This Week in Urbanism Season 2 Premier: Development Incentives

Thank you for joining us for a second season! This Week in Urbanism returns with improved audio quality and production along with topics that are intended to foster nuance and excitement along the way.

In the time since the ending of the last season, a budding, 200+ group of St. Louis Urbanists has begun to find community and organize together. The group, the St. Louis Urbanist’s Confluence, can be found on Discord at the link below and is beginning to do great work on transit advocacy, housing, and collective action.

https://discord.com/invite/AvQsVs7B

ROUGH TRANSCRIPT BELOW:

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Could it be? Could it finally be?

The time’s finally here. You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism, and yes, Season 2 is finally here.

I’m your host, Brian Adler. Before I get started, why don’t you subscribe and check out my Patreon supporter page at Patreon.com/BrianAdler. Why check out my Patreon? Well, I want to buy more stuff and the benefit to you is that you can listen to this podcast a little early. Heck, it doesn’t hurt to boost my ego a little bit either and my brilliant, self-inflating writing doesn’t generate via AI just yet.

Anyway, it’s time. And I’m sure you’re ready.

And before we get started, I want to do a special shout out to a new group that I’m a moderator of, but, did not create. I’m talking about the St. Louis Urbanist Confluence group, and it’s a collection of urbanists, almost 200 strong, across the St. Louis area. We talk transit, density, affordability, neighborhoods, and more. Some of our incredible members are planning collective action to enhance walkability, bike-ability, and more. I will post a link to join on our Anchor.fm channel and everywhere else I can.

Today is June 22nd, 2022, and St. Louis, I think I have myself something just controversial and important enough to boost my listener base here. Don’t believe me? Well guess what today’s topic is: public development incentives.

See? What did I tell you. This is some real juicy stuff and by sheer virtue of listening to this niche, urban planning podcast, I’d be willing to bet you’re not somewhere in the middle on this. You’re probably gripping the steering wheel or bike handles a little bit harder, and baby, this is gonna make your hands sweat.

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But you know what? Life’s complicated. Tax incentives are nothing different. They’re probably one of the more complicated things in life, even more than basic human interactions with one another. Heck, especially during and after COVID. Yesterday I was in the elevator with someone for the first time in a long time, and my god, what even are you supposed to say?

Anyway suffice it to say that if you feel strongly about this issue, my goal is for you to loosen up a bit because as many good arguments as you have, there’s probably plenty that even your mortal urbanist enemies have too. And, even though there’s nothing sweeter in life than winning a petty argument on the internet, I’ve learned that us urbanists have to try to find some common ground if we want to make some progress.

Okay I’m going to dig in here a bit. This is an inherently thorny conversation. Let’s start with a definition. So, what I mean by the term “development incentive” is a distinct set of public goodies offered by a given municipality or development authority to either lure a project to their region or to ensure that a project is actually financially feasible and thus built. Of course, anything that a city gives away is essentially publicly generated, so you enter a realm of tricky and important politics too.

Still with me? I’ll try my best to keep this podcast episode accessible. Let’s briefly go over the main types of incentives that developers usually seek or are given here in St. Louis. I’ll probably miss some, but that’s where you can enjoy roasting me in the comments. Come at me, folks! I just got a haircut, so my ego has room to fall.

  1. TIFs
    1. TIF stands for ‘Tax Incremented Financing’, which is essentially a capital improvement bond that cities can issue on the behalf of developers. It is a financing tool that captures a rise in economic and property values and the connected increase in tax revenues to invest in the required infrastructure upfront. You’ll often see TIFs go toward infrastructure like roads, lighting, sidewalks, sewer and water, etc. Anyway, usually you’ll see these over a period of say 10 to 20 years.
  2. Tax Abatement
    1. Tax abatement is a tool that we see used relatively frequently in the St. Louis area as well. You’ll see this often as a percentage when applied, and the idea is that you pay property taxes on pre-improved values for a given amount of time. You’ll rarely see 100% abatements, but often somewhere between 50 and 75%. Although the developer will pay increased property taxes, they’ll not be paying that full amount, rather they’ll be paying the abated amount, for perhaps 5-15 years.
  3. CIDs
    1. CIDs, or Community Improvement Districts. Many CIDs are not related to particular developments, but sometimes they can be created primarily for a development too. These are a set of boundaries that create a special taxing district to offset costs for public improvements and services. For example, a hotel development could create a CID covering the boundaries of just the hotel, which I believe occurred at the Le Meridian in Downtown Clayton, where it then collects taxes from those boundaries.
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On the surface, this is a pretty benign topic, right? It gets a little complicated, though, and pretty incendiary too.

But let’s do our very best to examine some different arguments here. Let’s say I’m a developer and I want to develop market-rate apartments on a vacant lot in the Central West End. Let’s lay out some facts:

  1. First, I said market-rate, not affordable housing.
  2. This project would ask for a 50% tax abatement over 10 years.
  3. Let’s go crazy here and say we’re going to pick the most high-profile parking lot in the Central West End at Lindell and Kingshighway, where a new tower is actually slated to go. That parking lot generates about $64,000 annually in property tax revenue.
  4. Let’s say we’re going to have a building just like The Orion, the building that has the Whole Foods. That building generates about $700,000 in property taxes annually. We’ll do the same number of units and just estimate the same.

Okay so we’ve got some workable stuff here. Let’s say I’m anti-development incentive here. What would I probably argue?

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First, I’d be sure to point out that we’re using future public revenue to subsidize a project that does not, on the surface, necessarily represent public benefits.

Second, I would extend that argument credibily to discuss equity and schools. Schools in St. Louis City are perpetually underfunded, and a good portion of property tax revenue goes to schools. So, you would argue that you’re potentially taking 50% of the difference in property tax revenues between old and new, so about $318,000 each year for 10 years from schools that would, theoretically, be there if the building were developed without incentives.

Third, I’d probably talk a bit about the neighborhood itself and how it commands top-market rents in St. Louis and point to the fact that the building only serves an upper-market clientele, and point out how that subsidy isn’t going elsewhere. And, I’d talk about the precedent of subsidizing a well-developed, wealthy neighborhood rather than elsewhere.

There are certain to be other arguments too, but let’s let this serve as an introductory, good-faith argument from a fellow urbanist who simply doesn’t love the idea of incentives here for those above reasons.

Let’s flip the table and be in support of the incentives. What would I argue?

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I would point to a range of public benefits that are way too often forgotten in these conversations. It helps that I’m debating myself here, but I know from empirical research that there are inherently positive environmental benefits to dense residential buildings. I’d speak to the benefit of potentially having wealthy clientele move from Ladue to a Transit-Oriented development, and a location where they can replace many of their vehicle trips with walking or transit. I’d speak to the public benefits that would still occur from the other tax revenue being generated.

I’d also take a pragmatic approach and highlight that you would still have over $300,000 in new annual revenue, much of that going to children that otherwise wouldn’t have if we simply kept it a parking lot. Though they’re being shafted that amount each year from the incentive, they’re still getting that much more than they had before.

I’d mention that it’s been a parking lot for years, and that despite the success of the Central West End, St. Louis is still a difficult market to get financing for in some cases and it is still low-growth. There are inherent risks to development and there are huge inflationary pressures affecting labor and supply costs substantially. I don’t think people often realize just how expensive these buildings are.

So let’s be honest here, neither argument is wrong and both are well-rooted in positive values. But, if you can’t tell, I’m in favor of an incentive in the situation like the above.

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But, of course, that’s literally just an example that I made up. What if we bumped up the incentive to 95% abatement for 15 years? Well, we’d essentially erase all of the gain in property tax revenue. Schools wouldn’t gain a thing practically and it would be really lopsided. You would still get all the benefits described regarding density and built environment, but it could set a very bad precedent for other developers and reflect an unstable development environment.

Anyway, this is all to say that these conversations are complicated and it’s usually worth it to look at the numbers and to play things out before outright expressing approval or disapproval. The reason that I began developing this script is because development incentives are falling into a category of reactionary urban politics.

There have been discussions among neighborhood groups like my own and others who seek to reject any development incentive seemingly rooted in an unfounded confidence in our development environment and a genuine value for equity. But, having admirable values is different from actually supporting actions that meet your stated goals.

When you add new units to a market, you increase affordability. Let’s say you do that and you, a developer, seek a development incentive that’s a middle-ground and still financially beneficial to the city like the example that I described, and then a neighborhood immediately declines it and your project isn’t otherwise possible, then what?

Then it’s clear that the neighborhood may have fallen into its own trap, rejecting benefits even when the numbers showcase a genuine benefit, even if it isn’t as good as we would like.

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I think St. Louis is incredible. I think my neighbors are smart, empathetic, compassionate, and just wonderful people. But, as great as our communities are, we continue to need investment in a city that still sees its population declining. I don’t think we’re in the place to reject things in a reactionary manner even if we don’t on the face of it think the package is as good as it likes.

Now let’s be abundantly clear here. There are plenty of development incentives that we should decline. I don’t think you can credibly at this point request hefty incentives in the Central West End market, and we’re seeing those decline. But, every project is different. New construction is different than historic rehab.

My appeal here is for patience and for good-faith review and for mutual respect. Our mission is so great here as an urbanist collective, so let’s lead the way in our communities and strive to advocate for projects that are reasonable and beneficial.

So how’s that, huh? What do you think? Drop me some interactions, maybe even like Missouri Metro on the insta. My wife doesn’t think I’m cool enough for the tik tok but you can fax me some gif reactions instead.

Stay tuned for our next podcast, folks. Until then, enjoy the outro vibes.

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This Week in Urbanism: Bad Urban Policy | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

TRANSCRIPT BELOW:

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

I’m your host, Brian Adler. 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. And, of course, If you haven’t yet noticed – this is the first podcast that I’m doing on camera. You’ll be able to stream this podcast, watching me make funny expressions, over at our Missouri Metro YouTube channel today. It’ll also be on the Missouri Metro website in the post for this podcast.

Today is April 8th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about some particularly bad urban, and by extension in this case, environmental policy. To do so, we’re going to shift our focus back toward the West Coast, where I like to use California as my personal urbanism punching bag.

And, to be fair to California, I want to say early on here that not all of this particular policy is bad. Just most of it. And it shows the colossally screwed up priorities that our leaders have – even “liberal” ones who you might often assume would be more allied with urbanist causes because of their direct links to active lifestyles, diversity, environmentalism, etc.

Anyway, on March 23rd, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a press release. It’s a bad press release. Most of all, it seems political. Here’s what’s happening:

The California Governor announced that he would seek to use $11 billion in unused American Rescue Plan funding to, say, ease the burden on commuters across the state. The biggest chunk of this money, totaling $9 billion, would be distributed to car owners across the state. How would that money be distributed? Well, it’s pretty simple, actually. Each individual car owner could receive $400 for each car in their name – up to two. That means, seemingly, if you’re a couple or have multiple family members, you could have 4, maybe 6, or 8 cars in a given family. And the money isn’t per person – it’s per car. That’s interesting, right? That means that 9 out of every 11 dollars spent on this program goes to car owners, even allowing double counting. An individual may receive, potentially, $800.

Speaking of double counting, that same individual who might receive $800 might see a host of other benefits, too. The other $2 billion is not simply just going to pedestrians, bikers, and transit users. Actually, here’s the breakdown:

  1. $750 million for grants to transit and rail agencies to provide free transit for 3 months. The order states that roughly 3 million transit users per day will see this benefit.
  2. About $600 million to pause some of the Diesel sales tax for a year
  3. About $520 million to pause the inflationary adjustment to gas and diesel taxes for a year
  4. Finally, $500 million toward pedestrian and bike projects.
  5. The plan also includes an additional $1.75 billion toward charging infrastructure for electric vehicles.

So, that family getting checks that subsidize their car usage will also see their bills at the pump subsidized as well. And let’s be clear, subsidized by all residents of California, even those who aren’t using cars. When push comes to shove, we’re really only looking at a smidgeon over $1 billion toward pedestrians, bikers, and transit – which, of course, car users could theoretically choose to support too. Rather, even electric vehicle infrastructure gets more funding than actual environmentally conscious solutions.

So, let’s get real for a second here. Most of this funding is a slap in the face for environmental advocates, pedestrians, and transit users. Rather than incentivizing improved transit access, frequency, better routes, etc. – we’re going to see a short fare subsidy. If you thought, maybe perhaps that the program was lopsided toward cars, you’re going to love this. I looked at the LA Metro website and the 30 day passes are currently going for $50 dollars. That means, free fares for 3 months would only save you $150. That’s not insignificant in real terms, but it is insignificant when compared to the fact that a single car owner might receive $800 if they own two vehicles and then on top of that, also have their gas itself subsidized. I can’t exactly tell what’s going on perfectly with LA Metro’s fares, but it does seem that they’re already half off normal pricing for much of this year. So, to be fair, let’s double it. Even then, we get $300 for three months. See the disparity? It’s pretty clear and simple.

Better yet, none of these funds going toward transit are investments in long term solutions. Rather, instead of investing in more transit routes, train or bus frequency, or anything else that riders might expect to enjoy in the long term, this is just a short-term pocket-book adjustment that will simply disappear without really much to show for itself thereafter. Even if they were looking to do real transit improvement, we must also realize that $1 billion would hardly be enough for a simple new line in a city like St. Louis currently exploring a fixed-rail route along its North-South corridor. Let’s throw in LA property and labor prices and we can begin to see how, even if this were invested in a longer-term outlook, it wouldn’t do much good.

Okay, so what about the $500 million in pedestrian and bike infrastructure across the state? Actually, I like that! I wish there were so much more of it. The unfortunate truth is that we’re talking about a few major bike trails, at best, that can be completed with this amount of money. For reference, Los Angeles is currently working on a 32 mile bike path along the Los Angeles River that it has, believe it or not, been working on the last 25 years. Let’s not even go into how much quicker the region completes roadways. Anyway, I digress. Los Angeles itself is ponying up $15 million for the project, but requesting at least $197 million from the California state government. Woah! So we’re looking at $200 million for one project. Over $6 million per mile. While that might sound crazy, consider that even here in St. Louis, the Tower Grove Connector project with protected bike paths will in total cost just over $9 million. At just over 1.4 miles, we’re looking at a pretty similar $6 million per mile. In fairness, they’re also doing intersection, sidewalk, repaving, and traffic signal improvements – so it’s not quite a fair comparison.

Anyway, the point is that maybe, just maybe, you could complete two or two and a half major bike projects in and across the California region with this money. Maybe. If we’re talking fewer than 100 miles of bike paths and no transit infrastructure improvements, how and why would we expect anyone to really change their habits toward healthier and more environmentally friendly forms of transportation?

Then, consider the incentives headed in the opposite direction. For all California’s talk about wanting to become a green state, only a small fraction of these dollars is actually going toward electric car vehicle infrastructure. And, as we know, there are still a host of severe problems with electric cars. As we’ve discussed before, we don’t have enough lithium mines or the low-wage workers across the globe to fulfill the demand for cars that exists today if they were all electric. Our roadways aren’t prepared for the extra weight of battery-loaded vehicles, and our recycling programs can hardly handle plastic – and now you expect them to handle these toxic chemical byproducts? It’s all nonsense that we feed ourselves so we can blindly continue our habits simply assuming that someone else is taking care of our negative externalities.

Regardless, the main beneficiary of this program is the oil industry and our dependency on gas vehicles. At a time when gas prices are the highest, we could have leveraged this toward momentum on revolutionary projects. We could have induced demand toward better solutions. Rather, we coddled everyone. We let them know that it’s okay they keep driving an F-150 or two. We say we’re investing in alternatives, even though those investments amount to little more than a few miles of infrastructure, at best. We subsidize them two ways over, even. We pay them excessive and disproportionate amounts of money to cover what they’re paying at the pump, and then, when they get to the pump, we subsidize them again!

I don’t think I have the time or the research with me right now to talk about the impact on various socioeconomic classes here, but I do want you to consider this. A family with multiple SUVs is likely to be making more than someone riding the bus to work. Who benefits more in this scenario? Obviously those with more assets. That’s not to say they don’t need it – probably a lot of people are having a hard time. But who are we really helping here? Are Californian’s dollars really being spent in a way that they can be proud of?

Well, as a former Californian, my answer is no. But this is a case study that we must all be aware of. Here in Missouri, our legislators don’t even like electric vehicles – but for the wrong reasons. It’s not that they realize they’re just a false panacea. No, they simply don’t believe in Climate Change. Obviously that’s, well, probably worse. But it’s also just delusional in a slightly different way. Other states might see this allocation of funds and want to do something similar. They shouldn’t.

So, This Week in Urbanism, I’m hoping you’ll see how some dollars we allocate are really little more than an illusion. We need to demand more of our legislators in every state, and also not simply rest assured that electing someone who seemingly cares about Climate Change will actually lead to decent climate policy. The status quo is strong and entrenched and we seem to keep digging those trenches deeper, ignoring what we already know works. Okay, so not as optimistic as last week. But this is important. Here in St. Louis, as we’re about to allocate historic amounts of Federal money, let’s be careful we spend it on long-term solutions. We have a real opportunity here. And we cannot just squander it on feel-good, short-term, subsidies that fuel harmful industries and habits.

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.

This Week in Urbanism: North South MetroLink | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

TRANSCRIPT BELOW

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

I’m your host, Brian Adler. 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 April 1st, 2022, and today, we’re going to continue talking about things that move on rails. Rather, we’re going to discuss the proposed North-South MetroLink expansion in St. Louis!

We bash our MetroLink system a lot. That kind of goes with being a local, right? We notice the obvious faults in things near our homes, and granted, there are a host of ways in which our MetroLink light-rail system could be improved. But, before touching on that, I want to just highlight some of the incredible functionality that already exists within this system. Consider that the system spans 46 miles between two states: Missouri and Illinois. It has two lines and 38 total stations. It’s on time performance is, according to Bi-State, 98%. Light-rail is also an economic powerhouse. Bi-State provides some fascinating statistics like a over $9 billion in investment and development adjacent to MetroLink stations since 2011 alone – and it’s probably much more now than when this appears to have been updated in 2011.

And, of course, beyond economic impact it also has real potential in moving people. It connects our international airport to premier research institutions like UMSL, Washington University, and SLU. It reaches our most dense Central Corridor neighborhoods and employment centers like Clayton, University City, the Central West End, DeBaliviere Place, and Downtown. It provides access to the Enterprise Center and Busch Stadium, and even reaches some suburbs in Illinois and otherwise Westward toward Shrewsbury.

And yet, despite that pretty solid performance – something rather unmatched with most mid-sized cities, the system still leaves something to be desired in frequency and access to neighborhoods that have historically seen disinvestment or outright structural and systemic impacts of racism. Like most things – there’s a good bit of nuance. The system has some major successes and still considerable room for improvement. These are two true things that can exist at the same time. If you’re a resident in North St. Louis City or North St. Louis County or even dense South City neighborhoods like Dutchtown or Tower Grove South or Marine Villa, you are going to either have to drive, bike, or take a bus up to a MetroLink station. That’s despite considerable residential density and opportunity for light-rail corridors. This really is a problem for the Northside neighborhoods that don’t see much investment and where residents are more likely to have fewer transportation options due to income limitations. The answer, you might say, is for these folks to take the bus. While that ordinarily could be a decent option, the benefits of fixed-rail transit have become readily apparent as our bus system has been decimated by issues relating to the pandemic. Bi-State and Metro have cut back on both routes and frequencies, with busses oftentimes taking an hour or more for certain routes. The #95 Kingshighway has a 30-minute peak, and if your bus simply doesn’t show, you’ll have to wait for the next. These are some pretty big issues.

Of course, we should be investing more in our bus network, and in fairness to Bi-State, they are raising salaries and benefits and holding hiring fairs. They’re making some progress! Still, the variability of bus routes showcases how better access to light rail can add some transit stability.

That’s why, since the last major MetroLink expansions in the early 2000s, residents have often been clamoring for a MetroLink expansion. Specifically, a North-South MetroLink expansion that could reach some of the neighborhoods I talked about earlier to bring some better economic opportunities and transit access to more people. It has been a long-running goal of various political administrations, and unfortunately one that has often slipped a bit. The unfortunate fact is that it’s hard and extremely expensive to build additional light-rail networks. What made the original MetroLink line easy, at least in relative terms, is that a lot of the track and right-of-way already existed and MetroLink commandeered some of what was already built-out. Sure, they had to build some new stations and what not, but the actual process of acquiring land and laying track is time-consuming, expensive, and riddled with issues where you might have to eminent domain folks along the way. Overall, not the most process – and it’s one that could several hundred million or even a billion dollars of local, regional, and Federal funds. Which can obviously be a great investment, but still one that requires a big upfront expense. Public infrastructure is excellent and reaps rewards down the line – so don’t get me wrong, we still should do this. This is just some of the context that outlines the difficulty of transit, specifically light-rail, expansion.

One of the main complaints of rail proponents is the tendency of local officials to simply keep ordering new studies to outline expansion opportunities and feasibility. There have been actually over a dozen, believe it or not, and when you keep adding additional delays, you have to then do another study. It makes sense because population and commercial dynamics change, but also showcases the relatively static nature of the North-South MetroLink expansion.

Even with those delays, there have been a few recent “shot-in-the-arm” situations for the system. In 2017, voters in the City of St. Louis approved a new tax to add some funds for rail expansion. The tax has so far generated over $40 million in revenue and is likely to reach perhaps $50 or $51 million dollars at the end of the coming fiscal year. That’s great! These funds are likely to be most useful when contributing to the funds that the Federal government would likely require if they fund a substantial portion, which they would likely do.

East West Gateway, our transit planning organization, also released an updated alignment map in 2019, which gives us the clearest and most up-to-date actual plan with details including proposed stations and locations. This plan would add a North-South MetroLink line that connects with the current system in Downtown St. Louis. It would then go South, have a stop on Chouteau before wrapping around Jefferson Ave. It would then hit Jefferson and Park, Jefferson and Russel, Jefferson and Sidney, Jefferson and Arsenal, Jefferson and Cherokee, and finally Jefferson and Chippewa. North from Downtown, it would hit around Dr. Martin Luther King Dr. and 14th St, then continue onward toward N 20th St and Cass, then perhaps wrap Northward or Westward around the NGA headquarters, before then intersecting with Natural Bridge and ending at Fairground Park. The alignment on the north end will, apparently, be studied in future phases. And, of course, that may in fact be happening now as Mayor Jones and County Executive Page announced a new study at the end of 2021 that would also look into further expansion into the County to hit even more neighborhoods.

So, with all that, is there perhaps actually some room for hope that we may actually see some progress soon after so long? I certainly hope so. At least, there are reasons to be optimistic. For one, the City and County received a huge sum of money from the Federal Infrastructure bill passed last year that both the Mayor and County Executive are adamantly saying should and must lead to MetroLink expansion.

Unfortunately, we’re likely to wait at least a little while longer while the next phase of the study process is completed. However, we’re at a critical moment here where the City and County leadership are aligned on an overall outcome. Moreover, the city has a dedicated and growing base of funds to be used specifically for transit expansion. And, finally, the Federal Infrastructure bill could fill in the major gaps – and luckily, leadership in the region seems keen on using it for this purpose (among many others). So will we see the MetroLink expansion soon?

Well, probably not this year or the next, but we’ll probably and hopefully have an updated study in not too long just as all the funds are ready to be used. If there is a general agreement on the proposed line in the next couple of years and a reliable source of funding, perhaps we could see the first stages of the MetroLink expansion begin in the next few years. Construction could take upwards of a decade with environmental reviews, planning, construction, demolitions, etc. – but the slow progress will lead to an important, generationally useful piece of public transportation infrastructure should it finally see the light of day.

So, This Week in Urbanism, enjoy a dose of optimism about the North-South MetroLink expansion! While there’s nothing concrete at the moment, it seems we may be closer than ever toward seeing something actually happen soon.

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.

This Week in Urbanism: Time to Double Down on the Loop Trolley! | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

TRANSCRIPT BELOW

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

I’m your host, Brian Adler. 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 March 24th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite transportation punching bag: The Loop Trolley. Yes, really, that trolley.

But, before diving in, I want to take a brief moment to talk about the unprovoked, unjustifiable, and unthinkable Russian invasion of a sovereign democracy: Ukraine. This is an area that I am no expert in, but probably like many of you out there, I’ve been waking up every morning checking in on the work of some incredible and brave Ukrainian journalists as they document the horrors of the Russian invasion and occupation. This is unrelated to my podcast but related to my being human and just profoundly astonished and horrified by the atrocities taking place across the world. If you can, consider avoiding brands who haven’t yet stopped their businesses in Russia like Nestle and their subsidiaries. If you can, consider donating to organizations like the Kyiv Independent, an incredible journalistic outlet, or perhaps CORE (C-O-R-E), a nonprofit in Poland that is distributing aid to refugees. There are many more causes that you can donate to, if you’re able and willing, and most of all – I just want to stand in solidarity with those in Ukraine. Thank you for your patience and, in just a second, we’ll get back to our podcast about urbanism. But folks, democracy and human lives are under attack. Both of those things are more important than what I’m here to discuss, so that’s why this had to be said and why it came first.

Anyway, let’s get started. If you’ve lived in St. Louis for even a day in the last few years, you’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the Loop Trolley. Service began with two historic streetcars just before the end of 2018. Those two cars operated on a 2.2-mile-long fixed rail line that stretched from the end of the Delmar Loop in University City to the outskirts of Forest Park and the MetroLink station on the southern end of DeBaliviere. The line was built with a price tag of just over $50 million dollars, with just over half coming from Federal grant funding. It’s operational funding post-completion was set to come from the Trolley Development District, or as we’ll call it, the TDD. This TDD was and is still today an once cent sales tax on purchases made by consumers at businesses within the district. And finally, those funds would go to the Loop Trolley Company, the chosen operator for the trolley, which is also a non-profit. It was expected at the time that the around $1.3 million in operating expenses would be covered by that TDD.

Sure enough, by the end of 2019, the trolley was no longer running. How could that happen so fast? What went wrong? Well, on the surface, there are a few issues that are just pretty darn easy to spot, some perhaps the fault of overconfidence and bad projections, others not their fault and the result of issues with suppliers. But, at the core of it, is the issue of a great idea that just wasn’t as big of an idea as it should have been. If anything, we should have done more with the Loop Trolley. That’s the main thesis that I’ll explain below, but first, here were some pretty obvious problems:

  1. Poor fare projection
  2. Not able to run full anticipated service with third car not delivered
  3. Issues with cars
  4. Delayed openings
  5. Difficult experience for passengers

Let’s start at the top – projections of fare revenue were off, like, drastically, way off. Officials in 2015 expected that once full operations had begun and stabilized, the trolley would generate almost $400,000 in its first year of service. That would be based on all-day, seven day a week service with fares from $2 for a two-hour pass and $5 for an all-day pass.

But, by mid-July, more than half of a year into its first year of service, the trolley had generated just $22,283 in fare revenue. That’s just over 5% of what was projected.

Of course, some of that is due to the second problem I identified above – they weren’t actually able to run that full service they had anticipated prior to opening. The operating schedule was reduced significantly due to the third trolley car not being delivered on-time. What could have been a relatively frequent service ended up delivering long wait-times and poor transparency regarding its service levels, and of the two functioning trolleys, they ran into frequent maintenance issues. Remember, these were historic replicas, not the latest and greatest in people-moving technology. So, the trolley had maintenance and reliability issues, and on top of that, didn’t have the full deck of cards that it should have had.

It also had its opening delayed over and over again, pushing back its operating start and likely losing some of the excitement that it could have generated otherwise. In fact, rather than starting in the Summer or Fall when riders would have been enjoying Loop attractions and Forest Park amenities, it finally opened in mid-November of 2018, just as it was beginning to get quite cold. Doing so likely stifled a lot of the ridership that it otherwise could have enjoyed simply because of the time of year it opened.

And then, finally, the passenger experience simply wasn’t quite where it needed to be. With delays, rather loud and uncomfortable cars, and a ticket system that seemed to not work more often than it did with a clunky interface, it was hardly the most welcoming thing to ride. Some of this will hopefully be addressed once it is integrated into the Bi-State system.

Speaking of, that’s where the trolley is headed next. Bi-State officials agreed to take on the trolley operations from the Loop Trolley Company with substantial agreement from regional leaders including the mayor, head of Bi-State, and some officials in the Delmar Loop area. There has been a lot of outrage about this with people joking about how the thing simply won’t die. Others mock St. Louis for supposedly wasting tax dollars or otherwise seem to genuinely be rooting for the trolley to fail. What these critics often, or really most of the time, forget is that the Federal government has already essentially stated that they will force the region to repay the $25 million in federal grants that the trolley received for its operations unless the region can get it running again. So, here’s the thing, all of you claiming this is a sunk cost fallacy misunderstand the situation. We will double our costs if we don’t make it work, and I don’t want to hear folks complaining about potholes and the lack of money that exists to take care of them if we shoot ourselves in the foot here and abandon already completed infrastructure projects. Moreover, the Transportation Development District is still generating funds and will likely see these explode in the near future (in a good way) when the grocery store and other retail opens on DeBaliviere, so standard operating revenue should not be an issue once this is running.

Anyway, we can and will get the trolley running because we have to. And, frankly, it’s stupid if we don’t. With that said, the best way to guarantee its success is to double down on the vision of the trolley and to make it something that actually transports people from one place to another.

The core of my argument rests in a topic of planning called Corridor Planning. The general idea is that you can build successful mixed-use corridors if you connect multiple anchor-type institutions, neighborhoods, and amenities along a corridor and link it up with transit and streetscape improvements. The Kansas City Streetcar line is an amazing example of this work in action. It connects amenities like the KC City Market through a downtown corridor including the Power and Light District, past hotels, a stadium, Union Station, and will soon even be extended to the University of Missouri – Kansas City. It has been a phenomenal success, is free to ride, utilizes modern vehicles, and is sparking investment the entire way through the corridor with new businesses openings and renovations everywhere. That’s amazing!

And here with the Delmar Loop Trolley, we can still see some success. We are seeing great development along its small corridor, with some great mixed-use buildings that are dense and transit-oriented along the southern end of DeBaliviere. But, as it stands today, most of the line is mostly going throughout one attraction. It reaches the edge of another, Forest Park, and the edge of one of our most dense neighborhoods in DeBaliviere Place, but really does not connect neighborhoods and uses well. It is mostly a line that goes through one attraction: The Delmar Loop, meaning that there will be few people who can take it back home, take it to or from work, or take it to or from their hotels.

That is why, to guarantee its long-term success and to fulfill its greatest potential, Bi-State and regional leaders should extend the line through Forest Park, where they won’t need to eminent domain anything, to the Central West End and BJC campus where it can connect with the Central West End MetroLink station. It would now connect the Central West End, one of our most dense residential and employment hubs through our greatest urban amenity and all its attractions, Forest Park, with the dense neighborhood of DeBaliviere Place, and upward to the great attraction of the Delmar Loop. Best of all, we wouldn’t even have to buy out tons of homeowners along the way because we would be running the line through public land and increasing the vitality and usage of its amenities.

This is, of course, just one solution of many that can likely improve operations of the Loop Trolley. But the main point is we shouldn’t stop dreaming or working toward something better, St. Louis. Just because something stumbled, and a Pandemic then got in the way doesn’t mean we should give up. Corridor Planning has amazing benefits, and the trolley can really bring some vibrant economic development and transit connections, if we simply allow it.

So, This Week in Urbanism, perhaps have an open mind on the Loop Trolley and start to dream up ways to make it the best little trolley that it can be.

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.

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.

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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Butler Brothers Building next on the Downtown Revitalization Machine

Downtown West has been picking up significant momentum over the last couple years. The most well-known project will bring a brand-new Soccer Stadium for St. Louis City SC, and advocates have long argued that it would contribute to positive growth in the corridor. It appears, not even two full years later, that those advocates may be pleased with their predictions.

Although there is lots of academic debate surrounding whether incentivized professional stadiums positively improve a city’s economy, the St. Louis MLS Stadium is unique in that it received no tax-incremented-financing (TIFs) from the city. Unlike many other Central Corridor investments, this one in particular is mostly privately financed without taking from future local tax revenues. Rather, the only incentives received by the stadium were granted by State lawmakers and still mostly a drop in the bucket.

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The Butler Brothers building is one of the largest vacant buildings within Downtown St. Louis with 8 floors of usable space and a presence that takes up an entire city block. In Downtown West, just East of Jefferson, there has been much less investment in recent years than neighboring areas. The stadium seems to have kicked off a recent spate of investments all seeking to capitalize on the anticipated success of the MLS site, with residential redevelopments like 1800 Washington, 1801 Washington Ave, and even a few more along the way totaling hundreds of new units.

Location of the Butler Brothers building – Google Maps

With the sheer size of the Butler Brothers building, it will activate a significant portion of Downtown West. Better yet, in addition to its anticipated 384 residential units (greater in number than recent towers like One Hundred on the Park), Development Services Group plans on adding 2 retail spaces with a total of around 15,000 square feet. Mixed-use could be something of a gamechanger for this part of Downtown and contribute to a growing neighborhood feel that St. Louis City SC hoped on achieving with their new stadium and adjacent developments. The retail spots add additional reasons for residents and tourists alike to stay in the area and spend their money locally.

The building will likely have similar amenities to other recent large developments. According to CitySceneSTL, the plans call for an “amenity lounge, fitness center, juice bar, bike storage, dog spa, game room, and screen room.”. Of the 384 apartments, 295 will be one-bedrooms units, 24 studio, and 65 two-bedroom. Some developers have found their one-bedroom units to be the most in demand, which likely explains the composition of units in this building.

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The developer hopes to begin construction in Q4 2021 and to wrap up construction in Q2 2023. This is a very ambitious construction and approval timeline, but there certainly is cause to shoot for wrapping up around the start of the new St. Louis City SC team at the neighboring stadium. In just a few years, Downtown West may well feel more like a natural extension of Downtown rather than a missing link in the Central Corridor.

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