Olive/Lindell Streetcar or Bust: Why a New St. Louis Line Must Build On Success

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The Partnership for Downtown St. Louis has released an RFQ (PDF below) for consultants to "a streetcar feasibility study for connecting the areas of Downtown, Midtown, CentralWest End, and Skinker-DeBaliviere in the City of St. Louis". This is step one in a long, necessary process that must be followed to develop a streetcar line. Citizens for Modern Transit offered a mock-up of the best potential route (image below). The Post-Dispatch put a piece online titled "So you want a streetcar, eh?" and offered a wacky Locust-Olive-Walton-McPherson route (OK, Locust would be pretty cool). Here's why the only feasible route will prove to be Olive-Lindell:

Below is the proposed form-based zoning code being proposed for the south side of the Central West End (north side of the 17th Ward). Public meetings were held over the summer of 2009 to explore development patterns to be pursued by the CWE. The hope is that a new form-based code will eventually replace existing zoning. As can be seen in the image, the new zoning would seek development of 10+ stories along significant corridors that would be served by a Lindell line. What would this theoretical height envelope look like?

Olive-Lindell Streetcar - St. Louis

CWE south building heights

Ultimately this is why a streetcar line must use Lindell Boulevard and not Olive west of Grand, or any other route. Not only does such a fixed, long term transit investment need to serve existing density, but it needs to exist where there is true opportunity for increased density. If one looks closely, the opportunity for redevelopment of Lindell from Vandeventer to Kingshighway is enormous.

Infill such as 3949 Lindell is taylor made for a streetcar line. The AAA building site, the American Red Cross building, the entire block across from the Lindell Marketplace (and the Marketplace itself) can all be redeveloped for increased density. Farther west you have a large, deteriorating corner gas station, a one-story bank and other opportunities. Then, surrounding the Euclid intersection there is a vacant building, a parking lot, and a half-dozen other surface or vacant lots within one block. And all of this has the potential for high-rise development.

Olive-Lindell Streetcar - St. Louis
{incredible development potential exists at the western end of a Lindell line}

Olive-Lindell Streetcar - St. Louis
{developments such as 3949 Lindell, catering to St. Louis University students and others seeking an urban lifestyle are a perfect fit for a streetcar}

When and if this development occurs is another issue, but the chances of success along the Lindell corridor are much greater than Olive. The Park East Tower and 4545 Lindell show that high-rise development can and will continue to be built in this part of the CWE. Similar development is exceedingly unlikely a half-mile north. Sections of Olive are beautiful, but lack density to support a streetcar and are too far removed from destinations and job centers to attract new dense development.

Central West End neighborhood - STL
{a view of Olive near Taylor Avenue}

Central West End neighborhood - STL
{a view of Olive at Sarah Street}

The lure of an Olive streetcar is one part pure nostalgia and one part putting the hoped-for rehabilitation of a once-great street ahead of real transit. On Olive, a streetcar would be grasping for opportunity (vacancy). On Lindell, a streetcar builds on strengths, existing density and the best potential for a car-free neighborhood in the region. Olive is a beautiful street for stretches, seemingly ripe for reinvestment and there's no doubt that a streetcar would be good for Olive, but would be it good for a streetcar?

The successful model for transit development isn't 2,500 sqare foot rowhomes and vacant lots, with a low-rise historic commercial district. Transit necessitates density and the potential for more. In an urbanist's wildest dreams it difficult to imagine sustainable density centered on Olive and Newstead – though it's a great dream.

Olive-Lindell streetcar - St. Louis
{Citizens for Modern Transit included this image in their online post regarding the streetcar}

And all of this leaves out the impracticality of an Olive streetcar in terms of actual service, you know, the reason transit is built. On Lindell, a streetcar would give direct access to the Lindell Marketplace for Downtown, Midtown and CWE residents. It would give access to the Cathedral, to the heart of the CWE commercial district, to Forest Park and near access to the WU/BJC Medical Campus. An Olive line? None of those. An Olive line would deliver one to the vague northern end of the CWE.

An Olive line also would not adequately serve the Saint Louis University Frost Campus. Sure, it would be just a block or two north of the heart of campus west of Grand. But similar to the existing Grand Avenue MetroLink stop, the line wouldn't serve the needs of students, staff and visitors as well as a Lindell streetcar. If we're not building a transit system to best serve our anchor institutions and neighbrhoods, we're failing to understand transit systems.

Olive-Lindell Streetcar - St. Louis
{a Lindell streetcar would best create a dense, transit-oriented district – existing MetroLink in blue, Olive line in yellow and Lindell line shown in green}

A Lindell line would be a half mile north of the existing MetroLink. This is a perfect distance for creating a dense, sustainable, transit network. This is what is needed to effectively support transit development in St. Louis. And the line must be financed. This means large developments and dense development with enough value to subsidize the streetcar. A special assessment along Olive would result in a small fraction of what it would along the Lindell corridor.

The only problem remaining is the potential to connect to the Loop Trolley. This would be great, but has drawbacks as well. An Olive/Lindell streetcar could run efficiently and quickly with short headways along wide Lindell. Traffic is rarely an obstacle. The Loop Trolley (and any connecting streetcar) is going to be sitting in traffic from Skinker to U-City City Hall. The simplest connection, if sought, could be up Kingshighway, or possibly even Euclid. But the connection isn't essential for this line's success. The number of Loop to Midtown or Downtown trips would be rather small, and MetroLink provides quicker, arguably better, service for such longer trips.

Any consultant review of a possible Downtown to CWE streetcar is going to find the same issues identified above and come to the same conclusion. For effective, efficient transportation, the existing and potential density, as well as connections to destinations of the Lindell corridor make an Olive/Lindell line the only viable route for a central corridor streetcar.

City of St. Louis Streetcar RFQ

STL streetcar map_full
{proposed streetcar lines (yellow) – map added 2/25/13}

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  • Wayne Brasler

    The route the P-D recommended is not screwy. It is basically the old University line route. But Olive was a different kettle of fish then, alas.

  • John R

    Anyone attend the update last night? I hope some real progress is being made behind the scenes, especially since it looks like N/S Metrolink is becoming an even more distant dream.

  • Chuck

    Alex, I read this article many months ago and agree with your logic 100%, but I was recently struck with some curiosity: do you feel Locust between Grand and Jefferson (or Tucker) would be feasible, and if not, why? Locust in that stretch has so much potential, but Olive in the same stretch runs by large dead-zones created by Harris Stowe and Wells Fargo. That said, there are several vacant lots on the north side of Olive on that stretch that have great potential, whereas Locust is mostly intact. Thoughts?

    • Alex Ihnen

      Yes, in many ways Locust is much better suited for a streetcar. The existing buildings are incredible and there’s really no shortage of land to develop. The lots on Olive would be 1blk away and could attract development too. Unfortunately, the blocks adjacent to Harris-Stowe and SLU do not have the same potential (wouldn’t it be great if HS sold 200ft deep lots for infill?). So yes, Locust would be awesome. The challenge may just be getting it connected to Lindell around Grand.

  • Dave

    I could write and write about why this is an absolutely crucial move for our city, but we can all do our research and I will just say that i am in full support of this idea and am going to do my best to rally the people behind it.

  • Steve Kluth

    Very well thought out and argued. I agree with one minor change. The west end of this line should run to Metro Link. The easiest way would be turning south on Euclid to the CWE stop allowing eastbound Metro Link riders the option to hop on the streetcar to get to their destination directly rather than doubling back to Midtown.

    • MrBobaloo

      Or a metrolink station could be added at the northeast corner of forest park on the existing rail line. If a Lindell streetcar ended at Kingshighway, it would presumable turn around along W Pine Dr on the ne corner of park grounds, next to the existing metrolink line and potential stop.

      I think that is a better solution bcuz if the Loop Trolley ever gets extended thru the park they could connect the 3 there.

      • Steve Kluth

        I agree with all that. I just think it’s very important that the western part of the line meet with MetroLink. I really like your idea of the loop at the end using that curved part of West Pine combined with a new stop in Forest Park which is probably less disruptive than mine of going down Euclid.

  • Mrbobaloo

    Absolutely brilliant idea. Chicago is a great model for public transit. They have BOTH the Amtrak (for long-distance travel to the burbs) and the “L” (for higher-density downtown traffic). St. Louis needs a high-density, dedicated route. Connecting Downtown with SLU, WASHU, Delmar, and Forest Park is a brilliant plan and obviously the most eligible plan for a big success.

    • Mrbobaloo

      Actually, the Amtrak runs alongside the “Metra,” which is their commuter line. And, to be clear, the Metrolink is more like the Metra than the “L”

  • shad schoenke

    Well written article, Alex! Your points (as I read them) are so obvious, I’m surprised there’s even a debate about the route west of Vanvedenter.

  • jhoff1257

    Thank You Alex! I have been waiting for your response since I read this in the Post Dispatch the other day. First I would have preferred Locust/Delmar (for a Loop trolley connection) alas, you’ve changed my mind. This makes perfect sense. Though I do think an Olive/Locust Loop Downtown centered on the Old Post Office District would be cool as it’s turn around. Couple that with the Downtown Loop for the future North-South line and Downtown STL would be a transit meca.

  • benya31

    Huzzah! Great post

  • James

    I think that a streetcar on Lindell/Olive would be fantastic for the businesses on those streets, but the article states that it’s needed to connect Downtown, Midtown, the CWE, and S/D. Doesn’t the MetroLink already do that? Wouldn’t a streetcar pull ridership away from Metro?

    • Adam

      the important difference, i think, is that the streetcar makes frequent stops while metro link makes 3.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Right. I don’t believe necessarily that the streetcar is a necessity in order to connect Downtown, Midtown and the CWE, but if built, it would connect those areas in a different way than MetroLink currently. IMO – the ridership impact on MetroLink would be minimal. The vast majority of boardings at say, the CWE are commuters. The streetcar wouldn’t serve as a better alternative to those currently commuting on MetroLink to the WU/BJC complex, for example.

  • rgbose

    I agree Lindell west of Grand, but I’d prefer east of Grand EB be on Olive and WB on Locust. I’d have to anyways east of Tucker. Too bad it can’t make it to the Arch grounds.

  • Randy V.

    We need a north-south streetcar on Grand!!!!!!!!

    • Streetcar or not, hopefully we’ll start seeing 60-ft articulated buses on Grand in the near future.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Not Jefferson or Gravois?

      • Ted Yemm

        I think that Grand could make a fantastic north/south connecting route along with Tucker and Kingshighway.

        • Kevin


  • As much as I would like to see a streetcar get built on Lindell/Olive, I struggle to think of ways this would be better enough than a BRT line to justify the increased cost.

    • Zeljko

      The streetcar adds more than just transportation options. It becomes part of the city and will draw people and development to it. The rails will be there even when the tram is not, representing commitment to the area. Seeing the construction of which will, if nothing else, be a feelgood experience, but I suspect will drive others to move and invest into the area. I don’t know where the trams would be built but at least the construction/engineering part of the project would add local jobs, partially offsetting the cost. Looking at the loop project, I expect this to be financially feasible especially if we can get some federal funding. Maybe MoDOT can help with funding as well.