a neighborhood that has lacked significant investment, retail, or residential additions for decades. The new stadium and team are well positioned to help revitalize the area while also providing residents an incredible new entertainment option.

Still, the immense positives associated with the stadium and team do not immunize the project from criticism when promises and hype falter. The St. Louis CITY SC branding quite obviously leverages city imagery and loyalty for its brand. Their website for the stadium has an entire page dedicated to the “District” they hope to create alongside the stadium. A key note on this page is to “bring vitality and drive inspiration through inspiring architecture and public spaces, and through creative uses of infrastructure and technology”.

Rendering of the MLS Stadium in Downtown West when completed (Does Not Include Parking Garage)
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An ambitious plan is certainly good to have, and creating a true district “home to a diverse selection of restaurants, bars, living spaces and family experiences” has the potential to do wonders for Downtown West. Having a hub of entertainment, retail, and living options near the stadium contributes to a neighborhood that people stay in rather than simply attend for a game and then leave right away. For the City, that means dense, fun neighborhoods that contribute heavily to the tax base. For the stadium and team, it builds a true connection with the community that is longer lasting with higher revenue potential. While the Ballpark Village developments aren’t perfect, they are succeeding at creating a real neighborhood. With a hotel, office, high-rise apartment building, stadium, Starbucks, retail, and bars, the area supports a 24/7 atmosphere that is both convenient and enjoyable for tourists and locals.

A Rendering of the St. Louis City SC Garage

Unfortunately, just-released renderings from St. Louis City SC depict a large parking structure on Olive with no activation whatsoever, save for a gaudy balcony and staircase. In order to build this parking garage, the soccer club demolished nearly an entire block of mixed-use buildings that could have housed bars, residents, and various other uses. If this rendering resembles the final product, then the built environment surrounding the stadium will be less of a district and more of a brief shop for a game and nothing else. The latter would be a loss for an area so central to the city and near many incredible amenities.

While pedestrians and the neighborhood more broadly lose out with this parking garage, the proposal also demonstrates a continued reliance on a mode of transportation that contributes heavily to our climate crisis. That is despite excellent transit proximity and St. Louis City’s ambitious climate goals, especially relating to new construction.

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When developers promise the world and demolish the urban fabric of a city, ultimately underdelivering on their commitments and publicly stated mission, the city and its residents are harmed. This kind of practice is frequently applied, from Drury Hotels with their demolition-by-neglect strategy in Forest Park Southeast to Restoration St. Louis and its bait-and-switch just by The Grove. Until this strategy is reigned in, we are likely to see more developers preach wide ranging benefits and deliver little more than lipstick on a pig, like this very parking garage.

New Midrise Proposal in St. Louis’ Central West End

The Central Corridor, ranging from Clayton to Downtown, continues to see a flurry of development proposals and construction. The last couple of years have brought several large, mid-rise to high-rise residential buildings to a region that, for decades, has seen its growth stagnate. The City of today is beginning to look far more alive than the City of 5 years ago.

Nowhere is that more true than St. Louis City’s Central West End neighborhood, where an architecturally stunning high-rise was just completed last year and new apartments, and even hotels, are popping up quickly. Dense, walkable neighborhoods with easy access to transit, groceries, coffee, and other amenities are becoming more and more in demand. As a result, any parcel of land that does not produce economic activity or bring value to the neighborhood has a short life ahead.

Optimist International on Lindell – Google Maps
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At the Optimist International Building at 4494 Lindell, a rather old, bleak building becomes further outclassed each year by its neighbors. The building does have some defenders, however, who appreciate its somewhat brutalist, mid-century design. It would be replaced by a proposal by a 150-unit, 8-story apartment building shown in the rendering below. LuxLiving is the developer on this project, having just completed their Chelsea apartment community in the nearby DeBaliviere Place neighborhood. They are also currently working on projects including The Hudson and The SOHO in Soulard.

As Chris Stritzel at CitySceneSTL reported this week, the Executive Director of Optimist International is very supportive of the sale, however. The non-profit head wrote a letter in support of the development proposal detailed below as the current building’s maintenance had become too costly, sacrificing some funds that he preferred would go to the children they support. The sale of the building would boost their capabilities significantly.

4490 Lindell from Taylor – LuxLiving

The proposed structure would, unlike some other recent projects in the St. Louis area, not request any monetary subsidies from the City of St. Louis. Rather, it is expected to produce between $850,000 and $1,000,000 a year in property taxes. It is common to see apartment buildings often receiving large tax incentives that reduce the revenue in the near term that goes toward the City’s public school system, but this project bucks that trend. It should also fulfill most elements of the Central West End’s Form Based Code, a requirement for new development to fit in with its neighborhood surroundings. While many of LuxLiving’s latest apartments have come with wild amenities like virtual golf simulators or huge saunas, this particular building will be a little more down to earth.

The units will still be luxurious, but the amenities on offer will, due to more limited space, be more in line with most of its competitors. It will include a pool deck, public café in the lobby, some walk-up office space, gym, mail room, and game area. The developer noted in a public meeting this week that their goal is to capitalize on the neighborhood rather than keep residents within. To that end, they will try to have e-scooters and bikes available for residents to enjoy the neighborhood even if they do not own a car. This is something very unique to the Central West End, with a Whole Foods just a few minutes away, nearby Schnucks, public library, UPS store, MetroLink, dozens of restaurants, art galleries, and more.

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Additional Renderings Below:

DeBaliviere Place Construction Check-In

DeBaliviere Place is one of St. Louis’ fastest-growing neighborhoods, home to one of the most dense residential populations in the region. With a unique mix of historic brick architecture, dense multi-family dwellings, and even some single-family interspersed throughout, the neighborhood can often feel like it was taken right out of a New York City borough. While St. Louis architecture is certainly different from elsewhere in the country, DeBaliviere Place feels special in that there are people everywhere who reside in the many tall apartment buildings. Some of the larger buildings have also been converted to condos, helping create an opportunity for ownership even in a high-demand area. A walk along Pershing Ave showcases the diverse, often young residents who utilize the MetroLink light rail system just around the corner at the intersection of DeBaliviere and Forest Park Parkway. Indeed, this is a transit reliant neighborhood, quite suitable for the young professionals and students who make up a significant portion of the population.

With a light rail station that also happens to be the main transfer stop between the red and blue lines, this area is a prime candidate for TOD – otherwise known as Transit-Oriented Development. TOD is critical for encouraging a healthier, more active lifestyle that reduces reliance on cars. While St. Louis has been making progress encouraging such development over the past several years, perhaps the best example of effective TOD resides right here in the DeBaliviere Place neighborhood. Pearl Companies and LuxLiving are transforming the intersection, adding hundreds of residential apartment units and commercial storefronts – including a grocery store – just adjacent to the MetroLink station.

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We covered this development last year and even featured it in our 2020 Top 10 article. Now that construction is well underway, we are excited to share some recent construction photos of the two major projects and other neighborhood assets and architecture.

Of the developments underway along DeBaliviere Ave., the Expo at Forest Park is easily the largest. Pearl Companies is using Trivers and HOK architects to create two large structures divided by DeGiverville Ave. comprising of nearly 300 apartments and around 30,000 square feet of retail, including a grocery store. The renderings in the gallery below showcase about what St. Louisans can expect when the project is complete.

While the project is still far from complete, wood framing has begun and is steadily progressing. The steel beams are also visible from those driving along Forest Park Parkway. The scale of this development is truly massive, and should the Loop Trolley ever rise from the dead, it will find much of its stretch to become a lot more interesting.

Expo at Forest Park looking North – Brian Adler
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Just across the street from the Expo at the Park sits The Hudson, developer LuxLiving’s nearly complete residential apartment building. The crane just came down (inconveniently right after my photos), indicating that the rest of the work that needs to take place is related to exterior finishes and interior amenities. The structure is just about complete.

The Hudson is set to offer about 150 apartments in a package that LuxLiving claims will be just as modern, if not even more so, as the recently completed Chelsea just down Pershing Ave. We released a “First Look” of the Chelsea building earlier this year, and the amenities on offer are certainly unique for the St. Louis area. The Hudson will also offer ground-floor retail, helping further activate the intersection sitting just next to the MetroLink stop. The renderings below showcase what we can expect when the development is complete.

The Hudson at night
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These photos below showcase just how large the presence of the building will be. With that said, there is already significant density along the Pershing corridor within DeBaliviere place. Most structures are at least 3 stories tall, with others rising to nearly a dozen as you get closer to Union Blvd. Rather, the intersection at DeBaliviere and Pershing was the exception to the existing density until these developments were proposed – despite their proximity to transit.

The Hudson – Brian Adler
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By Fall, this intersection should look and feel dramatically different. However, longtime residents will still find the same historic and lively feel that has long existed within the DeBaliviere area. Most buildings in the neighborhood date back to near the 1904 World’s Fair, and a walk down Pershing reveals some of the finest architecture in the city. There are mixed uses as well, with small fitness businesses, dance studios, and even restaurants like Mack’s Bar and Grill and PuraVegan Café. The photos just below show just how gorgeous one street in the large community is. If you haven’t visited the neighborhood over the past few years, you may be surprised at just how well it holds up today.

OPINION: STL City and County Merger Discussions Must Return under Jones as Regional Mayor

On May 6, 2019, the ambitious “Better Together” plan to unite St. Louis City and County shelved its hotly anticipated and oftentimes controversial merger plan. With its chosen Regional Mayor, then County-Executive Steve Stenger, headed to Federal prison and other issues like concern from Black political leaders, the plan fell apart. The effort fizzled away, with no word on when it might return. It all began, however, nearly a century and a half ago when the City and County originally separated. For the many decades to come, the City hosted most of the regional growth. Quickly becoming one of the largest U.S. cities, bolstered by railroads, a huge river, and even a closer-than-many-expect plan to make St. Louis the actual U.S. Capitol, the City of St. Louis unquestionably thrived.

Of course, the tides shifted some in the mid-to-late 20th century. St. Louis City saw its population decline by historic proportions as the County gained residents rapidly through suburbanization. There were many forces at play, with some County municipalities created with segregationist motives, urban renewal in urban centers demolishing Black neighborhoods, redlining, restrictive covenants, “white flight”, and more. It is a complicated story to tell, but one worth in-depth research from those curious about the history of the St. Louis region.

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Now, in what appears to be a decade of tumult in many ways for the City including crime and vacancy, there are many reasons to be optimistic. We cover a host of them here, but here’s the short of it. There are thousands of residential units under construction in St. Louis City, hundreds of millions of dollars from the Federal government, billions in building permits over the last few years, rising property values even in many Northern St. Louis neighborhoods, dozens of tiny homes and new services available for unhoused people, and tens of millions of dollars through Prop N.S. to renovate old buildings. Add to that a growing Central Corridor, tax base, annual budget, etc. and it appears as though the City itself is strengthening.

Looking at the region exclusively through the lens of there being one winner and one loser is part of the problem, however. The City doing well or the County doing well often comes at the expense of the other. For the City to grow its corporate base or lease new office space, it often poaches companies from the County and vice-versa. Municipalities play the game “Let’s see who can offer the most incentives!” to huge corporations, effectively nullifying the benefits and creating a race to the bottom. They will compete and do anything for precious sales taxes, even razing dozens of homes, schools, churches, and local businesses for a Costco in University City, for example. There are dozens of police departments, mayors, local council-members, school districts, urban planners, and more all doing the same work but competing against one another. There are even completely separate judicial systems distributing uneven justice.

Regional fragmentation leads to a host of duplicate tasks, uneven accountability, increased costs, and even a cultural/social divide that harms the region. There are many people who live in “St. Louis”, who would never step foot into Downtown STL and claim the region would be better off without the City. Of course, this view is bolstered by crime stats that truly don’t look too good, but neglects the importance of the many incredible cultural institutions, historic architecture, parks, hospitals, schools, urban form, local businesses, etc. that make the City great. The divide extends the opposite way as well, with many City dwellers looking down upon County residents for choosing to live in less-diverse, car-centric, often more conservative neighborhoods that were historically built to keep out Black residents.

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If all this sounds unhealthy for the region – know that it absolutely is. No one talks more negatively about St. Louis than St. Louisans themselves, and we assume as a culture that all those outside the region view us unfavorably as well. The reality is that they really don’t. While we are bombarded with KSDK, KMOV, and Post-Dispatch stories daily detailing the violence and other problems we face, other cities are too – but with their own problems. National news is so focused on partisan affairs that they hardly pay us any attention. We are finely attuned to our problems, but others know nothing besides our beer scene, the Arch, Washington University, etc. Every family member or friend who visits me in St. Louis has left with a positive impression, and it is a region that kept me – a transplant from Los Angeles – post graduation.

One of the reasons that I stayed was the real potential evident across St. Louis. We have the architecture, the culture, the diversity, the sports teams, the river, the colleges and universities, the food, the beer, the coffee, the kindness, and much more. For how great the region can seem, we’re often operating with one hand tied behind our proverbial back. For example, we can’t make a real, coordinated effort on reforming policing if only the City and a couple County municipalities change their rules because there would still be dozens left with rules unchanged. We cannot truly address housing or income disparities on race if only part of the region chooses to do so. We cannot make investments in infrastructure that affect people equitably if we do so through a fragmented process. With hundreds of millions of dollars coming in to the City and the County, we CAN make historic investments together, but we will end up doing so without coordinating the effort for maximum effect.

Even if I could convince the average reader that a merger, or some furthered and comprehensive cooperation were to be for the better, a reasonable question regarding political leadership inherently emerges. Aside from the unknowns like how many council members there would be in a merged St. Louis City and County, or what those very districts would look like, there would have to be an agreement on who the Regional Mayor would be. Or, if no agreement is possible before a merger, what electoral process would take place to settle this question.

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Perhaps the best solution could be to settle upon a “Caretaker Regional Mayor” – one who would oversee the unified City and County post-merger and serve until an election that they would be allowed to take place in. A one year term would be long enough to ensure there was durable leadership in the near-term but not so long that those who disapprove of said person would not have a foreseeable election date on the horizon. Newly elected Mayor Tishaura Jones is uniquely qualified for this position. Mayor Jones has strong support from broad sections of St. Louis, managing to pull in respectable numbers even in South St. Louis wards. She also has strong regional connections, with her former experience in the State Legislature, endorsement from County Executive Sam Page, and the large number of Aldermen who endorsed her in her run.

Many will likely cringe or even stop reading this opinion at the mere mention of Mayor Jones. Some speculate, even claim that without a reasonable doubt, that Mayor Jones is corrupt. Others fall back upon racial stereotypes and even sexist discourse suggesting that she will simply be a tool of her father. Here’s the thing – Mayor Jones has never so much as been indicted for a crime, so those who boldly claim that she is without a doubt corrupt do so as armchair prosecutor, judge, and jury. Some point to her international travel that was broadly related to furthering government competence, others suggest that she was even under investigation from the FBI for parking contracts while she was Treasurer. As salacious as these headlines can be, there has been zero follow-up or indication that such “investigation” was ever taking place following other commentary that any anonymous or politically motivated tip could lead to the actions written about in the McPherson report.

That leaves us with a host of allegations mixed with racist and sexist discourse – none of which has ever been proven in any judicial setting. Most see only the headlines, failing to check in on a story after it is published. None of these have panned out, and there is no reason to think that any must be true.

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The reason for this aside is to suggest that the discomfort with Mayor Jones may, to some degree, be unjustified. When taking away these allegations, she is by and large the best candidate for the job. She is the Mayor of the City of St. Louis, home to the Gateway Arch National Park, Busch Stadium, Forest Park, and other cultural institutions that represent what the public knows of St. Louis. She is also a young, Black, progressive woman who could genuinely seem like a fresh, positive face and contribute to a more sunny narrative for the region to the rest of the country. This is merely anecdotal, but I have already seen threads with folks from other cities considering a move to St. Louis just because of Cori Bush and Tishaura Jones.

She has already shown a large degree of competence and community engagement coming out of the Pandemic as well. Her grassroots support is impressive, and her community-driven budgeting process for the COVID-19 funds from the Federal government enticed thousands of responses and her Stimulus Advisory Board has already released a draft of plans that will help tens of thousands of St. Louisans in accordance to their priorities given. She has shown that she is willing to take on excessive subsidies for corporate development, vetoing two Central Corridor tax incentives but also negotiating with The Lawrence Group at the City Foundry for a more equitable incentive package – one that the developer is publicly excited about and supportive of.

Even if I haven’t convinced you that Mayor Jones is the best choice for Regional Mayor, still consider the bigger picture. Our region is stagnant in population. A fragmented approach does little for our region, and a more unified face could help us prepare for the next century. We have so much potential, and too many cooks in the kitchen all with competing interests. It’s time to revive Better Together, but from the bottom up rather than the top down.

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St. Louis Alderman Reintroduces Measure to Nullify Voter-Passed Ward Reduction

In 2012, St. Louis City voters approved “Proposition R”, a measure to reduce the size of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen from 28 members to 14. This would mean that the city would see its Ward count reduced to 14 as well. At the time, advocates suggested that the measure would increase efficiency, reduce corruption, and more sensibly represent a city less than half the size of its former population.

As the vote would amend the Charter of the City of St. Louis, it required 60% or greater support to pass. In 2012, voters were able to accomplish this goal after a few prior attempts with a citywide result of 61.5% in favor of the amendment. NextSTL has a useful ward-by-ward graphic that showcases the wide support the measure received almost 9 years ago. The proposition was written such that it would go into effect following the 2020 Census, a milestone we are nearing rapidly today.

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In the near-decade since the passage of Proposition R, the Board of Aldermen has made few attempts toward implementation. With no proposed Ward boundaries whatsoever, the Board has declined to prepare for the inevitable. Rather, it has done just the opposite. Aldermen John Collins-Muhammad Jr. and Joseph Vaccaro have led the charge.

  • In the 2018-2019 session, Collins-Muhammad Jr. introduced Board Bill 25, which would reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. This Board Bill was eventually withdrawn by Collins-Muhammad Jr., but was co-sponsored by Aldermen Bosley, Moore, Kennedy, and Williamson. At the time, Collins-Muhammad Jr. had suggested that without a plan, they should not move forward. nearly 3 years later, it is unclear if he has worked to create one.
  • In June of 2020, Collins-Muhammad Jr. introduced Board Bill 77A, which would reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. Board Bill 77A was co-sponsored by Alderman Vaccaro. This Board Bill narrowly passed the Board and was vetoed by then Mayor Krewson in early 2021.
  • On May 27, 2021, Collins-Muhammad Jr. again introduced a nearly identical bill. Board Bill 38 would again reverse Proposition R and maintain the original 28 Wards. There are no co-sponsors just yet. However, if passed via the Board, it would require city voters to again vote on a measure they approved nearly 9 years prior that the Board has failed to implement or prepare for.

There is a growing tendency in U.S. politics for elected leaders to eschew democratic norms. By “democratic”, we mean in relation to democracy itself and respecting the will of the voters and the results of free and fair elections, not specifically the Democratic Party. This is particularly evident in national politics with some Republican leaders espousing “The Big Lie”, a conspiracy with no grounds that could not win a single court case of dozens tried, that former President Trump won the election. Some may assume that this tendency is limited to the Republican Party, but that is very much not the case, even if it may hold the most insidious and notorious example. Rather, respect for democratic norms can and has degraded some across party lines.

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The actions of Alderman John Collins-Muhammad Jr. represent just that at a local level. His consistent reintroduction of Board Bills that would nullify Proposition R would reverse the clear will of the voters in 2012. While there is nothing illegal strictly about doing so, it undermines the decision-making authority of a voter-passed Charter amendment that by no means was controversial. Instead, Proposition R passed with nearly two thirds of the vote. Collins-Muhammad Jr. claims that this was the case without support from North City, an entirely disingenuous claim that is easily disproven. While few North City Wards approved the amendment, there was strong support in each Ward generally still above 40% support. We encourage readers to view NextSTL’s graphics mentioned earlier. Even if none supported the amendment, the entire city shares a Charter, and he is seeking to change the rules of an entire city for an incredibly unpopular structure backed by fewer than 40% of St. Louisans.

Given that the Board of Aldermen has not prepared for the Ward reduction or drawn new boundaries, not to mention the many conflicts of interest that could arise when working to redraw their own seats, many St. Louisans have gathered to wrestle this power away from the Board. The group, Show Me Integrity, was able to fundraise over $100,000 and has begun work to gather the 30,000 signatures necessary to allow a nonpartisan commission to independently redraw the Ward boundaries. If they reach their signature goal, then their measure dubbed “Reform STL” will go before St. Louis constituents for a vote.

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