Thursday, January 23, 2014

Stakeholders and Urbanism

I've been following the saga of Opus' new development in St. Louis Central West End for a while now. Background from NextSTL:

Opus Proposes 177 Unit Mixed-Used Project

About your recent rejection

It should be built

In the height of absurdity, neighborhood forces (some refer to them as NIMBY, but I don't think that's correct - they're more aesthetic critics in this case) have made Opus head back to the drawing board several times over things they just don't like. This is a change to the neighborhood, a change to the buildings they may have lived in for years, and something new. For a lot of people, that's scary.

In my day job, I deal with change all the time - whether it's convincing someone to take a new job in continuous improvement, working on a process someone has done for 10 years, or changing our procedures because the law says we have to, it is all change. 

The Opus situation, combined with my experience, led me to thinking about stakeholders in the process. 

Opus: Obviously a stakeholder. They're interested in getting this built and getting a return on their investment. Long term? Probably don't care so much about the area. They're very supportive of any proposal that doesn't cost a ton of money.

CWE Residents: Stakeholders with money on the line, too. If this place were an unmitigated disaster, it might impact their property values. As is, the concerns seem more that it doesn't "fit" and might not be high quality enough for the area. These proposals impact their sense of self in so much as they visualize themselves of a certain status due to where they live. They're suspicious of any proposal that's not perceived as very high quality.

The City: The City would love to have this developed. Unfortunately, I do think often we clamor so for any development that we don't hold development to any standard. However, the CWE does have a form based code, which this meets. I'd rate them neutral on their support/lack of for the project. 

The conflict, to me, comes from one thing - Opus wants to do this in a cost-effective manner, and certain residents want a Chase Park Plaza quality project (one that likely couldn't cash flow) in place. Other concerns like noise, parking, retailers are just secondary - they're behind the big problem which is the "image" of the Central West End.

Opus should look at ways to improve the image of the development that would be low to no cost. Some ideas:

  • Sign up high quality retail tenants that would drive traffic. I'm not chic so I've no clue what is popular, but certainly there's a market in St. Louis for some upscale stores, especially if the developer is helping out with the lease and buildout?
  • Offer streetscaping as part of the proposal. These streets are basic and not very attractive in the area. Maybe Opus could put them on a road diet, or add angled parking, or anything else. I'm not really sure, but it would make the CWE "prettier" at a lower cost that a hugely expensive building.
  • Offer something new to the area. A rooftop bar and restaurant? Those seem popular.

Unfortunately, I see no easy solution to the problem that will satisfy everyone. Someone will go unhappy. That said, if the bulk of the residents support Opus, that should be enough. Holding off on change for a few naysayers is a sure prescription for stagnation. I hope Opus, the city, the preservation board, and all other important stakeholders ignore the true roadblocks.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The Greener Grass of the Suburbs

This is in response to a tough to read post by urbanite Toby Weiss of St. Louis, where she laments the trials and tribulations of living in a slowly recovering urban St. Louis neighborhood, and begins to see the greener grass of the suburbs. You can read her elegant post here: http://www.beltstl.com/2013/08/south-st-louis-breakdown/

As a family who has recently relocated from Lindenwood Park, a pleasant, slightly suburbanesque part of St. Louis city to a McMansiontastic, banal suburb of Cleveland called Avon Lake (mostly for the 2 minute commute to a new job), I'd like to share some of my recent understanding from this somewhat nicer, somewhat not, suburban life...

It's quiet here. In an unbelievable way - we rarely hear a neighbor talking, almost never see the neighbors (I've met the next door neighbors twice, and the other side never) - pretty much everyone pulls into their garage, shuts the door, and disappears into solitude.

I miss the welcome and friendly hellos of our next door neighbors, the folks across the street, and the monthly walks to Ted Drewes with half the block. We won't get that here. 

I miss shoveling the sidewalks both ways from my house - helping out all the neighbors, especially the single teacher who lived next door and had to be at work super early to help some really challenged kids in the city.

I miss walking, well, anywhere. Our neighborhood is quaint and pleasant - we've got a neighborhood HOA pool, which becomes our only walking destination. There's no Ted Drewes, no Pint Size to say hi to Christy and crew, and no doctor's office at the end of the block. We get in the car to drive miles to get anything. I could walk, but there's no sidewalks out of the neighborhood, and people driving don't care about me, the stroller, or anything other than getting there, fast.

There's a niceish park nearby, but it's awfully quiet. Though St. Louis city supposedly has no kids, Lindenwood Park was always filled to the gills with people and their kids - people like Dylan from Civil Life, who we'd see there with his son all the time. 

I'll miss the hundreds of unique restaurants within spitting distance. Now, we get in the car and drive 20 miles to Cleveland to grab a bite at a gastropub, or check out someplace cool. The kids have a bigger yard, but we spend more time in the car than we ever did before. Tradeoffs.

Lindenwood Park is pretty lily white. No disputing that. My new neighborhood makes it look like the United Nations. It's amazing how white everyone, and everything, really is. Everywhere you look. I'd hate to be anything other than the WASPiest of WASPs around here.

I worry about my kids. All this driving - well - it's a lot riskier than anything that we did in St. Louis. Crime? Hah. Not really a concern no matter where we lived. Jerks speeding down the street in their SUV while on their cell phone? A true worry. Our old 25 mph street with parking on both sides was WAY slower than this wide, modern street.

This isn't to say the suburbs are all bad. I love not spending every waking minute working on my 75 year old house to keep the water out and it intact. I love having large, modern spaces throughout the house that work for my family. Heck, I love having drywall. The pool is nice to take my son to, and I don't deal with any of the urban problems - no gunshots, no crazy people, or anything else. We have a huge house for not much more than our St. Louis house. Our private spaces are infinitely better than our old private spaces, but our public spaces suffer mightily.

However, I'd give it all up in a heartbeat for that old home and our old neighborhood. After this experience, we've both realized that we want the public amenities, and all the love that comes with them, over our own personal castle - however nice and quiet it may be.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Ted Drewes Plaza & RallySTL

I submitted my RallySTL idea today. I'd like for the city to re-capture some land for humans, instead of giving it over to cars. 


You can see St. Louis' favorite frozen dessert - Ted Drewes, along with a couple blue boxes.

Blue box 1, on the left, could simply be more sidewalk, with a bit of diet given to the road. Now, people queue up almost into the street as cars whiz past at full speed. Not cool. Let's take away the parking lane, increase the sidewalk width by 3-4 feet, and install some good looking sculpture to keep people from wandering into traffic. Something like this (photo from St. Louis Brick

Sculpture on MorganFord in front of car wash

The second blue box, to the east, should become a true plaza, instead of a grotty sidewalk. Let's put in some benches, maybe some attractive landscaping, and make it someplace people actually want to sit and eat their ice cream custard

I'd love to see Ted Drewes step forward and take the lead on this, but I'm hoping RallySTL can help push it along. The bank across the street has generously added benches, but that required dashing across the ridiculously busy Chippewa. Let's turn the Ted Drewes side into someplace people want to stay, rather than dash back to their cars to eat - and make a St. Louis icon into something even cooler.

Public vs. Private Amenities, or, the City vs. the Suburb

I've been thinking a lot lately about the differences between the city and the suburbs. Not the built environment, but the overall differences in philosophy of the two. I've come to the conclusion that a large part is this:

Private amenities vs. public amenities

The suburbs thrive on private amenities. Big houses, nice large yards, plenty of parking, available space for everything you'd ever want, right inside your home. Big, fat, wide roads where I can drive at high speed and get to where I'm going with no stops and no worries. Man, it's wonderful. I watch HGTV and am jealous of the large spaces, loads of fancy stuff, and plenty of room for everything available to the suburbs.

The city, on the other hand, is all about the public amenities. Cultural institutions, local restaurants, sports teams, and more all abound in the city. Due to the density of having lots of people nearby, and the accident of history - cities abound with public amenities.

That's not to say suburbs don't have some, of course they do. They simply don't have the same level that cities do, and never will, since most of these things are expensive to start and don't move well. Relocate that museum? Nah.

The implication for cities

The implication, then, is that cities need to promote their strengths - those cultural institutions and local flavor. Instead of trying to be everything to everyone - realize that a segment of the market doesn't mind a smaller house, a smaller yard, and no garage - but wants those public amenities in spades. 

Cities should invest in these institutions, walkable commercial districts, and local businesses. Instead of offering a TIF to CVS, Walgreens, or the next big company - use those funds to promote small business development, offer low cost loans, or more. Invest in those strengths that your market segment is looking for.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Satire: The loopy rationale for a Highway 364 Expansion


If you want to travel from Western St. Louis county to St. Charles County, there is no shortage of options: You can drive on many nice highways and utilize several bridges. You can even take a ferry into Illinois and double back somehow. As if that were not enough, government planners, who are more than happy to spend your tax money for services you never even thought you needed, have dreamt up yet another alternative.
The area recently approved $100 million to an 8 mile long stretch of road. The total construction cost will reach close to $100 million — almost $13 million per mile of road. Private donations will pay for none (less than 1 percent) of this exorbitant cost; taxpayers will finance most of the project's construction and operational costs. Local sales taxes, federal grants and gas taxes will pay for the road. However, tolls will only cover 0 percent of annual costs. A meager 0 percent will come from advertising and sponsorship from private funds, with taxes funding 100%.
What is wrong with simply expanding bus service, which could be done at a tiny fraction of the cost? Expanding bus service, without purchasing new buses that look like trolleys, would cost even less to start up and maintain than building a new road
Believe it or not, a new road was chosen not just in spite of, but because of, the high cost, which supposedly proves the government's commitment to revitalizing the area. Dardenne Prairie, an exurb 37 miles from downtown, is expected to grow from 12,000 residents to over 40,000 residents due to this new road. According to the report that the probably MODOT thought about, a highway system "cannot be removed without substantial expense and time," whereas doing nothing "can be cancelled or rerouted with little expense or effort." By this logic, the planners of the system are bound to create a white elephant — defined as a burdensome possession whose cost is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
There is no evidence to suggest that building a road will result in an economic windfall to the area. The plan's proponents have not presented any kind of cost-benefit analysis to the public.
Proponents of the 364 extension like to throw around the term "economic development" as if it is an automatic result of spending lots of money. They assume that the creation of a road will magically create new business instead of moving old businesses around. If that is the case, then why is it so difficult to obtain private financing for this system? Many of the road's supporters are commuters. If they believe in the project so strongly, why don't they fund it? Instead, government is using money that could otherwise be spent on education or public safety — or remain in taxpayers' pockets.
St. Louis does not need another white elephant conjured up through the misdirection of taxpayer money.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Small Things - Art in the Public Space

I've spent the past month in California for work, and had the luck of spending some time in downtown Long Beach. With a population of 462,000 people, it's the 35th largest city in the country, and right next to Los Angeles, which has millions more. However, it's per capita income is only $19,000 - higher than St. Louis' $16,000, but in an obviously more expensive area. It's a medium sized, poor city overall, but that doesn't keep it from doing things right downtown. I'm planning to discuss what they're doing right to make downtown a livable, visitable location not only for tourists, but to make it enticing for locals, too.


One thing that immediately stood out is the art in the public arena. This isn't highbrow art, or statues without a purpose; no, they're functional art in the form of bike racks.






While many of them were used, I decided to photograph unused bike racks to show how just how cool  they are! I love the idea. While bike racks are a great addition to any urban area, few take the time to install anything other than the most basic. I saw at least a dozen different varieties, including quite a few that really spoke to Long Beach - rolling waves, for one, stood out  - but I never found an empty set! 


This is a low-cost investment in the public space. The city took something they were going to do anyway - install bike racks - and spent a little more money to make it something really great. This kind of activity is a major aesthetic selling point for cities, and I think more should look at it as a simple way to make their cities more unique, more interesting, and just better.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Making the best of what we've got - a study from Vienna

Vienna is a lovely city. It has ample mass transit, that true European urban feel, and it's even somewhat affordable by European standards. However, the overhead lines of the U6 subway train are reminiscent of St. Louis' own I-70 through downtown. These aboveground train lines create a barrier between the two sides of the Wiener G├╝rtel, one of Vienna's main ring roads, and of itself a very busy street. This is right through the center of some densely populated areas,


View Larger Map

Overall, it's pretty daunting. Several lanes of roads, a foreboding overpass...but wait, check out the pedestrian experience:


To the left is the train overpass. The asphalt area is for pedestrians/bikes, then green space, then finally a road.

While this could be a disaster, with views of empty plazas and sheer stone, Vienna has done a remarkable job activating the space:


Guertel Braeu - a brewery build underneath the subway line
Another bar, with sidewalk seating. Quite a large sidewalk between the tracks and the road.
Oh, and this part is just getting creative. Perhaps one of these under I-70, with a little rejigging - broaden the property tax base, plus give people one of the food options they really want downtown?




Yes, that's a McDonalds. That's a drive thru. It goes underneath the subway lanes. It's a brilliant way to activate the space that otherwise would just be a pass through for cars, plus it's easily walkable to get into the McDonalds.


While I certainly prefer the destruction of the I-70 overhead lanes and replacement with an at-grade boulevard - if MoDOT and other organizations are unwilling to do so, why not get creative and make the best of what we've got?



Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Activating Dead Space

While on a recent trip to Washington D.C., I stayed in the Crystal City area. For those who are unfamiliar with the area, it is the home of most of the large defense contractors, along with a large military base not far away, and a number of office buildings. In addition, there's a Metro stop, numerous hotels, a mall, and a slew of restaurants. Overall, it's rather pedestrian friendly and a fairly nice urban place to be on business - though I imagine it's dead on the weekends.


One thing that struck my eye was this pleasant plaza, conveniently located under a highway overpass. 





While not an ideal solution (removing the overpass), I did find several people eating lunch in this plaza each day, and it's certainly better than barren concrete. This small, humanizing step toward an inhuman location made it much more pleasant and made me smile as I walked past. This is respecting the urban form and using what we've got to make the best of a bad situation.

Friday, June 24, 2011

A Study in Incentives - The Del Taco Debate

A Study in Incentives – St. Louis Aldermen

One of the key topics in marketing is understanding your customer – why do they buy, why don’t they buy, and what incentives can we, as marketers, use to influence these decisions. In urban circles, too much seems to focus things that need to be done because urbanists think it’s a good idea – not on what incentives the “customer” has to make a decision. Urbanism would be a lot more successful if we spent more time asking the fundamental question, “What’s in it for me?” and less time proselytizing about what we think the right decisions are.

One recent situation in St. Louis has sparked my interest as a study in incentives for a St. Louis Alderwoman. A developer wants to tear down a mid-century modern building and replace it with new, more pedestrian focused retail:





























Source: Waymarking.com

Of course, it’s not so simple. This building is in a historic preservation district, so in theory it needs to be reviewed and approved for demolition. There is a way around this – the Alderwoman for the area, Marlene Davis, has proposed an ordinance blighting the building and approving for demolition, along with another that would create a special tax district for the new development.

Rather than decry the nearly inevitable demolition of this building, let’s look at the incentives for the parties involved:

The Developer: Gets to tear down a building that doesn’t produce much income (and has a bankrupt tenant), and replace it with more and more modern space that will likely drive higher rents. On top of that, the taxpayers will help tear it down and finance the replacement. It’s a win, win, win situation for the developer. Of course, we’re all paying for something he’d like to do anyway. Even if the building is approved for demolition, this plot in the middle of a major university campus does not need tax financing to help pay for it.

Marlene Davis, Ward Alderwoman: Gets to point to “progress” in her ward. Likely promises of jobs created in the area (no matter that it’s retail and likely low paying). Keeps a wealthy constituent happy, producing potential reelection income in the future. The incentive for every alderman is to keep wealthy people who can make campaign contributions happy, no matter what the detriment to the city. The developers promise jobs and "the future," most of their voters simply don't care, and the rest of the city has no say in their continuing employment as an alderman.

There’s no real downside to a single alderman supporting demolition of anything in their ward - other than thousands of people in other wards getting upset at the demolition of this structure – people who don’t vote for them anyway. If I were an alderman in the current setup, and someone wanted to tear down a building in my ward, all my incentives are to allow it - if not provide assistance to help them do it.

The rest of the Board of Aldermen: Here’s my main point. 27 other people have absolutely no skin in the game, except maintaining the status quo. The reason “aldermanic courtesy” exists is that the incentive for all of them is to allow each of the other 27 to make their own decisions in their own wards, and to support their activities. Stand out against someone, and risk your own bills being debated. Defer to courtesy, and everyone gets their way. 28 cute little fiefdoms, all working on their own, with a few occasional larger issues that require some debate.

As is, the incentives for the members of the Board of Aldermen are to let each of their colleagues make their own decision, without any real debate or analysis of the impact on the city as a whole. There’s nothing in it for them if they oppose a “local” choice in another ward, so they don’t do it. They defer, over and over again. That’s no way to run a ward, and certainly no way to run a city. 

By operating as independent fiefdoms, beholden to ~500 votes and the money it takes to garner those votes, the Board of Aldermen is completely broken. The incentives of each of the aldermen are not in line with those of the city, and certainly not in line with the majority of the city's population. Reduce the number of aldermen, make them accountable to larger, more diverse groups, and align their incentives with the overall performance of St. Louis, instead of a few deep-pocketed developers and well-connected interest groups.  

Friday, April 8, 2011

From Wired: Smartphones provide the illusion of control, benefit public transit.

From a Wired article today: 


http://www.wired.com/autopia/2011/04/how-smartphones-can-improve-public-transit/

The study asked 18 people to surrender their cars for one week. The participants found that any autonomy lost by handing over their keys could be regained through apps providing real-time information about transit schedules, delays and shops and services along the routes...


...The point is for transit agencies to provide enough information to put riders in control of their experience and have greater choice in when and where to ride. People don’t want to feel they are at the mercy of paper schedules, even if they are, and there’s nothing worse than waiting for buses that may or may not be on time.


The implications here are huge. Going back to my previous post - if we are able to empower individuals and give them the illusion of control - really, just better information - they are much more likely to choose transit, like it, and therefore, support it. This is just one way to target one segment of Metro riders - not everyone has a smartphone, and certainly not everyone is interested in using it to ride transit. For one segment, though, this would be a lifeline.


As a next step, how about apps for all major mobile phones, tied in with GPS, that provide:
  1. Nearest stop for bus or Metrolink
  2. Time of next departure
  3. Routing via Google Maps
  4. Points of interest nearby, including restaurants, stores, and cultural activities
Improving Metrolink isn't about replacing cars. For 99.99% of the population, trying to convince them to give up their car is tilting at windmills. We simply don't live in a city that's built for walking, biking, and transit only - unless you've got a lot of time or don't mind missing a lot. We can, however, turn even occasional users into supporters of transit as a concept and alternative. Seems that this is one way to do it.