Arts & Culture
5:30 am
Wed August 21, 2013

Commentary: Building The City That We Deserve

Listeners following the city’s ongoing renaissance may have heard of a project named Midtown Station, a giant commercial center proposed for Vandeventer and Forest Park. This could be a dreadful retail strip or a game-changing development. The way it gets built matters a lot.

 

St. Louis is a city in which renovating existing buildings is far more common than building new. We don’t have the demand for lots of exotic contemporary buildings, and we are blessed with an abundance of adaptable historic buildings perfect for our needs. Yet we have many gaps in our fabric, and in some areas are ready to fill them. 

New buildings on vacant lots and derelict industrial sites should only be good for St. Louis. Dense, historic cities demonstrate irreplaceable texture through mingled layers of architecture. Layers mix ages, forms, styles and materials to make the city fabric visually different and stimulating. Yet not every new project is an obvious improvement. 

As proposed, Midtown Station is a project that should concern us. Pace Properties essentially wants to transplant a suburban retail strip with giant parking lot. Big boxes, wide swaths of asphalt, main entrances facing away from major streets – the details are not urban. The location of this development two blocks from a new MetroLink station is mind-boggling. One might call Midtown Station transit-disoriented development. 

A related possibility is renovation of a scenic railroad trestle on the site, which offers impressive views of mid-city architecture. Great Rivers Greenway might make this trestle into a trail If Midtown Station gets built as planned, the trestle would be wedged between a parking lot an an elevated highway section – not exactly in league with New York’s High Line.  

Midtown Station fails to grasp the qualities that make the Central West End, Downtown or Cherokee Street compelling places to shop and linger. These streets do not have the national retailers that people like, but they have the scale and character that is definitively St. Louis.  

Midtown Station is another placeless mess designed to elevate automobile parking over human experience. And it need not be that way. The Boulevard acroos from the Galleria shows that a planned retail development can include a real people-friendly street, multi-story buildings and sufficient parking tucked away without intruding.  

Midtown Station is in the heart of the city, not by the Galleria, and still gets it wrong. Before the city of St. Louis commits a dollar of tax increment financing, the project should be reworked to be more worthy of a site in the central corridor. Can residents live on the site above the stores? Can the parking be structured so it is all hidden? Can the MetroLink station be better connected? Can the retailers face out toward streets? The city’s Planning and Urban Design Agency should work with the developers to explore all of these questions. 

Midtown Station’s premise – new retail in the city – is a good one. Yet its form and design are lackluster and inappropriate. Great cities are made of great new layers, not great old layers and newer mediocrity. And St. Louis is a great city.

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