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

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