Commentary: A Good Problem To Have: City Needs Better Planning To Keep Up With Central Corridor
Recently St. Louisans heard the news: we’re getting IKEA. Well, we’re getting an IKEA that will occupy a big concrete box with 700 parking spaces and a handful of trees around it.
While the IKEA design is comparable to their suburban plans around the country, the location is not. The corner of Vandeventer and Forest Park Avenues is an urban setting. There is a looming historic grain elevator, many renovated warehouses and factories, and an abandoned train trestle that may become a trail. The intersection’s streets run from the canyons of downtown to the cosmopolitan surrounds of Forest Park, from the historic streets of The Ville down toward the cozy neighborhoods around Tower Grove Park.
The IKEA site has an urban character because so many place-defining buildings and structures surround it. The survival of urban character, with some losses, came through slow growth. The Central West End was a much different place forty years ago, when rehabbers who might today tackle a Cherokee Street storefront were reclaiming large houses and corner buildings. The Central West End historic district ordinance provided some protection of character, while sweat equity brought buildings back to life. Downtown followed suit on a bigger scale about twenty years later, thanks to countless historic rehabs.
The organic growth encouraged institutional investment. The Washington University Medical School and the BJC campuses change nearly daily, sometimes with world-class architecture and sometimes not. CORTEX is underway, with a mix of historic renovations and significant new architecture, including future mixed-use buildings.
To the east, St. Louis University changed from a city-fearing institution into a full-vested urban university, although its real estate decisions often have eroded the very context the university needs to thrive.
Today, the central corridor has benefitted from institutional might, organic rehabbing and a light rail line. IKEA’s dubious urban form seems out of line with the progression. The proposed Midtown Station strip mall to the east is a little better, but not much. Both show what happens without a strong city zoning code that is based upon location-compatible building forms. Yet these developments herald rapid growth ahead.
Meanwhile, city officials are not being consistent about retaining the assets that lured IKEA in the first place. Downtown, the city wrecked two viable historic warehouses this year, creating vacant lots costing taxpayers over $1.8 million. On South Fourth Street, in a historic district no less, wreckers are smashing a small cast-iron-storefront building – with city approval. When the $380 million City + Arch + River project revamping the Gateway Arch grounds is completed, there will be fewer places for tourists to spend money, businesses to locate and residents to move.
Great news, though: The growth of the central corridor is on a fast uptick. Let us ensure that growth increases the physical density and architectural beauty of the city. We need a citywide zoning ordinance that prevents surface parking lots fronting on major streets and mandates building forms that enhance walkability. We need preservation planning based on asset retention, including citywide demolition review and the mayor’s proposed stabilization fund. A new pace of development suggests that the city needs better planning tools – a good problem to have.