What’s Wrong With Clayton? That’s Easy, but Does Clayton Care?

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Clayton, MO
{five-lane Maryland Avenue is a typical "successful" Clayton street}

What's wrong with Clayton? It's a great question, largely because many people find it absurd. It's one of the success stories of St. Louis County, right? There are new high-rises, million dollar plus condos and homes, the schools are highly rated…but everyplace has problems and for Clayton, the symptoms have become apparent to many: vacant retail space, dead sidewalks and empty lots.

It's a strange problem. in 2011 Forsyth Boulevard in Clayton was recognized as the 30th most expensive average office rent per square foot in the nation. That sounds healthy. Now the city has been recognized for its Complete Streets legislation. But visit Clayton after 6:00 p.m., after cars have emptied out of the dedicated parking garages and left behind the ubiquitous four-lane streets for a highway commute, and you will begin to glimpse the issue.

Clayton, MO
{expensive rents can be found on Forsyth, but raised plazas, curb cuts and four lanes of traffic make retail success elusive – the culinary phenomena of Pastaria and Niche are the sole tenants of the retail space at left – more than 13,000 square feet remain empty two years after completion}

Very few streets in Clayton are fronted by commercial activity on both sides. While the regular street grid offers the prospect of a walkable city, the majority of city "streets" are in reality 4-5 lane roads. These streets act primarily as feeders for commuting traffic moving in and out of town on Forest Park Parkway to I-170 and to I-64 via Hanley and Brentwood. So what's wrong with Clayton? It's a bad pedestrian experience. Crossing four or five lanes of traffic isn't fun. Narrow sidewalks and fast traffic discourage strolling. Passing blank walls, elevated plazas and surface parking lots is uninviting.

Clayton, MO
{likely considered the most successful commercial block in Clayton, a failed hotel project has left vacancies and four lanes of traffic leave sidewalks too narrow for pedestrians and practical dining}

Clayton, MO
{dark blue=five lane streets, medium blue=four lanes, light blue=three lanes, lightest=two lanes}

Clayton, MO - by Sasaki Associates
{Sasaki Associates recommend narrowing North Central from four lanes to two}

Despite local angst, Clayton has recently made the list of cities with the best Complete Streets policies. Great Streets principles include: pedestrian infrastructure, traffic calming measures, bicycle accomodations, mass transit accomodations. The legislation states, "the City will consider such transportation improvements, facilities and amenities where such are practicable and economically feasible during the construction, reconstruction or other changes of transportation facilities on streets and redevelopment projects." In case you missed it, the key is "where such are practicable and economically feasible". There are as many defintions for these terms as there are people in Clayton.

Clayton has also earned a reputation for being less than friendly to non-traditional commercial efforts. Food trucks aren't allowed and one retailer complained recently to the St. Louis Business Journal that setting out a rack of items, even high end items selling for $300-400 will earn a business a fine. In a real sense, the problem(s) with Clayton seem extraordinarily obvious. Perhaps if the city is looking for answers, they could commission a nextSTL blog post before forking over a reported $215,000 for a study.

Clayton, MO
{the intersection above is typical of Clayton's built environment away from the main streets}

Clayton, MO - by Sasaki Associates
{retail inventory of Clayton by Sasaki highlights the lack of retail density}

What did Sasaki find? Not that a lack of parking is holding Clayton back, but rather the lack of human-scaled development is to fault. Basically the presence of wealth in Clayton has led to the assumption that retail will simply flourish in a sea of money. What the city ignores is that no one wants to walk there, no one enjoys exploring Clayton only to experience a place that heavily prioritizes car traffic and greets pedestrians with blank walls, raised plazas and dead corners. Yet nothing mentioned above will prevent businesses from blaming parking for their woes. Salons, boutiques, restaurants all moan about a lack of parking. Simply put, a successful commerical district will always have parking issues. In Yogi terms, "it's too crowded, nobody goes there anymore."

What's wrong with Clayton is easy. Adopting ordinances recognizing what's wrong with Clayton has proven to be relatively easy as well. But until Clayton begins making decisions that treats its Central Business District as a downtown and not simply an office park with access roads, nothing will change. The question now is whether or not Clayton cares what's wrong with it.

Clayton, MO
{this large lot remains vacant on Forsyth next to the Ritz Carlton hotel and MetroLink light rail station}

Trianon condos - Clayton, MO
{rendering of past proposal Trianon condos at Forsyth and Carondelet}

Forsyth 2010-2020
{commissioned report from Sasaki identifies Forsyth at Carondelet for development potential}

{this proposal for a Westin Hotel at Maryland and Central failed, the commerical space remains vacant}

The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2012 by Smart Growth America by nextSTL

Clayton, MO – Complete Streets Ordinance by nextSTL

Downtown Clayton Master Plan Update and Retail Strategy – Part 1 of 2

Downtown Clayton Master Plan Update and Retail Strategy – Part 2 of 2

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  • guest

    Why is everybody so against 4 lane streets? These all have crosswalks with lights…

    On some places in this blog, you guys rant against poor traffic flow. Then in others, you complain that streets are too wide. Guess what narrowing the streets will do to an area that has high traffic volumes throughout the day.

    4-5 lanes really is not that wide. Tucker Boulevard downtown is much wider and much more daunting (not that I’m complaining…again, there are crosswalks and lights). Wider streets are a hallmark of urban areas. New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, vibrant, successful cities all, abound with wide streets. Why are you people so stressed over walking ten more feet?

    The ordinances you mentioned are a detriment to business growth. The real, underlying issues hindering retail growth are a lack of residents in downtown Clayton and the giant shopping area at 170 and 40.

  • Dick

    -The Art Institute of STL would have been better off there than in St. CHARLES. This or another specialty college/university. Imagine what two or so thousand students would do for Clayton.

    -Cheaper housing. I have many friends in their 20’s who say they would totally live in Clayton if it were cheaper. My mother also said she would have raised me and my brother there if it were cheaper as well.

    -It needs more attractions/fun things to do. Museums? A casino? Something like a very large RiverChase? Brewery with brewery tour like AB and Schlafly?

    -Many cities/states pay for a portion of a film’s budget for it to be filmed or set there. STL did this with “Up in the Air” and Illinois did it for “Transformers II.” Why not Clayton? What if there were seriously a major motion picture set and filmed in Clayton?

    -Beautification. Painting murals on boring walls and overpasses would be a good start. Maybe one of those 3-D illusion paintings you have to look at from a certain angle. Lighting on overpasses, too. Edible fruit trees/bushes would be beautiful AND functional. Street performers, too!

    -The park needs a major carnival every year like the huge one in Chesterfield.

    -More businesses aimed towards children. Chuck E. Cheese, candy, toys, you get the picture. Maybe a video game/comic book store for teens.

    -New and UNIQUE high-rises that really make you look twice. Something unlike anything else in the states. Something like what you might see in Tokyo. They would be built over the parking lots all over downtown and cascading into Brentwood, which should follow a similar formula. Brentwood could build its own downtown and then have the two merge together. This could be done by building alongside the highway around the C2MHill building.

    -New streetscape altogether.

    -Festivals. Downtown has the Big Muddy Blues Festival and all that, so why doesn’t Clayton have one for itself? Something very special.

    -Now for the big idea: a Clayton streetcar! Yeah right, that will never happen.

    In essence, what it needs is more residents, more things to do, specialty businesses, better infrastructure and beautification. It is a lot better off than, say, Fenton is already. But it still isn’t as good as we know it can be.

  • JB

    Newly elected mayor of Clayton, Harold Sanger.

    “Clayton needs more high density, affordable residential living
    opportunities in the downtown area. This will put more people on the
    streets of Downtown Clayton to patronize local retailers and
    restaurants. Emphasis needs to be placed on making our downtown area
    more attractive to pedestrians. A reduction of traffic lanes on Central
    Ave., widening of sidewalks, complete overhaul of landscaping and ease
    of access through walkable/bikeable initiatives, and a rubber wheeled
    hop on/hop off San Francisco styled trolley system connecting the Metro
    stops will make the downtown area a point of destination.”


    • dempster holland

      why is there not more street-level retail in Clayton?
      One word: Gallaria

      • Alex Ihnen

        That’s clearly a huge factor, but the raised plazas, set backs, placement of government buildings and urban form are enormous obstacles to sustainable street level retail in Clayton. The city might not be able to do much about the nearby mall, but they could start planning for a future more conducive to business and retail.

    • Lydia

      I hope the trolley system is on tracks with cables if and when they actually build it! A Clayton streetcar could make a girl happy!!

  • blahh

    whats wrong with clayton is that it exists as all

  • Jeff

    Moved to Clayton from Ohio last fall. We were really looking for the combo of good schools plus walkable community close to downtown STL. We’ve been VERY surprised that the area isn’t more vibrant. I’ve met with the local alderman to figure out what’s going on. Interesting conversation. The two I spoke with are very aware of what everyone is saying in this blog. They pinpoint a couple problems:

    1. the zoning mandates that establishments earn at least 50% from food. In other words, no bars. And with it, no music and night life. So there’s nothing to do after you eat your dinner.
    2. as others have pointed out, there used to be lots of mom & pops even 20 years ago. But the city made a play for corporate headquarters, and the tax revenues they come with them, and the corresponding high rents have driven out small business. Unless City Hall is willing to provide assistance to small business (e.g. Lagoona Magoo toy store), you’re going to end up with nothing but corporate offices.

    There are definitely lots of older people with money who are happy with the way things are. But I don’t think the status quo is the inevitable outcome. I’m doing what I can to advocate change here.

    • Don

      I completely get the charm and appeal of Clayton with it’s beautiful housing stock, excellent schools and convenient location. It’s a great place to raise a family.

      But I’m extremely skeptical that Clayton decision makers have any interests in making any changes because they don’t believe their is a problem.

      And while there is a lot of chatter here about Metro, does anyone at Clayton City Hall have any interest in expanded public transit of any kind? It’s my impression that it is taken as gospel by everyone in a position to make changes, that public transit is a problem, not a solution. I’d love to be wrong.

      I’m also skeptical that the kind of change talked about here can come to Clayton until there is a policy in place to encourage affordable (and I don’t mean rent subsidized) housing in and around the CBD.

      • Jeff

        Had another talk this morning with my alderman. All I can say is that definitely think there’s a problem and they’re working on practical solutions. And when I told them about this blog post specifically, they both were familiar with it and mentioned Alex Ihnen by name. We didn’t talk about Metro specifically. But I can tell you one reason we chose Clayton when we moved here is for that specific access (I work downtown). We rode it today as a family to go to the Cards game.

        As with many things political, decades worth of the wrong decisions can’t be overturned quickly. The aldermen asked me to join the public process to provide a counterargument against other residents who don’t think there’s anything wrong with living in a sterilized city that folds up after work. I’m going to do what I can.

        • Alex Ihnen

          Great to hear you’re getting involved. Hopefully they said nice things. Just in case, I’ll start watching my back on the mean streets of Clayton! 😉

  • ealfotd

    Not enough parking? That’s hilarious. I feel like no one will be satisfied until the entire metro area is a giant parking lot, no, that probably still wouldn’t be enough, maybe a garage. There are a couple stores in downtown Clayton that I frequent and I have never parked more than half a block away from either. Even when there are tens of thousands of people down there for the Art Fair you can usually find parking within a couple blocks of downtown. What a joke!

  • Development of metrolink stops is clearly THE best approach for local govn’t to be making in the St. Louis metro. It’s cheaper and brings in more tax income per person than car oriented development. Maybe Clayton can be the place that shows the region how that can be done.

  • Joe Sheehan

    Some good insights and an interesting overview.

    Clayton isn’t an “office park with access roads” though. It has a downtown feel, just more of a first-ring suburb’s downtown. Comparing it to CWE or South Grand isn’t correct – although I agree with Sasaki’s propsed changes, they would help. Comparing it to downtown Kirkwood would be more appropriate. Its reputation as a safe place helps. If the Metrolink were more walkable, and there was more affordable condo’s inside the CBD, that would make a difference.

    But more concerning is that your tone sounds snarky, and that discredits your analysis. Its almost like you’re rooting against Clayton. That doesn’t help this blog.

    • Don

      Certainly the differences between the CWE and Clayton are obvious, but it also seems obvious that the proposed changes to the Clayton DT master plan are intent on making downtown Clayton much more like the CWE in terms of pedestrian street life, retail (albeit more upscale), restaurants, and housing while maintaining the modern regional business center. No?

      Retail follows rooftops and more affordable condos in the CBD is a key piece of the puzzle.

    • Alex Ihnen

      In my opinion Clayton is an office park with access roads. I spend a lot of time in Clayton. I walk there from my house, I’ve experienced all the downtown streets at various times on different days of the week. It doesn’t feel like a downtown to me at all. The analysis part of this is simply factual – the streets are 4-5 lanes wide and there’s virtually no retail/commercial hub or consistency. My opinion, then, is that addressing that issue by narrowing the streets and working to develop retail/commercial space on both sides of more streets would make for a better experience and more commercial success. The point of posts here isn’t to “help this blog”, but have foment discussion – which it seems to be doing here.

  • Presbyterian

    The parts of Clayton that have life are the parts that haven’t been bulldozed and upgraded. I get the feeling that downtown Clayton was probably amazingly walkable and vibrant forty years ago. The 1970s and 1980s were not kind to Clayton.

    • Uncle Durwood

      It hasn’t even been 40 years. It really has only been the last twenty five years or so that have really changed things. In the 70’s and 80’s, Clayton was sleepy and had more mom and pop stores in the DT. There weren’t that many restaurants, it was only bustling during the day, it wasn’t vibrant in terms of loads of people on the streets like the CWE. I remember when Miso opened and suddenly there was a jumping, kinda cool (in a suburban way) place in Clayton, that really surprised me. The 90’s is when everything changed.

    • Adam

      i remember going to the Shady Oak to see movies in high school. it was the type of business that Clayton badly needs to get back–a cozy, non-skyscraping, sidewalk-fronting mom-and-pop place. too bad it closed down and got razed. is there anything there now? or did they just raze it for the sake of razing it?

      • Alex Ihnen

        That site is now the parking garage and retail for Centene (second image from top of story). The garage now has a windscreen of metal scales covering its facade – not too bad as far as parking garages go.

        • Colin Butterfield

          The Shady Oak Theater was at 7630 Forsyth, east of Hanley and north of the current Crescent building. I believe Centene is entirely west of Hanley.


          • Alex Ihnen

            Ah, you’re right. I always get that backward. The Shady Oak spot is now a parking lot.

    • Richard Pointer

      My family started World News in 1967, there, in the heart of Clayton. Even as a child I remember the sidewalks being packed with people. World News couldn’t sell newspapers and magazines fast enough nor long enough. It used to be open to 2am with curb service. We would sell 1000 plus Sunday morning Post/Globes. Besides the fact that the internet came along in the late 1990s/ early 2000s, my mother expanded the store in 1993 or so. It did even more business.

      But over time one thing seemed eroded that ethos; Destroying buildings to build parking lots or green fields. I cannot tell you how many buildings were knocked down without being replaced. Some were mentioned – Shady Oak, or not – the Old Software To Go. Indeed Clayton’s long term lack of awareness of this seems to me to be a big problem. The sheer fact that Forsyth and Forest Park Parkway have sat vacant for almost my whole life is shocking (I am 31).

      Who knows, maybe they can convince some developer to tear down Maryland School and make a green field there too! Hopefully not, it would make a great condo conversion and a side park for that neighborhood.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Thanks for the comment. The Maryland School site is under contract by a developer who plans to demo the school and build 47 townhomes. It sounds as though the World News building and all the little adjacent buildings and storefronts will soon be gone to make way for a single large building – killing the character and any street level interest at that corner. There are too many vacant lots, but there are also too many dead corners – look a block east – commercial building (spa?), bank (dead space), office building plaza (dead space), and Centene, which put a bank conference room on the corner (dead).

  • RyleyinSTL

    That’s the weird thing about Clayton…it is a walkable size and yet completely not walkable.

    You can live 3 blocks from downtown on a quiet street but once you walk downtown you’re suddenly faced with 4 to 5 lanes of loud fast traffic, buildings that have no relationship to the sidewalk and walls of concrete. Yes, there have been some okay developments, but what has transpired has left downtown very full of pedestrian unfriendly sections.

    Meanwhile the city can’t see past the tax dollars…nom, nom, nom.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Well said.

    • Don

      imagine how different Clayton would be if 10 or 15 years ago the mandated affordable retail space on the first level of all new construction including parking garages? Forcing, as Ryley says so well, a relationship between the sidewalks and the buildings.

  • guest

    Clayton is safe, suburban, and white; and, it’s filled with lawyers and accountants. What does that translate to? Boring. And you know what? They don’t care.

    • Don

      yea, that too. In fact the reason I gave a friend a couple years ago for why I don’t like to go to Clayton for dinner: “Too many white people”

      • Boring White Guy

        What a coincidence. The reason I gave a friend the other day as to why I didn’t want to hang out on the Loop on a warm Friday night was “Too many black people”.

        • Don

          For the record, I’m a 40 something white lawyer. Very boring as it goes, but I really enjoy diversity and I’m not freighted by people who are different than me.

  • Don

    The CWE is a thriving community because people live there (full disclosure: I live in the CWE), including a large number of students who really give life to the neighborhood by being outside and walking around.

    I know Clayton has several large and very expensive Condo communities but much of this housing is only affordable to aging empty nesters who have cashed out of their family homes to “downsize” but are either too old, or simply uninterested in walking anywhere. They bring their suburban car culture with them to their million dollar condo.

    That everyone in Clayton believes Clayton needs more parking is why Clayton will never be anything but a very large office park with contrived faux themed restaurants and retail.

  • Don

    Clayton is the dream urban landscape for people who know nothing of urban landscapes and who aspire to spend all their time in the strip malls of suburbia.

    I can’t count the times I’ve had conversations with people on how dead and boring downtown Clayton becomes after lunch during the work week and all weekend. Contrast this with Maryland Plaza in the CWE which is full of life every day and night seven days a week.

  • Richard Bose

    The sidewalk to the Metrolink station is too narrow. There’s at least two feet of empty space in the middle of the street that could be used for a wider sidewalk. On top of that a repair to something under the sidewalk has left it narrower for weeks. An indication of the level of care for the pedestrian experience.

    I’m always astonished that the huge lot along Forsyth is still empty. How long has it been empty? At least 15 years.

  • Mike Pomatto

    The problem with Clayton is that it’s not cool enough to be the CWE, but too snooty to be Maplewood.

  • I was schocked (and a little appalled) when Niche moved to Clayton. While Clayton has a great lunch business and a thriving happy hour, those are both due to the large influx of workers. I don’t hear people clammoring to go to Clayton for dinner. In fact, despite wanting to try Five Start Burgers I haven’t made it there yet, mainly because it is in Clayton and it never occurs to me to head there for dinner.

    • Don

      That was exactly my reaction to the move by Niche. I still don’t get it.

      • Colin Butterfield

        I walk and drive through downtown Clayton fairly often. Most Clayton restaurants are very busy at night, both on the weekends and during the week.

    • Clayton Resident

      The last 2 times, my famiy has eaten at 5 star burgers on a Sunday night, it was a 45 minute wait. It was filled with my fellow Claytonians. It would never occur to me to drive west to a restaurant. And I eat out atleast 7 times a week.

      • Alex Ihnen

        Absolutely. There’s been a boom in restaurants, and good ones, in Clayton. They’re busy, but they’re also islands. 5 Star faces a four lane arterial street with no life on the other side. That’s not a healthy retail environment, but a successful restaurant.