The Greenwashing of Transit-Oriented Development in St. Louis

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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.

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  • Kuan Butts

    Are there any caveats with the one million dollar budget aside from the structures distance to a transit line? Design guidelines are just as important as proximity. If a structure does something to improve the streetscape and transit accessibility on lesser used lines, it might still have a positive, valuable impact on the transit experience, particularly if it is in the more central area of the city where the built urban fabric is more traditional and less residential than farther south or north.

  • guest

    I never heard the “headway” until reading this thread.

  • Adam

    Alex, you should submit a version of this as an op-ed piece to the Post Dispatch. Well said.

  • wump

    you want to use 15 min headways? metrolink doesnt even have 15 min headways, and ONE bus does. the grand bus. you want this money only to be used on grand ave?

    • guest

      The money will probably be used in the Skinker DeBaliviere, Delmar station area. Nothing wrong with that, especially since it’s a main focus of the city’s TOD planning. But it’s also an area already pretty saturated with good things happening.

      The other thing to understand is that $1,000,000 sounds like a lot of money, and gets media attention, but it’s not. It’s a drop in the bucket of building real estate developments.

      $1,000,000 would go a long way toward installing 500 new bike racks around the city, but for financing affordable housing, it will help a tiny handful of projects per year.

      • wump

        one million sounds like nothing. skink-d is already transit oriented, so I hope you are wrong.

        • guest

          “Guest” and “Wump” have a bet!

    • STLEnginerd

      Well first I think there should be more routes with 15 min headways, even if you have to eliminate some other routes. And metrolink, at least within the city (after Forest Park stop), should always have 15 minute headways.

      The real question is whether there will be any additional criteria that helps define something as TOD and thus qualifying it for the money, rather than just proximity to transit lines. TOD is all about density and transit dependence so if the money was solely dedicated to projects with low parking/resident ratios (say 0.5 or less?) then by definition it has to be TOD right? Additionally urban character, residents/lot size might be worthy measures. Defining these criteria might be beyond the mayor’s role but they should be defined or else the author will be proven right.

      Honestly why isn’t 100% of HUD money directed toward TOD. HUD’s mission is about affordable housing but really it should be about affordable living and many of their primary customers are going to be public transit dependent.

      • guest

        Minor detail, but this initiative isn’t about HUD funding. It’s the city’s own Affordable Housing Trust fund, which is a locally generated housing fund. Wouldn’t it be awesome if there was a regionally based housing trust fund? Maybe then places like Kirkwood and Chesterfield could start housing some of the region’s low income population as well!

    • dmmonty

      Not to nitpick, but for the route between Forest Park and Emerson Park, where the blue and red lines overlap, it does – during rush hours there’s a train every 6 minutes and at other times every 10 minutes. Metrolink’s not perfect, but let’s give it its due!

      • wumpus

        The blue line and the red line have 20 min headways the vast majority of the time

        • Alex Ihnen

          And so where the lines overlap (Forest Park Station to the near east side) the headways are 10min.

  • guest

    Interesting post, and as a casual observer, I was a bit curious about yesterday’s big hoopla. The best part of this post, though, is not on the “greenwashing” media campaign, but rather the need to be seriously aspirational in St. Louis. That’s a much tougher challenge.

    We are a city of scarce resources and legacy challenges. An aspirational project comes along, like Northside Regeneration, and the proponents get the equivalent of a public shaming. Ward politics make it difficult to do things at a larger scale. Big streets like Natural Bridge and Gravois go on year after year with little change or vision or consensus about what might be.

    In your final paragraph, you suggest some big ideas. 500% increase in bike racks. 400 vacant lots positioned for reuse. Both of these ideas would seem imminently doable. So what’s stopping us?

    And let’s not forget that roughly 85% of the region’s population doesn’t even live in St. Louis city, and that 2/3 of the city’s remaining population is low income. So to do these things, there’s a critical mass of a hundred thousand or so people in the city, plus any of those non-city residents willing to work outside of their home turf to advance a pro-urban agenda.

    It gets back to priorities. I like the fact that the mayor’s office has put the word out that TOD is a priority. It’s a start. But what about say Hyde Park? Or Marine Villa? What would be the aspirations there? If there was a list of the city’s top aspirations, akin to the top priorities of the city’s sustainability plan, would the money follow?

  • Marshall Howell

    Sucks that STL only has basically one Metro Link Track within the city. People that lived their whole lives in STL always mention about how great the street car system used to be here.