17th Street and the Stupid Process That Gives Away Our Streets

17th Street_downtown STL

This morning 1/28 of the people elected to comprise the legislative body in the City of St. Louis will take another step toward giving away something that belongs to all city residents. In fact, the street belongs to more than just the residents of the city, who act simply as caretakers of a public good.

A city block, roughly 180 feet of 17th Street is set to be given away. Why? This is partly conjecture on our part, but here’s how it goes: the building owner says to the alderman, “Hey, I want to close this street, please give to me what is the property of all city residents.” The alderman says, “OK, no problem.” We have our doubts that the alderman even asked why, but in case she did, the building owner’s answer was, “Because I don’t think people renting apartments in my building want to cross a street. Also, they have dogs.” The alderman files a bill, the other 27 aldermen either vote for it or ignore it, and it’s done.

17th-Street-Closure-1024x47617th Street_downtown STL aerial{17th Street to be given away shown in blue}

The street, a public asset just as much as a city park, is simply given away, for free, forever. It’s worth noting that the sale or even lease of public park land requires a public referendum. Even prior to the relatively new referendum requirement, it’s a bit difficult to imagine the city giving a corner of Benton Park to a developer. Why do we do this with our streets?

The giveaway of this public asset, of 17th Street, is most easily described as the action of one person. However, all 28 aldermen will be able to vote on the measure. They’ll vote yes because of something called Aldermanic Courtesy. This is basically each alderman letting all other aldermen do what they wish within their own ward, and receiving the same “courtesy” in return. This generation may know the process best as ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ” is cute, and can be funny, but it’s a stupid way to manage a city. Let’s call “courtesy” what is it: negligence, an abdication of responsibility, a stupid way to manage a city.

Still, this process isn’t simply the fault of the alderman. There’s a reason residents weren’t consulted, that no public meeting took place, that the Downtown Neighborhood Association wasn’t asked its opinion. Alderwoman Marlene Davis needs none of these people to be elected.

Davis was first elected to represent the city’s 19th Ward in 2007. She ran unopposed in the Democratic primary, the de facto general election, getting 557 votes on 11% turnout. She won the general election with 294 votes, winning 98.99% of votes cast. In 2009, Davis received 575 votes in the primary (11.2% turnout), and 654 in the general (97.90%). In 2013, Davis exceed those numbers, with 955 votes and 100% in the primary, and 441 (98.22%) in the general election. 19th Ward voters are like ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

This is the person who made the sole decision to give away a city street forever based on nothing more than ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Davis may not even be particularly ill suited to make this decision, at least not less ill suited than her fellow aldermen.

Why does an alderman decide which street the city paves next? Why does an alderman decide where stop signs go? Why does an alderman decide when a project receives tax abatement? Why does an alderman decide to give away a city street? In effect, this is how the city is managed. It’s stupid.

17th Street_19th Ward - City of St Louis

The closure would create a 650ft long block in downtown St. Louis, further disrupting the street grid and lessening access for drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, everyone. Street closures concentrate traffic on fewer and fewer streets, and increase traffic by forcing drivers to circle around and take longer routes.

Downtown St. Louis should be focused on returning its retail-deadening one-way streets to two-way. The city should introduce a form-based code and focus on the presentation of the public right-of-way at downtown corners. The current process, which may at a glance appear developer-friendly, creates a place fewer people will want to visit and invest.

If this all sounds a bit fatalistic, well, we’ve seen these fights come and go. It’s not a done deal per se. The Downtown Neighborhood Association is gathering signatures, 236 at last count, as well as at least eight letters against the closure. And neighbors apparently learned of Board Bill 64 giving away the street just a couple weeks ago.

Kudos got to KMOV-TV for covering this giveaway. That story can be viewed here. Davis has refused to comment on the story. So what can you do? You can contact 19th Ward Alderwoman Marlene Davis and other Aldermen (assuming the city’s website is up and running again). Advocate for decisions like these to be taken out of the hands of the city’s individual aldermen. Reward your alderman with your vote for rejecting Aldermanic Courtesy and taking on the responsibility of having a larger vision for our city. That’s about it, oh, and vote, even run for office, when Davis is up for election again next year. It would likely take less than 1,000 votes to make a change.

You can also reach out to City of St. Louis alderman on Twitter (links to those with accounts):

Ward 01 Sharon Tyus
Ward 02 Dionne Flowers
Ward 03 Freeman M. Bosley Sr.
Ward 04 Samuel L Moore
Ward 05 Tammika Hubbard
Ward 06 Christine Ingrassia
Ward 07 Jack Coatar
Ward 08 Stephen Conway
Ward 09 Kenneth Ortmann
Ward 10 Joseph Vollmer
Ward 11 Thomas Albert Villa
Ward 12 Larry Arnowitz
Ward 13 Beth Murphy
Ward 14 Carol Howard
Ward 15 Megan E. Green
Ward 16 Donna Baringer
Ward 17 Joseph D. Roddy
Ward 18 Terry Kennedy
Ward 19 Marlene E Davis
Ward 20 Cara Spencer
Ward 21 Antonio D French
Ward 22 Jeffrey L Boyd
Ward 23 Joseph Vaccaro
Ward 24 Scott Ogilvie
Ward 25 Shane Cohn
Ward 26 Frank Williamson
Ward 27 Chris Carter
Ward 28 Lyda Krewson
President Lewis E Reed