The Definitive Platform for Rebuilding St. Louis in the 21st Century

St. Louis City is at a critical fork in the road. With some of the biggest political leaders recently indicted by the Federal Government for corruption, a variety of infrastructure improvements and funds still stuck in limbo, a declining population, and our many Aldermen essentially running their own kingdoms with distinct capital funds, coordinated progress is difficult to achieve.

As this website shifts toward operating more as an idea-based, urbanist ‘think-tank’, it seems prudent to outline some key ideas in an organized fashion that just may give St. Louis City practical solutions to a growing list of pressing needs.

Our problems will be difficult, if not impossible, to overcome without a substantial effort to reform our governance and priorities. Doing so now is increasingly important to reverse the negative feedback loops already negatively impacting the city. Moreover, upcoming challenges to individual liberties, safety, and equitable economic development are in the pipeline from Missouri’s legislative branches.

The following is a platform rooted in equitable growth and land use, safety & wellbeing, pride, and looking toward the future. The purpose of this platform is to provide a distinct set of ideas and purpose to our elected officials and to give the public a list of solutions to lobby for.

THE PLATFORM:


LAND USE & ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT

  1. Completely remove single family zoning.
    1. Single Family Zoning is incredibly effective at keeping people out of neighborhoods, an exclusionary practice that increases housing costs, segregates communities, and contributes to the climate crisis. Single Family Zoning does not mean that your home must become a multifamily dwelling. Instead, it means that you could decide to build more units on that property should you choose to do so. Density is critical for supporting transit and neighborhood commercial opportunities.
  2. Allow ADUs.
    1. Accessory Dwelling Units can provide critically important additional housing in high-demand neighborhoods. A garage can be converted at significantly less cost to new housing versus entirely new construction on a vacant lot.
  3. Fee for unit removal.
    1. As is already being considered, this type of ordinance discourages flippers from taking dense housing stock and reducing the number of units available on a given parcel. The fee would be akin to a ‘sin tax’ for smoking, still preserving liberty in real estate transactions while also providing an opportunity for the city to then invest those funds in positive social uses.
  4. Eliminate community and aldermanic review for housing proposals.
    1. Community and aldermanic review serve to prevent or otherwise housing proposals and thus affordable housing more broadly. Empirical research routinely showcases that even market-rate housing construction lowers housing pressures even for low and middle income earners and as such still provides benefits.
  5. Increased property taxes to fund infrastructure.
    1. Property taxes are comparatively low in the City of St. Louis despite its large geography and service responsibilities. Increased property taxes would direct more revenue to schools within the city and ensure that land is valued accordingly. However, efforts should be made for property tax assistance for homeowners on fixed incomes.
  6. Tie development incentives to a tangible percentage affordable and/or workforce units.
    1. Development incentives often may be necessary to make a project feasible, which should be the goal in a city that is losing population. However, development incentives are effectively public funds and thus should deliver concrete public benefits. A percentage of units for large developments with tax incentives should deliver a percentage of more affordable units. However, this should be a concrete policy and not determined on the fly. SLDC should have a tiered list of percentages for project cost and units.
  7. Funding for elderly home repair.
    1. The University of Missouri – St. Louis is currently conducting a study that explores the impact of home repairs for elderly citizens in the region. If it showcases tangible positive benefits such as keeping the home in the family and making the residence safer, this can be an investment that helps produce and maintain generational wealth.
  8. Prioritize land use over historical preservation with the recognition that housing affordability, density, and the impacts on people and environment outweigh poor historical land use.
    1. St. Louis has an incredible historic built environment, and historic preservation can be an important tool. However, when facing crises like Climate Change and Housing Unaffordability, historic preservation should not prevent higher value land uses. For example, many preservationists opposed the renovation of the Optimist International building in the Central West End into over 150 apartments. The building was in poor shape, the non-profit who owned it wanted to sell it, and the parcel thus provided almost no benefits to the community save for its design which is fundamentally exclusively subjective in benefit. That is rather than the concrete benefits of dense housing that can contribute a more widespread benefit than a derelict building that, even if remodeled, would contribute little aside from its design to the city.
  9. Reform SLDC such that it does not rely so heavily on outside consultants.
    1. A burgeoning field of research on ‘State Capacity’ showcases that governments of all sizes and shapes across the U.S. have steadily found themselves with less capacity and ability to take on large projects and to do so effectively. A negative feedback loop is thus spawned as it faces punitive budget cuts and relies on outside consultants for difficult projects. Such takes away the sovereignty of the organization and makes it reliant on private interests, costs, and timelines. Such should not be the case for St. Louis’ development arm and the recent corruption case showcases how outside consultants poison the well in this capacity.
  10. Empower Greater STL Inc. and work with neighboring counties and municipal governments to restrict inter-region infighting and to offer the region’s collective benefits to lure new investment.
    1. Regional infighting is not a real economic development solution. If Maplewood sees stealing a business from the City or another municipality as a realistic option to raise its revenues, it simply harms its next-door neighbor and even then, probably just temporarily. The region must act collectively to lure new businesses with Greater STL Inc. rather than continuing to split hairs internally.
  11. Further funding the Prop. N.S. Program to reduce the market gap in housing rehabilitations in lower demand sections of the city.
    1. A ‘market-gap’ has been identified in research over the last few decades that showcases how real estate investment will not occur in given areas due to a non-existent market. For example, the City may offer a property through the LRA for $10 – which sounds like a steal, but if the buyer needs to put in $100,000 for a building that would at best sell for $70,000 then they will not make that investment and the building will continue to rot. Prop. N.S. begins to address this problem by addressing key issues and stabilizing the properties, usually through roof and foundation repairs, beginning to fix the market-gap. This should continue and be bolstered.

TRANSIT

  1. Complete build-out of the N/S MetroLink line and connect to North County.
    1. The MetroLink expansion will be critical as a means to connecting people in lower-income communities with fewer jobs to areas where jobs are in abundance. This is an investment in our people and in the environment. This also would reduce auto-dependence for communities where auto-ownership is a major financial burden.
  2. Increased funding for bus and train operator salaries.
    1. A sizable number of people rely on bus and train service, and ideally this number must grow as we face a climate crisis fueled in some part by car dependency. With this in mind, the City must work with Bi-State in any way required such that these operators earn a competitive salary and routes do not see their frequencies cut. These individuals are the backbone of our region.
  3. Increased funding for bus shelters.
    1. Bus shelters are a critical piece of infrastructure for safety and comfort and represent a relatively insignificant capital investment versus infrastructure that we dedicate toward cars. These are of reduced importance with high frequencies, but no individual should have to wait in the sun for 30 minutes waiting for a bus. This is a standard met by world-class cities, and St. Louis will not be world-class or competitive if it misses key infrastructure opportunities that take care of its people.
  4. Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) along #95 and #70 bus routes.
    1. BRT is being adopted in forward-thinking cities across the country as a relatively low-cost method to increase bus frequency by dedicating a lane for bus transit. The Kingshighway and Grand routes have abundant space for a dedicated bus-lane and dedicated, built-out stops can even rival fixed light-rail in some instances at significantly lower costs.
  5. Increased funding for station maintenance and accessible features.
    1. Our major Downtown MetroLink stations should never sit for weeks without working elevators or escalators. IT is an embarrassment to visitors and regular transit users. It again reflects all-too-low state capacity and, if Bi-State needs more engineers and cannot fund this by themselves, then it should be addressed by partners in the City. These are key accessible features, particularly with regard to elevators, and it is indeed too much to ask that a low-mobility individual bypass their stop.
  6. Increased frequency on major bus corridors and MetroLink routes.
    1. Frequency is a driver of ridership and contributes to economic mobility. An individual should never have to allocate 2 or 3 hours to get to work, but this is the reality for many St. Louisans not because the route doesn’t exist, but because the frequencies leave them waiting for significant periods along their route. Reducing frequency can often reduce ridership, contributing to urges by communities to further reduce funding because of low ridership. We must not fall into that trap.
  7. Ensuring that Lambert International Airport officials incorporate MetroLink into revised terminal plans.
    1. One of our greatest regional assets is a light-rail system that brings riders to and from the airport, something that world-class cities like Los Angeles are just now trying to build out. We must ensure that as Lambert undergoes planning for a renewed, singular terminal that transit access continues to be a strength.

ROADWAYS

  1. Take roadway capital improvement projects away from Aldermen and incorporate into the responsibilities of BPS and Streets Department.
    1. Aldermen should not be making capital improvement/urban planning decisions, particularly those that impact residents in other words as well. These are largely untrained elected officials who, again, largely do not hold expertise in urban planning decisions save for a few particular individuals. Leave city planning and streets decisions to experts in a city with the capacity to make these decisions. This is fragmented decision making as it stands today with domino-impacts from individual aldermanic decisions.
  2. Incorporate ‘Road Diets’ along Kingshighway, Grand, and Jefferson corridors and along most roadways in Downtown to rebalance toward pedestrian safety in an era of bigger and heavier vehicles.
    1. Road Diets are one of the best tools for improving pedestrian and bike safety, and for some of these corridors, trying to be either is a frightening proposition. Research showcases that reducing lanes does not increase traffic due to the principals of reduced demand. This is hard pill to swallow for many and a tough political line to sell, but the City should follow empirical evidence and incentivize other forms of transportation. Road Diets can make our roadways safer across the region and they are cheap to implement and of higher importance as cars continue getting bigger and deadlier for non-car users.
  3. Additional tax on heavy-duty vehicles (large SUVs and pickup trucks) incorporated within personal property taxes to afford the additional damage they cause to the built environment and infrastructure, as well as the environment more broadly.
    1. These vehicles have negative externalities that are not accounted for when purchased by the end-user. Heavier vehicles cause significantly more damage to road infrastructure, and when they occasionally drive off the road, to our buildings as well. They are becoming significantly more deadly to pedestrians and cyclists as well, wreaking havoc to all those not within the vehicle. These amount to increasing costs that should be addressed and then utilized to improve and prepare infrastructure to keep people across all transit modes safer.
  4. Continue the build-out of dedicated cycle tracks along major roadways.
    1. Dedicated cycling paths are important for cycling safety and, in many cases, even for the safety of drivers. They are relatively cheap to implement and we have a growing number of examples, like the protected cycle paths on Union north of Forest Park, that showcase how easy they are to implement and how efficient they can be. With current infrastructure, cycle users may often avoid major, and the most efficient, corridors when reaching their destination because they opt for a higher chance to make it home to dinner in one piece. If other great cities can do it, so can we.

GOVERNANCE

  1. Transition municipal government away from the Weak-Mayor system with the Board of Estimate and Apportionment into a Council-Manager government with a professional city manager.
    1. Cities with City Managers and a Council dedicated to legislative actions can be much better equipped to collectively and coherently tackle city-wide issues. The current state of various fiefdoms stifles cooperation and takes decision making down to individuals who are not equipped generally to be making huge capital improvement decisions. We don’t need to look far to see higher efficiency: our neighbors across the state in Kansas City showcase just how effective a City Manager can be. Crucially, Kansas City is also growing and a coherent vision is key to that.
  2. Double the salaries of Aldermen and professionalize their offices with a community liaison and legislative specialist.
    1. Although elected offices should and must be accessible to people of all walks of life, the current low salary and part time nature of the job effectively rule out a large amount of people who simply could not afford to serve without having to take on other responsibilities. Legislating a big city is and should be a full-time job, and its one that also requires a lot of community input and legislative know-how. Let’s modernize and professionalize the Board and ensure that members are prepared financially and logistically to succeed.
  3. Work toward reducing fragmentation with duplicated services particularly with regard to the municipalities bordering St. Louis City.
    1. Police
      1. Multiple police departments impacts service delivery, reliability, data collection, and quality. Differing training regiments, accreditations, community relations requirements, force regulations, salaries, etc. harms safety and credibility.
    2. Dispatch
      1. The City has struggled to maintain an effective dispatch center and is already making improvements, but there are inherent inefficiencies to multiple different dispatch systems for multiple neighboring police departments. The redundancy carries extra costs and potentially sub-optimal outcomes for people on the other end of the line.
    3. Schools
      1. This is unpopular particularly in some inner-ring suburbs who fear sharing their school resources with less-well funded school systems. However, the difference in school quality and funding leads to an unequal foundation for our youth and contributes to inequality, often intersected with race and zip code. By increasing property taxes as described elsewhere in this platform, the city can make its foundation for schools more sizable and relieve concerns.
  4. Reform service delivery and development, reducing unnecessary reviews when possible. No cycle track should take years to approve.
    1. Efficiency has to improve such that idea to finished product for a roadway improvement, bike path, or sidewalk repair to take years. This is another culprit of state capacity and can likely be traced to excess reviews, approvals, and a bureaucracy hampered by withering technology and unacceptably low levels of accountability and ability to take action.
  5. Increase salaries of city personnel across the board to be more competitive with industry. The city should be the best place to work in St. Louis.
    1. How could we expect great city services from a government effectively operating as though it has adopted austerity? Low budgets and inflexible salaries lose qualified individuals to industry. Public service should not be as much a sacrifice as it is made to be, because such sacrifice is burdened by our entire city, not just that individual.
  6. Reduce reliance on external consultants. To do so, St. Louis needs to build state capacity such that project costs and timelines are not dictated on exterior schedules and cost overruns.
    1. External consultants are much a product of all-too-limited state capacity and they introduce private interests, leading generally to increased costs and longer timelines. See the high-speed train fiasco in California as an example, or even the many private, consultant-run studies on light-rail transit that we’ve explored over the last two decades here in St. Louis that eat up millions of dollars with no tangible product. In-house can equal efficient and bring about cost savings if we equip our government with the qualified personnel necessary to make engineering and planning decisions.
  7. Consider a 0.5% increase in the City Earnings Tax to be more competitive in city services with other peer cities that have similar or even higher tax rates.
    1. Good city services to not naturally occur under austerity conditions. Many cities actually have higher than St. Louis City’s 1% earnings tax. Cleveland, for example, has a 2.5% earnings tax and, despite that, is growing (albeit slowly) while St. Louis is doing the opposite. Our 1% earnings tax is not the problem, but increasing it to 1.5% could be part of the solution toward providing city services and infrastructure that attract and maintain residents.
  8. Remove the residency requirement from most, if not all, city bureaucratic positions such that the local government is less of a jobs program and more a delivery service of excellent and professional city services.
    1. St. Louis City represents approximately 10% of the total MSA population, but the entire region is home to qualified professionals in all fields. St. Louis City is largely prohibiting some of our region’s best from working for us on the basis that these roles should pay salaries to only those who live in the city. The presumption is that our city residents hold all the key qualifications necessary, but that argument becomes more and more strained overtime as our population decreases and city jobs remain vacant while dumpsters don’t get emptied in our alleys.
  9. Preserving the new ‘Approval Voting’ mechanism to reduce partisanship and produce candidates who better reflect collective interest rather than those at partisan extremes who otherwise may win with a plurality.
  10. Approval Voting
    1. As described in our video below, Approval Voting can be an excellent tool to ensure that elected candidates are more likely representing a larger share of interests than in our standard primary system.

SAFETY

  1. Restrict firearms to the extent possible and encourage private institutions with more ability to do so to meet stringent firearms requirements.
    1. Doing so will be difficult as gun rights continue extending due to court decisions. However, empirical research almost exclusively showcases a connection between more guns and more killing. Regardless of the political reality, whatever efforts that can be made should be made and that means relying on private partners when possible to enact gun restrictions on as much private property as possible where it is still legal to do so.
  2. Merge city and inner-ring suburb police/EMS departments and have the combined force meet the absolute highest accreditation possible.
    1. Increase funding where necessary to ensure fewer officers work overtime in accordance with improvements documented in empirical criminology literature such that violent and property crimes are reduced. However, those improvements are not inherent to having more officers – fundamental improvements to training and scheduling must be made such that officers are less likely to be in situations where they’re 12 hours into a shift making sub-optimal decisions with insufficient training.
    2. Many of the city’s lowest income neighborhoods, and even Downtown, report frequently seeing few officers.
  3. Combine dispatch centers and increase salaries, wellness benefits to completely eliminate 911 call wait-times.
    1. 911 wait-times are unacceptable for those in emergency situations and the lack of operators comes down to multiple key issues: (1) Salary – workers go where they see an acceptable financial return; (2) Fragmentation – some municipalities likely have too many operators while the City has too few; and (3) It is a difficult, mentally taxing job – and as such, these roles should come with great benefits and wellness programs to ensure that when your call is answered, they’re up to the job all the time.
  4. Allocate funding toward the fire department’s efforts to document vacant building status such that firefighters are less in danger when putting out blazes in vacant structures.
  5. The St. Louis City Fire Department has begun building a collection of buildings that they will not enter due to the inherent and real risks that these buildings pose upon their personnel. However, this is a process that should be expedited and likely more the responsibility of other City departments and should thus be supported substantially.
  6. Utilizing road diets and taxes on excessively large vehicles to reduce pedestrian injuries and casualties.
  7. As described above, Road Diets will keep pedestrians and cyclists safer while also not contributing to worse traffic.
  8. Non-enforcement of non-violent drug crimes and sex work.
  9. These crimes intersect with strong moral and religious beliefs, but regardless of those and whether or not they’re valis as public policy solutions, the enforcement of crimes of these natures that are violence-free and victimless should not take any capacity away from our overtaxed police enforcement. From a practical perspective, these activities will likely continue despite the laws and actions should be taken to make them safer without filling our prisons – a cost we all bear.

WELLBEING

  1. Consider bond programs for city home repair programs to maintain existing residents and build generational wealth.
    1. Keeping people in their homes and building generational wealth is a means of battling income inequality, particularly that which is present for marginalized groups. Making relatively minor repairs on the homes of our elderly neighbors may be a positive investment from a human perspective, but also possibly from the perspective of the alternative costs of a vacant building that becomes more expensive to repair as it attracts crime in accordance with the Broken Window Theory.
  2. Subsidize and/or insure home loans, particularly in neighborhoods that have a history of redlining.
    1. Home ownership is one of the best tools for building wealth and stability, but residents in primarily North-City neighborhoods cannot access financing for rehabs or new constructions due to market-gaps, informal redlining, etc. oftentimes even if they have excellent credit. The City stands to gain from these revitalized neighborhoods and stability and thus should explore subsidizing or insuring loans in these neighborhoods to help build equity for qualified buyers.
  3. Ensure transit routes have a frequency that can support longer distance city travel and thus support individuals who cannot move but need to access job centers.
    1. Frequency is a critical factor for someone without a car to find job stability and have the freedom of mobility.
  4. Support individual rights and freedoms for the LGBTQIA+ community and other marginalized groups who routinely face attacks from the Missouri State Government.
    1. The City has the inherent duty to protect its residents, and that duty is likely to face increasing threats from Missouri’s State Government that is increasingly interested in reducing freedoms for LGBTQIA+ people and allowing for discrimination on the State level. St. Louis City should take on these in court and create funds where necessary to provide defense for those who may be persecuted.
  5. Adopting local ordinances in the workplace and housing to prohibit discrimination.
    1. Just as above, these ordinances may be necessary in an increasingly hostile state government and can at least protect residents from local enforcement mechanisms.
  6. Contributing to funds for legal defenses if necessary for individuals if, like in the State of Texas, may find themselves prosecuted by their state government for healthcare for trans children.
    1. These are unacceptable intrusions upon personal liberty and healthcare and pose significant threats to the wellbeing (emotional and financial) for members of our community, many of whom would be unable to protect themselves legally from these attacks should they take place. The City must prepare and be ready.
  7. Non-enforcement of potentially incoming state legislation that may criminalize abortion access.
    1. Similar to protecting other rights and freedoms, abortion falls into a category of personal healthcare that is under increasingly hostile attacks from the State government. St. Louis City should ensure easy access to states like Illinois across the river and ensure that every action is taken to support those in need of those services. This is something that we’re beginning to see discussed among the Board.
  8. Creation of a Tenant’s Bill of Rights.
    1. Tenants in rental units are prized neighbors and community members and should not be subject to some of the most relaxed laws in the nation for tenant protections. As we encourage more development, we should ensure that tenants have protections and do so through coherent city policy rather than through individual neighborhood pushback.

PRIDE

  1. Build infrastructure that does more than meet the bare minimum. Our built environment is one of the key assets of the city, and the higher-quality, attractive streetlights and street features that used to be more commonplace can provide hope and pride for city residents.
    1. Build out in neighborhoods beyond the Central West End. Every city resident should feel pride in their city and see investment.
    2. This will carry an increased cost, but it’s important to recognize that existing streetlight infrastructure, for example is already very expensive and investments in pride and built environment can pay dividends in the future.
  2. Offer best-in-class services that make people proud to live here.
    1. We need to offer reasons for people to stay and, in a large country with many incredible cities, offer unique infrastructure and city elements to attract more residents. We are so used to dumbing down our infrastructure and finding the lowest costs rather than delivering something special.
  3. Properly maintain city parks and revitalize connections to these major community assets.
    1. A Southwest Garden resident has almost no safe way to cross over to Tower Grove Park as Kingshighway and the current streetscape almost completely separate a major asset from its closest neighbors.
    2. A Dutchtown or Wells Goodfellow resident might routinely see unexpectedly tall weeds in their city parks.

PREPARING FOR THE FUTURE

  1. Turn budget reserves into a well-managed endowment/sovereign wealth fund similar to that of nations like Norway to invest in our collective future.
  2. Take advantage of low-interest debt to finance infrastructure and community projects. Focusing on less debt is a low-productivity strategy that fails to capitalize on growth.
  3. Invest in St. Louis’ key location along the Mississippi River for freight transportation.
  4. Invest in St. Louis as a tourism destination by better connecting the Arch Grounds to commercial corridors as well as creating riverfront attractions for riverfront cruises.
  5. Coordinating legislation with empirical, academic literature – particularly alongside partnerships with our world-class educational institutions.
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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.

Major CORTEX Project Inches Forward

UPDATE: The construction appears to be for the nearby Neuroscience building under construction just down the block. Although the construction is on the site of the 4210 site, this may not yet be an indication of the project being restarted. The story will be updated as more information unfolds.

St. Louis is on the precipice of becoming a major city for fostering startups, seeing massive venture capital growth over the last several years and now regularly finding itself topping coveted lists. One recent study from JobSage found that St. Louis was the top city in the nation for successful minority-owned businesses, finding that 25% of STL startups were minority-owned with average annual sales totaling almost $200,000.

Listen to the story in the new This Week in Urbanism Podcast BONUS feature.

The St. Louis Business Journals also reported that St. Louis saw a regional record-setting amount of investment dollars, totaling almost $250,000,000 in 2021 alone. The amount of investment has swelled in recent years as the city finds itself in the top 30 markets for investment from Bay Area and New York based firms, having attracted only around $30-$40,000,000 annually between 2010 and 2013. That growth is remarkable and palpable for St. Louis area businesses and can likely be attributed to the major investments in infrastructure and networks within the Cortex Innovation Community.

CORTEX – Source: Cortex Innovation Community

If you’re unfamiliar with the Cortex, it’s an innovation community sandwiched between Forest Park Southeast, the Central West End, and Midtown. It’s several acres of high tech office space, innovation hubs, restaurants, research labs, a hotel, and soon to be residential space once KDG’s Cortex K project gets off the ground. Over the past decade, it has seen several new buildings rise and has attracted businesses including Boeing, Microsoft, and labs from WUSTL and BJC.

One office in particular, to be located at 4210 Duncan, has been an object of interest in the local urbanism community for some time. The development has been stalled since late 2020, perhaps due to leasing issues rooted in the effects of the pandemic. This building would total over $100 million dollars in investment and has a fascinating design and would have a huge presence in the community should it actually get built. With 8 and a half levels of office space, labs, and retail, it would fill out the Eastern edge of the district with a sizable presence and the façade is unlike anything we’ve seen before in the St. Louis market.

Without a whisper, it seems as though the developer has finally restarted their efforts. Over the last couple of days, the construction gates have been open as workers returned to some incomplete foundation work. Some witnessed cement trucks entering the gates and workers seemingly restarting construction. What we haven’t seen yet are the building permits, so time will tell if this is only a temporary measure, or really the start to one of the most architecturally interesting office buildings in STL getting underway.

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.

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:

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