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

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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

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  • Mike Toscano

    Keep up the good reporting. I live in unincorporated St Louis County. Always interesting stories.

  • Jeff Leonard

    I’m very late to this conversation, but I want to offer up a video (link at bottom) that shows how another Midwestern city decided to use a vacant, small strip of underutilized street, exactly like 17th street in STL, and actually have some fun with it, making it into a paved downtown “park”. And if you think this is just a one and done, it’s not. In fact, there’s a grassroots group called PlaceMakes that’s activating this and other streets in Columbus (https://placemakes.org/category/columbus/). Just saying.

    https://www.facebook.com/resource/videos/10153731173227104/?video_source=pages_finch_main_video

    • Adam

      A paved public park is not the same as a private, fenced, dog park. The former would still allow pedestrian access from St. Charles to Washington. The latter would not. The developer is asking for the latter, not the former.

      • Jeff Leonard

        Thanks Adam. I get that. All I’m saying is that “underutilized” public space, like a street, doesn’t have to be sold and removed to regain utility. The developer can buy a parcel of land and build. The developer can’t buy a street, unless the city allows it.

        • Adam

          Gotcha. In this particular case I really think that if there were more people living adjacent to 17th it would be well utilized. As streets go it’s actually a pretty pleasant little stretch already. It just needs a coffee shop or something to activate it.

  • Pat Clayton

    I always find Alex funny. He lives in the county, never was elected to office, held a job in planning, real estate etc and now doesn’t even work. Yet is critical of everyone who does. Steve Patterson is a blow hard but at least he actually worked in real estate.

    • Chicagoan

      What’s wrong with Alex’s point? Criticism is vital to the planning and real estate processes and you don’t have to be a current or former public official, planning employee, or real estate employee to level it. I think that this is a well-penned article, good job Alex.

      • Pat Clayton

        For starters 17th street isn’t his street. He lives in one of the 100+ municipalities of the more dysfunctional St. Louis County. If he is soooo passionate about the city he should move into it. Alex isn’t eligible to vote for Marlene Davis or any of the 28 Aldermen.
        Secondly, if his opinion is so valuable how come no one is paying him for it. He hasn’t worked in government, real estate development, urban planning, banking, real estate sales, or even as a critic of a real media company–nothing. The closest thing he’s ever done was market Architectural services for a year and he lost that job. He’d have much more credibility if he had any real world experience.
        It’s easy to write for a blog arguing for “urban planning perfection” when you have never taken out a construction loan, made a payroll, leased an apartment or commercial space, made mortgage payment on an empty building, paid for construction drawings that weren’t used, shut down a multimillion dollar construction project with all the jobs and work it brings, made a non performing loan, went personally bankrupt.
        Most people who have done any of those things aren’t on hear complaining because they know it’s far more complicated than unemployed Alex who is either afraid or unable to live in the real world.

        • pat clayton

          One last thing–regarding getting paid for the street. This is a silly request. First any revenue the city would get for the street sale would be rolled into the cost of the project. More than likely it would be covered with additional incentives. The public would be paying itself for the street. Second the streets aren’t worth much usually because you can’t build on them because of utility easements.

          • Adam

            More reason to neither give nor sell the street to the developer.

    • onecity

      Alex actually understands what is wrong with the city, so none of that is relevant.

    • Alex Ihnen

      Hi Pat – thanks for the comment. I definitely understand what you’re saying. I’m a commenter, not a professional. My opinion is worth, well, whatever people think it’s worth. I lived in St. Louis City for about 5 years and have now been in University City for about 5. I write about U-City sometimes, but also about other municipalities. I don’t think that seems crazy.

      I’m not a very funny person, I do live in the county, I’ve never been elected to office, nor held a job in planning, real estate, etc. I do work, but perhaps that’s another matter. I’d love to work more directly in a planning-related capacity and may do so in the future, but we’ll see.

      I went to college to study journalism, and so I write. That’s always been a component of the various jobs I’ve had, OK, not Dairy Queen, but that was way back. I then studied public policy, got into fundraising… but that’s boring. I no longer work at Space Architects, but that’s OK.

      Anyway, I deleted your comment below because not only was it rather personal, it was anonymous and personal. This site, and my writing, has never been personal, but rather about processes, policy, politics, etc. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but I’m also not going to provide a forum for someone to anonymously trash me either.

      Sometimes it’s not easy receiving criticism, and I’m aware that by running a website and sharing my thoughts and ideas, some will come my way. It’s not fun, but I’d rather be engaged in the discussion and contribute whatever it is I can to making St. Louis better, however unqualified I may be.

  • Phil Sutin

    Looking at Google maps and at the 17th Street vacation site plan, I see that 17th Street between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive and Locust Street has little use as a street. 17th is disjoined and none of the buildings along it provide access directly to it. Vacating 17th makes sense, but I agree with the author and most commenters that the public should receive something in return for the closure, such as pedestrian and bicycle access along a landscaped path and a public dog park. I also agree that the public should have received notice about the vacation and an opportunity to comment.

  • Don

    So it is easier to give away a street than it is to get a liquor license? You’re never going to change aldermanic courtesy. There needs to be a process in place that requires approval from ward residents.

    As for opposition from within the Ward, get someone to run against her. Sounds like it wouldn’t be hard to take her out.

  • Vacations (as these are called) need to be very carefully considered and not be rubber stamped. Generally I think they are not a great idea, but if done need to be coupled with a significant tax increase to the property which received the added land.

  • Wayne Burkett

    If you want to see Aldermanic Courtesy at work, have a look at this video:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfgJ2HDhr8o

    In the first minute, someone says, “Well, it’s in your ward, isn’t it?” in response to a proposed four-way stop. That’s not a huge project, but it does demonstrate the attitude.

    Later, a proposal to further close a portion of Wise Ave in Kings Oak — a neighborhood that’s already been ripped apart by these types of closures — devolves into a “Where did you go to high school?” discussion. Seriously.

    None of the bills proposed are debated in any significant way. You just read your bill and everyone votes “aye.”

    • onecity

      Why does this place tolerate aldermanic courtesy? What a damn joke. And six aldermen is a quorum?

  • John Pav

    Alex, you are the Ernesto “Che” Guevara of St. Louis with a smitten of Superman sprinkled on you. Justice for all. Well, good luck with that…I am guessing your victories will be more internal than external as you fight the fine fight of the faith.

    – @toastdispatch

  • RJ

    I can see both points of view on this issue but my big complaint is what does the city and its residents get for this giveaway? A doggie park, sorry that’s not enough. I think the city should negotiate and at least get something much more in return. As I recall the developer was going to build a new 20-story residential tower on the parking lot and wanted to connect the two buildings with a green plaza, the doggie park and eliminate street traffic. I would assume part of this new development would have included a garage for additional parking for all the residents in the area. Now I’m reading a potential retail tenant for the first floor on the new tower backed out, so the developer will not build the new building. Ok, no new mixed-use building no free street. I can see Alex’s point about a street grid being completely messed up in downtown but then again in Europe many of their small streets and alleys have been converted to pedestrian and bike friendly passageways with shops and cafes. There should definitely be public input on this issue, no elected official, especially with so few votes, should be allowed to do whatever they want without a voice from the public.

    • Adam

      The city and residents wouldn’t even get the dog park. Developer states it would be a private dog park for tenants.

    • Adam

      A bike and pedestrian passageway might actually make the proposal easier to stomach, but that’s not what the developer’s proposing. They want it private.

  • At a minimum, the City should be compensated for the value of the land, not just give it away for free.

    • Justin

      I completely agree. Why wouldn’t they charge? Its not like the city has tons of money.

  • R

    Tell me the last time you’ve driven on that street?

    I lived right there for over a year and people barely used that section. Anything we can do to better downtown and make it a more desirable place to live is in the benefit of all of the population.

    So yes giving away a little used street to benefit the greater good is acceptable.

    • Alex Ihnen

      “Anything we can do to better downtown and make it a more desirable place to live is in the benefit of all of the population.”

      On this we can agree. Giving away a public asset, closing a street, does not accomplish this, no matter what the person trying to make a lot of money on a development says.

    • Adam

      First, there are types of traffic other than automobile.

      Second, if people actually lived adjacent to 17th more people would use it.
      If only there were more residential adjacent to 17th…

      Third, you can’t have street-front retail without street-front.

      Oh, and developer just said in the PD that the second tower is a no-go because the tenant they were courting bailed out, but they still want the street closed.

      No f*cking way.

    • Tim E

      Because it is owned by the residents of St. Louis not the alderperson and what little process it took to give it away. Much different then say a lot owned by the developer who wants to change the zoning. TAs Alex noted, a process was put in when it came to parkland where as nothing for a city asset just as vital to its functioning as a park itself.

      As far as greater good, beg to different and have to agree with Alex and most of the posters. The developer bought the building because its sees an opportunity with or without the street or even assuming he couldn’t have the street. The big downsize of course is the convenient bait and switch of further development.

      By the way, love how everyone uses their name on these posts and you pick a letter so your post can conveniently mistaken for RJ.

    • Wayne Burkett

      “Tell me the last time you’ve driven on that street?”

      I use it (and every other street in the vicinity). I only recently moved Downtown, but you can have a look at my bike usage of this area here (via Strava):

      https://imgur.com/15WiQZK

      • ChrisO

        The point isn’t when I last used a street. It is what blocking off streets does to the grid. It eliminates it! You cannot have a viable downtown without a grid with two-way streets. End of story.

    • Roobah

      I walk down that street all the time. It is a direct connection between the bus routes on the Washington to locations south of there (97 and 94 route). Further, since I don’t own a car, I walk to my voting location Carr Community Square, and this area on Washington has a limited walk path, so I walk down this street to get home. It’s not just those that drive, what about those of us who walk in that area? This shouldn’t be happening.

    • ChrisO

      I’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, but I don’t think that means we should give it for free to some developer. But I like your thinking, R!

  • Imran
    • Burn Down The House

      She won’t give a shit. Her and Tamika Hubbard are useless. But wait we have Lewis Reed to save the…nope, just as useless.

      • ChrisO

        This is why we must get a progressive mayor in office. I don’t see a single one running.

  • Jake Banton

    Since the city website is still down (and who knows when it’ll be back up) does anybody have a list of alderman emails?