Driving By South Grand: New Buildings Miss the Mark

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Pelican Court, South Grand - St. Louis, MO

News of a renewed proposal for the site of the Pelican’s Restaurant and South Branch YMCA buildings at Grand and Shenandoah prompts a big-picture step back. In a city famous for its lack of comprehensive planning, we are forced to react to atomized gestures across blocks. Gestures up and down Grand today add up to confusion, and cement a drive-by culture.

First of all, Grand Avenue between Russell Boulevard and Arsenal Street will be rendering tribute to those intrusive street medians for years to come. Medians are a hallmark of parkways or freeways, not pedestrian-friendly business districts. Street narrowing to fit people comes at the edges, widening sidewalks and reducing the crossing distance. Street narrowing that removes center lanes through new medians accelerates traffic and obstructs visibility from one side of the street to another.

Couple the medians with the dead-ends, cul-de-sacs and barriers on the east-west streets of Shaw, and one has a stretch of Grand that never will feel like the one south of Arsenal Street. Lack of cross-traffic again only encourages faster driving and discourages the pedestrian.

Pelican Court, South Grand - St. Louis, MO

The fruit that dares to grow on the too-wide vine of this stretch of Grand can be bitter. Both the newest addition and proposed addition show that the status quo produces poor urban design.

The new Starbucks franchise at the northwest corner of Grand and Sidney Street took two steps back for one step forward. The dead Shell station on the site was bête noire of Tower grove East for years, but its demolition has only landed the neighborhood another opportunistic car-focused building.

Starbucks could have placed the store at the corner, which would have offered pedestrians some of the comfort of a street wall. The building could have encouraged walk-in business that would not have involved a Stygian journey across a drive-through lane. A corner building even may have offered the rest of the site for future infill, when the market could absorb more real estate capital.

Alas the Starbucks presents an obtuse suburban gesture – the store sits at the center of the site, protected from the sidewalks by space for automobiles. There even is a set back from the sidewalk itself. Somehow this proposal limped through the modest design review of the Cultural Resources Office and the Preservation Board required for a demolition permit. The powers of that process, however, could not impose restrictions on form and parking.

Now Starbucks will wink cheekily at august Tower Grove Park – a National Historic Landmark — across the parking lot of a dollar store and grocery. No one can doubt the utility of nationally-recognizable coffee, but few can deny the visual tragedy of bright corporate signage terminating views across a nationally-renowned Victorian park landscape.

South Grand Starbucks proposal - St. Louis, MO{South Grand Starbucks will be very similar to this stand alone building in University City}

To the north, there is a less obvious impending mistake. The Pelican Building would be rehabilitated, and a generically urban mixed-use building would be built where the historic YMCA building stands. This same plan prevailed at the Preservation Board before, in one of its iterations, so it is not news to anyone. The merits of the South Branch YMCA Building, contributing to a historic district, are debatable. The building dates to 1936 and was the only YMCA branch constructed during the Great Depression. Some developers have suggested that it would make a fine candidate for a historic tax credit rehabilitation, and its soaring interior spaces provide intriguing support.

However, a new building would activate the sidewalk with retailers. The YMCA building, with its setback lawn, springs from a reverence for the adjacent private streets. The new building grabs the energy of the new south side, where neighborhood revitalization is led by an increasing demand for retail and restaurants, and street life is a sign of success.

Yet the proposed new building barely matches the cadence of the south side’s revitalization. The tremendous parking lot is a thumbed-nose aimed at Compton Heights and Tower Grove Heights, from which pedestrian users presumably will be walking. The building seems to presume that people will be driving in a hurry looking for the closest spot to the door. St. Louis may not be Chicago, but we don’t have to set our urban imaginations even lower than those of the ancestors who built our amazing, moderately dense city. How much funding have we thrown at bike lanes, only to continue to give public incentives and approvals to over-parked projects that ignore alternatives to the automobile?

The building is timid, and seems transported from a make-urban lifestyle center from the suburbs. The red brick may seem a safe bet for historic standards governing the site, but it is a cliché cladding. The long form is designed for the drive-by view, not the pedestrian. Two proposed courtyards offer a pleasant relief, but the long mass summons the visual energy of a suitcase. Again, the “other” part of South Grand offers a different mode, in which the street walls are broken into visually distinct segments. Just because this project has one source of financing doesn’t mean that the building should look like the project spreadsheet.

This critic could go on and on about the demerits of the building’s details, or its pointless and strangely abstracted cornices, but I will stop. While the Starbucks has bad form, this building has weak details. Both matter for years to come, in ways that renderings don’t show. The fact that we are getting more new buildings than before is a reason to elevate our expectations, and discard the any-development-that-tries-to-be-urban cheerleading.

Somewhere I hear Nick Drake’s lyric, “someday our ocean will find its shore.” South Grand between Arsenal and Russell may be more a river of cars than an ocean, but its architectural shores are changing right now. Those changes could be worthy of the great human-scaled, historic residential streets behind them, or they can keep the sightlines of the river needlessly wide.

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  • samizdat

    The Drury Inn and nearly every development in Gumbo flats, er, um, I mean the Chesterweird–dammit, ChesterFIELD Valley called, and they want their cornice designs back. Who in their right mind thought that this puke cornice, nothing more than a structural skeleton of interior framing steel and slathered-on, plasticized stucco was attractive, much less appropriate for a structure built in the City? Between the village-idiot, neighborhood-approved Starbucks and this, we can see, as noted so eloquently by Mr. Allen, that the design and approval process in this backwater, podunk, parochial burgh is based not on minimal design standards but on the whims of developers, and the sheer blinkered ignorance of residents.

    At least they’re keeping the Pelican. Thank goodness for small favors.

    (ps: the last time I saw the old Pelican sign, it was sitting on its side, on the crushed stone aggregate, in the middle of the Lemp complex, just off of the Lemp entrance near the grain silos. This was about a decade or so back. Anyone else know of any other sightings?)

  • gmichaud

    The Starbucks is a step up from the gas station, but as you point out not quite there yet. The drive thru makes a compatible auto/pedestrian solution that much more difficult.
    As far the replacement for the Y, while I agree the quality is not high, at least the building has made some attempt to speak to the pedestrian, far more than most buildings. The building face is modulated, which is good, but as you mention, the cornice has none of the joy expressed in so many old St Louis buildings. The cornice does contribute some 3D texture and at least the eye is stopped and does not soar into space, at least it is better than nothing
    I’m not sure where you are saying where the parking lot is, it is hard to tell from the drawings. Is it along Grand?
    Other comments bring up questions of either historic or modern, and why Starbucks is willing to build urban in other cities? Truly city government has a long way to go, the lack of design consciousness among city officials is compounded by bowing to every wish of almost any developer that builds anything. This lack of concern about city design on the part of city officials has harmed St. Louis significantly.

  • DCWind

    Every time I drive by the YMCA building, I think that it would make a great spot for a new city grocer (insert type). Seeing the interior pictures and some of its larger spaces could lend it a very CWE Straubs-esque feel, albeit a bit larger (not sure on overall square footage). It would be fantastic to have a nicer type of grocer than the two mediocre schnucks and the lower-cost store(s) at the NE corner of the park. Something similar to a Fields Foods would help augment the current trend of differentiating from the larger Dierbergs/Schuncks stores. It would be a welcome addition to the area, and I would think/hope that it would succeed. Incorporating a new/modern entrance at the street, coupled with a public plaza (I know, a bit vague) to re-engage Grand and connect the Pelican (and it’s renovation/reuse) with the new grocer and you have a pedestrian/neighborhood friendly development that can support the necessity for the automobile, but not so dramatically cater to its overuse and dependence. In that vein, the site could be easily accessed by Shenandoah and Vanderburgh, which would take advantage of already existing streets, as well as keep the influx of cars to a minimum with parking at the rear of the site. Just my two cents on the site, and how both structures could be rehabilitated and reused, while still energizing the walkability of the area.

  • got talent

    I just toured the devastation of my old high school last night. Cleveland High School (the Castle) has been devastated by vandals, graffiti everywhere. For only being closed 9 years the tour left all of us sick and saddened due to the decay and vandalism. This was once S. Grand’s most treasured buildings. Community historians and preservationists and the St. Louis Public Schools should be called out on this immediately. A lot of talk talk but no one has cared for this building or maintained its dignity and the dignity of their alumni. You would never believe the devastation. Imagine the worst building you have ever seen on a war movie and triple that. Where the …. has all the lottery money gone. The Castle , even though closed, should have been somewhat preserved for sale at the very least. It will take millions probably billions to fix what was once the most beautiful school here. But apparently Francis Slay and everyone else would rather build a stadium for a non existant football team. That’s right, there will be no Rams any more. Get used to it, they are gone. Shame shame shame on the city of St. Louis and it’s mayor and g storical society. Do not speak of redevelopment on So. Grand. It’s all BS.I wish I knew how to upload the pictures from last night. It would disgust everyone but Francis Slay and his idiot cronies money grubbing assess should be made to explain why Grover Cleveland High School is war torn. Shameful and disgusting. I hate this city.

    • matimal

      You need to channel this outrage into constructive action…we all need to do the same.

    • rgbose

      Please share. You can drag and drop an image into your post here or upload a bunch to flickr and post a link here.

    • Alex Ihnen

      You can also contact me at alex at nextstl dot com and I may be able to help.

  • Erin

    Awww, The YMCA building is so beautiful! I see it as having great potential as a Breastfeeding Resource Center offering breastfeeding professional care, teaching for clients and health care workers, community engagement and advocacy; and eventually a human breastmilk bank also. We need such a place in St. Louis! It is so sad that the building has been let go to the elements for so many years. That seems to be the way it goes in STL with lots of buildings…sad.

  • Luftmentsch

    How do other cities manage to force Starbucks to be more urban? Why are we so ineffectual?

    • kjohnson04

      I’ curious about that as well. Plenty of other cities force retailers to conform or find somewhere else. Usually they conform.

    • Devin in South City

      I’m no expert, but I suspect it has to do with our fragmentation as a region…we’re afraid they’ll build in another municipality, so we don’t want to rist frightening them off with the demands of self-respect.

    • samizdat

      Because developers know that the City is their lapdog. So why should they develop site plans and structures which are more attuned to the centuries-old (well, millennia really) form of human habitation? The hoosierati who run this town, from board rooms to Room 200, can’t seem to get it into their thick skulls that the suburban form is merely a deviation, an anomaly, compared to nearly 8000 years of human habitation patterns. That’s why we have a Walgreen’s and a QT on nearly every corner in this provincial burg. It’s why we tore down the Century, and built a garage. It’s why we’re about to tear down an old industrial complex (within which are many structures of both architectural and historical note) on the Hill, to put up what is 99% certain to be suburban crap. (Like the rest of the suburban crap built in the vicinity of the Hill neighborhood: The Dagget area developments, and the developments off Sublette; pure tripe).

      There is a kind of pathetic desperation present in the decision-making process at City Hall and board rooms (both institutional and corporate) across the region, and most specifically the City. Rather than build for a better future, we build for a mediocre, banal present. What’s worse, these same mendacious fools blather on about “constituent needs” and hide behind the ignorance of those same constituents, rather than take the courageous route to inform and educate the public. Tropes about “what the market will bear” and “costs” are further used by those (many of them the developers themselves) who see the current arrangement as being quite to their liking, be they pols or in-bred upper-management types whose power and status depend on preserving this ignorance. Ignorance is no shame, unless those who are ignorant–or worse–those who cultivate ignorance, use their influence to enrich themselves, and always to the detriment of human society.

  • Presbyterian

    Great analysis, Michael. Personally, I wish St. Louis would either build Modern or build Historic… but just not the in-between Historish.

    Historish buildings are like your mom’s La-Z-Boy couch with the wood trim. Next to Hepplewhite and Corbusier, La-Z-Boy just looks cheap.

  • tbatts666

    I agree 100%.

    Some really good things are going on around south grand, but it is surrounded by auto-driven developments. This is important to me, I want my kids to live in a city scaled to them. I don’t want them to be surrounded by demeaning buildings scaled to automobiles.

    So other than complaining (or spreading awareness) what can we all do?

    • HolyFrijoles11


      • Adam

        i know it’s difficult to grasp but some people actually give a sh*t.

    • SnakePlissken

      Burn it down Plissken style.

  • Benjamin West

    And so what about this enormous vacant lot (or lots) practically catty-corner to this proposed development? Tear down the YCMA anyway, huh? https://goo.gl/maps/4Syn2

    • Presbyterian

      That empty lot across Grand is owned by SWBell, which puts it into the same category as the lot at the SW corner of Delmar and Skinker. I’ve been told that those lots next to their buildings cover major regional infrastructure (underground) and may never be sold. I hope otherwise, of course.