The Inherent Fallacy of Central Planning, Local-Style
The Post-Dispatch has published two major stories in the past few days regarding planned developments by local communities and developers. This is an issue in which I have neither training nor expertise, but do have tremendous interest and some personal experience, so here goes nothing. Between you and me, I was hoping Urban Review would have tackled this so I could just link to them, but, alas, no luck yet.
The first Post-Dispatch article is about the efforts of local suburbs to create downtown areas for their communities. The second is specific to the Olive Boulevard area of University City and Olivette, with which I am pretty familiar.
As for the first article, it was excellent reading once I got past my initial, "Are you kidding me? Is this a joke?" response. There is some absurdity in suburban towns that "just decide" (say that like Chris Penn in Reservoir Dogs) to suddenly create an urban environment, with all its inherent hipness, in the middle of suburbia. It’s like Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs sat down and just worked out a compromise over coffee. Tell me what is missing in this statement:
Planners tout Manchester Road in Maplewood, downtown Kirkwood and Washington Avenue in St. Louis as premier examples of vibrant business and residential districts created by refurbishing existing buildings.
What is missing is the acknowledgement that the planners didn’t have anything to do with the success of Washington Avenue, downtown Maplewood, or Kirkwood. I was there on Wash Ave., man to do my best 1967 Haight-Ashbury impression. Entrepreneurs made Washington Avenue what it is, along with some dedicated urban trailblazers. City government had nothing to do with it, although they almost screwed the whole thing up with a neverending street improvement project. I admit I like the zipper motif in the road, for which we can thank the city, but that’s it.
Downtown Maplewood is the same thing restaurateurs built that up while the city was tearing down houses for Wal-Mart just to the north. (Side note: It’s a brilliant idea to take advantage of the fact that the city goes 100 yards west of Skinker to put up bars with 3 a.m. licenses on the city line, in what feels like the county. See Delmar Bar and Grill, Cheshire, and Cusumano’s on Manchester as successful examples.)
As for Kirkwood, the downtown area there was popular long before the new loft developments were planned. The hobby shops, diners, neighborhood bars, and markets gave the place a great feel without the new urban hipness everyone apparently wants now, according to this article. If Dardenne Prairie, Manchester, and Chesterfield want to just build downtowns out of thin air, I
wish them luck (not really) but feel they are going to have the same results as Wildwood:
In Wildwood’s town center, leaders say some businesses have thrived, though some residents have been disappointed at the pace of the residential development.
"It’s been slower than most people expected," said Joe Vujnich, the city’s park’s and planning director.
Really? So people who want to move to Wildwood aren’t looking for loft living above the new P.F. Chang’s? Really? This surprises you, Mr. Developer and Ms. City Planner?
The University City / St. Louis Loop is one of the greatest areas in our community. I met my wife there and play darts there every week (excluding this summer, because of the birth of my son). Joe Edwards gets all the press, and he deserves every bit of it, but other business owners deserve credit, too, for making the area what it is. Business owners like Joe made the Loop what it is. To its credit, University City government has always responded well to the needs of the business community, and it could serve as a great example to other cities for how to let businesses lead, and how to work with them.
I say all this because if U. City thinks it is going to be able to work with a developer to turn Olive near I-170 into anything resembling the Loop, or any other successful mixed-use area, it ain’t gonna happen. These things take time, not a horrible new Italian restaurant chain in a city filled with great Italian restaurants. Bob’s Seafood, Nobu’s and Beyer’s Lumber have been in University City for years. As Jane Jacobs argued, those are the types of small businesses that make vibrant areas, not things to be pushed out for some awful, artificial development. I hope U. City and Olivette avoid tax incentives that would give new chains advantages over older, established businesses. If new chains want to move in, fine, but they should do so without the type of government aid that distorts the free market and often fails anyway.