Driving By South Grand: New Buildings Miss the Mark

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.