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The Future of City Development

March 23, 2008

(Sorry this is so long, but Blogger makes it difficult to truncate the text on the main page. Too much HTML for me to comprehend at midnight.)

The other day, I posed the following question to a coworker: If someone gave you $10 million to revitalize an area of St. Louis that would both be profitable to you and be of value to the city (i.e., anti-suburban sprawl), what would you do?

I’ve been thinking about that question since I asked it. What would I do? I need to revise the question, though–$10 million probably isn’t enough. Let’s go with $20 million. I don’t want the amount to be unlimited, but I think it needs to be higher than $10 million.

Before I go into my answer, I want to point out that a developer in St. Louis has already done this. Kind of. Check out New Town, St. Charles. This is the future of suburban sprawl, and I commend it for what it is. It’s an attempt to build a community. I admire that. You can walk everywhere in New Town—it’s impeccably planned with businesses, restaurants, and residences mixed in with each other.

There are a few problems, however. New Town looks and feels like that town from The Truman Show (in fact, there are cameras on the website that let you look all over New Town right now). It’s on the flood plain, meaning that it inevitably will flood. Plus, it’s really far away from “everything” else in St. Louis, meaning that if you want to go see the Cardinals, or go to your job at A.G. Edwards/Wachovia, you have to drive really far to get there. Thus, a town that promotes walking results in more driving.

Most of all, New Town is essentially built around the concept that people have given up on the city. Now, I’m not one of those people who think that people should live in the city simply for the sake of helping the city. That doesn’t mean anything. But the fact remains, particularly in St. Louis, that there are a lot of old building in the city that are built better than the cookie-cutter condos and townhouses of the suburbs. Those structures are going to waste. Developers have realized this, but the majority of them have turned those buildings into lofts. There is a huge oversaturation of lofts in downtown St. Louis—it’s as if there was absolutely no communication between fellow developers, and they’re all hurting now. The loft-buyers are hurting too.

This brings me back to the question: Given $20 million, what would I do to revitalize a small area of St. Louis city? What would be profitable and lasting? What would build a community that is both exclusive to the residents and inclusive to outsiders?

The recipe I have created is as follows, with elements in order of importance.

Safety

The number one motivator behind suburban sprawl—which some might say is synonymous with white flight, but I don’t think so—is safety. People feel like the city is unsafe. And in many regards, they’re right. If you pack people in any small space, there’s bound to be crime. And if you have impoverished areas right next to rich areas, you’re asking for crime. That’s why St. Louis still has gated neighborhoods in the city.

However, I don’t think gates keep out crime. Just like a neighbor with a fence around their backyard, gates convey seclusion, not community. However, I do think that police and private security presence keep crime at bay. Broad, well-lit streets and sidewalks keep crime at bay (and have the convenient side-effect of making a street feel safe). And perhaps most of all, having people on the streets makes those streets considerably safer than near-empty variants.

The first two—security and size/lighting—you can pay for. But you can’t pay community members to occupy the streets. The first two help get people on the streets, but you have to do more than that. You have to have businesses, stores, and restaurants mixed among residences—you can’t have them in separate areas. And those streets can’t be busy streets with cars rushing by. These streets are made for walking, with driveability as an added bonus.

Build Up, Not Out

The key here is that you don’t want a Walmart in the middle of your town square. You need to use the buildings already in place, renovate them, and add businesses and office space to the first few floors. Residences go on the top floors. Most grocery stores have a “downtown” model of store that’s quite different from the sprawling versions we’re used to seeing. The selection is smaller, and they’re often two stories, but it creates a much better feel than warehouse-type stores.

One important factor is that you don’t want buildings that are too tall, though. There’s very little sense of community in a 30-story building, and parking is near impossible. There aren’t many buildings like that in St. Louis, but I would avoid areas that have those types of buildings.

Pricing

One thing I’ve noticed about all the lofts going up downtown (and condos in my area) is that they’re overpriced. Way overpriced. You want people who currently live in St. Louis, possibly out in the county, to come live in this city community—making everything overpriced isn’t going to do that. The pricing needs to be competitive, as you want people who have enough money to support the businesses in the community, but not overpriced. The worst thing that could happen for sustainability is that you sell these overpriced units to out-of-town investors who want to turn them into rental properties. You want people who are going to live in this area. Empty units don’t buy groceries.

I think one of the keys here is that you want people in the community to invest in more than just residences. You want them to rent or own commercial property as well. So give them discounts. You rent a storefront, you get 15% off the monthly rent. It’s fine—and necessary—to encourage outsiders, chains, to rent commercial property, but you need the loyalty and personal investment from residents too.

No Target Audience

The lofts downtown have a target audience—young people. A few of the lofts have also targeted high-powered businesspeople who work downtown. I think this really limits the potential of a community, because it makes moving to the city seem temporary. If people aren’t invested in an area on a more permanent basis, then they’re going to treat it like a rental car. Drive it to the ground, and leave the mess for someone else to deal with.

The trouble is, it’s hard to attract families (or people who want to have a family in a few years) to the city due to the poor quality of city schools. On first though, my solution was to start a private school specifically for the community. You could use the model of the New York charter school written about in this article, which is basically focused on attracting the best teachers by paying them 6-digit salaries. I think it’s a brilliant ideas—people always say that teachers aren’t paid enough, and I disagree with that. The correct statement is that good teachers aren’t paid enough. There are plenty of bad teachers who are paid more than enough.

However, starting a school is a monstrous task in itself, and St. Louis already has plenty of established private schools. They’re just too expensive, though—you’re not going to get an average young couple making $90,000 between them to pay $25,000 on a private school for their 5-year-old. At the same time, they won’t want to sent their child to public city schools.

Maybe starting a charter school is a good way to go. I’ll think about that one.

Also, you need to have some rental residences as well. Not everyone can afford to buy property, and you can make more money off of rental residences anyway.

Parking

Ah, parking. Parking is very tricky. People who live in the community will want their own private parking, and people from outside of the community want huge parking lots where they’re always guaranteed to have a spot. However, there’s nothing worse than a giant parking lot to spoil the ambiance of a quaint little city township.

Street parking sucks, though. It’s annoying, you never know if there will be a spot available, and it makes the streets feel a lot smaller than they actually are. Near the Galleria in St. Louis, there’s a mini community of shops and restaurants, and there’s a giant, well-lit parking deck. It’s tucked away from the storefronts, and it doesn’t feel claustrophobic like some parking decks (particularly those that are underground. I would put a parking deck similar to this between several buildings, and have prime reserved spaces for the residents.

Technology

To add even more of an incentive to come to and live in this community, you need to have wireless internet everywhere. My first instinct is to say that it should be free, but maybe not—maybe you should charge people. But if you’re dealing with a limited amount of space, it’s not going to be that expensive to provide full coverage everywhere. The communities of the future will be connected by technology to the rest of the world while feeling personally connected to themselves.

Here’s a major component of the township of the future: No cash or credit cards. I know people, including myself, are hesitant to do what I’m about to suggest, but it’s a way to make you feel integrally part of your community while adding the ease of never having to carry around your wallet within town limits. Yep, I’m suggesting that every resident of the town have a computer chip imbedded under their skin that automatically links to their bank account.

The very idea of it grosses me out, particularly the process of someone injecting a permanent computer chip under my skin. However, it doesn’t seem all that invasive. And although there are privacy issues, I’m sure you could put up the proper firewalls to make the system safe.

I think this kind of technology will be widespread someday, but I think there’s a huge value in implementing it on a community-wide sale. It adds a small amount of exclusivity to the idea of living in the town. Obviously there’s nothing stopping anyone from stopping at an outside Schnucks on the way home from work, but if you make it incrementally easier to shop within the township, people are going to take advantage of that.

Attract Immigrants

One of the most successful communities in St. Louis is called The Hill. It’s a predominantly Italian district where people have lived and dined in the same place for generations.

St. Louis—and most other cities—are very attractive to immigrants. This $20 million community needs to welcome them if they are to sustain themselves. Perhaps even target a specific group of immigrants and go out of your way to make them feel welcome in this community.

However, you may not even need to do this. After all, you’re buying an existing tract of land where people are already living. Hold community meetings where people can voice their opinion on what they’d like to see their area turn into. Ensure them that you’re not going to knock down their homes and apartment buildings—you just need to make the neighborhood into a community, a township.

Parks, Not Backyards

I grew up with a big backyard, and I loved it. I wondered why anyone would want to share their space with other kids. But I’ve come to believe that parks are integral to a community, not to mention social development for children. Of course, you need security for the park, as you want children to be safe above all others, but that would be part of the plan.

Also, I think you need some sort of sports community. A lot of parents make sure that their kids are invested in a number of sports from a young age, and a number of adults feel very connected to their softball or football teams. I think you not only need a park that has trees and nice scenery, but also an area of flat ground that can be used for pick up games—the kind of pick up games where people can look out the window of their apartment and see someone kicking the ball around and go join them. Thus, this area can’t be too big—it needs to be just the right size.

Oh, and you need a dog park. You don’t want dog poop all over your people park.

Be a Destination

There’s a portion of the Central West End that has recently sold a number of stores to very high-end chains. I think this is an interesting strategy, one not to be ignored. They’re trying to be a destination by having stores that you can’t find anywhere else in St. Louis. I’m not sure I agree with their choice of stores, but the destination factor is big. You need to have a specific reason for outsiders to come to the community and support your local commerce. Look at Crown Candy Kitchen in North St. Louis. The area around it is a complete dump, but there’s a line going out the door every Sunday. And due to the success of that restaurant/candy shop, a developer has bought the area around it and is planning a community there.

Whether it be a store (Ikea? Maybe too big) or a restaurant (Iron Barley? Please?) or a bar or a business, the town needs to have a destination, if not several destinations.

Restaurants

On the subject of restaurants, I think it’s necessary to have good local restaurants of different sizes and prices. You need a few lunch places, a few dinner places, and a breakfast place or two. If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know that I would have a Potbelly’s in this plan. But I wouldn’t put too many chains in the township. My instinct is to contact owners of local restaurants that you trust and ask them to open restaurants in the township. You also need to get people who live in the township to own those restaurants as well.

Accessibility

You can’t appease everyone in terms of location—people in this community are going to work elsewhere, and the town can’t be right next to everyone’s workplace. At the same time, if you’re successful at creating some sort of a destination, you can’t be close to the neighborhood of all outsiders who want to access that destination.

The compromise is to be near a major road or highway. That shouldn’t be too hard in St. Louis—we have plenty of major highways. Also, it would be great to be along the MetroLink. Right now, our Metro is pretty limited, but it will continue to expand.

Location

I’ve discussed the location several places above, but I haven’t yet chosen an area of St. Louis. I’ve been looking at a map for the last few minutes, and I can’t decide yet. I’ll let you know when I make a decision.

Profitability

I’ve mentioned this several places above as well, but I want to stress that this town must be profitable for the investor. Otherwise, there’s no lasting business sense in putting so much money into a place like this. If you use all of the components described above and price everything correctly, I think you’ll have a profitable township on your hands.

**

Is now a good time to do any of this, with the market the way it is? It’s definitely a good time to buy, and you have time to develop before the prices soar. The key is to buy a big enough plot of land and have a plan. Coming back to where I started, New Town did all of these things really well, except they put New Town in the wrong place. They started from scratch when they had so much to work with right here in the city. New Town has no character, and given the price of brick and stone nowadays, you can’t copy the character of the city.

That is not to say that the city doesn’t have major problems, like the schools and the crime, and it’s easy to pass the buck and move away from those problems. But I don’t want to move out to the suburbs, the land of strip malls and plastic walls. I like the city. I like having things within walking distance. I want to drop by the same bar every couple of days, a bar where everyone knows my name. I want to know my neighbors, and I want to feel invested in the businesses around me. These things can happen in the city, given the right investment and planning.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Anonymous permalink
    March 24, 2008 2:58 pm

    I was with you all the way until the microchip thing.

    The transportation issue is huge – the biggest in my opinion. The Metrolink needs to expand much, much more to the point where you could realistically not own a car. I like the Metro now, but it’s not a substitute for car transportation. It’s at best a supplement. But Metro expansion would cost money that the city, county and states (MO and IL) just don’t have. Federal money would be needed. Right now, I think all the federal money earmarked for transportation wound up in soom boondoggle in Iraq.

    And I agree that there is huge potential for the city. I mean, North City alone could be so much more than it is. I’m optimistic.

  2. Anonymous permalink
    March 24, 2008 2:59 pm

    By the way, that last comment was Tolles.

    -Tolles

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