Can Saint Louis be the Next American City?

In recent days, the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch has run a number of stories examining what Saint Louis must to to transition from being a formerly powerful industrial city to a successful 21st century city. Of note are the articles challenging Saint Louisans' reliance on organizational mentality and large corporations and difficulty attracting and retaining talent.
As someone who spends a considerable amount of time considering the future of Saint Louis and its potential sustainability, I feel this will prove to be an extremely productive conversation even if the only produce is a heightened a sense of urgency.

I would like to contribute to this discussion by running an as yet unpublished opinion piece that was originally submitted to St. Louis Tableau in 2009.

“The idea of a great city never has occupied a comfortable place in the American imagination”
-- Lewis H. Lapham. “City Lights.” Harper’s Magazine, Issue 285. July, 1992. p. 4.

“If the city were to decline, no one would rebuild it according to the present plan. That alone discloses our own judgement on our cities.”
--Henry Ford as quoted in
“Detroit Vacant Land Survey,” Detroit: City Planning Commission, 24 August, 1990.

American cities have occupied a culturally vulnerable position since the coalescence of our nation. The United States was founded on a doctrine of equality and self-sufficiency. While the urban center had once represented a freedom from feudalism in Europe, American freedom was, from the beginning, predicated on land-ownership and independence of labor. As the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre notes "Urban democracy would imply an equality of places" while the traditional urban ideal of centrality “would produce hierarchy and therefore inequality"1. Urbanized cities were therefore associated with monarchies and empires. It was Thomas Jefferson’s utopic vision of a nation of gentlemen farmers that precipitated a feud with Alexander Hamilton’s urban Federalists; this philosophical difference led to no less than the birth of American political parties. A century later, the eminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner explained the American psyche using a frontier thesis:
“the existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.”2
While Turner himself thought that the closing of the frontier would result in “the birth of a new nation in America,”3 Jefferson’s vision still resonates strongly in current debates about suburbanization and in NIMBY resistance to density throughout the country.

The decline of American cities is most commonly attributed to the destructive structural changes of the postwar period. While factors such globalized economic forces are geographically neutral, many other changes were certainly motivated or effected by the anti-urban ethos that has permeated American culture and politics since the beginning of the country. The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 spawned the interstate system, decentralized industry, and led to the demolition of significant tracts of every large city. The National Housing Act of 1937 created the Federal Housing Administration loan program. FHA subsidized mortgages reflected the anti-urban convictions of the period through numerous measures including the disinclination for multifamily building loans, prioritization of single-family home loans, and limitation of rehabilitation loans to short durations with miniscule amounts.

The net result of these policies was the subsidization of a climate where it was easier and cheaper for a family to buy a new home in the suburbs than to renovate an existing one in the city. With a clear prioritization away from the city, the population shares of cities within metropolitan areas decreased from roughly seventy to forty percent. Cities such as St. Louis lost over sixty percent. The result of this migration was a declining commercial base combined with a service intensive and poorer population. This caused cities to become more reliant on public revenue. With less power, cities assumed a lower profile in American culture and “Americans [were] thereby inclined to be more accepting of the many disruptions and disparities that engulf them and to acquiesce more readily to society’s dominant interests.”4

The transfer of wealth from the cities left them unable to address escalating problems. Photo by author.

The cultural neglect of cities in combination with an increased population of disadvantaged residents led decreased accountability. Self-interested bureaucracies either grew ineffectual or, failing at traditional redevelopment strategies, desperately grasped for larger and less advantageous forms of development. Most cities entirely neglected small businesses and committed to an increasingly cutthroat gamble to attract and subsidize large corporations. This reactive strategy had its root in anti-urban attitudes and was predicated on an understanding of development as an adversarial game of zero sums.

St. Louis Marketplace, built with generous Tax Increment Financing, is now failing due to metropolitan retail competition. Photo by author.

As Kingsley Davis wrote in 1965:
“In the later stages of the cycle ... urbanization in the industrial countries tends to cease. Hence the connection between economic development and the growth of cities also ceases”5.
The economic gains of the city had to be won from outlying suburbs or other regions, and all political effort should be expended towards these ends rather than fostering growth at a larger scale. These stopgap strategies resulted in an urban core characterized by vast swaths of neglected and deteriorating neighborhoods and punctuated by autonomous complexes and speculative developments.

Resources are withdrawn from deteriorating sections of the city to enable high profile development projects. Photo by author.

It is this form of urban redevelopment that U.S. News & World Report reporter William Allman assessed on his homecoming to St. Louis:
“Coming back to St. Louis after many years ... the city’s surface has changed considerably... [T]hese changes, while putting a shine on the old city, are merely cosmetic. The downtown areas seemed designed primarily for tourists”6.

That cities have suffered extensively in the past decades as a result of cultural bias and legislative subsidization is well established, but where do we go from here? Allman’s assessment still rings true in St. Louis today. One smirking critic derisively assessed improvement efforts surrounding the 2009 All Star Game as “lipstick on a pig”7. Clearly current paradigms are not wholly succeeding, nor are they taking advantage of several assets possessed by St. Louis and many other shrinking cities.

First, the low property values throughout the city and the fine grain of existing development and platting are an asset, not a liability. Low property values mean a substantially more affordable cost of life and greatly increase the potential to cement ties to a community through property ownership. For a small businessperson, cheap rents can mean the difference between failing or expanding to buy the premises. Furthermore, the small scale of neighborhoods and buildings makes renovation and maintenance substantially more manageable and enables more residents to acquire property for rehabilitation and lease. It is counterintuitive given the fragmented nature of urban landholding to continue pursuing large-scale suburban development strategy in urban areas. To do so is to ignore the powerful economic potential for upward mobility and increased tax bases through grass-roots redevelopment. St. Louis’s ravaged but remarkable building stock represents the single greatest asset of the city, and its affordability represents an extraordinary potential to attract the businesspersons and innovators who will shape the next century.

The cycle of economic stagnation described by Kingsley Davis is based on one major variable. His analysis on the decline of urban growth was premised on the cessation of people moving from agrarian areas to the city, for “once urbanization ceases, city growth becomes a function of general population growth”8. Therefore, another potential for city growth in an urbanized society is not based on poaching jobs from other municipalities, but on attracting new immigrants to the nation and to the city. By enabling them to start businesses and facilitating their upward mobility the tax base may rebound from the damage caused by suburban flight. A recent Brookings institute paper studies economic success and the patterns of movement and resettlement in the metropolitan area. The authors note that such upward mobility “may be the most important force operating in metropolitan areas, but urban public policy has taken little account of it”9. St. Louis needs to attract immigrant and young entrepreneurs by making a serious commitment to market its affordability.

The city must connect potential entrepreneurs with real estate opportunity. Photo by author.

Many strategies to attract immigrants and small businesspeople require far less investment than current initiatives. First, an accessible and comprehensive database of vacant and available commercial and retail spaces is urgently needed. If this were coupled with a broad-based homesteading program that would dispose of the approximately 9,300 parcels of land owned by the city Land Reutilization Authority,10 these programs could do more to revitalize the city than any corporate redevelopment. For an example of such a program we need only look down the Mississippi to the small city of Paducah Kentucky. Paducah’s Artist Relocation Program11 combines real estate services with rehabilitation assistance to attract live-work artisanal small businesses to a designated neighborhood. Once entrepreneurs can be attracted to set up businesses, the city must continue assisting them by simplifying permit processes and providing tax incentives to use local suppliers and employees. Finally, the building stock of the city must preserve a range of scales and price points to allow for upward mobility and aging without forcing relocation.

The city can capitalize on its greatest asset, its historic building stock, through a concerted effort to encourage entrepreneurship and immigration.. Photo by author.

The city of St. Louis has a difficult habit of comparing itself with Chicago, but let us examine New York for a change. In a recent article, New Geography reports that a culture of favoritism towards major development interests has led to an increasingly fraught climate for small businesses in America’s most urban city. In a survey of Hispanic business owners “84% believe New York City is no longer a good place for immigrants to open their businesses”12 yet when asked where they would recommend opening a small business the majority still recommended the Northeast.

With an unbiased reappraisal of our assets and a new policy that takes advantage of our low costs, publicizes our opportunities, favors small business creation, and assists upward mobility St. Louis could take over where New York has failed. What are we waiting for?

1 Lefebvre, Henri. The Urban Revolution. Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. p, 124 .
2 Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1921. p. 1. Available online here.
3 Turner, The Frontier in American History p. 311.
4 Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline. New York: Routledge, 2003. p. 245.
5 Kingsley Davis “The Urbanization of the Human Population,” in the City Reader, ed. Richard T. LeGates and Frederic Stout (London: Routledge, 2003) p. 30.
6 Allman, William F. “St. Louis” U.S. News & World Report, vol. 107. December 18, 1989: p.49-50. As quoted in Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline. p. 222.
7 Hamilton, Keegan. “Extreme Makeover: All-Star Edition: St. Louis is cleaning house for the midsummer classic, but is it, well, lipstick on a pig?” Riverfront Times. July 7, 2009.
8 Davis, “The Urbanization of the Human Population” p. 30.
9 Bier, Thomas. "Moving Up, Filtering Down: Metropolitan Housing Dynamics and Public Policy." Available online here. September 2001.
10 Montee, Susan, et al. "Audit of the City of St. Louis Community and Economic Development Offices." Available online here. April 2009.
11 For more on the Paducah Artist Relocation Program see
12 Null, Steve. "New York City Closes Shop." Available online here. August 7 2009.

STL: Catch the tale of the TIGER!

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe by the previously mentioned economist Edward Glaeser outlines the pervasive anti-urban bias in federal stimulus funding.

In 2009, America’s five least dense states were awarded $1,100 per capita in federal recovery grants while the five densest states, including Massachusetts, got $561 per capita. President Obama can change the tilt toward low density. The most urban president since Teddy Roosevelt, Obama needs to fight for cities, not just as a matter of justice, but because cities, and the creativity that comes when humans connect and learn from each other in dense areas, are the best hope for the country.

While Glaeser's Roosevelt assessment is mildly dubious, his summation of funding distribution has been accurate and reflects a lack of organization and coordinated voice on behalf of urban constituents. While it was once easy to overlook the stereotyped urban minorities in the age of cheap oil, in the next fifty years increasingly interrelated energy and economic constraints will increase the profile of urban areas and tilt this balance back towards urban issues. A country strapped for resources simply cannot continue dissipating funding over vast swaths of land for negligible economic gain; whether by hook or by crook, funding will be concentrated in defined areas to maximize investment.

While the 2009 statistics reflect conventional subsidization, there is an emerging shift in pattern that indicates that federal departments understand the allocation dilemma. The recent announcement of the 2010 recipients of the TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) Grants reveal the changing landscape of government subsidy. Of the top 20 largest grants (ranging from $105 million to $25 million):

FIVE went to Passenger rail and light rail stations and infrastructure
FIVE went to streetcar/express and bus rapid transit projects
FOUR went to complete streets/streetscape Improvements
THREE went to freight rail infrastructure improvements
THREE went to highway redesign/construction

TIGER Appropriation. Image by Rob Vargas/Fast Company.

The city of Saint Louis was passed over for five submitted projects.

The Delmar Loop streetcar (previously discussed here) lacked the distance, development impact, and matching funding promised by the Tucson Streetcar.

The applications for unnamed Chouteau Lake improvements and the rebuilt 22nd street 64/40 interchange were long-shot submittals to bolster long-term speculative projects that could not meet the "livability" paradigm.

Another proposal was for the addition of truck-only lanes on Interstate 70 . Wisely, federal TIGER stimulus was not used on a twentieth century project designed to support the unsustainable "rolling warehouse" supply model.

The final application for TIGER funds was for a dense mixed-use Transit Oriented Development at the Forest Park/DeBaliviere Metrolink station. In this case, the TIGER funding was to extend the development through the acquisition of an adjacent strip mall. While it is impossible to pontificate on what the grant reviewers were thinking, the relatively small scale of this project in comparison to other submissions probably contributed to its unfavorable review.

What can we learn from our failure?
1. Planning cannot be done in a vacuum and projects must be coordinated.
The projects that are now being subsidized are large scale and increase their impact by coordinating development focus across multiple areas.

2. Traditional projects no longer cut it.
To be successful all projects must promote alternatives to the automobile paradigm. One of the criteria of evaluation was “enhancing community livability” and the results seem to have balanced the priority for public transportation to enable automotive dependance and the physical infrastructure that creates complete and walkable streets.

3. Pay attention to your residents
Over 25% of Saint Louis residents do not even own a car, let alone use a car frequently, yet 60% of our most innovative public projects require automobile usage for access and benefit. Is this a responsible vision or the result of responsible oversight and governance?

We must start developing for the approximately 8,900 residents who have no car at all, for thousands more who struggle to afford one, and for those of us who prioritize neighborhoods where you don't need a car to live. Weaning our urban areas from automotive dependance will secure our civic futures. Not only will we be healthier, but a recent report notes that we will be wealthier as well. In the report, Walking the Walk: How Walkability Raises Housing Values in U.S. Cities, Joseph Cortright describes a direct correlation between walkability and value:

In the typical metropolitan area, a one-point increase in Walk Score was associated with an increase in value ranging from $700 to $3,000 depending on the market. The gains were larger in denser, urban areas like Chicago and San Francisco and smaller in less dense markets like Tucson and Fresno.

"These findings are significant for policy makers,” said Carol Coletta, President and CEO of CEOs for Cities, which commissioned the research. “They tell us that if urban leaders are intentional about developing and redeveloping their cities to make them more walkable, it will not only enhance the local tax base but will also contribute to individual wealth by increasing the value of what is, for most people, their biggest asset."

A new round of TIGER Grant is on the horizon. Will we forge intergovernmental partnerships to create coordinated projects that increase walkable streets, enable Transit Oriented Development, and expand a resilient multi-modal infrastructure to support commerce and industry?

The stakes are high and every round we lose puts our metropolitan competition further ahead of us.

A view of the future?
A View of the Future? Image by Andrew J. Faulkner.

Of course, any amount of Transit Oriented Development will be meaningless if we allow our public transportation system to be crippled. If you or your family and friends are a registered voter in Saint Louis County Support Proposition A in April.

City and River Pt. II: TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!

This is Part II of a series advocating for the reconnection of Saint Louis and the Mississippi River.

I have already examined the importance of the Mississippi River to the identity of the City of Saint Louis. But why is this historical identity important?

Identity is important because it is the one inducement Saint Louis currently has to attract new residents.

For its first two centuries Saint Louis has relied on its major transportation routes and geographic location as an economic inducement. With the rise of globalization, this will not suffice. As globalized trade decimated the manufacturing lifeblood of the city, governmental focus turned to finance and technology in order to attract well educated residents and maintain tax bases. However, the digital revolution of the past two decades has broken the location-based restraints for this significant segment of the population. Before this time period you had to live in some proximity to your job; now you can work anywhere a suitable communications infrastructure and well-connected airport exists.

If you could live anywhere in the world, why would you live in Saint Louis?
We must develop a compelling answer to this question to survive, but given the rate of out-migration of our graduates we have not.

The increased level of competition evident in this century is problematic because, as economist Edward Glaeser understands from studying Boston, the "ability [of a city] to regenerate itself is hinged upon its ability to attract residents, not just firms." In short, a reserve of talent is necessary given the increasing vicissitudes of the economy because skilled and educated workers can react more quickly to massive change and prevent urban decay.

If there is one strategy Saint Louis must embrace, it must take strong action to attract and induce new residents to move here. While policy and subsidy may prove effective, we must overcome an overwhelmingly negative national image first. Until recently, the city has focused on strategies of beautification and tourism promotion rather than creating vibrant livable communities. Over twenty years ago reporter William Allman assessed his native city:

“Coming back to St. Louis after many years ... the city’s surface has changed considerably...
[T]hese changes, while putting a shine on the old city, are merely cosmetic. The downtown areas seemed designed primarily for tourists”.
Allman, William F. “St. Louis” U.S. News & World Report, vol. 107. December 18, 1989: p.49-50. As quoted in Beauregard, Robert A. Voices of Decline. p. 222

While this mentality is still present in the city, (one snarky commentator described the visionary implementation of City Garden as "putting lipstick on a pig") the influx of 3,800 new residents downtown in the past decade (a 40% increase) marks a turning point for the city. With a modest residential population downtown and amenities beginning to develop, a bold, unifying stroke is still needed.

As I discussed in part I, the riverfront provides the authenticity and ability to attract residents by differentiating Saint Louis from numerous other competing cities. In addition, the reconnection of city and river has the potential to create an unrivaled amenity by serving as a hinge between the revitalized urban space of Gateway Mall with the Arch grounds/riverfront and the regional Great River Ring beyond. The imperative for connection in this area has been in the news for several years as a result of the Danforth Foundation's plan for a three block lid over the depressed lanes of I-70.

The 3 Block Lid would not change the miserable condition under the elevated lanes of I-70. Image by City to River.

While the lid concept is appealing, it is a band-aid solution to a much larger problem. Lids require expensive retrofitting and engineering and entail increased inspection and maintenance. The lid concept should only be used as a last resort. When we examine the use of I-70 alongside with the plans for the New Mississippi River Bridge, better alternatives present themselves.

New highway routings planned for the new Mississippi River Bridge. Image by Andrew Faulkner/City to River.

An examination of the bridge plans reveals that a four lane interstate will be constructed to carry I-70 from the junction of I-70/I-64/I-44/US-40 at St. Clair Avenue in East Saint Louis. From there a new 4 lane roadway designated I-70 will travel north in parallel with Illinois route 3, cross the new bridge and rejoin the current routing of I-70 around Cass Ave. This routing makes eminent sense as the new corridor will have the potential for eventual expansion to 6 lanes.

With the opening of the bridge, the downtown lanes will become a spur connector and duplicate the linkage of eastbound I-44 with westbound I-70. According to MODOT the downtown lanes are one of the least travelled sections of interstate in the Saint Louis area. Currently the majority of the 73,000 vehicles per day in this section is traveling through Saint Louis to points west. With the rerouting of I-70 it is probable that that amount of traffic could be reduced by greater than 50%.

Given the imminent reduction of traffic on the depressed and elevated segments of I-70, is their contribution worth the depressing effect they have on acres of surrounding property? What could we do instead of maintaining an obsolete eyesore?

We could demolish this section and replace it with an urban boulevard. With synchronized traffic lights, boulevards in many cities throughout the country carry in excess of 40,000 vehicles a day without problems.

Replacing the existing I-70 and Memorial Drive configuration would free land for new development. Image by Andrew Faulkner/City to River.

A boulevard would also be cheaper than the lid concept. The depressed lanes currently feature five bridges and a half mile of elevated viaduct that require annual maintenance. While a boulevard would also require maintenance, it would not be as expensive as the elevated and depressed lanes. Furthermore, the removal of I-70 opens up the potential for revenue generation through new development. Currently, the transportation corridor consists of 4-8 traffic lanes and four interstate lanes that add up to between 200 and 250 feet in width. A sufficient boulevard designed to carry the predicted traffic in this area would only need to be 6 lanes and would only use 70 feet of width (or 90 if it included on-street parking). That would free between 110 and 180 feet per block for 19 blocks. That would create 16 acres of government-owned developable land in a prime location to sell or lease, and this could be used to pay for highway demolition and offset the cost of building the boulevard.

Reopening Our Front Door: Washington Avenue and Memorial Drive. Image by Jeremy Clagett/City to River.

The transformative power of demolishing a highway to reconnect the city and river cannot be ignored either. While Saint Louis is gaining momentum towards walkability, simultaneously reopening our front door to the river and creating an urban and walkable spine downtown will send a message to the region and the nation that this city has finally learned from our mistakes.

The construction of the Ronald Wilson Reagan Mississippi River Bridge and the demolition of the obsolete lanes of I-70 for a more walkable alternative will position our city for a more vibrant and sustainable future. We must take action for the future of the city and


Saint Louis: City and River Pt. I

Saint Louis has had a difficult relationship with the Mississippi River through most of its existence. Obviously, the city owes its location to a sizable bluff in proximity to the confluence of two of the largest rivers on the continent and its storied history to the trade generated by its location. The riverfront was a center for economic activity and a melting pot for many distinct races and ethnicities and a stage for some of Saint Louis's greatest figures. Over time the riverfront became a center of civic identity to the extent that created events like the Veiled Prophet Parade were deliberately intertwined with the setting of the river.

Saint Louis once opened its front door to the river. (1907 aerial view)

The importance of the river began to falter as the city was eclipsed by the rail capital of Chicago. The losing battle for dominance engendered desperation and bold proposals throughout the 20th century. While the clearance of 40 blocks of irreplaceable 19th century cast-iron architecture for the construction Gateway Arch and Jefferson National Expansion Monument was, in the end an even trade, many other decisions were shortsighted at the least.

The demolition of an intact 19th century riverfront in 1940 made way for the arch

Certainly, Saint Louis wasn't alone in undertaking such grand plans. What sets Saint Louis apart was the early date at which it started and the massive scale of operation. As an efficient labor force combined with federal incentives in the postwar period, demolitions for interstate corridors, slum clearance for industry, and the development of massive public housing projects eviscerated the city. By the 1980's over 800 blocks of urban fabric had been erased -- almost 11% of the total land area of the city. The mid-century desire to reinvent the city coincided with the implementation of the The Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956. While interstates were originally conceived to skirt cities and connect to existing boulevard and parkway networks, powerful interests in the city demanded direct access to lure development. As David J. Masenten writes in his excellent thesis, optimism prevailed and "few thought these elevated expressways would have a serious detrimental effect on the cities they served." This was the case in downtown Saint Louis, where the effort to create a bold new connection between city and river was cut off by the construction of depressed and elevated lanes of Interstate 70.

Interstate 70 blockaded the front door of Saint Louis for half a century.

The existence of Interstate 70 prevented Dan Kiley's masterful landscape from becoming a vital part of Saint Louis. Furthermore, the alternating elevated and depressed lanes have stunted redevelopment on both sides of the highway.

While Saint Louis's front door has been closed for over 50 years, the next decade will be a once in a lifetime chance to reconnect city and river. Three events are converging to make reconsideration of this condition possible. First, The National Parks Service has updated their General Management Plan for the arch grounds. Secondly, the new Ronald Wilson Reagan Mississippi River Bridge will be the first new river crossing since 1967, and will provide a radical restructuring of the current highway network in both Saint Louis and Illinois. Finally, as part of the NPS GMP, an international design competition is underway to rethink the arch grounds and riverfront. This competition, consisting of globally recognized teams of architects, engineers, urban designers and historians will undoubtedly interject some bold new vision into an under-considered area.

As a number of designers and urbanists saw this confluence on the horizon, we formed an advocacy group we call City to River. We successfully lobbied the National Parks Service to issue the following statement in the GMP:

"The National Park Service would prefer and strongly supports the removal of the Interstate highway between Poplar Street Bridge and Eads Bridge at some point in the future. [emphasis added]

NPS JNEM Final General Management Plan p.5-15

We have been meeting with stakeholders ranging from MoDOT to local business associations since that time and have now substantiated our vision enough to present it to the public. We are calling for the removal of 1.3 miles of Interstate 70 to be removed from downtown Saint Louis and replaced with an urban boulevard. Beginning with a presentation at Pecha Kucha STL we have been bringing our vision to the broader community.

Paul Hohmann and I Present at Pecha Kucha STL. Image by Geoff Story.

In the past two weeks, we have been lucky enough to receive coverage from The Saint Louis Beacon, The Urbanophile, KMOV, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Three days ago the Post-Dispatch editorial board formally endorsed the concept of highway removal.

In Part II of this article I will argue for the replacement of the downtown stretch of I-70 with an urban boulevard and explain the potential for highway removal.