24 October 2016

Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 3




The proposed realignment of Hamilton Avenue (see Figures 4, 11 and 12) would be beneficial from the standpoint of vehicular and pedestrian safety. It has the benefit of creating more green space and parking. To accomplish this, however, the three existing buildings at the northeast and southeast corners will have to be sacrificed (#15, #22, #23). While these buildings are in poor condition, their facades much to the streetscape (see Figure 11). In addition, the expense involved in this kind of rebuilding of infrastructure, especially in light of the recently upgraded sidewalks and street lights, wouldn’t make sense.


Figure 11, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Hamilton Avenue.  At left, view from the rooftop J.C. Penney Department Store Building (#12) looking northeast toward the intersection of MLK and Hamilton Avenue. The center image is an annotated aerial photograph from Bing Maps with labels corresponding to those in Figure 4. At right is a detail of the 1906 era building by Nicholas Pelligreen (#15) at southeast corner of intersection. Note initials and date in shield. (Left and right photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

While the reconfigured intersection offers several benefits to the neighborhood, the reality is that it would be highly unlikely that such a reconfiguration would be achieved in the absence of a major new tenant or significant private investment in this block. If a major institution or nonprofit organization were to invest substantially in this area, then such an investment in improving public infrastructure could be justified. Otherwise, it seems that improved signage, upgraded signals, expanded curbs and improved pedestrian safety would be the most likely and realistic improvements which could occur at this important intersection. See Figure 12 for an overall diagram of the proposed neighborhood transportation plan.

To reconfigure this intersection in a way that might be more feasible would be to actually take some land from the proposed Legacy Park by extending Hamilton Avenue directly south through the intersection with Dr. MLK Drive. The street’s realignment can then take place adjacent to Legacy Park (i.e., between #14 and #15). This design would allow for the facades of the buildings on the northeast and southeast corners to be maintained, reinforcing the definition of the urban fabric and making the open space afforded by Legacy Park as something actually notable and unique. If the other corners of the intersection are leveled and/or made into parking and landscaped, it creates a less urban condition, diluting the Park's special character.

In fact, the National Register nomination for the Wellston Loop Commercial Historic District calls for the southwest corner of Hamilton and MLK to remain as open space in that this feature is an important contributing aspect of the neighborhood. Its legibility depends on the other surrounding buildings remaining in place to define it spatially and experientially.

Just east of this intersection is the Ali Market (#16)––which provides some basic services but is lacking when it comes to offering much need healthy, fresh food. The proposal suggests expanding the market itself and providing a larger parking lot for it by eliminating the existing structures at the southeast corner of MLK and Hamilton. At a minimum, the corner building's facade (beautifully articulated with stone Classical Revival ornament) should be retained. See the carved stone detail of the Nicholas Pelligreen building (#15) in Figure 11 at right which includes his initials, “N.P.” and the date, “1906.”

Immediately south of this block paved land is presently available for parking. Arrangements between property owners could help secure its use for the common benefit of all local users eliminating the need for demolition of contributing historic structures with strong character. While these historic structures (#15 and #22) are presently in poor condition, they are worth saving if only for their facades. These would be excellent candidates for shoring up and protecting until renovations come to fruition. Funds for demolition otherwise should be used to protect these structures from further deterioration and damage.

Along Theodosia Avenue, particularly east of Hamilton Avenue, the most lots are vacant. The plan suggests creating a landscaped roundabout (#20) in the center of the block to break up its great length. This is a good suggestion in general, accompanied by other improvements intended to create the atmosphere of a protected, mini-neighborhood. The concept: private developers will build new homes on lots (#21) which are reconfigured wider than were previously existing.

This change offers the potential for people to have relatively spacious lots, including driveways, garages, and yards which would be a unique opportunity for new homes in the city. While the reconfigured layout would offer some of the amenities and characteristics of a suburban community, it would also offer a close-knit, walkable neighborhood that many millennials seek. If combined with effective public transportation, basic services, and amenities families need, it could become an attractive new neighborhood though doing so would require subsidies to kickstart a substantive revitalization effort.

The consultant’s presentation noted there’s a gap between the property values for single-family homes in this part of the city (often under $50,000) and the actual cost of constructing a new home ($150,000 or more). To make such a development feasible, mechanisms for closing the gap would need to be offered to developers and/or homeowners. A good start would be for the LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) to prepare the property for ease of development by re-subdividing the lots to provide larger parcels in addition to creating the roundabout (#20) and new vehicular link to Cote Brilliante one block north (see Figure 4, upper right corner).

To make this scheme marketable, it might be desirable for the two ends of Theodosia to be blocked to vehicular through-traffic as a way to create a sense of increased safety by essentially providing cul-de-sacs east and west of the new roundabout. With this configuration, a kind of "gated district" could be created that might help make the project appealing to private investors by convincing potential new residents it’s a defended enclave.

One concern expressed by residents with regard to traffic was the extent to which drivers will shift a block north or south of Dr. MLK Drive as a way to speed through the neighborhood (while speeding through stop signs, endangering pedestrians in the process). This kind of "gated district" design (with cul-de-sacs breaking up Theodosia) would have the added benefit of reducing the hazards associated with this kind of through traffic.

While I'm not generally in favor of breaking up city blocks with barricades and cul-de-sacs, I recognize the value such features offer by allowing for redevelopment to occur. These kinds of interruptions of street grids may be necessary in cases like this where the length of the block is much greater than the ideal. Introducing a roundabout and creating cul-de-sacs at each end of this block of Theodosia may be the only practical way to meaningfully repopulate this mostly vacant area. Without breaking down the length of the block and giving people a sense of security, the long stretch of vacant residential lots represents a hazardous zone that residents will avoid altogether thereby attracting undesirable activity.

On the south side of Dr. MLK Drive, this same expanse (from Hamilton Avenue east to Goodfellow Boulevard) is divided into three blocks with Rowan Avenue and Laurel Street as intervening (Figure 12). These blocks south of Dr. MLK are more stable and remain dense with residences. This is a preferable structure for a sustainable neighborhood and provides added justification for breaking up the excessively long blocks north of Dr. MLK Drive where vacancy is a significant problem.

In connection with new single family residences north of Dr. MLK Drive, existing mixed-use structures facing MLK (#18) are proposed to be revitalized. New garages for these units are to be added facing the alley. Such reinvestment would help stabilize this area that currently has the feeling of a “no man's land.”

A new landscaped pocket park and associated parking lot (#24) is proposed for the open land between Dorothy's TV on the east and the Premiere Lounge on the west (see Figure 9 far right and Figure 10 center). This area is presently a combination of lawn and pavement. The proposal appears to offer a green space with a vertical element as a marker directing people to the parking available there.

In addition, a proposed pedestrian crosswalk (see Figure 12) is proposed in this area to connect parking and green spaces north and south of MLK. Such a crosswalk would help people feel comfortable when attending events or patronizing businesses in the area.


Figure 12, Traffic Control.  Slide presented as part of the Great Streets Initiative presentation by CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners. The diagram shows the locations of present signals to be improved through interconnecting their control systems, stop signs and a new pedestrian crosswalk proposed mid-block between Hodiamont and Hamilton.

A revitalized parking area with surface improvements (#25) is proposed for the existing unused parking lot north of this area. An alley separates this larger existing section of pavement fronting onto Theodosia Avenue. Improvements for this paved section are based on ideas of "tactical urbanism" which rely on low-cost, largely temporary improvements without the need for significant infrastructure investments. These upgrades can enliven the space to make it a place where kids and others will enjoy spending time.

Using paint, movable planters, and similar upgrades this pavement can be improved to serve multiple functions. When needed for parking for large events, it can be used for overflow parking from nearby lots. Otherwise, it can be a place where kids can play, ride bikes and engage in other constructive activities. Making these improvements in connection with the proposed new housing to be built along Theodosia Avenue would be particularly important to provide a communal gathering spot. A centrally located, safe, fenced playground will go a long way toward encouraging families to relocate to this largely vacant area.

New residential construction infill north of Dr. MLK Drive is essential for the successful revitalization of this area. Farther to the north and south, residential neighborhoods are generally more stable. If these vacancies remain and continue to spread, they’ll engender further decay, crime while heightening residents’ fears. Attempting to save this open land as parcels for a hoped for large scale mixed redevelopment in the future (like Arlington Grove) would be misguided. Waiting decades for such major investments in this community would result in more decaying buildings to be demolished. This kind of development by attrition erodes the quality of life and viability of the neighborhood creating a cycle which can be very difficult to reverse. The area needs small-scale grassroots level improvements in addition to larger developments which only come when the market is ready for them. Both kinds of redevelopment are needed to rebuild this community.

New attached housing (#26) is proposed to be constructed along Theodosia Avenue where it reaches Hodiamont. The series of attached residential units appear to take the form of townhouses with attached garages. This seems like a reasonable approach to dealing with land that fills in the gaps between sections of existing single family housing and commercial or institutional structures (like nearby Hope House, #3).

The plan calls for new residential construction north of Dr. MLK Drive where there’s the greatest amount of vacant land, however, new homes do not appear to be proposed south of Dr. MLK. The basis for this decision likely relates to higher vacancy rates on wider stretches of land on the north side which some will argue can be developed more economically than infill construction. Larger tracts of open land north of Dr. MLK would be more attractive to home developers who can achieve some economies of scale.

Revitalizing the Wellston Loop area is crucial to the entire corridor. Working solely from the center outward––i.e., growing from the nucleus begun at Arlington Grove and Friendly Temple––will be largely destructive of the existing urban fabric and its residents. Although the rehabilitation of the historic Arlington School ultimately became part of the Arlington Grove project, it was not included in the developer’s initial proposal. Rather it was slated to be demolished and replaced. Too often that is the standard position of developers, especially in economically stressed communities. Typically they prefer greenfield or brownfield sites that can be cleared entirely. There’s no question large scale development projects will be necessary for the Dr. MLK corridor to once again become a Great Street, however, without grassroots, small-scale redevelopment the ultimate victory will be hollow since the community will end up being demolished in order to save it (cf. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency site).

There's no reason why infill housing can't be attempted in the open areas along Hodiamont Avenue and Wells Avenue (#7, #8 and #9) south of Dr. MLK only on a smaller scale. A key distinction may be whether the property is controlled by LRA or by third parties. Contiguous blocks of land controlled by LRA should be marketed to suitable developers who can take advantage of financial incentives, tax credits and other programs bridging the gap between the actual cost of construction and the present day value homes here.

With no program to span this gap and/or no mechanism for putting vacant land into the hands of current residents, no new construction will occur. Deterioration, demolition, and vacancy will continue unabated. This path seems to be what has been occurring in many parts of north St. Louis where property values are depressed, buildings are abandoned and city services are limited. In these areas of de facto implementation of the so-called “Team Four Plan” is being carried out (whether intentionally or due to unintended consequences of the individual actions and collective policies).

If we don't act soon to stabilize, and eventually to restore, historic buildings in this area, they will fall one by one to abandonment, demolition by neglect, fire, brick thieves, and will ultimately disappear from the landscape entirely. The result of such passive land clearance will, unfortunately, result in the lowest common denominator our economy offers: the kind of suburban, automobile-oriented businesses we see at the intersection of Kienlen Avenue and MLK. The result will be the loss of the particular character and history the Wellston Loop still retains and the area will become simply one more street with gas stations, convenience stores, franchise restaurants and strip malls like any other suburban corridor. The urban character of this place as qualitatively unique will be lost.


Figure 13, Facades West of Hamilton Avenue.  Building facades on the north side of Dr. MLK Drive west of Hamilton Avenue (from left to right): Dorothy’s TV & Appliance, ACE Furniture and Beloved Streets of America. (Photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

It's not hard to imagine that in five or ten years, the land along both sides of MLK will be essentially cleared and the area will finally be considered "developable" for new commercial retail projects with a sizable anchor. Will the neighborhood simply wither through attrition and decay until such time as it is considered worthy of reinvestment?

Will North St. Louis City residents be offered compensation for their property like residents of the new NGA West site? The pattern of replacing struggling African American neighborhoods in the St. Louis region is clearly worthy of consideration and is the subject of a book-length study in St. Louis: Disappearing Black Communities by John A. Wright, Sr.

I believe such projects have their place, but when there is a sufficient amount of the historic fabric still in existence, then it is incumbent upon us to encourage grassroots level reinvestment in the community like the work that's been accomplished in Old North St. Louis. Retaining historic structures, businesses and residents rather than displacing them results in a stronger, more equitable, better-integrated neighborhood. Although it may take more time, the investment is worth it to maintain a sense of culture, history, and continuity. Otherwise, what will the Wellston Loop have to offer that another strip mall along St. Charles Rock Road, Page Boulevard, Natural Bridge Boulevard doesn't have? Will there be anything to distinguish the experience of visiting and shopping in the Wellston Loop area from any other middle of the road suburban retail shopping center?

To the greatest extent possible, we need to think beyond the arbitrary boundaries that divide city from city, county from county, neighborhood from neighbor. That line, established in 1876, has come to haunt our region. In recent years this division, along with the multiplicity of municipalities in St. Louis County, has been identified as one of the biggest structural obstacles to progress.

Physical improvements alone cannot solve the entrenched social and economic problems of a neighborhood like the Wellston Loop. To revitalize portions of North St. Louis, investments are needed in programs which address joblessness, homelessness, mental & physical healthcare and quality education to positive social interaction. A holistic approach addressing not just economic development, tax revenue and infrastructure upgrades are necessary to rebuild the deeply damaged social and family structures which are reflected in the outward decay visible.

Are we prepared to leave behind archaic political divisions which pit one community against another? Can we develop a truly progressive, optimistic approach that reimagines North St. Louis drawing upon green strategies that build on the potential that open land and vacant buildings offer for building in our new frontier, abandoned urban core, without bulldozing our way toward repeating the mistakes of past decades of urban renewal which erased Mill Creek Valley, Chestnut Valley, DeSoto-Carr Neighborhood and so many others.



References


CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners (transportation consultant). 

Development Strategies (market analysis consultant). 



PDS Planning Design Studio (environmental consultant). 

RDg Planning & Design (urban design consultant).




“Team Four Plan,”  by Antonio French.


“Wellston Loop Commercial Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places.

“Wellston J.C. Penney Building," National Register of Historic Places.

“Wellston Station," National Register of Historic Places.

6 comments:

  1. Okay, let me try to explain why I believe a MLK Plaza could work. There are four possible sites, the old Wellston Station, Goodfellow, Friendly Temple and Union Blvd. I would drop Union simple because it is on the edge of the neighborhood, although it has excellent potential, it also has major hurdles.
    The Wellston Station Bldg. was talked about a bit at NextStl, it has some density with the Hope House, and even though it does not have a north south transit route involved, it is close to one, with fairly decent commercial surrounding.
    Goodfellow fails most notably with density, but does have some potential for a transit collection point.
    The Friendly Temple area has great density, is not a transit collection point but the activity of the area transends that. The biggest problem in creating a MLK Plaza is the current configuration of the area. I think Friendly Temple, if approached, might be willing to listen to a creative plan.
    In any case the only way plazas would be successful at Goodfellow or Wellston Station would be to be event orientated like the Commons in Grand Center
    Either way a plaza at or near Friendly Temple would always be busy.
    The money, ah yes, I talked to a friend the other day suggesting we (the people) charge the tif and so on 10%. So the Cardinals get a 50 mill tif for ballpark village the people get 10% for community projects like this. It turns out my friend said Antonio French suggested something similar, although I was focused on planning policy. (I highly recommend National Framework of Planning Policy fro England)
    The idea of a plaza is powerful and can serve the community in many many ways. Many of your suggestions about agriculture for instance fit well into a plaza.
    Of course I feel the whole transit system needs to be reaccessed, communities like this could benefit in skills of collecting transit to promote economic development Unfortunately government officials cant even get development right around rail stations with huge numbers of riders passing through. A whole different type of thinking is needed.
    Even East West Gateway does not provide that thinking and are as much a liability as a help. If you look at their Connected 2045 Plan they pretty well offer up the status quo 30 years hence. Not only does this overlook the obvious need for improved transit throughout the region, it completely neglects climate change, they couldn't be bothered to offered some transit alternatives with price tags.
    To me they are too auto orientated to perform well with Great Streets. And as you know the real Great Street is not taking a half mile to mile section and adding a few benches to make it Great. One problem on MLK is to overcome the negative impact of any problems on either side of the neighborhood.
    In any case the creation of a plaza and a complete rethinking of the transit system can have a huge impact.
    One other thing, a MLK Plaza creates identity for transit, thus you leave the Convention Center to go to MLK Plaza. Transit thrives on identity, St Louis almost completely fails in creating identity for transit. Plus, most of the rail opens up to vast expanses of parking instead of human environments, while buses too often are in unwalkable environments, usually dominated by parking also.
    By the way did you ever see the little section of concrete block houses just off of Hamilton, north of Page, I just looked up some addresses, like on the 5900 block of Oakhurst. Great little section of buildings.

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  2. I have read through your papers some more, I hope you don't mind if I make a few more comments.
    First of all it turns out Alderman French was looking for 250,000 dollars for helping small business get started. So a community reinvestment of 10% on all of the tif, tax abatement money for projects like Ballpark Village could fund projects here and elsewhere in the city.
    This area has suffered from vacancy for decades, it is past time for the city to act.
    You go into detail about numerous buildings and sites, I like to evolve thought and it helps to see your discussion of various issues and think how they interact with my own experience.
    You mention the JC Penny Builing and some possible uses like job training. You also mention selling vegetables, the JC Penny Building as a market building with the adjacent land that is now called a orchard as a plaza then the building and plaza can contain all of those uses and become an economic force for the neighborhood. It is a powerful urban image for the community that expands to the region.
    I want to emphasis the market aspect, there is no place, I mean no place for a small time seller to get started. Even in the City of London they have streets various days that are closed off for books, clothes, antiques, vegetabes and do on. What better job training that selling at a market?
    I know you first reaction is another fantasy, however it is of the right scale, it has architectural and urban design significance and visibility to the larger community and it is far superior than my previous suggestions. And if you were to add that statue of Martin Luther King and a fountain in the center of the plaza then art and architecture can be used to further create significance.
    Traditionally cities pay to build these markets and attached plazas. Soulard is the only one still in use in St. Louis now but it is a common form world wide and in early St. Louis that where built to foster economic activity. these types of development is normally handled by government.
    It is time to take a risk in the peoples interest. a new Market Hall in the J C Penny building would do that.
    Another point is why not plan for an actual trolley to go back down Hodimont and circle the Wellston Station? It is a perfect compliment to a new Central Market Hall up the street.
    The problem with the East West Gateway Connected 2045 which predicts the status quo in thirty years in which the auto environment is essentially unchanged from today, rather Connected 2045 should be outlining a true alternative transit system to the automobile, at least in the core region.
    That leads to the question whether the Loop Trolley it? Shouldn't there be a discussion of say what a fully developed trolley, transit system look like?
    I could go on, but I won't. Your writing raised many questions and thoughts in my mind. And I think there is a whole discussion to be had including how to include public participation (is there a website for public comments by neighborhood residents for instance). Plus the enormous analytical effort you have undertaken should be turned into policy with a framework similar to the City of London Local Plan
    https://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/services/environment-and-planning/planning/planning-policy/local-plan/Documents/local-plan-2015.pdf

    Alderman Boyd and/or French should offer an ordinance to capture at least 10 per cent of Tifs, tax abatement and other tax giveaways.
    It is the job and moral obligation of the city at this point to act, private development has not and will not do the job.

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  3. Thank you very much for your thoughtful reflections on my comments regarding the Wellston Loop. While I don't have time to respond in detail to your suggestions, I'd like to offer one or two thoughts.

    I've set up a public group on Facebook where people can converse and share thoughts and documents with regard to the Wellston Loop. You simply need to request admission to the group and you may join.

    https://www.facebook.com/groups/wellstonloop/

    Feel free to invite others interested in the community's past, present or future to join the group.

    I personally believe the "Loop Trolley" will ultimately be a "success." I know many people are skeptical of this investment in local street-level transportation and its viability. While it may be most useful for, and most used by, tourists and visitors to St. Louis, I do think it will benefit some local residents who are traveling to or from this area. Since it intersects with Metrolink in two places, it should be able to function as an extension of that system.

    Once it is up and running and is being reasonably well used, I believe there will be requests for extending the Loop to cover larger parts of the city. The most logical immediate extension would likely be into Forest Park and/or to Washington University's Danforth and Medical School campuses.

    It will likely take years for such a system to be constructed without major investments by local government and specific, sustained demands by the public.

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  4. Thanks for the link to Facebook, I'm 69 yrs old and even though I started with a 512k Mac in the early eighties, I never have had much interest in social media I am on Facebook, but can't log on with my desktop for some reason. If it is ok I will just post here.
    I was going to do a 4 or 5 part essay in response to both your discussion as well as the original plan on the East West site. I'll put a heading on each section so as to make it easy to skip around. Hopefully a few people will be interested, including Aldermen Boyd and French.

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  5. Africa Town

    In further consideration of the situation and how to rebuild this neighborhood I wondered if an African Town coupled with converting the JC Penney Bldg and adjacent land into a market hall and plaza would begin to give the idea of the street some visibility, if that is the right word.
    A strong urban design concept of some type could help pull the street towards vitality.
    Certainly if the city was investing in a market hall and was backing a strong urban concept it would be more likely to attract developer interest than the absence of the same.
    For years I have wondered why something similar to a China Town has never materialized. Even today along Olive from North and South to Highway 170 there has developed a nucleus of China Town style businesses that support one another as a neighborhood and a street. This has only happened in recent years. This is along with numerous other businesses along this stretch of course.
    An Africa Town, with a Market Hall/Plaza and the historic Wellston Loop Station balances the Friendly Temple complex and the other churches and housing in the area. It creates an anchor for the neighborhood and like the China Town along Olive will appeal to the larger community.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you very much for your thoughtful remarks. Combining a new transit line with a central market and plaza would be a great way to establish a core around which the community could rebuild itself.

      I'm uncertain about the notion of declaring the area "Africa Town" as I'm not the right person to make that kind of judgment. I believe it could be done if developed properly by African Americans committed to the project.

      In my own capacity, I made some suggestions about focusing and centering attention around MLK as a visible, positive common image for the area (and the entire street extending into downtown). In the group of stakeholders, I was meeting with, there was little enthusiasm for using MLK as a way to provide a branding for the neighborhood. I sensed a general reluctance to focus on gearing redevelopment efforts around the notion of African American businesses and culture. I personally think this is a missed opportunity. Somehow each neighborhood has to exhibit its unique strengths and promote a particular image.

      The thing I'm afraid of happening is that so much of the historic fabric will be lost that the idea of creating a walkable urban community will be missed and suburban-type development will result. That already seems to be in the works.

      I appreciate your thoughts and suggestions and hope others will be inspired to follow-up with more concrete plans and actions.

      One of my biggest disappointments was seeing a grant to create a public Swap Meet in the area around Wellston Station was canceled through short-sighted bureaucratic politics. The grant was through St. Louis County and would have benefitted the entire region. Since Wellston Station itself is just inside the St. Louis City boundary, the grant was ultimately rejected. We need more cooperation between St. Louis City and County, not less.

      Additionally, there was supposedly a substantial amount of money available for restoring the exterior of Wellston Station to its historic appearance through a Federal grant. I believe that grant has expired and the larger amount of money no longer there. Some very basic structural supports for the building seem to have been made so it doesn't collapse, but the building needs to be restored so it will last for another 50 years and to offer a positive image to the community that positive change is possible.

      I've been disappointed by the seeming lack of enthusiasm on the part of the city, non-profits, the university, and others. I've found little interest in cooperation and too many people interested in claiming credit for the few minor victories.

      With regard to the intersection of Goodfellow and MLK, there were more buildings present just a few years ago that would have been candidates for preservation, but they were unceremoniously demolished. Too often there's enthusiasm for demolition that serves short-term interests but endangers the viability of the neighborhood in the long run.

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