This Week in Urbanism Season 2 Premier: Development Incentives

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

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

https://discord.com/invite/AvQsVs7B

ROUGH TRANSCRIPT BELOW:

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Could it be? Could it finally be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TRANSCRIPT BELOW:

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

I’m your host, Brian Adler. This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast. And, of course, If you haven’t yet noticed – this is the first podcast that I’m doing on camera. You’ll be able to stream this podcast, watching me make funny expressions, over at our Missouri Metro YouTube channel today. It’ll also be on the Missouri Metro website in the post for this podcast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

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

TRANSCRIPT BELOW

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

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

TRANSCRIPT BELOW

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

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

Today is March 24th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about everyone’s favorite transportation punching bag: The Loop Trolley. Yes, really, that trolley.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.

This Week in Urbanism: A Growing Skyline | 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 11th, 2022, and today, we’re going to talk about the many new high-rise towers that are going to change up the skyline and the St. Louis urban experience in the next few years.

Over the last few years, we’ve been on a building boom here in St. Louis. Our urban core has seen extensive investment ranging from Downtown St. Louis to Downtown Clayton, forming an ever-denser Central Corridor. We’ve discussed in the past how there is a large disparity in development based on race and location here in St. Louis, like in many other cities, but today we’re going to talk primarily about how this central corridor itself is really booming.

So why am I talking about towers? Well, I think they’re pretty cool for one! I like a good skyline. And you regular listeners know that I love some good density. One of the great things about high rise towers is that they’re efficient in land and utility usage, and when placed optimally, can really encourage walking, transit usage, and contribute to a 15-minute city and a more pleasant built environment.

Sometimes a tower isn’t what you want. Putting one in rural Missouri probably wouldn’t make sense, because you need enough demand to fill the many units and a location that serves the density. Without restaurants, transit, institutions, or other interesting things nearby, there’s little reason for people to live or work in one. Still, in an urban environment, they can be a great tool in city building. Of course, something awkward in STL is that we have an empty tower downtown – the AT&T tower. It’s actually under contract, and I’m hoping that the sale completes, but it’s important to note that sometimes when towers are built so large and with inefficient layouts, their reuse can be challenging because of the sheer cost.

Right, so let’s talk about some of what we’re going to see go up in the St. Louis area over the next few years. The first one that I want to talk about is really the one that I’m the most excited about. The Koplar family, a rather prolific developer in the region, announced a high-rise residential building to fill one of the vacant parking lots in the Central West End at Lindell and Kingshighway. I mean, you’ve got to go to the physical story I post on the website to check out the rendering. It looks incredibly. The building fronts Forest Park in one of the city’s best urban neighborhoods and will be directly adjacent to the impressive 100 on The Park building just next-door that keeps winning architectural awards. Anyway, this building will be just a smidgeon shorter and will have a curved, glass façade with rooftop amenities and balconies on some floors. It was designed to compliment both the 100 and the Chase Park Plaza next-door, a building designed by the grandfather of the Koplar family member who proposed this project.

The building is going to rise 30 stories above the park and have a total of 293 apartment units, with two ground-floor retail spaces and lots of amenities. So, to be clear, we’re talking about replacing a simple surface parking lot that was barely utilized with a gorgeous tower, retail, and density adjacent to one of the best urban parks in the country, tons of restaurants, and light-rail nearby. That’s phenomenal. The Central West End skyline is growing quickly, and the nearby 100 on the Park tower is leasing quickly and reliably as well even considering the high rents. It seems that demand within the city, at least within this neighborhood, is driving some incredible growth.

Speaking of the city, there are multiple other towers to speak of in varying stages of the proposal-to-construction process. Already underway at the massively successful City Foundry development, where a Fresh Thyme grocery store, future Alamo Drafthouse, mini-putting, retail, food hall, and office-space are located, the next phase of the project is already underway. Just along Vandeventer Ave., the developer (The Lawrence Group) is already moving dirt and beginning construction on a 14-story residential apartment tower and a 5-story office building. These will be connected to the City Foundry site that is already in place. We’re looking at about 270 apartments, many with balconies, a large amenity deck with a pool, 83,000 square feet of office space, and 25,000 square feet of ground-floor retail space. According to CityScene-STL, the project will be the first in the region to utilize mass timber construction, a much more sustainable material.

Also interestingly, in part of the tax incentive process, a deal was arranged with the city that provides almost $2 million for the city’s Affordable Housing Trust Fund. I’m hoping that we’ll see similar deals agreed upon in the region in the future. While subsidies might sometimes still be required for a project to actually be completed, it seems reasonable to arrange a win-win scenario for each party.

I think this project has a whole lot of potential, too. The residents will have access to an incredible list of amenities. They’ll be able to head downstairs to tons of entertainment, food, and even a grocery store. It’s also my favorite grocery store. It’s also part of Midtown, which has plenty of its own entertainment – not to mention the campus of Saint Louis University. It’s also close to the Cortex and Grand MetroLink stops, not to mention the #70 Grand bus route, which is the busiest in the state. In terms of reducing car dependence, this development, despite its large garage, has a whole lot of potential. It’s also going to truly change the skyline for Midtown, while also fostering a connection to the nearby Central West End.

So, speaking of Midtown, there’s quite a lot more to speak of. While not a tower specifically, just adjacent to the second Foundry phase is a 7-story residential apartment proposal that will actually wrap around the fire station and connect to the Foundry. This whole area is getting denser and denser, and there’s nothing better than that in an area that can truly support that density.

But, of course, there are more towers to speak of too. Green Street, another large developer in the region who actually has another project that I’ll discuss on this podcast episode, has two towers planned in Midtown just along Grand Ave in the middle of the SLU medical and main campuses. These towers will be dubbed “40 Grand”, and each 14-story tower will have 266 apartments. They’ll be connected to Grand as well as the soon-to-be RecHall at the Armory building nearby. They are one of the largest transit-oriented developments in the region when combined, comparable to the projects going up on DeBaliviere Ave – but simply larger and taller.

It’s significant to see any towers going up in the city, but to have so many at the same time is really almost unprecedented save for the last few years. These two will also contribute to the great transit network along Grand and allow their residents to enjoy the plethora of jobs and amenities nearby, while also allowing for car-free life to be a real, tangible option. Hopefully the project will break ground soon. Demolition is already underway for the warehouses that previously sat on the site, and Green Street is hoping to get started on the actual construction soon and has submitted the required zoning changes.

Just a little West, back in the Central West End, Barnes Jewish Hospital has its own skyline-changing projects well underway. The most significant of which is the replacement for the Queeny Tower that previously sat alongside Kingshighway at the southern edge of the complex. Now demolished, BJC is already working on the replacement with multiple tower cranes currently moving materials. The new patient tower will look a bit like the Siteman Cancer Center, with the cool, rounded portion extending from bottom to top and likely to have some pretty cool lighting elements. The goal is to really modernize the patient experience and increase what they’re able to offer. BJC states that they’ll be able to offer 224 private impatient rooms, 56 ICU units, surgery, prep, recovery, imaging, and cafeteria areas. The building isn’t slated to open until 2025, but we’ll probably start seeing it rising up in the near future. It’ll be a full 18 stories, so its presence will be huge coming from the highway, park, or Metro.

BJC isn’t done there. At Taylor and Forest Park Parkway, they’re already building a new Ambulatory Cancer Center, connected to Siteman. Set to open in 2024, the building will consolidate their outpatient cancer treatment and 7 or 8 floors of usable space. It will actually be dwarfed a little bit by another project, which you’ve probably already seen, just a couple blocks down on Duncan in the Cortex. The Neuroscience research building will be one of the largest in the world with over 600,000 square feet and 11 stories in the already growing innovation community. Together, these BJC and WashU buildings are going to go a long way in connecting the CWE to the Cortex to Midtown, and their presence will really feel substantial in just a couple of years.

Now, there’s one more I want to mention before I let you go on to your day. Green Street has a huge tower they just announced for Downtown Clayton at the intersection of Central and Forysth. They’ve announced a 25-story, all glass, mixed-use building with some great angles and lines that look like they’ll add a lot of dramatic flare to a skyline that could really use it. Unlike a lot of the other high rises going up, this one is actually going to primarily be for hotel and condo usage. We don’t know the hotel brand just yet, but we should expect about 180 hotel rooms, in addition to 75 condos – which is great such that more people can live and own in Downtown Clayton, where there are really few options for doing so.

The building will have a rooftop bar, ground-floor retail, and supposedly have one of Hilton’s newer brands to fill out the $100 million dollar project.

Anyway, when people might suggest that St. Louis is stagnant, I just encourage you to shout, “look up!”, because the region is going to look a whole heck of a lot different soon, and hopefully for the better.

So, This Week in Urbanism, keep an eye on the sky! Hopefully we’ll have even more of this to talk about soon, and I can’t wait to keep you updated.

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: Anchor Institutions w/Dr. Todd Swanstrom | Now Available to Stream

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.

This episode features an interview with Dr. Todd Swanstrom, a Des Lee Professor at the University of Missouri – St. Louis as we discuss anchor institutions in the St. Louis area.

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This Week in Urbanism: Road Diets | 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. 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 18th, 2022, and today, we’re going on a diet. Or should I say, a Road Diet?

Here’s a question for all my listeners – How many of you regularly drive on these massive city roads with, say, 6-8 lanes total? I can think of several here in St. Louis where we have just massive roads with several lanes going in each direction, and boy, it’s utterly insane.

But that’s just the price to pay for reducing traffic, right? Surely adding lanes reduces congestion, right? Common sense, it seems, may just be a common trap for bad policy.

*Insert Traffic Noise*

Traffic is cringeworthy. It gives us anxiety, makes us late for work, and probably makes us all pull our hair out. It also leads to some pretty darn bad behavior. A 2019 study from the National Institute of Health showcased a U-Shaped curve indicating that increased traffic congestion also leads to increased traffic accidents. It’s not too hard to see how that might be the case when mere inches separate cars amidst stop and go traffic while tensions and anxiety run high. I probably don’t need to work all that hard to convince you that traffic congestion is bad when we all hate long commutes, but I also definitely want to point out the impact of traffic congestion on the environment too. There’s a standard emissions curve that showcases vehicle speed in relation to carbon emissions, and the picture it paints isn’t very pretty. What ends up happening is that cars stay on the road for longer idling or moving slowly, which exacerbates the impact on the environment because it is at very low speeds that vehicles release a significantly higher amount of carbon dioxide. So inefficient speeds combined with longer times on the road leads to worse air quality and more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

We all probably want to tackle this, and it’s absolutely frustrating to do nothing. Generally, we think about traffic as an issue directly connected to the number of lanes and considering the number of lanes really becomes the only variable that cities and neighborhoods consider changing. It makes sense, but, as I’ll discuss in a moment, only furthers auto dependency, and digs the community deeper and deeper into a worsening traffic congestion problem.

You may not yet believe me, and you may have previously advocated for more lanes. Don’t stop playing this just yet! I’m not coming after you, but here to shed light on this solution not giving us the solutions that we all want. In fact, before diving deeper into academic studies and progressing in my graduate program, I clearly remember advocating for more lanes to reduce traffic. So, there’s no judgement here.

Let’s start with the recognition that this science and research is not new. Researchers have been looking into traffic for decades simply because it has been a continually worsening problem that we all hate. In 1989, The Southern California Association of Governments concluded that adding lanes or creating double decker freeways would have no impact on traffic save for a cosmetic appearance of solving a problem that isn’t being affected. Crazy, right? How could we build so much more capacity only to not have a large impact on the problem?

Well, a study from UC Berkeley studied traffic in 30 California counties between 1973 and 1990 which showed that each 10% increase in traffic capacity, so essentially increasing lanes, traffic congestion increased by 9% within just four years. An analysis of dozens of studies suggested a very similar result finding that within just a few years, a 10% increase in capacity leads to a 10% increase in usage and vehicle miles traveled. In the few studies that showed reduced congestion, it was a very small benefit compared to the amount of space that simply was absorbed by increased usage. This is problematic for so many reasons. We spend so much time and money trying to relieve congestion, only to end up with stagnant or increased traffic and emissions. That sucks!

What occurs is something called “Induced Demand”. There are some great resources to understand how this process works, and I’m going to do my best to summarize the core elements of induced demand. We’re going to dive into some simple economics for a moment.

Let’s start here. In introductory economics, one of the first things you learn about is the supply and demand curve. For those unfamiliar, imagine a graph with price on the y-axis (that’s the vertical one) and quantity demanded on the x-axis (that’s the horizontal one). There’s a curve, called the Demand Curve, that showcases for most normal goods that quantity demanded of a particular item is low when price is high and high when prices are low. In other words, demand is elastic in that it is responsive to price.

The same is true for driving. The cost of road travel decreases in the initial months after a road expansion is completed. That’s because congestion initially decreases, so you spend less time commuting and thus spend less on gas commuting. There is also a lower opportunity cost for your time as the total time spent commuting is lower. So, there is less of value you could do in that shorter commute than, say, if you spent 2 hours on the road instead of working for a certain wage or spending time with family, which is probably worth some value to most people. This reduced cost makes driving more attractive and INDUCES more demand, pushing more drivers onto the new roads that they hear are reducing commute times. There is also a body of research that showcases how driving demand really is elastic! So, we’re not just making this up.

In effect, traffic ends up being diverted toward the new lanes. In addition, it induces traffic that did not occur in the first place because driving is initially more competitive than other options, or at least more so than just before the road expansion occurred. As such, new vehicle trips are generated in addition to diverted trips.

Once we understand how induced demand ultimately can increase road usage and traffic, we can use the same framework to perhaps work toward the real and perhaps less ideologically comfortable solutions.

It may seem like ages in this podcast episode since I seemed to arbitrarily say something about roads and diets, but we’re finally getting back to that point. An emerging strategy that cities have been using to calm streets is really the exact opposite of what we’ve been talking about. Cities have been employing “Road Diets”, essentially purposefully reducing capacity usually in the form of lane reductions. Say you have 2 lanes in each direction, in some of the better road diets you may see this reduced to one lane in each direction for cars, one lane for a bus-rapid-transit route, and protected bike lanes. You still have the same amount of space, but you’re adjusting it to serve more uses and reduce room for individual cars. Ultimately, you will often find that road diets move more people. By making transit and biking more convenient, they become more attractive and induce demand for those services. On the other hand, you can dissuade demand for driving by making the cost of road travel increase. Demand decreases and traffic ultimately decreases as well. This is related to behavioral economics and is well rooted in empirical research. People will switch their behaviors to public transit, biking, carpooling, biking, or even moving closer to their jobs.

I’m not making this stuff up. A 1998 study combined 150 sources of evidence and 60 case studies from the US and other similar countries and found that traffic was significantly reduced when road capacity had been reduced, of which less than half could be detected simply being diverted to other roads, indicating that behavior had really changed. The study concluded that reallocating bloated roads for other purposes like pedestrians, bikes, and more can improve the experience for all uses without significantly increasing congestion. This doesn’t mean that everyone will change their behavior, but that many people will and may even find better solutions along the way.

Of course, this has a bunch of real-world positive externalities. Businesses will find calmer streets to place their tables against. Room for protected bike lanes saves lives, induces healthy and environmentally friendly demand for biking, and fewer pedestrians will be hit. Less traffic means fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fender benders along the way. Dedicated transit lanes mean reduced costs, better access, opportunity for transit-oriented development, and of course, fewer emissions.

This isn’t a pipe dream, folks. This is the future and the present. It’s happening now, and despite lots of pushback when these plans are proposes, communities where road diets take place will often be the first to tell you after the fact how much of a positive difference it makes.

Here in St. Louis, we just saw a major road diet completed on Hampton from Gravois to Chippewa – a big stretch of road! The road diet entered the public consciousness several years ago after jay drivers were smashing into businesses and harming pedestrians. As the owner of Abigail’s Gift Boutique mentioned in a St. Louis Public Radio feature, a car smashed into her business at 45 miles per hour alongside Hampton a few years ago and ended up destroying most of the store. Thankfully none were injured. Of course, she mentioned that nearly every day she heard the screeching sound of accidents outside. Just a couple years ago, a cyclist was hit and killed along this stretch as well. This was not a safe place to drive.

The Road Diet took the formerly four-lane road and limited traffic to one lane in each direction with a center lane and wider parking lanes. Honestly, in my view, they could have done a whole lot more to provide incentives to other forms of transportation, but this is still a step in the right direction. The owner of Abigail’s Gift Shop already sees more pedestrians outside and feels her commute is probably affected by less than a minute. She mentions that her customers feel significantly more comfortable crossing the street too.

This is just a start, and a whole bunch of St. Louis arterial roadways are congested and frankly dangerous for drivers, pedestrians, and bikers alike. Kingshighway, for example, would be an absolute nightmare to bike on. I do not bike on this street, and I bike around the city a lot. I avoid it, and my wife does too because we don’t want to die. But it’s not just biking, the sidewalks feel plainly unsafe as cars recklessly speed by or perform gymnastics around one another to see who can hit the next red light the fastest. Taking the #95 bus along this route is also an exercise in frustration, as you must cross a horrible street to reach your destination half the time with far too few crosswalks, your bus gets cut in front of or not let out of its lane, or otherwise finds itself in the same gridlocked traffic as everyone else.

To make our cities better and more livable, we must be able to think outside the box and work toward solutions that don’t fit the mold of common sense. We have empirical research, and a lot of it, that showcases the standard strategies of reducing congestion simply do not work. Our streets should not be endless lanes of car-traffic. Our cities should be flexible and meet the needs of all types of commuters, and they should do so safely. While it may surprise some listeners, not everyone wants to drive a car, and already many people commute by other means. We can cater to them and make traffic better.

Remember, solutions aren’t always comfortable or expected. But that’s life. Life is full of nuance, and we’re lucky that life is full of researchers who choose to investigate these practical topics. So, here’s what I want you to do – next time you see plans to address congestion, go to those meetings. Be bold enough to stand up to bullshit anecdotes because our cities don’t need more of those. We have evidence backed solutions that have been formed for decades, and we simply don’t have the time to be held back by traditionalists whose vision for cities will trash our planet, kill pedestrians and bikers, and harm businesses. If this sounds harsh, well it is. People don’t realize the importance of this topic until you do your research and see how many people have died and will continue to die until we get our stuff together.

People, this stuff is serious. If we want to combat climate change, address equity, provide for opportunity, and save lives, then we must be committed and stop messing around. I’m not talking about this to simply make our cities look prettier or to make a silly suggestion to reduce traffic, but to address real problems on top of them. So, show up to these meetings and be the voice of reason that we need to change hearts and minds. We have direct, local democracy in cities so let’s use it – because we need a seat at the table.

This Week in Urbanism, I want you to help me create a better world. Let’s get on this, together. This was our mission last week as well, but we have a lot on our plate.

Stay tuned for an exciting interview with a Dr. Todd Swanstrom, a leading academic who studies St. Louis, gentrification, neighborhoods, anchor institutions, and more next week.

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: The Problem with the Suburbs | NOW AVAILABLE TO STREAM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How are you supposed to fight climate change like this?

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

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

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

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

Missouri Metro Launches New Weekly Podcast: This Week in Urbanism

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

New episodes Fridays at 7AM.

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

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

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