Potluck PAC Submission: Require Re-Authorization of Closed City Streets & Codify Process

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Hey, I got my Potluck PAC submission completed. It’s a basic outline, thrown together quickly… but it’s something I’ve spent quite a significant amount of time considering since I moved onto a city block barricaded at one end with “temporary” Schoemehl pots. That was 2006 and I thought they were awful. I bought a home with the hope that “temporary” meant they would be gone sooner than later. Seven years later I’m gone, but the barricades remain. In fact, the old neighborhood, Forest Park Southeast (AKA The Grove), spent thousands of dollars for new, prettier barricades.

Why does this matter? In addition to some very fundamentally important issues of civic governance and process, closing 262 city streets changes the nature of the city, the historic city form. Of course this is what was desired. We’ve closed streets as crime prevention, to create safer places for children to play, to decrease traffic (or push it elsewhere) – all without study or evidence that the quickly adopted solution solved the purported problem, and without consideration of the larger city. The city is suburbanized with tiny defacto cul-de-sacs and chopped up with dead ends. There are entire neighborhoods where I will never consider living because I’m unfamiliar with them, becuase they’re purposely isolated from the larger city. On my old street, traffic was twice what it need to be, as everyone on the block drove past my home twice coming and going. I could go on… Anyway, below is the basic proposal. To read more about the history of this issue in St. Louis, read: Streets Not Through: An Analysis of the Blockages and Barricades to the St. Louis Street Network.


Require reauthorization of City of St. Louis streets closed temporarily by ordinance and codify the process by which a city street may be closed and re-opened. Some of these “temporary” closures have been in place more than 20 years without a process to address or even a definition to understand their “temporary” status.

An exhaustive study of the history of closed streets in the City of St. Louis found 262 streets that used to be contiguous, but that are no longer throughways. This initiative is important for several reasons. First, it would bring before residents one of the most important basic functions of a city, its streets. It would also present clarity to this basic civic governance issue.

Today, there’s no codified process by which a city street is closed or re-opened. Anecdotally, a resident complains to an alderperson that people are running a stop sign, that drug buyers are cruising their block, or that they don’t feel their children are safe due to traffic. How many must complain? That’s up to an alderperson’s discretion. If the alderperson is persuaded to bring the issue to the city streets department, the most that department will do is consider traffic counts and basic traffic flow. Because the City of St. Louis is home to half a million fewer residents than 60 years ago, there are virtually no residential streets, and very few streets overall for which traffic counts dictate must stay open. So the street is closed, often as “temporary” by ordinance. “Temporary” isn’t defined, and the process by which a street is re-opened is unknown. Again, anecdotally, if a group of residents complain to an alderperson, that person may ask the city to address the concern. But who gets a say? What if the street borders two city wards? Should residents on all four corners have a say?

Hundreds of streets across St. Louis been closed at the request of the alderperson, ostensibly responding to residents. Typically no further study or examination of a closure was conducted before proceeding. No larger plan for city streets exits in the City of St. Louis. There is also no record of individual votes by the Board of Alderman to endorse a street closure (though these were likely unanimous under the practice of aldermanic courtesy), and no record of how many residents requested a closer. Was it the homeowner nearest the intersection? Was it half the residents of the block?

The question of whether a city street is open or closed is a fundamental part of our city. Such decisions should never be made at the request of a small number of people, or as a request by an alderperson, often without evidence. The closing of a city street, even temporarily, should require that the burden rest with those seeking a closure, a change to the historic and fundamental structure of the city. The burden should remain on those seeking to maintain a “temporary” street closure. Such closures should require reauthorization every two years. The method of the initial petition and the reauthorization should follow a similar process to that presented by the city’s Cultural Resources Office and Preservation Review Board. Evidence should be considered, opinions heard and an informed decision, one that addresses resident concerns, but also considers the value and function of city streets, made.

It’s simply not the case that a closed street only affects those living on that particular street. Traffic patterns are disrupted, the historic city altered, the aesthetic streetscape lessened. It should be unconscionable that a street that belongs to and is paid for by all city residents can be closed at the request of a few and without review.

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  • The problem with proposal is that it forces the retention of closures to expend effort, instead of the removal. As we know, governments do NOT expend effort unless mandated. So the direct result of this will be the forced removal of all closures, instead of the ones where a _STUDY_ shows that it would be beneficial. You’ve traded one set of mandated actions for another… but in neither case was there proper study to determine what should be done.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You are partially correct. This proposal purposefully shifts the burden to those who seek to close city streets, which I think is the unnatural and disruptive action. The result would not be the forced removal of all closures. In fact, I’d anticipate that many, probably most, would be retained. What it does do is ask that closures labeled “temporary” by legislation are re-examined and that closing city streets doesn’t become the default – that residents and the city must justify, or at least affirm, a street closure. In some cases, streets have been closed at the request of half a dozen loud residents. That closure should not carry the weight of permanence 20 years later.

      • onecity

        Require the surrounding streets that would also be reasonably impacted to approve the barriers, in addition to the street requesting the closure. It’s a harder sell if you have to say “close my street so I don’t have this traffic…..but you’re going to get more traffic.” An end to the stupid that every single one of these pieces of concrete embodies.

  • guest

    I have a very simple POTLUCK PAC submission: Lower the maximum speed limit on all interior neighborhood streets within the city of St. Louis from 25 mph to 18 mph.

    Since in virtually all cases in the city, no one is ever more than two blocks from an arterial street, this change would inconvenience no one and raise the quality of life by slowing traffic on neighborhood streets and reduce noise from motor vehicles.

  • Larry

    dont conflate this “1980s nancy reagan war on drugs street blocking nonsense” with some populist thing against the private streets. the city should be grateful for private places:

    1. they reduce city maintenance expenses as the streets use dues to pay for upkeep

    2. they have the highest property taxes of any lots in the city

    3. most of the residents of the private places are staunch supporters of the city, both in their work lives, socially and philanthropically.

    4. the housing stock on the private places is constantly being improved and updated, which pushes up comps and property values on adjacent streets

  • samizdat

    Bollards AND Jersey barriers…Now I can die happy, for I have seen everything under the sun.

    So, Neighborhood Nitwits and “alderman” Roddy, here’s what we’re gonna do:

    See those two center bollards, we’ll move them a few inches or so apiece toward the curb, and thus create juuuuust enough space for a car (and STLFD and delivery trucks) to fit through, then we’ll take two of the remaining bollards and move them to mid-block somewhere, and locate them at the same distance from the curb as the two at the entrance to the street. The firth bollard we can take to another block, and use it to ‘seed’ that block for other bollards, used in the same manner.

    The Jersey barriers? Howsaboot we line you up, and DROP THEM ON YOUR FOOL HEADS!

    Say, Joe, by way of being on the subject of you, when are the mountains of debris at the Pevely site going to get carted away? I know what, let’s give them a name. Roddy’s Piles sounds nice. Or better yet, one pile can be called Roddy’s Piles, and the other SLU’s Shame. Piles, get it, ‘cos your hemorrhoids are an eyesore. And you know, hide your shame, you dig?

    I kid, Joey-baby, I kid…

  • onecity

    I love it! One way to raise the bar is to require a majority of households on the street making the request as well as those surrounding streets that would reasonably be impacted, to officially support it via some sort of legally verifiable petition. It would require a true majority, meaning if ten people are complaining, and there are 180 households affected, and only 60 of the households canvassed support it, no barricade. That’s how to do it. True democracy.

  • Presbyterian

    Every time a street closes, I want to show up at midnight and drag fifteen beaten-up Big Wheels, rusted tricycles, a 1980s boombox and several push cars of various colors into the street by the dead end, then set up a kiddie pool and basketball hoop and invite all the kids from the surrounding area to come hang out in this new public space. Maybe show up with free hot dogs.

    The barricade would disappear within a week.

    • guest

      No, you would probably be arrested.

      • Presbyterian

        Standard cul-de-sac lifestyle. We’re not talking about private streets. And there’s no right of way to be blocked. Children and cul-de-sacs make a fantastic combination. We should encourage it!

  • Don

    It’s a great idea Alex. There has been real rhyme or reason to street closures in the City for nearly 30 years now. Unfortunately, I’m traveling on 9/15 and can’t attend the Potluck. I hope many here do attend and support your bid.

    I’ve had friends stunned to learn their own street was closed because a couple neighbors approach the alderman and ask for the closure claiming without any authority, to be speaking for all.

  • rgbose

    Video from A Better Brainerd (Strong Towns) on the street grid. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vaeaR1fZ4G8

    • kuan

      Strong Towns is some great stuff.

  • jhoff1257

    Yes. Reopen them all. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself driving around punching my steering wheel and cursing the Streets Department because I’m constantly looping and turning around just to go one block over. If people want a private cul-de-sac there are plenty of places that offer them. The urban city shouldn’t. In the West End I’ve noticed a few blockages that not only close off the street, but have giant boulders on the sidewalks to prevent people from driving around the barricade. What about people?

    The only barricaded streets should be the historic Private Places, as they were originally intended. The rest should be open. At the very least, as Herbie said, to cyclists.

    • dempster holland

      All of the arguments made in favor of opening up the closed
      streets apply equally to the private places. Why should they
      be allowed to close off traffic when no on else can?

      • jhoff1257

        How is Eads Avenue or Herbert Street the same as Washington Terrace or Kingsbury Place?

        First, the definition of a private place from Wikipedia: “A private place is a self-governing enclave whose common areas (e.g. streets) are owned by the residents, and whose services are provided by the private sector.”

        The City of St. Louis does not maintain streets and common areas within the private places. The City of St. Louis does, however, maintain these 260+ other closed streets with taxpayer money. Hacking up the street grid does not afford “private place” status to these cul-de-sacs that are created in dense urban neighborhoods. On top of that, the private places are historically significant and many of them are on the National Register, therefore they can’t be altered.

        • guest

          So there!

  • If nothing else, every barricaded street should be designed to allow passage by bicycle without the need to use adjacent sidewalks.

    • guest

      And maybe published maps of the city should be required to show where roads are blocked. Makes it tough on the cartographers, but it’s important information for users of maps to have.

      This post is making me wonder, what ideas might I have for a Potluck PAC submission. Hmmmm.

      How about creating a fund to remediate LRA properties for reuse, including the excavation of buried rubble from previously demolished buildings?

      • Don

        Remediation and revitalization of LRA properties is an important issue.

        Is there anyone in the City who actively seeks out grant money for such projects?

        I’m surprised there are not more neighborhood gardens on these lots.

        • guest

          On a large scale, I would say “no”. The recent Land Lab competition addressed reuse of vacant lots, albeit on a very small scale ($5,000 grants, one parcel at a time). Millions of dollars are needed to do this on a larger scale.

  • guest

    Interesting post, and here are just a few thoughts in reply.

    First – what about in STL County? Are street closures common there? U City has some gated off streets, but what about other parts of the county?

    Second – very interesting point about how a few neighbors should not dictate the configuration of their own block when all taxpayers pay for it. Fair enough.

    However, if you think about it, say you’re the alderman for a ward, or say the manager of the entire Street Department, what tools do you have to “fix” or calm traffic concerns on local streets (or say if you’re a cop trying to manage the flow of drug dealers on the streets)? Not many. So when you’re gun has few bullets, and one of the only ones is to close a street, what else can you do?

    Third – the post suggests that their may be a silent majority opposing street closures, when in fact, the opposite might indeed be the case – a silent majority favoring them. Case in point. Skinker DeBaliviere has many closed/redirected streets that drive planners nuts. However, they are very popular with local residents. Put to a vote, it’s likely the barriers would remain. So here’s the question, how wide an area should have a say in such matters? The “St. Louis Model” (if you can call it that), places authority mainly with an alderman and follows aldermanic courtesy.

    Say a neighborhood/block works to close a street, and gains aldermanic support to pass such an ordinance. Under aldermanic courtesy, the bill passes into law. Then say there’s an uproar about it (unlikely if an alderman did his/her homework first, gaining neighborhood input on the decision in advance). If there’s an uproar, under our aldermanic system, an alderman could be voted out of office over such a move. Sort of like members of the City Council out in Ellisville being voted out over their support for Walmart.

    Put another way, *everything* in St. Louis is politics – especially in the city.

    • Don

      I agree that many of the street closures are popular with the people on the closed street. Maybe not as popular with the folks living on the next street that now receives additional traffic. I live off Taylor that carries an inordinate amount of north/south traffic because Newstead is closed at Olive and Euclid has so much commercial activity that it’s avoided in favor of Taylor. I’d like to See Newstead opened up, but I am very confident those living inside the Newstead/Westminster/McPherson enclave created by that closure (and the east/west closures of all those streets) would rise up in furious opposition to any attempt to open that neighborhood up again to through traffic. They have effectively created a subdivision inside the CWE that can only be accessed by Newstead at Lindell.

      As I read the proposal, those closures that are popular in that neighborhood would very likely survive the review process and remain closed.

      But what’s wrong with a review?

  • Marshall Howell

    I agree with this one, it is a pain living in the grove and having to remember which way I can drive around. Also the fact there are barricaded roads and pointless stop signs at the same intersection.