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  • Demolition Set to Start in St. John, MO

    Posted on January 4th, 2013 Toby Weiss 7 comments

    B.E.L.T. reader George McNatt left a comment that this building at Brown and St. Charles Rock Road is going to be demolished. All of the buildings connected to it are coming down as well, starting this January 2013.

    Here’s backstory on McCarty Studio.

    And why are these buildings coming down?

    If I told you there was a Walgreens on the opposite corner, could you get the answer with one guess?

    CVS was unsuccessful in Fergsuon (backstory here) and was shot down twice in the Central West End (both buildings spared from CVS demo are listed in this story). Guess they fared better in St. John, eh?

    George also reports that they are tearing down the building on the southeast corner of this intersection (map here) to put up a McDonald’s.  Considering they are reportedly going in on the site of the former State Bank of Wellston once it comes down, McDonald’s looks to have a strong first quarter of 2013.
    Geez.

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  • Making Money from Clayton’s Mid-Century Modern Buildings

    Posted on July 1st, 2012 Toby Weiss 3 comments

    We covered the Clayton-Forsyth building in November of 2009. Here is the story and photos. That post was inspired by the old news that the owner of the building wanted it to come down to build a mixed-use development. But The Great Recession quieted that thought.

    The June 29, 2012 issue of The St. Louis Business Journal brings the thought back as a cover article (above). Turns out the building’s owner – Tony Novelly – has been banking buildings along this stretch of Forsyth, including the Clayton-Forsyth building, which is also known as The Lawyer’s Title building.

    With next door neighbor Tip Top Cleaners set to close, their building goes on the market for $1.7 million. Novelly had reportedly tried to buy them out before. The Business Journal has no hard facts about Novelly’s intentions, just strong implications. Even his son, Jared Novelly, says for the article that they have no immediate plans to redevelop all their properties on this block. “We’re always open to redevelopment, but it depends on what the market does. Nothing is going on right now.”

    It’s starting to feel like the era of mothballed buildings is in the starting stages of ending. If the real estate market is truly starting to come back to life, the mid-century modern buildings in Clayton’s Central Business District (CBD) are easy targets. Maybe not so much the building above, by architect Harris Armstrong, as it sits on the outskirts of the CBD.

    And maybe not this other Harris Armstrong building. It’s even on the National Register of Historic Places. Then again, Clayton has already torn down a much larger Armstrong building, shown here on the website of the Clayton History Society. National Register is not a guarantee of safety, just a distinctive title.

    And the Pierre Laclede Center is pretty safe, as they’ve recently spent millions to refurbish both buildings while respecting its mid-century modernism.

    After that, just about every other mid-century building in downtown Clayton, MO is ripe for teardown. Many have already been torn down to build new skyscrapers and/or parking. This is a business district, and there is supposedly more money to be made from skyscrapers, which give you density of inhabitants making money.

    Novelly already owns two corporate skyscrapers right next to and across from the buildings cited on the front cover of The BJ. So he does have a history of investing in the teardown of old buildings for behemoth new business centers. And it is being implied that he might soon have all the old buildings on this block. And past news articles have stated that he intended to tear down the Clayton-Forsyth building for a much larger mixed-use building, so it’s easy to assume his development history on that block will repeat.

    But let’s drop the supposedly inevitable for a moment, and put on our thinking caps. You know what would be brilliant? Embracing the unique mid-century modern heritage of the Clayton Business District, and making money off that.

    The prosperity and might of the Clayton CBD happened immediately after the end of World War 2. The majority of its buildings went up between 1945 to 1972, making it a quintessential mid-century modern city. It’s a text book example of the power and optimism our country had after the war, and the architecture they used to reflect that.

    To be a part of the New Frontier and The Great Society, elderly and established downtowns had to utilize federal Urban Renewal funds to demolish and make way for new, modern buildings. In the mid-1950s to late 1960s, the City of St. Louis went on a demolition spree, ridding itself of “ugly,” “unhealthy” and “dangerous” old buildings.

    As Downtown St. Louis crushed buildings into dust on the government’s dime, downtown Clayton was a blank canvas of relatively open land with prosperous business-owner residents who had moved there before The Great Depression. Or as the City of Clayton website tells it:

    By the late 1940s, Clayton was in the midst of a building and business boom that eventually changed the City from a quaint suburb to the hub of the St. Louis metropolitan area. In 1952, the City re-zoned the area that became the Central Business District, allowing larger commercial and retail businesses to expand.

    (In 1957), the City abolished the height requirement on new buildings, and plans for Clayton’s first high rises were soon in the works. However, City planners established strict requirements to ensure Clayton streets would not become tunnels amidst corridors of skyscrapers.

    So a boomtown had the foresight to require variety in its buildings. Low-rise and high-rise would co-mingle to create – literally overnight – a new and powerful metropolis that would soon overtake Downtown St. Louis as the business center of Metropolitan St. Louis. That’s the beauty of working with a blank canvas – you can build a city from the ground up in record time and have it architecturally reflect the powerful and expansive mindset of a forward-moving society.

    And here’s the kind of buildings they willingly chose to reflect their power.

    All of the buildings shown in this post are part of the mid-century modern quilt they weaved within 30 years. The largest percentage of them went up in a less-than 20 year period. This is why downtown Clayton has a certain aura about it. Because many of these original mid-century buildings are still in existence, sometimes tucked into the shadow of newer post-modern skyscrapers.  And it’s the melange of tall and small, street-level and sky-level that give downtown Clayton it’s powerful charm.

    America is still scrambling to understand how to live and prosper in this new Post 911 cyber world with a global economy. All of the old rules are crumbling around us, and that includes the rules of land development. The days of automatically clearing an old building for a new one are looking rather barbaric in hindsight. We simply can no longer afford to be a disposable society anymore.

    But luckily, holding onto your existing building stock can be just as profitable as the old crush-and-build model was for awhile.  Off the top of your head, how many historic sites can you think of across America that bring in busloads of tourists? Large chunks of New England figured out decades ago that there is money to be made in old buildings and towns, and that local, state and federal governments will even help you turn it into a profit-making destination.  I think any developer of an “ancient” building in modern-day Downtown St. Louis knows what I’m talking about, here.

    When it comes to the newer realm of mid-century modern architecture and towns, we can look to Palm Springs, California as a great example of preserving residential and commercial buildings. It is easily the hippest destination in the nation, a desert town drowning in tourists disposable income.  And let’s also consider all the building-buff travelers to downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has lovingly kept all of its art deco institutions in tact.

    Mid-century modernism is the last great American architectural style. People have been quicker to pick up on the benefits of preserving and using these buildings than past generations were to saving turn-of-the-20th century buildings. Both the building-huggers and developers are realizing that post-war Baby Boomer buildings and towns have several layers of worth and are worthy of keeping.

    And you know what? The downtown Clayton Business District is an original, authentic mid-century modern city! It even has a very healthy percentage of its original buildings that prove this. If the money-makers in Clayton were to play their cards right, the CDB could become the Palm Springs of the Mid West.

    Making money from existing historical building stock is a very real and attainable prospect. It is a compelling thought for Tony Novello while considering what to do with his Lawyer’s Title building. It’s a beloved building that has been allowed to go vacant, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Development is as much about marketing as it is capital expenditures and improvements. Maybe fly a mid-century modern flag up the pole and see who salutes the Mid West Palm Springs idea?

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  • Can Northwest Plaza Be Saved?

    Posted on January 23rd, 2010 Toby Weiss 20 comments

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    The news that Macy’s is closing its Northwest Plaza store marks the sound of the footsteps of a dead mall walking.  The fate of both the former Famous-Barr department store and Northwest Plaza makes me ultra sad, and even before this news I was always nostalgic for the Northwest Plaza of old.  It once had energy and personality, then someone decided to put a lid on it.  It’s been a slow suffocation ever since.

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    My deep fondness for the Famous-Barr at Northwest Plaza stems from one exact moment in time, and it radiates out from there forever more.

    November 1978, Olivia Newton-John releases the album Totally Hot.  It was a calculated move to capitalize on her “bad Sandy” from Grease.  The songs were the most rock she’d ever be, and it was matched with a look which was a modern-day continuation of the 1950s black leather look that had ended the movie my friend and I had seen 7 times in the movie theaters that summer.  Some of the songs on this record were more guitar driven, the vocals randy and tough, and to a long-time Livvy fan (Nerd Alert: I belonged to her fan club years before Grease) it was revolutionary.

    Just as important as the music (which still sounds just as great today, thanks to the brilliance of producer John Farrar) was the album cover art work.  I had just turned 13, and had been given the go-ahead to wear make-up to school, and this is exactly how I wanted to look!

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    A Friday night in December 1978, I was dropped off at Northwest Plaza, and I trudged through the snow to get to the very spot shown above: the Estee Lauder counter at this Famous-Barr.  Where else would a newborn teenage girl go to get that smokey-eyed Livvy look?  I stared down through the glass case at all the eye liner pencils, and my heart pounded with excitement at this whole new world of possibility before me.  Then a sales lady asked how she could help, and my head started pounding with fear because I had no clue what to say, what to do.  I was only used to using the products in my Mother’s make-up drawer, not buying my own!

    The sales lady was very kind, and after a swift transaction, I walked away with a fat Estee Lauder eye liner pencil of a deep blue-gray.  It was my first make-up purchase, my first adult thing, and I still remember the smell of the winter air as I walked out of the store, and turning to look back inside at the warm glow of a cosmetics department that had accepted me as one of their own.  Even then, I knew it was a milestone girl-to-woman moment.

    As most teenage girls tend to do at the start, I too often left the house looking like a hussy raccoon.  I abused that pencil something fierce, and still never came close to looking like Lovely Livvy.  I do believe that the stub of that inaugural eye pencil still exists in one of my junk piles, holding onto it because that time resonated so deeply.  And so does the place that it happened at.

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    Which is why I went there today, to take one last look around, take some photos, and see if the Ghosts of Shopping Past still float under that majestic, astro ceiling.  Today was also a gathering of the Facebook groups I Hung Out at the Northwest Plaza Fountain as a Teenager and Let’s Revitalize Northwest Plaza Now! As a person still grieving from the death of Northland Shopping Center, I had to join both groups and then get a look at the people who were foolhardy enough to try and save a dying mall.

    I was there around 1:30, so didn’t get to see what was eventually about 300 people, as reported by NOCO StL.  But Northwest Plaza is so scary dead that seeing the healthy handfuls of people already gathered at the spot where the fountain once lay was heart-warming.

    Putting a roof over this outdoor plaza was a bad idea from the start; back in the day, I don’t recall a single soul agreeing that this was just what the place needed.  But this is what the then-owners felt was necessary to keep up with the Retail Joneses, that shoppers want a hermetically sealed environment more than they want personality and ease of access that comes from open-air malls.  With millions of dollars of renovation, they erased the low-slung, mid-century midwest ease that changed with the seasons for a clinical, soulless, Any Town U.S.A. warehouse.

    I have a sharp, instinctual sense of direction, but once they put the roof over Northwest Plaza, I got lost (as in “will this be an anxiety attack?” lost) every time.  I’d try to use the anchor stores as place reminders of the old layout, but it was all so tall and bland and disconcerting, that I’d get discombobulated.  The jagged contrast between what it used to be and what it had become was so depressing that I haven’t stepped foot in the place for well over 10 years.  It had nothing to do with crime or location or the types of stores within.  It was about being creeped out about walking over the burial grounds of a once-beloved place.  Oh, how I long to see even the blurriest photo of those lighted deers that graced the Plaza at Christmas time… Northwest Plaza exists only in memories. This mall that has its name is just a tombstone.

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    I am so ecstatic to see a passionate group of people wanting to save this place that I can taste it, but there’s also a bitter aftertaste.  There is very little original fiber left to Northwest Plaza, so only a sense of the place we once loved can be revitalized.  Even if future plans do include removing the roof, it still won’t be the Northwest Plaza being honored today, it will just be a new “lifestyle center” hoping to coast off nostalgic momentum.

    Today also poked at the mental scab I have about the demolition of Northland Shopping Center, another beloved North St. Louis County place that could instantly transport you back to the golden days of yesteryear because it was still in its original state.  And because of the era in which it was built, Northland was more architecturally significant than Northwest Plaza.  But back in 2002-2003, when news of Northland’s demise was first reported, there was not yet Facebook groups to make people aware of what was happening and spur them into action. And trust that people feel just as passioantely about Northland as they do Northwest; even all these many years on, I still regularly get e-mails from people sharing their Northland memories after they’ve found my cyber memorial.  The St. Louisan sense of place is very strong, and we should be proud of that.

    But back in the pre-social network year of 2003, it was just me and a couple of other mourners who documented Northland’s last days.  Even then, I knew trying to save it was a losing game;  acceptance and love of mid-century modern architecture was barely stirring, and the idea of trying to save retail is a brand new concept brought about by the deaths of enclosed malls.

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    What was particularly galling was that as the last walls of Northland were being toppled, retail trends were swinging to (or actually, back to) open air plazas.  Wow, and they just killed a great opportunity for a retro open air plaza, which could have been the mack daddy of St. Louis lifestyle shopping destinations.  It was also right around this time that the first rumors of removing the roof swirled around Northwest Plaza.  This double dose of irony was more than I could withstand and I learned to just let go of any efforts or thoughts of preserving retail because it’s just about following the money which is about following the trends, and obviously, no one cares about retail buildings anyway.

    Until now.
    These hundreds of people who signed up cyberally and then, today, showed up in person are stirring hope in my heart.  Are we ready to embrace sense of place, and ready to expect people-friendly and attractive built environments?  Are we realizing how wasteful it is to keep destroying the places of our past for a future with a short shelf life?  Regardless of what becomes of Northwest Plaza, I’m just relieved to hear others joining this conversation, and am so proud of St. Louis for taking this stand.  You guys rock!

    RELATED
    Northland Shopping Center
    Tear Down Jamestown Mall

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  • Tear Down Jamestown Mall

    Posted on October 4th, 2009 Toby Weiss 31 comments
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    Christmas Eve 2008, the night Sears closed for good.

    Jamestown Mall, Lindbergh & Old Jamestown Road
    Florissant, MO

    At the end of September 2009, The Urban Land Institute presented some ideas on what to do with a dying mall.  In a pdf of their presentation, they advocate tearing down the existing building and creating a new, mixed-use destination.  This proposal comes after the 2008 idea of turning the southwest (former Dillard’s) portion of the mall into senior housing and office space fell through due to, supposedly, national economic misfortune.

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    Jamestown Mall originally opened in 1973, shortly after my Mother and I moved into near-by Black Jack.  There were plenty of places to eat, (including a Pope’s cafeteria and a restaurant inside the Walgreens), a movie theater and all the stores my Mother already had credit cards for, so we went there a lot.

    I have good memories of the place, like hanging out at the Camelot music store, which  got most of the grade-school and teenager money I had.  There’s also not-so-good memories, like having to pick out clothes in the Pretty Plus department at Sears, which was located right near the mall entrance, so I was in plain sight of high traffic.

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    There were high school midnight movies where we were so stoned we could barely walk, so I barely remember The Song Remains the Same or Rainbow Bridge.  There were periods of intense longing over toys in KayBee, gag gifts at Spencer’s and boys in my classes that I never thought twice about until I ran into them outside of school at the mall.

    But these are all memories that I can conjure at will as I sit at home.  The last few times I stopped at the mall, none of those thoughts went through my head while walking the mall.  Instead, I was taken with the stainless steel and bronze sculptures that have been there since Day One, and meant nothing to me at the time, but now I think they’re beautiful, and I worry what will become of them if the mall is torn down.

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    Plaster bust of the late Fred Wehrle, property of the downtown Famous-Barr display department, which eventually made its way out to Jamestown Mall.

    Buildings are historical proof that hold memories , which is one of the reasons people get upset when certain buildings are slated for demolition.  In the case of Jamestown Mall, it denotes a distinct period of Boom Town development in far North St. Louis County, and it holds plenty of memories, but the structure itself is unmemorable because it was purposely designed for all the action to be internal, so how it looked from the outside was an afterthought.

    I loved everything about re-purposing a portion of it for senior housing, but since they’ve let that useful and innovative idea go, I’m completely on board with them leveling the existing mall and starting anew.  But I am completely against the suggested new use for the land.

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    Take a look at the aerial view of the mall and the surrounding area and note how much green there is around it.  Even with decades of new housing going up, this part of North County – out where the mighty Lindbergh Boulevard ends with a lackluster whimper – is still awesomely rural, verdant and never completely tamed.  High density retail and residential kind of peters out northeast of the New Halls Ferry & Lindbergh intersection, and large swaths of rolling hills still hold working farms (there’s still a barnyard animal feed and supply across from the mall on Lindbergh because the area needs one).  The Bubbleheads thrive out there for a reason – it’s woodsy seclusion sometimes interrupted by suburbia.

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    A concrete abstract sculpture that stood outside Stix/Dillard's is now missing. Where did it go to?

    It was a weird gamble to put a mall in an area so far off the density grid.  For the first 15 years of its existence, the only other non-Lindbergh way to get to the mall was via a winding, hilly back road with dangerous curves and a rickety bridge over a snake-ridden creek that only us locals used.   “Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s mall we go…”

    But it was a successful gamble for awhile, because there was nothing else like it in this remote area.  It was truly a shopping destination for St. Louis North Countians and those over the bridge in Alton, Illinois… until they got their own Alton Square.  And Northwest Plaza had more of the big stores, and wasn’t all that much further the other way up Lindbergh. And then retail trends changed to several Big Box lots spread throughout a municipality and Jamestown Mall became the remote island of Misfit Stores.

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    The dead end of Jamestown that was slated for senior housing and office space.

    The ULI proposal recognizes how remote this location is, so logically suggests that it be turned into a bells and whistle mixed-use destination, a place so chock-full of everything and the kitchen sink that folks from all over the region will be itching to go there… until the newness fades away into the next Retail Destination dog and pony show that’s easier to get to.

    They also propose that the new use have a Vegas-like reenactment of urban density, which is flat-out silly when you glance at the distinctly rural qualities of the areas surrounding it.  Florissant shouldn’t spend millions on a New Town, Part II.

    I propose, instead, a totally original mixed-use idea that takes into consideration the area and its flavor and gives people something they can’t get anywhere else so that they are totally willing to come from all over to have a crack at it, repeatedly.

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    From the current proposal I’d keep the ice hockey pond and the farmer’s market.  To stick with the sports theme, let’s go extreme: could someone finally give our area a full-blown skateboard park, please?  Also add a bicycle motocross course.  Some of the original building foundations could be left in place for both of these items, and because we don’t have anything like this currently, they’d pull a steady stream of people all year long totally willing to pay to play.

    If one or both is too radical an idea to consider, maybe pay homage to the horse culture still existent in this part of North County, with something similar to Pere Marquette Stables?

    Expand the farmer’s market idea by also creating a pick-your-own vegetable garden.  Think Eckert’s apple orchard, with people paying to pick their own local vegetables that they know comes right from the ground.  There’s plenty of room for seasonal harvests like strawberries in the spring, pumpkin patches in the fall, and just like Waldbart Nursery nearby (let them sponsor it and support local business), chop your own Christmas tree in the winter.

    Right on the Old Jamestown and Lindbergh corner I’d slap down a restaurant that naturally features seasonal food that comes from the gardens, and a cafe for hot or cold beverages and treats, depending on the time of year.  And so I don’t have to worry about the fate of the Jamestown Mall sculptures, move them into an outdoor sculpture and water garden for a unique dining-outdoors experience.

    Any or all of these ideas would cost far less to develop than what is proposed, and promotes a sustainable, outdoors, healthy agenda that is not dependent on fickle retail trends or just-add-water urban islands inappropriate to the area.  Even with our crap economy, they could begin with the gardens on existing empty land while demolition happens on the mall, so that everyone can see innovative progress happen in stages, and even take part in the process.

    Are these far-fetched ideas, or is it do-able?  Do you think it could pull people from all over the metropolitan area and contribute meaningfully to the area’s tax base?  And what are some other uses for the land other than the cliched ideas being proposed?

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  • City of St. Louis Citizens vs. Their Politicians

    Posted on June 24th, 2009 Toby Weiss 1 comment

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    Even though the Preservation Board voted on June 22, 2009 to allow for demolition of the San Luis, the story has a few more chapters to be written.

    The 20 people who testified against the surface parking lot proposal (of which I was one) were armed with facts, figures and sound rationales to demonstrate why the proposal was unsound or should be reconsidered.  According to the by-laws of the Preservation Board, we had every reason to believe we were systematically following the rules that allowed for public discourse and debate so that the Board could make an informed decision based on the facts of the case as well as the greater good of the neighborhood and the City of St. Louis.

    We followed procedures even though Alderwoman Lyda Krewson had been graciously candid in telling some of us before the event that the outcome was a done deal.  Considering the difficult position she had been put in over this issue, it was considered one of two things:  a desire to be finished with this complicated topic or a poker player’s bluff.  Either way, we followed through according to the system set in place by our City.

    Ald. Krewson was granted the final testimony of the night, and she acknowledged the struggles she had (a parking lot is not the best and highest use of this property) with her ultimate decision to side with the property owners.  She said her final decision was based on these facts:  The property owners could not feasibly rehab the building, would not sell the property to someone else and needed the parking.

    Only 5 of the 9 Preservation Board members were in attendance.  Alderwoman Phyllis Young cited the same reasons as Krewson for her “yes” vote.  Board member David Richardson acknowledged the merits of all arguments, but wanted to fairly follow the “letter of the law” about an ordinance written in 1974 (while acknowledging that this ordinance needs to be revised to current standards) as his reason for a “yes” vote.   The tie-breaking vote came from Richard Callow, who contributed no explanation for his “yes.”

    My immediate thoughts were of aldermanic courtesy in play and that the property owner had been granted the right to do as they saw fit with their property.   On the surface, fair enough.  But this “property rights” decision did not jibe with previous decisions by the city.

    First to come to mind was the Loughborough Commons issue, wherein the majority of property owners on S. Grand Avenue  did NOT want to give up their property for a retail development, but were overruled by Eminent Domain.  I’m sure any of you can cite another fast dozen cases of property owner rights being overturned for a special interest.  And this line of thought was a contributing factor to the lingering feeling that “the fix was in.”

    In the hours and days after the decision, there is much investigation into any procedural and/or legal improprieties and inconsistencies that may exist around this issue, and we will continue to follow the letter of the law in appealing this case.  But there is no escaping the white elephant in the room:  the truism of St. Louis politics is that it’s all about WHO the property owner is and how they benefit the people in power.

    City of St. Louis Citizens vs. Their Politicians

    There is a distressing disconnect between the citizens of St. Louis City and their elected officials over what is best for renewing and revitalizing this city.

    (This irony must be noted: on the very same night as the San Luis issue, the citizens of Ballwin experienced the exact same disconnect with their elected officials over the Schnucks issue, so this problem is not exclusive to the City.)

    As we have been taught – and as state and federal laws clearly state – one must participate in the democratic process in order for it to work.  Or as it is plainly stated by the man on the street:  if you don’t vote then don’t complain.  But from the bubble-burst of the Nixon presidency on down, citizens are personally discouraged by political deviation from the stated will of the people.  Examples off the top of my head:  the voters of Missouri had twice voted down legalized gambling and concealed firearms, and how did these issues end?  So, when the people have spoke but the politicians are ignoring them, there’s no denying that other factors beyond democracy are in play.

    Nationally, this unease with political disconnect resulted in a majority vote for “change we can believe in.”  As with so many matters, the City of St. Louis is decades behind the curve, but this has not completely discouraged the 355,000+ people who purposely choose to live here because they know the advantages of living here and believe in its potential.

    To remain concentrated on the San Luis issue, I will set aside many other glaring examples of disconnect between our citizens and politicians.  When it comes to matters of city planning and development – two issues that ultimately affect every taxpaying citizen in tangible ways – there are thousands of citizens who actively work through multiple channels to contribute to the improvement and stewardship of St. Louis.  That the city needs improving has been absolutely acknowledged by both the citizens and City Hall, but how to do this creates continual discussion.

    Ideally, I should have been able to say “this creates continual DEBATE,” but that’s not how it actually plays out.  All too often, it’s a case of concerned citizens flapping their jaws into a vortex of silence.

    Come election time, our politicians want us to be engaged, and cite this engagement as one of the reasons they are so proud to represent and fight for this city.  But once we’ve voted them into office, the party line is disconnected.  Even though they take our calls and read our letters, they don’t seem to comprehend what we’re saying.

    When it comes to planning and development issues, St. Louis City advocates are very clear and concise about the What and Why.  We are overly detailed about documenting, educating and debating why we are for or against any given issue.  That so many people continually join in these discussions and take action through the proper channels underscores how important these issues are.  It is heartening and inspiring to know that St. Louisans care this deeply for their city.

    And in exchange for all this public discourse that is closely monitored by City Hall, we get… silence.  Or even more maddening, we get responses that tend towards “Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” or something to the effect that we just don’t understand what is needed to elevate the prospects and standing of this city.

    If our politicians truly believe we don’t get it, then respect us enough to EXPLAIN your decisions.  We taxpaying and voting citizens may not fully understand the stresses and complexities of the issues you deal with, so tell us.  We assume you do not make any of these decisions lightly, so share with us the processes that went into the final decisions.  We may not like the outcomes, but the truth is ultimately easier to deal with than confusion or collusion.

    And collusion is the natural conclusion we come to when you refuse to educate on or include us in the decisions that impact our lives and the prospects of this city.

    Do not dismiss this as emotional, knee-jerk reactions; the stereotype of “backroom St. Louis politics” persists because of documented history of its existence, and because of the continual reticence to change this way of doing business.   This is a “big small town” and everyone knows everyone’s business.  The tension comes from those who work within the shadow system vs. those who engage in an open and public manner as prescribed by the written laws.

    It is true that if one wishes to reform the system, they must work to change it from the ground up.  New generations of passionate, educated and informed citizens are already doing so, and you can safely bet on greater numbers of them relying on existing laws and engagement of the citizens as a means for steering the City of St. Louis into the realities and possibilities of the 21st century.

    When it comes to St. Louis City planning and development, of our politicians and representatives I ask these questions:

    • How often do the concerns and visions of your citizens influence your decisions?
    • How often do the concerns and visions of special interests influence your decisions?
    • Do you feel that there can be an agreeable compromise between citizens and special interests?
    • If you could change one thing about the St. Louis political system, what would it be?

    Of our St. Louis City residents I ask these questions:

    • How often do the concerns and visions of the politicians reflect your beliefs?
    • How often do the concerns and visions of special interests reflect your beliefs?
    • Do you feel that there can be an agreeable compromise between citizens and special interests?
    • If you could change one thing about the St. Louis political system, what would it be?

    To stay current on the San Luis issue, bookmark No Parking Lot On Lindell.

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  • One Week to Stop a Parking Lot

    Posted on June 15th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

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    On Monday, June 22, a demolition permit for the San Luis goes up for review before the St. Louis Preservation Board.  The owners want to demolish the building at Lindell & Taylor in the Central West End for a surface parking lot.

    If this doesn’t sit right with you, we need you to speak up.
    Here’s your options:

    E-mail the Preservation Board now

    Attend the June 22nd meeting

    E-mail Lyda Krewson, the alderwoman of the ward the San Luis stands in

    E-mail the operations officer at the Archdiocese

    To assist you in speaking up on this matter, we have a form letter you can use to send to any of the people above. Cut and paste it verbatim, or use it as a starting point to express your own views.

    Click for the sample letter

    If you want the Preservation Board to deny a demolition permit, it is important to say so.  It is crucial that the Board and the owners of the building understand that this surface parking lot proposal negatively impacts the potential and the spirit of St. Louis City.

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  • Underpass Picnic

    Posted on June 7th, 2009 Toby Weiss No comments

    On a beautiful spring day, the St. Louis Riverfront was crowded with folks renting bicycles, taking helicopter rides, watching a high school bandplay under a tent overlooking the river, and climbing up and down the Arch steps.

    In Downtown St. Louis, a neighborhood loft tour was underway, the restaurants and hotels were hopping and tourists were walking around with cameras.

    These two areas are severely divided by the Interstate 70 overpass, which creates a dark, dirty, noisy and imposing barrier people have to navigate through to get from, say, the Convention Center to Laclede’s Landing.

    In this concrete, steel and pigeon poop void is where Kara and Steve Holland hosted a Picnic Under the Highway. That’s the video above. And you can see photos of the event here.

    Turns out it’s people who make a place vibrant and alive. Huh. Would be nice if this simple concept could become a part of city development and planning. Maybe start with how people would use a space and work out from there. There’s been some official recommendations passed onto the powers-that-be about this very thing.  Let’s hope all the pieces come together to create a win/win for everyone.

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  • Sneak Peek: Downtown St. Louis Sculpture Garden

    Posted on May 31st, 2009 Toby Weiss 11 comments

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    Bounded by Market, Chestnut, 8th & 10th Streets
    Downtown St. Louis, MO

    The new City Garden is supposed to open in time for the July 2009 All-Star Game at Busch Stadium, and after taking a walk around it on a glorious spring afternoon, looks like they can make that deadline.  The western block looks basically complete and has a unique feeling about it.  Most of the construction is now in the eastern block, with Pinocchio (above) waiting to be wheeled into his permanent spot.

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    Previously, I paid little attention to this project because I agree with everything in this Eco Absence piece.  Why our City Fathers continued to stick to a bad plan begun decades ago is mystifying, especially as the parts of downtown they didn’t tear down were surging back to life.  Did they ever contemplate just changing their minds and putting all this land to productive use, like putting buildings back on it?

    I felt the same way about the Old Post Office Plaza: why is this even happening in the first place?! And then I experienced the place on a warm, spring evening, all lit up and vibrantly peaceful, and it felt glorious, which made me contemplate What Is vs. The Way it Should Be.

    What happened to both the Gateway Mall and the Old Post Office square stubbornly eschewed logic and dispelled the vision needed for an equitable and democratic use of these important blocks.  It still smarts, hard. But it’s done and we have no choice but to move on and hope the people in charge don’t mess it up even more.  In the case of Old Post Office Plaza, it’s an endearing balm for the old wound, and accepted on the terms of “What Is,” it’s truly great.

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    Maybe the same will happen with Sculpture Garden?  Along with the fine attention to materials and details, I noticed that the new landscape and sculptures were able to alleviate the sting of some of St. Louis’ most soul-sucking post-modern corporate crapitecture.  Wonderous shapes distracted me from the mess that is the south side of Market Street. As the trees get taller it will be possible – by standing just so or sitting right here – to completely block out those nightmares for just a minute or three.

    This garden feels like a giant bouquet of flowers to apologize for the horrible things “They” have done to our downtown.  For the sake of moving on, it is often wise to graciously accept the apology and admire both the thought and the beautiful flowers.

    See more sneak peek photos here.

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  • ArtSpace at Crestwood Plaza

    Posted on May 2nd, 2009 Toby Weiss 7 comments

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    Crestwood Plaza, Watson Road & Sappington
    Crestwood, MO

    When’s the last time you went to Crestwood (yes, I know it has a new name but it will always be to me) Plaza? Judging by how dead the place was, I’m guessing “don’t remember” would be a common answer.

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    Even before Macy’s permanently closed the doors in March 2009, one had to dodge the tumbleweeds blowing through. Walking through the mall made me think of Dawn of the Dead, waiting for zombies to pop out of what used to be Walden’s Books and rip my arm off.

    It used to be ultra creepy, now it’s “come in and play” because the owners of this dying mall followed through on some creative thinking,  and they may just wind up making more money from this new venture than any attempts to revive it as a retail destination.

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    ArtSpace just threw a grand opening party, and everything about it was inspiring and delightful. Just to see the parking lots full and people crowding the mall was a minor miracle. That the hubub was for cultural arts rather than vacant consumerism was a major miracle.

    I was itching to check out this brilliant adaptive re-use idea during the formative stage, but just never got around to it, as Crestwood Plaza was still creeping me out. So, throwing this party assured there would be live human beings around to keep me safe. Another incentive was to see the photography of Robert “Ferd” Frank (he was John Mellencamp’s bassist back when he was Cougar), whose work is displayed – and for sale – within Design Extra Interiors (photo above).

    Yes, there’s a full-service interior design firm in the mall. It just makes so much sense that you have to wonder why this hasn’t happened before!

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    Remember all the art studios in downtown St. Louis before the loft rehab boom? That same concept in urban vertical has now gone suburban horizontal. All of the empty spaces inside the mall are renting for insanely cheap prices to anyone willing to put their own money and sweat equity into re-purposing dead retail spaces (where – as above – dressing room doors become display space) . That’s insane amounts of square footage already tricked out with everything you need in a setting designed for high traffic with maximum visibility.

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    Along with all the merriment of the day, I took perverse delight in Structure becoming Three-Legged Productions

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    …and Mrs. Fields serving as advertising for the dance hall across the way…

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    …and Frederick’s of Hollywood goes Chicque.

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    There’s still a handful of “real” retail in business like Footlocker, Victoria’s Secret and Claire’s Boutique, but on this day those stores were pretty dead because there was too much excitement elsewhere. Actually, “dead” would be a normal day for Claire’s at Crestwood, but that’s the beauty of this venture: any of the retailers who have hung on will certainly reap the benefits of increased traffic.

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    And because the place is alive with music, and performers and playful shenanigans, it will inspire folks to make spontaneous purchases of arts, crafts and glitter lip gloss and Kenmore appliances.

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    As I was taking the photo above, a lady walked up to me and said, “When I moved to St. Louis in 1965, this was the place to be. It’s been painful to watch it die. But today, I’m feeling like it can become that again, and I couldn’t be happier.” Then she caught sight of a stilt-walker sauntering by and drifted off with a huge smile on her face.

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  • A Fresh Coat of Paint

    Posted on April 5th, 2009 Toby Weiss 5 comments

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    Intersection of Washington Blvd. & Jefferson Avenue
    North St. Louis City, MO

    The buildings on both corners of the west side of this intersection have got a new coat of paint, and the effect is absolutely stunning.  It looks like colored eggs in an Easter basket.

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    When we get a new hairdo or whiten the teeth, it spiffs us up without changing the basic essence of who we are.  Same goes for buildings.  A little patching, a little paint and some prideful TLC goes a long way towards boosting civic self esteem.  Thank you to these building owners for their fabulous efforts.

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