Walk Audit Finds Blocked Streets, Overgrown Lots and Missing Sidewalks in City’s West End

West End Walk Audit with Dan BurdenEarly in the morning on May 24th 2011 in the West End neighborhood more than 40 residents, planners, and advocates packed into a conference room on the second floor of the St. Louis ConnectCare public healthcare facility at 5535 Delmar Boulevard. Although the hour was early and the setting was somewhat dreary, there was a palpable sense of excitement in the room. Through the efforts of Housing and Community Solutions the West End neighborhood has been selected as a United States Environmental Protection Agency Building Blocks Neighborhood Grant dedicated to improving walkability. The grant enabled HCS, the Livable St. Louis Network, and Big Shark Bicycles to bring nationally renowned expert Dan Burden to the neighborhood for a physical audit on walkability.

Burden, named one of Time Magazine’s Six Most Important Civic Innovators in 2001, began the morning with a detailed presentation on the potentials of walkability. Showing examples from years of advocacy in distressed, rural, and urban communities, Burden emphasized that improving the walkability of neighborhoods reduces crime and increases home values. These assertions are beginning to be substantiated by research; a 2009 CEO’s for Cities report found that a one point increase in WalkScore results in an average $700-$3,000 increase in home value. Following the presentation, Burden asked attendees to write the three elements that they wanted for a successful neighborhood and post them on the wall. Keeping the prevalent issues of safety, interaction, and beauty in mind, participants donned florescent safety vests and assembled outside to begin the walk audit.

West End Walk Audit with Dan Burden
{Mayor Francis Slay, city Sustainability Director Catherine Werner, and Acting Planning Director Don Roe joined residents for the walk}

Walkability may be an abstract concept, but a walkability audit is determined by precise observation. The key tools employed during the audit were a tape measure and a radar gun. Measuring the lane widths on Delmar in front of the Smiley Urgent Care Center, Burden noted that the curb/parking lane measured 22’-0” and the inner lane measured 12’-0”. Since an ideal lane width for an urban street is 10’-0”, he explained that there was enough room to add a designated bike lane or to stripe a protected parking lane.

Another issue endemic throughout the West End is the problem of long blocks. In the Life and Death of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs described long blocks as stagnant spaces that cannot support mixed uses or street life. Burden explained that long blocks on major streets also serve as major barriers between neighborhoods and need pedestrian crossings every 150 feet. The block we studied between Clara Avenue and Belt Avenue is 840 feet long (three downtown city blocks) and only has one crosswalk.

West End Walk Audit with Dan Burden
{the Delmar median in the West End neighborhood}

Delmar was not entirely bad for walkability. Burden appreciated the median on Delmar that replaced the former streetcar tracks. The mounded profile of the plantings obscures the pavement on the other side of the street, visually connects to lawns on the opposite side of the street, and makes the street appear narrower from the sidewalk.

From Delmar, the auditors turned North on Belt Avenue and into the West End neighborhood and the walkability decreased notably. The West End neighborhood, initially an affluent neighborhood rivaling the Central West End in prestige, saw an unprecedented pullout of virtually all its institutional anchors between 1960-1980. The abandonment of the neighborhood by St. Luke’s Hospital, the Academy of the Visitation, the St. Louis Artists Guild, the YHMA, and other institutions was coupled with the large scale of housing and multi-family properties and resulted in the most severe decline in St. Louis exemplified in two horrific incidents. Following the grisly death of 10-year-old Rodney McAllister in 2001, the neighborhood has pulled itself from the nadir and has addressed many of its most pressing challenges. Unsurprisingly, the built environment of the neighborhood poses severe challenges for walkability.

West End Walk Audit with Dan Burden

As participants crossed Enright, the tree lawns and attractive planting strips were replaced with cracked sidewalks and knee high grass across from Clemens Place near Ivory Perry (Visitation) Park. This property, owned by the LCRA, elicited a promise from Mayor Slay for immediate mowing. Sidewalk repair remained unmentioned. Furthermore, the scarcity of wheelchair ramps throughout the neighborhood and frequent sidewalk gaps from demolitions impeded participant Steve Patterson, who uses a wheelchair for mobility.

The most striking barrier to walkability in the West End neighborhood are the rampant street barricades (top photo). While these barriers specifically exclude automobiles, they create dead zones that discourage pedestrian use. The majority of residents present at the Walk Audit balanced their opposition to the barriers with an apprehension of increased crime and traffic. Dan Burden specifically addressed these concerns by explaining that the existing street barriers concentrate traffic on Maple Avenue; if these barriers were removed, traffic would be evenly distributed across the other seven east-west streets. In addition, removing the barriers would increase pedestrian traffic and provide more eyes on the street in blocks that are significantly depopulated.

It is evident that the barriers are failing to keep the neighborhood safe. At the intersection of Ruth Porter Mallway and Clemens Avenue additional Schoemehl Pots and limestone boulders had to be deployed on the sidewalk and front yard of 5670 Clemens Ave. to prevent cars from driving across the grass to avoid the street barrier. One of the boulders blocks the sidewalk and cuts off access to the Ruth Porter Mallway and the future St. Vincent Greenway.

Burden pointed out that the incomplete patchwork of sidewalks throughout the neighborhood results from the failure of city oversight. St. Louis has allowed developers to construct sidewalks after finishing construction. When projects are not completed, the result is a patchwork of missing sections that render the sidewalk useless. This is in pointed contrast with streets, since they are always constructed immediately. This is a failure of government: sidewalks should be considered an essential transportation infrastructure in the City of St. Louis and enforced accordingly.

West End Walk Audit with Dan BurdenAfter the walking audit was completed, West End residents joined local experts and advocates in an informal charette to plan for walkability enhancements throughout the neighborhood. What emerged was a consensus that the street barriers needed to be removed. The West End has the potential to be the first neighborhood to successfully organize for the removal of street barriers. Other ideas included housing facing the Ruth Porter Mallway, the replacement of the dense undergrowth and fence at the southern edge of Ivory Perry Park with a trellis structure, a mural dedicated to Ruth Porter at Delmar, the conversion of the Suburban Trak into a linear park/trail connector between Catalpa Park, the Ruth Porter Mallway, and Ivory Perry Park, and the construction of a neighborhood bbq pit and rest stop on the St. Vincent Greenway on Etzel Ave.

Increasing the walkability of a neighborhood requires some infrastructure investment, but many solutions are inexpensive and can be implemented quickly. Concerned citizens can fix a many of the deterrent factors immediately. Frayed banners can be removed or replaced, trash can be removed, and weeds can be pulled. West End residents are already sharing responsibility in mowing vacant lots. This can-do attitude is now being applied to walkability with the head of the local business association advising restaurants to install sidewalk tables and planters. Construction will start on the Great Rivers Greenway St. Vincent Greenway along the Ruth Porter Mallway and Etzel Ave in the fall, and the Delmar Trolley project has the potential to breathe new life into Delmar between the Metrolink and DeBaliviere Ave. Meanwhile, other neighborhoods would be wise to follow the West End’s example and walk audit their own streets since both property value and livability are at stake.

Dan Burden at City Garden
{Dan Burden explores City Garden prior to leading the Walk Audit of the West End}