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North County planners hope to remake Natural Bridge Road as Great Street

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 25, 2010 - When it comes to roads, Natural Bridge -- at least as it cuts through part of north St. Louis County -- is a bit of an ugly duckling.

Commercial properties virtually hug the road with no green space between the two; utility poles prop up unsightly wires and litter the landscape; sidewalks are narrow and uninviting.

Little along the stretch of Natural Bridge from Interstate 170 east to Lucas and Hunt Road invites people to come and linger. Most motorists barrel down the five-lane throughfare, just passing through on their way to somewhere else. And for those visiting businesses along the route, it's a get-in-and-get-out-quick kind of thing.

But a group of North County leaders and planners are hoping a Great Streets program will transform the ugly duckling into a beautiful swan.

Planners are soliciting ideas for the street of the future, but Betty Van Uum, assistant to the provost for public affairs and economic development at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has no trouble conjuring images of a new Natural Bridge.

She envisions the stretch of road near the university's entrance looking like Clayton's Wydown Boulevard with a swath of greenery down its middle. And for the area east of the campus she sees a vibrant commercial area akin to the Loop in University City.

While Van Uum is dreaming of what can be, planners say ideas are still being kicked around. Among the changes being considered:

  • Reducing the number of traffic lanes
  • Burying the utility poles
  • Installing ornamental lighting
  • Developing green areas
  • Adding wide sidewalks and bike paths.

Besides making the road more attractive, planners hope that the changes, coupled with the growing number of students at the University of Missouri at St. Louis and employees at nearby Express Scripts headquarters, will attract new development.
Making Natural Bridge great again

Natural Bridge is one of four Great Streets projects launched by East West Gateway Council of Governments in the St. Louis area. The theory is simple: If you make streets interesting, lively and attractive and usable by all modes of transportation, they will "trigger economic and social benefits for the community."

The other Great Streets include South Grand in St. Louis Boulevard, Manchester Road in west St. Louis County and parts of Front Street and Highway T in Labadie, an unincorporated area in Franklin County.

While the ideas are plentiful, implementation will take a while. Funding for the Natural Bridge project, $1 million from the federal stimulus package, is only available for the design stage, which will last most of this year.

CH2M Hill, Gateway's consultant, will preparee a land-use plan for the entire 3.8-mile stretch -- with the section from roughly Nordic Drive to Lucas and Hunt also getting a new design.

The municipalities can use the plan to assess future development, said Paul Wojciechowski, CH2M Hill project manager.

The design would make the road pedestrian-friendly and encourage economic development in the process, Terry Freeland, Gateway's onetime project manager for the Natural Bridge Great Streets project, said.

In the South Grand project, the goal was to slow traffic. But on Natural Bridge, "speeders aren't necessarily the issue," he said.

The changed use of the road is. Natural Bridge was once a highway, a major artery from downtown to the airport before Interstate 70, but now, Freeland said, only 10,000-13,000 vehicles use Natural Bridge each day. "That's not much traffic," he said.

Running through the heart of the business districts of many communities, the road isn't friendly for pedestrians, Freeland added, and its current character doesn't encourage economic growth. "Retailers and developers don't come in and go, 'Oh great, I'm going to build here because there's a highway here.' That doesn't encourage people to come," he said.

And then there are all those utility poles. "It's not an attractive place," he said.

Great Streets could make Natural Bridge a destination for residents and others, Freeland said. "Typically architecture, art, landscaping can achieve that in an inexpensive way," he said. "You use trees, bushes and shrubs to design a beautiful effect. It doesn't take $5 million to do that."

Word from the street

Tim Dulle, owner of Oscar's Cafe at 7520 Natural Bridge Road, is enthusiastic about the plan calling it "near and dear to my heart."

He added: "Certainly we could use some revitalization here."

He said he is happy with the initial plans he's seen. "It would certainly make this a more beautiful stretch of Natural Bridge," he said. "I personally think it would enhance opportunities for my business to grow."

Dulle said he's seen four drawings for the area and he likes two or three of them. "The more important thing is that somebody saw an opportunity to help revitalize this historic community, and they're going to go for it. I'm thrilled about that," he said.

Jim Schulte, owner of Schulte Hardware closer to the junction with Lucas and Hunt, is skeptical about the plan, but is reserving judgment until he hears more at the meeting next week.

"I've had a lot of discussions with the people involved there, and I haven't decided if I'm in favor of it or not," he said.

The reduction of traffic lanes could be a problem because it could hamper trucks making deliveries to his store, said Schulte. Four or five times a week over-the-road trucks deliver goods.

"It takes three lanes of traffic for my one truck line to even make a right turn. They're going into the center lane to make a turn to get into our parking lot. If we lose that ability to make those turns, what do we do?" asked Schulte. "Is it going to be hard for them to make turns into our receiving area? Are we going to lose our receiving area? "There are a lot of concerns there."

The design team has been trying to accommodate his concerns although he doesn't know what they're going to come up with, he said.

"They have really been cooperative, and they want to help me so I'm optimistic that we're going to have a plan that works for everyone," he said.

A big dream takes time

Mary Grace Lewandowski, transportation planner at Gateway, said that planners have divided the road into three sections, better to "address the unique needs and concerns along the corridor."

  • The western portion of the project from West Drive to roughly the MetroLink bridge is "institutional" -- home to UMSL, Normandy City Hall, a school, a library and a convent. Here a grass median would create a "sense of presence, not just this open asphalt space," Freeland said.
  • "The Wedge," where Florissant Road meets Natural Bridge, has been called a "big old slurry of turning lanes and stoplights." A roundabout with a fountain might be installed to create the feel of an old town square.
  • The commercial area from Florissant Road to Lucas and Hunt Road would benefit from trees and new lighting; sidewalks would probably go from the face of the building to the curb, Freeland said.

Mayor Patrick Green of Normandy is enthusiastic about the Great Streets program. His city is the largest of several along the corridor. Others are Pasadena Hills and the villages of Bellerive Acres, Bel-Nor and Bel-Ridge.
For his city there's great value in developing a land use plan, he said.

"Great Streets is doing a lot of legwork that would otherwise cost the city or developer hundreds of thousands of dollars," Green said. "Sometimes people get stuck on the idea that this is just a beautification program or a plan for putting in trees or changing concrete. It's also a plan that does a lot of legwork in case someone comes in and says, 'Hey, we like your city. We want to build here.'"

Having a plan can help speed offers of development, he said. "A city has to know what it wants," he said.

But Green doesn't discount beautification. He'd like to see wider sidewalks, artwork and a treescape in the institutional corridor to counteract "all that concrete." And, he'd like "that blob of incandescent lights" replaced with "more community-friendly" lighting.

"Can we soften that canvass up?" he asks. "Can we make it more palatable for the community and people to want to come into our business district, for people to want to stroll along the street?"

Van Uum has a special interest in the project. Natural Bridge cuts the UMSL campus in half. "It's a very daunting street to cross," she said. "It's five lanes and (traffic) goes too fast."

Great Streets would not only beautify the area but also spark commercial development, she said.

"The campus itself is located in 13 separate municipalities, and none of those little governments have the capacity to lead an economic development project of a major size," Van Uum said.

So several years ago the university decided to step up to the plate and support economic development in the area, she said.

That led to the development of the Express Scripts corporate headquarters that is part of University's Business, Technology and Research Park on the north end of the campus. "That was successful both for the community and the campus," Van Uum said.

Now she sees the Great Street program as an opportunity to reconsider Natural Bridge's function, dress the road up and spark new development.

"In the last number of years the street looks tired and has places where redevelopment is possible," she said. "We have in Normandy a historic neighborhood. It's a neighborhood with beautiful housing, beautiful amenities and strong institutions, but we have a deteriorating commercial environment."

Van Uum favors the idea of a landscaped center median for the "institutional" portion of Natural Bridge. To get the space for the median, Van Uum sees Natural Bridge going on a "road diet," trimming down from five lanes to two with turning lanes as needed.

And she has a vision for the commercial area at the eastern end of the project. "We hope to create a campus town, a small retail kind of environment," she said. "We also hope to have some new housing, perhaps some student housing, perhaps some senior housing."

Van Uum realizes a dream that big takes time. "It's taken the Loop 30 years to get to where it is," she said.

And, it took 10 years for the Express Scripts development. "First you need a vision, then a plan and the infrastructure commitment," she added.

That's what Van Uum hopes will happen with Natural Bridge -- and in the end, she said, "It will be a transformative thing for the neighborhood."

Kathie Sutin is a freelance writer in St. Louis. 

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