Laughing at the Slay Balls

New traffic calming infrastructure arrived in Tower Grove East ahead of Christmas, but for many residents the sets of spherical concrete bollards at intersections are proverbial lumps of coal. The bollards – nicknamed for the last mayor as “Slay balls” – have been in use for over a decade in the city to close off or narrow streets, but their aggressive placement in the road lanes at six intersections along Compton Avenue has upset many motorists.

First, we have to take the locals with a grain of salt. St. Louisans love to grumble about change, like most people. The Tower Grove East Slay ball uproar comes amid gripes about the Loop Trolley, which deserves critique but is about the same kind of circulator that Kansas City just opened – and celebrated (and built at twice our price). Naysaying also has sunk many good ideas, such as removing Interstate 70 from downtown to better connect the riverfront. Online hit-and-run platforms elevate grievance to a form of political protest, when it usually is a psychic reaction.

Second, there is the issue of scale. The Compton Avenue project represents the result of allowing infrastructure decisions to be consigned to a libertarian municipalism, where the services and infrastructure are determined at a ward or neighborhood level. Some areas close streets, some don’t have alley recycling, some have better parks. This fragmentation treats the city as a set of unitary groupings rather than a whole system.

In the 6th ward, where the bollards are now in place, Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia uses participatory budgeting as a form of popular input to determine how to spend money that City Hall still allows to be directed on the granular level of the ward. Ingrassia started a process in 2015 where a majority of residents who participated elected to place Slay balls up and down the street. Less ugly options, such as building out new curbs, exceeded available funds. So the residents were stuck with a Hobson’s choice, because of the city’s lack of systematic street planning.

Of course, the city street system is nor the product of planning. The street pattern, with its quirks and deviations, comes from a system that was fully privatized until 1867 – developers laid out streets and then donated them to the city for maintenance. After 1867, the city shared the cost, but still allowed developers to determine where streets would be laid, and how wide they would be. Sometimes, paths across the city were congruent, and other times they were pretty inscrutable. Compton Avenue happens to be one of the most rational lines, and a key route across south city.

Compton Avenue also would have less stress were there more north-south routes into the central corridor, but the city never developed many. Thence motorists place moderately heavy traffic on what routes are available. Again, the lack of central planning means that many people bought houses on Compton hoping for a peaceful residential setting, but the systematic nature of city streets means that they have no control over who drives down their street and in what vehicle (perhaps something that could be addressed by ordinance, insofar as commercial trucks are concerned). The city’s demolition of Spring Avenue west of Grand Avenue in the 1990s led to Compton being the only south alleviator for Grand Avenue. The Shaw neighborhood’s closures cut off Tower Grove Avenue as an option for drivers too, and happened because the city let the neighborhood decide to close the streets in the 1980s.

Closures are behavioral obstacles, but Slay balls are just behavioral switches, trying to control driver behavior. They may work after awhile, but without real consideration of the street system that produced traffic density south of the central corridor along Grand Avenue, people don’t exactly have options if Grand Avenue is congested.

Eventually, the United States discarded the weak system of the Articles of Confederation for a robust federal Constitution (an imperfect document, used here for analogy only). Holding one’s breath for St. Louis adopting a charter that would discard our feudal charter is a waste of time, and for now, we’ll get Slay balls on Compton, closed streets in Shaw, speed bumps in Gravois Park and stroads all along the way.

But perhaps we can turn lemons into lemonade, and neither complain about the balls or the system that produces them. Do Slay balls have to be boring? What about holding the nation’s first concrete bollard art biennial, inviting artists from all over the world to decorate them? Or making some in different shapes, even in honor of local historic and political figures? Parkour competitions or secret compartments inside with maps to neighborhood historic sites? LED projections of video art? There could be a contest for the coolest recycling project for the balls, when someday a more systemic solution is found, and the city’s streets are devoid of the bollards, culvert pipes, and fences that currently make them seem like a militarized zone. We don’t have to despair in the meantime – we can just dance on the contradictions until they start to budge.

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  • Luftmentsch

    The common people “gripe” and “grumble,” while astute urbanists “critique.” Thank you for the explanation. Apologies that I must gripe and grumble at being so basely mischaracterized.

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  • Framer

    Let me be the first to say that if we have to have the balls, please let’s just leave them natural looking. I’m really not a fan of the “painted utility box” trend; I think the results are usually pretty ugly.

    This article sums up my feelings pretty well:

  • I do agree that they could be more decorative, like the Fleur-dis-lis would have been nice… maybe let artists decorate them like they do the fire hydrants and make them unique to each neighborhood.

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  • HamTech87

    If motorists can’t avoid running into these balls, then they should not be behind the wheel. Those immovable objects are far easier to avoid than a child riding a bicycle or walking.

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  • Ann

    Some facts about the KC Streetcar, because it isn’t really ‘the same kind of circulator’ we get in the Loop Trolley & I think that is important to note. While the distance might be similar, main points of difference include:
    1. Neighborhood connections: KC connects the River Market, to Downtown, to Power & Light, the Crossroads Arts Distrixt, KC Convention Center & Union Station (where you can catch the Amtrak). The Loop trolley connects UCity to the Grove & Forest Park (replicating existing Metrolink service).
    2. Fare: the KC streetcar is free to ride. The Loop Trolley will cost money, that isn’t tied into our Meteo fare system.
    3. Smart City Elements: the KC streetcar includes many new smart elements including to smart streetlights that can dim when no one is at a stop, trash can sensors that can indicate they need to be changed when filled, free public WiFi on the line & within the perimeter neighborhoods, and smart kiosks that offer real time transit information, local specials and attractions, and maps for route planning.
    4. And finally – what I am not sure about in STL because we haven’t seen it open yet is ridership & economic development. 5,400 riders daily in KC, spuring 1.8 billion investment in streetcar neighborhoods.

    And since the project inception there have been continual discussions about expansion.

    • Nick

      I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say the KC trolley is the cause of all the investment in the neighborhoods it runs through.

      • jhoff1257

        I’ve lived in KC for 10 years and am one of the petitioners to expand it to the Plaza. It may not be responsible for “all” the investment, but it has been a significant factor. At least according to the developers that cite it as the reason they’re building. And so far it only runs through one neighborhood. Ann pointed out the little districts it runs though, but it’s all Downtown Kansas City.

        • Nick

          I’m not saying the trolley has 0 impact on development decisions, but it is a much less significant factor than you think. The primary reason for all the development in KC (and the US in general) is the hot economy. Virtually all of that level of development would’ve happened if the trolley never existed. The trolley might change the locations of where developers choose to invest, but that’s about it.

          • jhoff1257

            Disagree. But whatever you say, bud.

          • Nick

            K. One of these days I’ll get a non-flippant response out of you, I just know it!

          • Don

            or you could stop feeding the trolls.

          • jhoff1257

            Hmm, I wasn’t aware I was a troll. I replied the way I did because I’m not interested in having a long back and forth that accomplishes nothing which seems to be the standard on this site now.

            I’ve lived in KC for 10 years, I worked in the City Manager’s Office during the planning and construction of not only the streetcar, but dozens of other Downtown developments. I know a few of the streetcar agencies board members and still maintain relationships with some of the city officials I used to work with. He’s not going to get me to change my mind based on my experience with KC and it’s streetcar and after having a look at any other thread on this site, I know I’m not going to change his mind. So why argue about it?

          • STLrainbow

            While it’s something that really can’t be measured precisely it does seem clear the streetcar is a quality amenity that has helped induce more development downtown and helped it compete against the burbs. I wish we had our own modern Saint Louis Streetcar.

          • Nick

            This is basically what I was trying to say only you put it more eloquently.

          • jhoff1257

            We have a modern light rail system that covers quite a bit more ground and serves tens of thousands of more people. I’d rather see us expanding that then chasing a streetcar.

          • STLrainbow

            I wish we had both… unfortunately Downtown West, Midtown and CWE are not served particularly well/conveniently by Metrolink and a free, modern streetcar running down the middle of Olive/Lindell and paid for mostly by increased property assessments along the route would be super awesome.

            At minimum, I think we need some kind of enhanced, more rapid transit down Olive/Lindell (much like Cleveland having the HealthLine BRT running down Euclid even though it has the heavy rail line as well.)

          • jhoff1257

            I do agree with you there. MetroLink should be the priority for expansion right now only because of the uncertainty surrounding federal funding, it would likely be very tough to get both projects off the ground in this climate (and Missouri probably isn’t going to do much to help either). But yes, I do agree that an Olive/Lindell streetcar (or even BRT) would be fantastic and serve areas like Grand Center and the core of the CWE quite a bit better then current MetroLink service. I question the free aspect though. Like I mentioned up top I wonder if as KC’s system continues to grow if tax receipts will continue to be enough to cover the operating expenses of a growing system. I actually think STL would have an easier shot at that. I don’t believe STL city has ever once voted down an increase for transit. If it was a citywide tax I could see collections being enough to subsidize a free line. But in KC the only way they can get these projects done is a TDD because Kansas City voters (the vast majority of which are suburban voters) refuse to pass a citywide transit tax. In fact this past election they passed a measure that BANS the City from working on any streetcar project without citywide approval. That pretty much stopped the most recent expansion in it’s tracks. Honestly for me personally, I’d use both even if they had a fare. Still cheaper then driving!

          • Nick

            A trolley line running from CWE through Midtown and maybe beyond certainly seems like it would succeed more so than the Loop trolley. I heard a few years ago there were some strong backers for a line downtown along Olive but that seems dormant.

    • Michael B

      Thanks for pointing out these differences. To point number 1: The Loop Trolley doesn’t connect to the Grove. It only goes as far east as the history museum, which is a long walk from the CWE and the Grove, or even anywhere else in Forest Park (like the Boat house, the Art Museum, Steinberg rink, the Jewel Box, the Zoo, the baseball fields, and more). Your main point is absolutely correct though: the trolley route simply duplicates what we already have in the Metrolink.

      • Ann

        My apologies. I meant the Loop – but I was typing quickly. Thank you for the correction.

    • jhoff1257

      I’ve lived in KC for the last 10 years and am eagerly awaiting streetcar expansion to the Plaza where I live. Couple things here:

      1. It’s only one neighborhood. Downtown Kansas City runs from the River all the way down to 31st Street. River Market, P&L, Crossroads, etc are just little nodes in a larger neighborhood.

      2. It is free, which is nice, but I’d be curious to see if that stays when it’s expanded. Eventually they’ll have to increase revenue as the system grows, maintenance, new cars, more stations, etc.

      3. I’m so sick of this Smart City BS. People talk about this all the time over here. It’s a smart street, that’s it. And that free WiFi is on the trains and around Main Street. There is no free WiFi system that covers the other areas of Downtown KC. It’ll be a Smart City when those of us that don’t live within a block of Main Street in a small section of downtown see those new technologies.

      4. Ridership won’t be much at all on the Loop Trolley if I had to guess. I think the whole thing was a complete waste of time and money. But it’s also not worth comparing future ridership to KC Streetcar. The streetcar is Kansas City’s only rail based mass transit…and it only runs for 2 miles (and those two miles are quite a bit denser then the Loop). MetroLink, which as you noted serves this immediate area sees around 40,000 or so daily riders.

      A conceptual study on the North/South MetroLink is due in by the Summer of this year and with a recent tax increase for transit city wide (something KC will most likely never accomplish…for all the good press about the streetcar, KC as a whole is still laughably regressive when it comes to mass transit) means the City portion of the N/S line will likely get done within the next 5-10 years. St. Louis County is expected to launch studies on 3 expansions in the County this year.

      • Bob Sacamento

        “‘m so sick of this Smart City BS” – then four sentences later, if you directly benefit then its great.

        I do however agree the smart city thing is BS. Oh, great, this trash bin has a light on it that says it is full. I would have never been able to figure that out, thanks smart city.

        • jhoff1257

          I think you may have misunderstood my comment. I’m sick of the Smart CITY stuff. City being the operative word here. The technology is great and would be very useful citywide. But right now it’s just a two mile section of one street, that benefits very few people. Nothing to run home about, but if they can find the money to expand it city wide, or at least to the parts of the city that really need it (East KC) then, yes I think it would be beneficial.

          • Bob Sacamento

            “right now it’s just a two mile section of one street” and “if they can find the money to expand it city wide”.

            I would bet that there is tax dollars from CID/TDD involved in this two mile stretch. If you (and the rest of the city residents) want to pay for it, they will “find” the money.

            I like tech too, I just don’t see the need to have “smart” garbage bins. IOT has a lot of problems to overcome. Local governments should have higher priorities than this, especially with violent crime rates being what they are.

          • jhoff1257

            It’s a lot more then smart garbage bins. Personally I have no plans to stay in KC permanently so I really couldn’t care less whether or not it gets expanded. All I was saying if they eventually find the ability to do it, it would benefit the city.

            As far as the violent crime comment, considering over 40% of KC’s budget goes to public safety, I’d argue they do much more in that arena then the smart garbage bins you’re all excited about. Cities can walk and chew gum at the same time.

          • Bob Sacamento

            Hmm… the KC Budget for FY 2017-2018 (Adopted March of 2017) seems to show public safety at 27% of the total budget, not over 40% as you say. Since I’m not for KC though, and you currently reside there, maybe you have some insider information I can’t seem to find in that budget.

            I’m not excited about garbage bins, just pointing out the kind of “garbage” that is purchased with tax dollars.

          • Adam

            Smart garbage bins actually *could* save money and increase collection efficiency if implemented widely (e.g. a route-planning algorithm calculates most efficient route for a given day) but we’re not there yet.

          • jhoff1257

            You are correct. I misplaced a stat I read about the Earnings Tax which primarily funds police and fire in KC and accounts for roughly 40% of the City’s General Fund. Still 27% for public safety is a hell of a lot more then what they’re spending on those fancy garbage cans.

          • Bob Sacamento

            Got it, 40% seemed a bit high, even for something as crucial as public safety, what with all the other infrastructure to maintain.

            As Adam points out below, this sort of thing *could* potentially save money if implemented City-wide along with dozens of other “smart” upgrades. I know around STL, this would happen on a ward to ward basis with priority set at aldermanic discretion, which is not going to equal efficiency.

            Which is my point. When things like this aren’t put into practice City-wide you end up with certain areas needing special attention more than others (special equipment, training, upkeep/maintenance). I think about the 9 different styles of parking meters we have here in St. Louis.

    • Bob Sacamento

      “free public WiFi” – someone is paying for this Ann. Who do you think it is?

      • jhoff1257

        Sprint is. It’s plastered all over the streetcar.

  • John

    I understand the purpose of the bollards, but these “Slay Balls” look like they could cause car damage and potentially be vandalized. If they are cost effective and work to calm city traffic, then I suppose they are worth it as an interim solution.

    • Adam

      Frankly, if you run into one of these you deserve the car damage. I’ve heard the same argument used against speed bumps but, similarly, if you insist on going 45 mph over a speed bump then you deserve the damage to your undercarriage. Regarding vandalism they’re no different than any other object that can be accessed by a vandal, e.g. fire hydrants, walls, cars, street lights, street signs, etc. etc. etc.

  • citylover

    I like them in this context. It could be a universal St. Louis curb-cut. Plus artists could paint them to establish place setting.

    It’s silly to use them for street closures though. Let the grid breathe

  • Michael B

    We’ve been living with the Slay balls in Forest Park Southeast for a long time, although they’re used to block off streets rather than control traffic. I would love to see them painted by local artists.

    • thomas h benton

      Shaw being Shaw again