I was asked the other week by the owner of urbanstl.com to write a blog post for them, so I thought I'd might as well include it on here too. This is going to be written from the standpoint of a few things that struck me as odd about my recent urban safari through St Louis as well as some things they're doing very well that my city of OKC could learn from. I think the positive outweighs the negative clearly, so OKC readers should listen up.
I think downtown St Louis is interesting because of how it lacks activity for the complete opposite reasons that many other downtowns are lacking activity. Most are said to be "dead after 5." Downtown St Louis is largely "dead until 5." I think it's a good problem to have, because what can happen after 5 in downtown is a lot more interesting than what can happen after 5. I think the convention center seems to be well-done and well-integrated with Washington Avenue. Wash Ave is the main loft drag through downtown, and is lined with this impeccable streetwall that would be the envy of any city. The lofts go for about 1.5-2 miles or so and I knew I had to see it because I've heard it called one of America's best urban revitalization success stories that actually clearly differentiate urban revitalization from urban renewal. The CityGarden has been a successful urban park that has injected vitality into the downtown core, but it has yet to have been conveyed into vitality for the surrounding environs in the way that Millennium Park has caused land values along Michigan Ave to skyrocket.
The culprit? There appears to be many culprits. The most obvious to me seemed to be the lack of shade. An interesting alternative was brought up in discussion on the urbanstl.com forum that awnings should be used instead of shade trees, because of how it would compliment the existing building stock downtown. There seems to be a large local consensus that downtown St Louis has too much structured parking as well, with the idea being that downtown has become auto-centric. I don't think too much structured parking can be a bad thing, I just think it poses a challenge for downtown to address storefronts. Parking garages have a tendency to be blank walls or otherwise worse facades that inflict darkness on the surrounding environs. Parking garages are buildings none the less and should be looked at the same as any building and they may need city action to encourage renovations that make the street level more attractive and in some way interactive (shops, restaurants, etc). I liked this parking garage I saw in Streeterville as a good example of how a parking garage doesn't have to look like a parking garage.
But to sum up downtown, the bottom line is it was completely dead on a Friday at 4 pm at a time that most other downtowns would be jammed with people, even if that is the only time. There were no lawyers walking to the courthouse. No business men walking to a meeting. There were no residents out walking dogs. There were no people getting off work early. Downtown was totally void of typical signs of (business) life that still go on in corporate-dominated downtowns. Perhaps the underlying reason for slow daytime activity is lingering effects from job losses? Which, would defy the urban planner's playbook of cause and effect..
Neighborhoods are the pride of St Louis, which clearly is a city of neighborhoods. Virtually no other city that I have been to has done such a good job with neighborhood revitalization and restoration and preservation as St Louis--and even throughout the white flight, which this city has been hit harder by than most, has managed to preserve the ones that matter most, and that alone is worth major kudos. St Louis also ranks highly as one of the cities with the youngest residents living in the oldest buildings (interesting study I came across). What does that mean? It means that residents live an interesting and unique urban lifestyle that defines St Louis and sets it apart. Many neighborhoods have focal points which are usually a park (i.e., Lafayette Sq) or a main street drag (i.e., Cherokee St). Most all neighborhoods are well demarcated with entrances, gateways/archways, and especially street banners.
Well, I said it is a city of neighborhoods, not a city of streets, or even connected neighborhoods. The very neighborhoods that are the strong point of this city all feel very isolated and disconnected for the most part. There is also a strong divide between the south side and the central corridor, split by an unsightly industrial valley. Granted, it's a valley with some great views--it's also a valley with major untapped potential for urban revitalization. I think it should be the city's #1 priority, because it would make STL into a more complete city in my opinion--it would merge the central corridor and south side into one, and better connections to downtown would also go a long ways toward fixing downtown's dearth of activity. The proposed $27 million Grand Avenue bridge will go a long way toward strengthening connections. Other key corridors represent other great opportunities. If the city can focus on gentrification and dense development along these corridors the battle will be won.
One interesting point: St Louis is one of the very many cities that seem to be following the lead of cities getting rid of highways that pose barriers cutting downtown off from other parts of the city. Can someone explain to me why OKC is replacing the Crosstown Expressway land bridge, an elevated highway that people could walk under if it weren't for vagrants and the occasional falling concrete sections, with what will for the most part be an at-grade superwide freeway just 4 blocks south of the current alignment at a cost of, well, nobody has seen the latest cost surge. But you get the point. I think St Louis has a winner with actually completely removing a highway from blocking downtown to the Mississippi River. This will strengthen connections between downtown and riverside attractions such as casinos, the Laclede's Landing entertainment district (kind of a smaller version of Bricktown), and the Gateway Arch. I am disappointed with the the SOM-Hargreaves proposal to redesign the Arch grounds with two lakes and some open space--I think that it would be a great opportunity to try and lure some high-profile development around the edges of it, as long as it retains a strip of open space for viewing it down the middle.
P.S. Anyone from St Louis reading this, keep in mind I already realize that those blue/red map boundaries are probably off. Just a rough sketch showing the divide, I actually have no idea where the appropriate cut off between the central corridor and north side is, or other things.
The urban part of St Louis, with all its grit and old buildings and streets, has some fabulous streetscapes. These are streetscapes on the cheap in my opinion. A lot of the street furniture, such as painted planters placed on street corners to block the crosswalks from cars cutting it too close, look like something you'd see at Oak Cliff's makeshift complete street. The planters lining Grand Blvd couldn't have been expensive and look like they were painted by kids in the community (they all have little hand-painted eyes on them), kind of like the decorative construction fence around the Devon Tower site with paintings from OCPS schoolkids. The planters apparently serve the role of "bump-outs" -- where the sidewalk ledge is extended at street corners sort of like a puzzle piece to make drivers take corners going slower as well as to shorten the distance at crosswalks. Virtually all the roads going through the inner city are typically made up of a sidewalk, a parking lane, and a bike lane--all three things OKC lacks. Imagine street parking on a major artery, whadaya nuts? There are a lot of streetscapes that are in desperate need of an overhaul, such as Cherokee Street which had a lot of weeds growing up through the sidewalks--but the basic form of a complete street is there all over the city, and that is what matters. It shows that you don't need a flashy $20 million/mile public streetscape project with public art in the pavement and standing up every 100 feet or so in order to have streets intended for people as well as cars. The basics are more important than these urban "bells and whistles" we prefer to focus on here in OKC.