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?