The Greenwashing of Transit-Oriented Development in St. Louis

St. Louis and Mayor Slay’s office got some nice headlines and a little press today by announcing that the city’s Affordable Housing Commission would dedicate $1M annually to help fund projects near transit lines in the city. “It’s really all about access to opportunity,” the Post-Dispatch quotes the mayor as saying. No, in this case it’s all about greenwashing the city.

In January, the city released its 260-page “Sustainability Plan”. We Tweeted at the time, “Beware any reference to a 260-page encyclopedic kitchen sink sustainability plan.” Literally every current idea in the field of sustainability is in there. This allows the mayor’s office to say both, “we did that because it’s in the plan,” and “don’t worry, it’s in the plan.” It’s all in the plan. The plan took two years to produce. Several other plans are currently underway to explore transit-oriented development in St. Louis.

Then came “The Mayor’s Action Agenda: Sustainability Plan Items for City Implementation By 2018“. Recognizing that not everything in the plan could be tackled at once, the agenda listed 29 priorities across seven categories. These included such items as “Remediate and prepare at least 40 vacant properties for redevelopment”, “Increase bike racks by 150%”, and “Reduce crime by 25%.” But enough about the plan, this is about today’s odd play for publicity.

So what could possibly be wrong with dedicating $1M annually to help fund projects near transit lines in the city? The $1M is one-fourth of the existing Affordable Housing Commission budget. To qualify for funding, a “transit-oriented development” must be within one-half mile of a MetroLink station or one of any of the city’s 35 “high-frequency” bus lines. Still sounds OK – a dedicated fund for TOD? So what would this look like?

All, if not virtually all, of the city is located within one-half mile of train or bus line considered “frequent” by Metro. For Metro this means headways for a line are 30min or less for the majority of the time the line operates (many cities use a more reasonable 15min headway measure). This measure includes every bus line in the city. (For the record, Metro has a webpage with good boiler plate explanation of transit oriented development, showing they should know what it is and isn’t.)

STL City bus map

{virtually the entirety of St. Louis City is within one-half mile of a rail or bus line}

So the announcement today is that one-fourth of the existing Affordable Housing Commission budget will now be dedicated to projects located anywhere within 99% or more of the city. It would be a safe assumption that today 99% of the annual $4M budget is already spent within this 99% of the city. This is what greenwashing looks like. It’s not really about access to opportunity. It’s about a sustainability encyclopedia, a checklist of buzzwords and a couple of good headlines.

The mayor’s office appears to be playing the sustainable development equivalent of the prevent defense. This isn’t meant as a “take-down” or a rant, but after today’s non-announcement announcement it’s rather disheartening to see real opportunity being ignored and replaced with vacuous pledges. It doesn’t require a cynic to understand that nothing’s changed.

Want to make an impact? Want St. Louis to change more than a day’s headlines? Drop the political comfort blanket and provide focus and aspirational goals that will require hard choices and selection of priorities. “Remediate and prepare at least 40 vacant properties for redevelopment”? In a city with approximately 20,000 vacant parcels? How about remediate and prepare 400 vacant properties? “Increase bike racks by 150%” over five years?! How about 500%? Let’s decide to change St. Louis or not. “Reduce crime by 25%”. What kind? Where? Put a stake in the ground and aspire to reduce the number of people killed in the city each year by 25%. Whether specific goals are met or not, everyone wants to live in an aspirational city, a place where we aim high and believe in more than a modest incrementally nicer future.

Whatever you do, don’t greenwash the city. Don’t offer platitudes about transit-oriented development when the reality isn’t anywhere near the rhetoric. Want to invest in development near high-frequency transit? Dedicate $2M or more to development within 500 feet of a MetroLink station or a bus stop on any of the city’s five most traveled bus lines. For 20 years St. Louis has stared blankly, wondering why TOD doesn’t happen here. From this perspective the answer seems rather obvious.