The city we have and the city we want

I recently visited a great urban place Bricktown in Oklahoma City. It is a vacation and entertainment destination often visited by many from inside and outside the state of Oklahoma. It is an easily walkable build environment with shops, restaurants, hotels, clubs, it has the Redhawks baseball stadium and is within walking distance of the home of the Thunder and Barons. It also has an Amtrak station. What is most interesting to me about Bricktown is the fact that its name and main attraction is the brick construction there and the wonderful urban walkability of the location. Both of the things St. Louis has in spades. This whole area is an immensely popular place to visit on a vacation or weekend get away the odd thing to me about it is everyone could live, work, and play in places like this, but we constantly refuse to build the places we live like the places we want to visit. So what I ask of St. Louis is why would we want to destroy the city we have when it is built like the kind of place people want to be?

Start up city

Jobs, jobs, jobs! That’s the key word of the day lately. How can government local, state, and federal create and attract new jobs? While it has been a long time coming St. Louis may finally be beginning to realize that the best way to make jobs is to cultivate them here at home.

Yes, ladies and gentlemen St. Louis is quickly becoming recognized in national circles as a new hub for start up companies. This is in large part due to companies such as Arch Grants and Six Thirty. Both companies offer money to start ups Arch Grants offers $50,000  with the stipulation that the start up launch from St. Louis and Six Thirty offers $100,000 with the stipulation that the company move to St. Louis for the four months of the program. Both companies offer assistance with legal, advertising, and networking. They help connect young businesses with the kind of people and assets that can help a young business grow.

In addition to these funding opportunities St. Louis has business incubators for a small company. Two great examples are the Cortex District and T-Rex. Cortex is billed as an innovation community and is located near Forest Park and the Central West End. T-Rex is located in Downtown St. Louis and is currently rehabbing the beautiful Lammert Building. Both of these places provide space for young entrepreneurs and companies to band together and grow. A new start up called Lumate just graduated from T-Rex and is moving into its own space.

These examples are in stark contrast to the method that is most popular with local municipalities, which is to attempt to steal companies from other cities/states. While it is always great for a politician to say “look at me I’m doing work I brought us jobs”. Using TIFs to try and steal a big fish to fix the economic woes of a city or state has dubious results at best. A great example of a recent TIF bust was the recent attempt by the state of Missouri to lure additional Boeing production.

Trying to lure the big fish by giving away tax breaks is not the way forward for our city. The best way to go forward is to invest in new companies in our city. The cost is far less than the millions needed for Boeing and if only a few companies are successful then the jobs and money gained will far outweigh the meager investment. St. Louis can be very attractive to start up companies because of these programs and a low cost of living. It’s time for us to stop chasing the pipe dreams of the big fish and start the investing in the incremental growth of cultivating these companies.

Many birds one stone

Food deserts, sustainability, urban renewal, jobs, walkability and wealth creation. These are quite a few heady buzzwords that have been floating around recently. But, what if I told you there was one kind of business that could help alleviate many of these problems. Of course you’re thinking it’s to good to be true. I’m not a Nigerian prince and it isn’t to good to be true. The one kind of business that can help these problems is the local grocery.

When I talk about the local grocery it is already apparent that Wal-mart, Aldi, and Dollar General type locations are out of the question. But I also would say that Dierbergs and Schnucks are not optimal either. This is because they both overwhelmingly favor auto-oriented designs (with the exception of the Schnucks Culineria) and both of these local chains have abandoned the city that made them great for headquarters in the suburbs.  It must be noted that if Schnucks builds more of the Culineria style urban stores and moves it’s headquarters to the city then they will be back in my good graces. I digress, back to the topic at hand, what kind of grocery is the best kind?

The local store, the mom and pop, the place with one or two locations. These kinds of stores can really help tackle all of the hot button problems of the modern urban environment mentioned in the first paragraph. Stores like Fields Foods and the Old North Grocery Co-op help with urban revitalization and food deserts as they were both located in areas with few grocery options and in neighborhoods that are trying to make a comeback from tough times. The Old North Grocery Co-op and Local Harvest Grocery both address the issue of walkability by having urban minded designs. Local Harvest and Fields Foods create jobs and wealth by hiring local workers and having their headquarters located in the city which helps to keep most of the money spent at these locations in the community. All three of these stores create sustainability by getting much of their produce and other products from local farmers and businesses and in the case of Fields Foods and Old North by using previously abandoned storefronts.

While none of these grocery stores alone will help to save St. Louis and turn it into an urban paradise they all do their part to tackle many problems. They aren’t a silver bullet, no one silver bullet will solve all of our problems. But, each one helps incrementally and that is the only way our cities and towns will recover to what they once were through smart incremental solutions over time.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch hits the nail pretty close to the head.

Recently the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a story about the growth of St. Louis’ central corridor. The central corridor, according to the story, begins at the Arch and runs 8 miles to the west and is bordered by I-170 and Delmar to the north and I-64(highway 40) to the south. The article is a refreshing change in that it actually is a positive article about the city. The article describes the growth in the central corridor and how transit and new retail is helping this area grow and in turn is helping nearby neighborhoods to grow.

While all of that is great and I entirely agree that transit and retail are two of the big keys to helping turn our great city around, the article only touched on two even bigger topics that could really change the city. The first of these two issues is the beautiful brick buildings that make up much of the city. There is a section of the story called ‘Terrific Buildings’. It only briefly touches on a topic that could fill columns upon columns in the news and has already filled up huge sections of civic minded blogs across the internet. St Louis’ building stock is phenomenal and can create a true base for our city to build for the future on its past. With the McKee Northside project, absentee property owners, and developers who seem more focused on parking lots and demolition than preservation of our unique built environment, the preservation of buildings and their effect on the redevelopment of the city would make a great article and goes hand in hand with transit and retail as a traditional human scaled neighborhood is already pre-packaged to incubate successful transit and retail. One quote from the article really summed up the key to making St. Louis great again  “What we’re seeing now is that the terrific buildings left behind are attractive to a new generation of development,”

The second missed opportunity in this article is far less glamorous, but equally important. It was just a sliver mentioned towards the end of the article, but it had great importance. “On Laclede’s Landing downtown, Drury Development Corp. and Lawrence Group are considering construction of a 30-story apartment building on a parking lot next to the Eads Bridge. The developers said the Arch grounds renovation project is a catalyst for their plan.” That snippet from the article may not seem like much, but it says volumes about a missed opportunity in the CityRiverArch project. The project calls for a lid over I-70 which would undoubtedly help to connect the Arch grounds with downtown as it stands crossing the road in that area is absolutely treacherous. So the project will help connect the Arch and city and Drury Development might build apartments because of the project. So what’s the problem? The problem is that CityRiverArch could have spurred so much more development than just one apartment complex. Had I-70 and Chestnut just been turned into an urban boulevard the entirety of I-70 could have been made more appealing for new development of retail and housing. Not only that but the effects on the newly rejuvenated Ballpark Village project could have been huge. One can only speculate what effect an elegant boulevard instead of depressing highway infrastructure would have on the area.