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 Season 2 Premier: Development Incentives

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

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

https://discord.com/invite/AvQsVs7B

ROUGH TRANSCRIPT BELOW:

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Could it be? Could it finally be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This Week in Urbanism: 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.

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

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

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

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

Location pin pointed on Google Maps

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

Image from Google Street View

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

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

Rendering of the Ronald McDonald House – RMHC

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

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

Controversial Developer Proposes Apartments on Kingshighway near CWE

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

Introduction

Site of the FPSE Project – Brian Adler

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

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

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

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

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The Proposal

Preliminary Rendering Facing Kingshighway: LuxLiving

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

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

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

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

Behind the Kingshighway Buildings – Brian Adler

Causes for Concern: Safety, Fraud, and Bad Practices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s Next

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

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

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A Nuanced Conclusion

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

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

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

What’s your take?

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

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

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

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

A Rendering of the St. Louis City SC Garage

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

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

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

New Midrise Proposal in St. Louis’ Central West End

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

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

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

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

4490 Lindell from Taylor – LuxLiving

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

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

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Additional Renderings Below:

DeBaliviere Place Construction Check-In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Butler Brothers Building next on the Downtown Revitalization Machine

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

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

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

Location of the Butler Brothers building – Google Maps

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

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

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

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