Tuesday, October 16th, 2012

The Broken Nature of Civic Leadership by Alex Ihnen

[ This is a topic I plan to return to in the blog, but I’m frequently surprised by the naivete of urbanists who assume that civic plans must be fundamentally rooted in a desire to make the city better, when in reality many of them are plain and simple cronyism and corruption. There’s been a vast decline in civic leadership culture in recent years that has really torn of the veneer that used to cover up some of this. Alex Ihnen gives us a perfect example of the way things really work in cities in this piece that originally ran in nextStL. Sadly, this sort of thing is hardly limited to St. Louis or notorious corruption hotbeds like Chicago. It’s standard operating procedure in way too many places – Aaron. ]


Post-Dispatch reporters Stephen Deere and David Hunn have a must read article about corruption in St. Louis. Though it's not where you might expect to find it, the story lays bare the incestuous nature of the city's politics, "civic leaders" and cultural institutions they govern.

The details from the Post-Dispatch are bad enough: the Missouri History Museum purchased a failed barbecue restaurant at 5863 Delmar Boulevard from former city mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. for $875,000 in 2006. A search of the city's property database shows the site to be the only property owned by the museum other than their home in Forest Park and the library and research center on Skinker Boulevard. The museum also paid $101,000 in legal fees for the purchase, as well as $16,000 in unpaid taxes and then paid to demolish the failed restaurant. That's a total of $992,000+ for one acre. Bosely Jr. and a business partner bought the then 1.65 acre lot and vacant McDonald's in 1999 for $150,000. The lot was divided and homes were built facing Enright Avenue. Bosely Jr. acquired $730,000 in loans, including $255,000 from the city from 1999-2004. If you're keeping track, that's $880,000 total.

The sale occured without a professional appraisal and without the property ever being listed for sale. As reported by the P-D, the chair of the museum board stated that members of the board were real estate professionals and so no appraisal was needed. Specifically, Realtor Elizabeth Robb is on the museum board. She claims that the property is worth more than $800,000 today. The lot is adjacent to the old Delmar High School purchased by Blueberry Hill owner and Loop Trolley developer Joe Edwards in 2004 for $333,000. That building will serve as a trolley car storage and maintenance facility.

You should read Deere and Hunn's P-D story. And you should definitely read Bill McClellan's absolutely brutal take on the issue. He propsoses that Robb and Archibald buy the property from the museum for $850,000 – "no need for an appraisal" he says.

Now that you know the details, you should know that this isn't an isolated incidient, a one-off, not-meant-to-be-reported issue. The list of names that govern St. Louis, the city, the county, its cultural institutions and civic efforts, is frighteningly small. Are we to believe that these are the only people capable of getting things done? That there's simply no other way? That the city and region would stagnate and wallow in its current state if these community luminaries didn't serve us by cutting million dollar deals for vacant lots on Delmar?

It's simply beyond frustrating that our civic institutions are governed by people who continue to show that they can't govern. Perhaps it's not unique to St. Louis that the same names pop up again and again on park boards, school boards, museum boards, non-profits and other civic efforts (think Edward Jones Dome, the effort to remake the Arch grounds and the coming campaign for more local tax money). Perhaps it's not a unique civic failure, but it is our failure.

Corrupt transactions like this make it difficult to support local institutions. Just last year, the P-D reported that the Science Center paid executives more than $260,000 in bonues. It employed nine vice-presidents. Each of the institutions included in the publicly funded zoo-museum taxing district (St. Louis City and County) paid their executive directors between $440-640K in salary, while often adding free housing and vehicle allowances of up to $1,000 per month. These are large institutions and require experienced professionals to run them and they should be well compensated. But it's clear that in more than one instance, the individuals sitting on the boards of these institutons have willfully neglected their responsiblity to the public.

Oh, and if you're not particularly happy about the history museum land deal, the issue at the science center, or the Ram's lease, or the Arch grounds, or… well, sorry. The next time you turn around and see that the city, or one of its cultural institutions is embarking on some bold new endeavor, you will see the same cast of civic actors on stage, the same backroom, off-the-books deals will have already been made, and St. Louis will continue to suffer as a result.

This post originally appeared in nextStL on September 18, 2012.

Tuesday, May 25th, 2010

City Profile: St. Louis by UrbanSTL

[ I write about some cities more than others because I know them better. In an effort to broaden my geographic scope, I’m kicking off today what I hope to be the first in an on going series of city profiles written by a leading urbanist blogger in the city in question. First up is St. Louis with a great piece by Alex Ihnen of urbanSTL. Be sure to click on over and check out his blog and discussion forums – Aaron. ]

The popular image of St. Louis is deeply flawed. The numbers are cliché. Crime, population, education, all largely red-herrings. St. Louis metro has 1,000,000 more residents than Las Vegas, more than Baltimore, Denver, Indianapolis and San Antonio. St. Louis is safer than Salt Lake City, Blacksburg, VA and Toledo, OH. The “city” (1/6 of the metro population) is smaller than Tulsa and Wichita, more “dangerous” than Gary, Indiana and the police and public schools are controlled by the state. Together, the city and county would produce the 6th largest city in the nation. This combination of a small city in a big region skews statistics for the city only.

Much of the image and numbers are an ugly legacy of St. Louis and Missouri politics. The state took control of the police force during the Civil War for fear of insurrection. The city thought building roads and other amenities in the County to be an “undue burden” and the two separated in 1876. This, and subsequent decisions led to 91 incorporated municipalities in St. Louis County today. Fractured government has amplified the worst externalities of local control, racially biased municipal housing covenants and zoning served to racially segregate the St. Louis area, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax revenue is forgone in an effort to attract car dealerships and the next Wal-Mart to one side of the road as opposed to the other. Such issues will continue to exert influence on the future of St. Louis.

But St. Louis, to its residents and any eyes-open visitor is something else entirely. St. Louis is: an increasingly lively downtown with a wonderful sculpture garden, what may be the world’s best playground at City Museum and a National Park; one of the nation’s largest urban parks with an incredible art museum, history museum, science center, and zoo, all of which you can attend for free; home to world-renowned universities and research facilities such as Washington University, Saint Louis University, and others. St. Louis is a center for plant science research with the Missouri Botanical Garden, Danforth Plan Science Center, and Monsanto.

City Museum – Photo by Serolynne

But then that all sounds as though it could come from the St. Louis Regional Civic Organization for Progress, Development and Synergy. OK, that’s a fictitious organization. More than any other place I’ve been, St. Louisians do not define their city by its institutions or attractions, but by the life one can lead here. The small things and small places define St. Louis. Somehow, many of these things seem hidden. With just more than five years now spent here, I have only glimpsed the wealth of place St. Louis possesses.

Lafayette Square is one such place. So unexpected when I moved to St. Louis, and so quintessentially historic that it successfully doubled as a Chicago street of brownstones in the movie Up in the Air. With million-dollar Victorian homes Lafayette Square isn’t subtle. For that we go to Benton Park, McKinley Heights, Tower Grove South, and more, all distinct neighborhoods, all incredibly intact. Individually, each one offers a great place to live and a great destination to visit; collectively they create an incomparable city.

Lafayette Square

The private streets and mansions of corporate titans of industries past have received due recognition, and they’re a sight to see, but the city is built with red brick. The residents of the city live in red brick. In fact a feature-length documentary titled “Brick by Chance and by Fortune” is in full production. St. Louis grew consistently fast in the first decades of the 20th century and as a result is seems each block and each neighborhood offers a clear narrative on development. The definitive source detailing this story is “St. Louis: The Evolution of an American Urban Landscape” by Eric Sandweiss. However, anyone can travel from Soulard to University City via Fox Park, Compton Heights, The Grove, and The Hill and witness the story of St. Louis evolving before their eyes.

Fox Park – Photo by Mark Groth

Today, many are investing in these neighborhoods, the site of rehabs is common and home prices are going up. One place that may serve to highlight the changes in the urban core of St. Louis is The Grove, aka Forest Park Southeast. Home prices have doubled in the past decade and storefronts vacant for twice as long are springing to life.

Small improvements are everywhere. St. Louis is being rebuilt brick by brick, the older corner stores are seeing new life, century-old homes are being rehabbed to the highest standards and the mansions of the city’s private streets once again command multi-million dollar prices. Retail storefronts from Morganford to Locust are coming back to life and warehouses suitable for loft conversion are today in short supply. Historic preservation has been the engine of the St. Louis renaissance and the progressive state historic tax credit program is largely to thank.

Compton Heights – Photo by Flickr/matthewdiller

Civic institutions are adding to the development boom. The central St. Louis Public Library is beginning a $50M renovation. The St. Louis Art Museum is adding a $130M David Chipperfield designed wing and renovating the original 1904 World’s Fair building. Saint Louis University has added a $66M research building to its medical campus. The nascent CORTEX research district is home to Solae’s new $40M corporate headquarters and a collaborative $36M research facility. The adjacent Washington University and Barnes-Jewish Hospital medical campus has seen incredible growth as well. The $235M BioMed 21 has just been completed, along with several other significant buildings. Barnes-Jewish Healthcare is currently constructing a $75M headquarters adjacent to the medical campus and a new $170M Shriners Hospital is soon to break ground nearby. Finally, at the Washington University Danforth Campus, at the western end of Forest Park, a building boom continues. Several $100M have brought a new student union, 600,000 square feet of lab and teaching space for the School of Engineering, new student residence halls and other academic buildings in the past decade.

Rendering of BioMed 21

Preservationists and urbanists often focus on organic growth while single “transformational” projects are shunned. After all, here in St. Louis the “silver bullet” projects are infamous. The Pruitt-Igoe housing project stood for fewer than 20 years, from 1954-1972. When the complex was imploded Charles Jencks, an architectural historian, concluded it was “the day Modern architecture died.” The 57 acre site remains vacant today. St. Louis’ enthusiasm for “urban renewal” projects and the success in receiving federal funding has left many scars on the landscape. Multiple Interstates severed neighborhoods and separated the city from its river, the entire Mill Creek Valley neighborhood was demolished and the area remains incredibly underdeveloped, the 18-block Gateway Mall was clear-cut and remains mostly unplanned and underutilized, save a recent project. Even Saarinen’s iconic Arch and the surrounding Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, a National Park, is unfinished. There are plans and proposals to correct some of this, such as an international competition to redo the Arch grounds and a citizen group named City to River looking to reconnect the city with the Arch grounds and river by removing I-70. Recent projects like City Garden have shown how to do major civic projects right.

City Garden – Photo Flickr/SenzEnina

Yet the biggest idea by far for St. Louis is Paul McKee’s $8B vision for the near North Side. Dubbed “NorthSide,” McKee has purchased more than 1,000 city lots, most measuring the familiar 25ft x 126ft of the common St. Louis residential lot. The city owns another 1,000 lots that would presumably be part of the project as well. The project area is more than 1,500 acres and includes plans for four job centers, one at the arterial roads on the north side of the project area, one at a new I-64/22nd Street interchange, one at the landing of the new Mississippi River Bridge and one at the Pruitt-Igoe site. The only project of this size in the U.S. is the Stapleton development in Denver, CO. However, Stapleton was built on the site of a vacated airport and not in a central city with many remaining historic structures, thousands of residents and infrastructure dating from the 1880’s. The North Side project has been very controversial and its sheer size makes it a daunting proposition.

From 700 square foot brick shotgun rehabs to an $8B development vision, St. Louis is practical and ambitious. That civic optimism and the pulse of St. Louis may be best reflected by the local blogging community. There are independent blogs posting weekly and covering Mid-Century Modern architecture, transportation, the city’s neighborhoods, downtown, preservation, one promoting the city’s continued progress, one lamenting its loses, one comparing St. Louis to “elsewhere” and on and on. As mentioned above, blogger Michael Allen exposed the NorthSide plan on his blog Ecology of Absence before anyone else was paying attention. Built St. Louis is a veritable photographic encyclopedia of the city. Steve Patterson’s Urban Review STL has been a staple for years. Several others serve as catch-all blogs, attempting to offer a wide-view of urbanism in St. Louis. My own writings appear at UrbanSTL. Few cities enjoy this depth and breadth of interest. To me, it’s indicative of St. Louis’s “wealth of place.”

Benton Park – Photo by Mark Groth

St. Louis is witnessing incredible development, but some big challenges remain. The most serious challenge is political and rooted in an 1876 vote by the city to secede from St. Louis County, though there is regional collaboration on some issues such as museum and zoo taxing districts, and transit.

The economic health of the city and region will obviously dictate future growth and redevelopment. It has been estimated that it will take eight years for the region to recover the jobs lost to this point in the Great Recession. And irrespective of the current downturn, St. Louis has experienced flat job growth for years. But increasing, local leaders are talking about “bending the curve” and changing the local economic dynamics in order to exceed growth projections. Among the initiatives of local economic
development are seeking to become the premier location for plant
science research and businesses, and an ambitious plan to establish St.
Louis as the principal Chinese air freight gateway to the US between
the coasts. The ultimate hope is that several Chinese companies would locate US headquarters in St. Louis, that high-tech assembly and production facilities would open in the newly established and greatly enlarged “foreign trade zone” adjacent to Lambert Airport.

St. Louis will be a great place to live and an engaging city whether or not these and other efforts come to fruition, but the city needs to bend the curve on growth if the historic built environment of the city is to be saved intact, see significant infill and be repopulated. Much of what is “wrong” with St. Louis is perception, by locals and those looking outside-in. Increased regional cooperation, support for mass transit, a new Arch grounds and economic development efforts will all contribute to changing perception both locally and elsewhere.

For coverage of St. Louis urbanism and the projects and issues referenced here go to the urbanSTL blog at www.urbanstl.com. You can also follow us at @urbanSTL on Twitter.

Active St. Louis urbanism blogs:
Ecology of Absence: ecoabsence.blogspot.com
Urban Review STL: urbanreviewstl.com
Dotage St. Louis: stldotage.blogspot.com
B.E.L.T: beltstl.com
St. Louis City Talk: stlouiscitytalk.com
St. Louis/Elsewhere: stlelsewhere.blogspot.com
Gateway Streets: gatewaystreets.org
St. Louis Patina: stlouispatina.blogspot.com
Downtown St. Louis Business: downtownstlbiz.blogspot.com
Built St. Louis: builtstlouis.blogspot.com
STL Rising: stlrising.blogspot.com
Vanishing STL: vanishingstl.blogspot.com
St. Louis Energized: stlenergized.blogspot.com
Exquisite Struggle: exquisitestruggle.blogspot.com

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Aaron M. Renn is an opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century.

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