Monday, March 20, 2006

SLACO Conference in Review

SLACO Conference in Review

I spent most of the day on Saturday at the 11th Annual St Louis Neighborhoods Conference sponsored by the St Louis Association of Community Organizations (SLACO) at St Louis Community College at Forest Park.

I arrived about 8:45, delayed by the single-tracking of MetroLink which caused a long wait at Grand. I hopped off the train at CWE station and then took my favorite shortcut through Forest Park, via Clayton Ave under Kingshighway and the Macklind tunnel under I-64.

The SLACO conference is a great opportunity to catch up with old friends, acquaintances and colleagues, and sometimes to meet new fellow travelers as well. I missed last year's conference and only presented in 2004, so it was nice to return as a regular attendee.

Mayor Slay started things off a little after 9:00. His speech is online over at

His most intriguing statement - aside from the boiler-plate endorsement of Clinkscale and Buford for school board - was that "I plan to present both an Anti-Crime and an Anti-Poverty package in my State of the City address in about a month."

Next up was the keynote speaker, Mary Nelson, recently retired president of a large CDC on the west side of Chicago called Bethel New Life.

I was impressed by her perceptiveness about the hostile political climate to programs that benefit low-income communities; and by her approach to presenting the challenges all of us as a result. She highlighted a number of strategies that, while not new to me, seem to have been implemented much more effectively in Chicago. Her three points were:

1) Seeing our communities with "new eyeglasses." This includes asset-based community development (asset mapping); and transit-oriented development (TOD). Bethel was involved during the 1990s in stopping the closure of the CTA Green Line through their community, and revitalizing the area around their neighborhood's El stop including a new facility built to LEED green-building standards.

2) Using new models and new ways of doing things. Bethel has been involved in the Chicago Public Schools with creating a new small public high school in the former location of a failing school. The new school (opened September 2004) is called the Al Raby School and "intends to graduate citizens who are equipped to tackle social justice and environmental issues, as well as succeed in college, a trade school, or whatever secondary options they may choose." While she critiqued the Renaissance 2010 initiative as initially focusing too much on corporate support and excluding community involvement, she suggested that the school district had learned from that mistake.

3) Going "up the river" to challenge legislators and other policymakers at the state and federal level, to increase the minimum wage, cut child poverty, etc. She emphasized the tagline of Making Work "Work" and mentioned that part of the challenge (as found by the Annie E Casey Foundation) in appealing to both political parties involving four strategies: 1) an emphasis on personal responsibility; 2) making a business case, not just the moral/justice case for higher wages, better schools, etc.; 3) Focusing not on needs but opportunities; and 4) Presenting an agenda based on common values: work, family, and fairness.

After the speech and a brief Q&A session, folks headed into workshops for the rest of the morning. I attended the session on Problem Properties, which was quite informative and detailed. The presenters were Joe Thele from NST, Sgt. John McLaughlin from the Police Dept., Susan Phelps-Smith from the City Counselor's Office Problem Properties Division, and Antoinette Cousins from Riverview-West Florissant Management Assistance Program.

Among other advice, we learned to call 911 and say "unknown, uninvited persons" are on the front porch when that is the case, so that police don't think the persons hanging out on the porch are invited guests. It may sound silly, but it's important to be as specific as possible in making your calls.

Also, it turns out that the new nuisance ordinance passed in December 2003 only requires a minimum of two police calls-for-service (CFS) in order to get a property eligible to be listed as a nuisance. The old rule of three different CSB calls no longer applies.

However, in practice, it takes a little more than just two calls. Neighbors still need to call the NSO, the alderman, or the nuisance coordinator to get a property on the radar screen so it can be presented at a Nuisance Review Committee meeting and potentially at the monthly District Crackdown meeting. First, a "nice" letter is sent to the property owner; then, if calls continue and/or the landlord's response is unsatisfactory, a Cease & Desist (C&D) letter is sent by certified mail and posted on the property. 80% comply after receiving a C&D letter, which includes the threat of "closing the premises for up to one year."

The role of the nuisance coordinators is still a little unclear to me, but they seem to have a support role similar to NSOs, and they operate out of the non-profit management assistance program (MAP) offices instead of the City itself. Grand Oak Hill MAP, run by Maggie Lampe, is responsible for most southside wards. Riverview West Florissant has wards 2, 3 and 27 on the northside; and TMAP run by JeffVanderLou and Union West has most of the rest of the northside.

The next session I attended was with Nancy Ulman of Great Rivers Greenway (GRG). She presented about the economic, social and environmental benefits of greenways as planned and under development by GRG. The most exciting ones were the McKinley Bridge Bikeway planned to cross the Mississippi and the attached Branch Street Trestle and "Iron Horse" Trestle, which I believe refers to the planned conversion of the old Interurban tracks into a bikeway. Very cool.

Nancy herself is project manager for the St Vincent Greenway, which is in the planning stages; and the Dr King Greenway, the route of which is less clear. It can best be described as conceptual - "somewhere three blocks either side of MLK Drive."

Most of the St Vincent Greenway would follow Engleholm Creek, a polluted and neglected little stream that runs through Pagedale and Wellston. It runs generally parallel to the MetroLink line from Ramona Lake Park in Berkeley, through the UMSL campus, through St Vincent County Park, and then onto currently private properties in the two distressed inner-ring suburbs.

Around the Wellston MetroLink station, it would head east into the City of St. Louis via two branches: one, along a rebuilt section of Etzel Avenue east toward Ruth Porter Mall (Porter Park); and the other along the Hodiamont right-of-way, part of which was closed off years ago. Then, it would turn south again, making long-neglected Ruth Porter Mall (Porter Park) an integral part of the greenway. It would continue south across Delmar via DeBaliviere, which Kiku Obata & Company is redesigning so that the street can accommodate both the bikeway and the Loop Trolley. The new Forest Park Visitors Center would be a major trailhead.

Then came lunch, where outgoing State Senator Pat Dougherty gave a hilarious talk, lampooing himself and politicians in general, but getting pretty serious at times. I sat at the same table with an interesting assortment of folks: Alderman Craig Schmid, candidate Jeff Smith, progressive activist Janet Becker, Dutchtown Republican real estate agent Jaymes Dearing, and CDA housing guy Sam Green.

Craig was the only alderman I saw in attendance, although I may have missed somebody.

After lunch I attended a session about TOD which highlighted the $80 million in development that have come to the Emerson Park neighborhood of East St Louis in the few short years that MetroLink has been there. This session was also an opportunity for East-West Gateway to promote the Northside-Southside Study planning initiative now underway for long-term transit improvements in the City of St. Louis.

I was a bit dismayed to see that the three samples of potential TOD areas - all from the old Southside study from 2000 - were actually located in South St. Louis County. None seemed to me at the time to be viable TOD locations: Telegraph and I-255, Butler Hill Road and I-55, and South County Shopping Center. The City of St. Louis and inner-ring suburbs should be the focus for TOD, in my view. Most outer-suburban stations are inevitably going to be mainly park-and-ride facilities.

But what is exciting about this study now underway is that potentially, alternative routes will be entertained for the Southside study. Back in 1999/2000, I was among the opponents of on-street operations on Gravois. I realize now that such a route could have economic development and transit access benefits.

I was also excited at the prospect that Cross County MetroLink should open "sometime between Labor Day and Halloween." Somehow that seems appropriate, given just how many thousands of hours of labor have gone into this project and just how much of a nightmare it has been. ;-)

Sure, in 20 years when MetroLink is finally built on the Southside, the neighborhoods along Gravois east of Grand may be fully revitalized. But I suspect a high percentage of transit ridership will remain in these areas.

I don't think MetroLink - even in a low-floor car format that works better for on-street, streetcar-esque operations - would work on Grand from I-64 to Gravois. But I think, given the wide right-of-way on Gravois from the I-55/44 split to Grand, it would be a wonderful thing there.

But then the question remains: which way west (and south)? Gravois narrows significantly between Grand and Chippewa. I wouldn't want to sacrifice the remaining street-level retail and residential buildings in that stretch. So maybe Grand would work better, because it is pretty wide southward to Chippewa. But Grand, too, gets a lot narrower south of Chippewa.

It will be difficult to squeeze MetroLink onto the "Oak Hill" Union Pacific right-of-way, because there is a lot of development near the tracks in many areas, and those tracks are still in use by UP and Amtrak. Maybe in 20 years they'll be abandoned, but probably not. So, even that route has its challenges.

Thinking about potential for TOD on the Northside route is even more exciting, although at some key corners (Natural Bridge/Kingshighway comes to mind), a lot of car-oriented suburban-style junk would have to be cleared away first.

The North Florissant-Natural Bridge corridor has a really ridiculously wide right-of-way, so there wouldn't be too many problems with laying tracks and taking relatively few properties, except perhaps at the western end where the plan is to turn north and through part of the Federal Center, to build a mega park-ride lot at I-70 and Goodfellow adjacent to the currently planned redevelopment of the former St Louis Army Ammunition Plant into a Home Depot and car-oriented strip mall. So much for TOD there.

Anyway, after that session we headed over to the closing step show and Christian hip-hop performance by kids from the SLACO Make A Difference Center. I left a little after 4, so I guess I missed the drawing for door prizes.

Later that afternoon, my wife and my mother-in-law and I took an informal, impromptu, self-guided tour (by car) of the Clifton Heights neighborhood. Although I know it's pricey, someday it would be cool to live on Simpson Ave there, overlooking the lake. Even some of the houses on the part of Clifton north of the park are quite nice. But the currently ongoing demolition of the former Clifton Heights Presbyterian Church is simply heartbreaking. Even the fascinating little former Dr. Fry Memorial Methodist Church located up at the wedge between Elizabeth and Clifton seems to be in need of repairs.

Anyway, Saturday certainly was quite a full day!


Josh Wiese said...

The conference sounded great- was out of town but really wanted to attend.

Just wanted to say that Clifton Heights around the lake is a wee bit high but there is plenty of housing around the neighborhood that isnt too high. There is a house two down from mine that is going for 179K -2 Bed and two bath that you could easily get down to 160.

Once ole' Maplewood gets too expensive Clifton Heights will be next. I just gotta get me one of the houses around the lake before that hits.

Did you happen to see who the contractots for demo on the church were? Stric and Legit- I s**** you not...

Anonymous said...

Joe, you're just too good of a local wonk that you knew the non-labelled slides shared were in South County from the 2000 MTIA. Heck, one included the Telegraph Wal-Mart, hardly TOD.

Still, the slides of "potential TOD" were meant as hypothetical examples of minimal, moderate and extensive potential. No specific examples were shared because the current Northside-Southside Study is too early in its process to really discuss station locations.

If visiting the study website, you'll see that there will be future public meetings, including a TOD workshop, where the public will get to envision development about potential stations.

Anonymous said...

It sounds like a great conference...but is anyone else a little confused by the job title, "nuisance coordinators".

What do they do? Drive around the ward and make sure that all the nuisances are being well coordinated?

Urban Review - St. Louis said...

Joe, great review of the conference. I was unable to attend so I enjoyed what you had to say.

In the past I've felt like these are more a political rally than informative session.

The Ruth Porter Mall, that is something I've wanted to write about for a while. Maybe it will see some good as part of the greenway but I'd prefer we put back a real street with lots of trees and plantings.

I'm very much opposed to running light rail vehicles in our city streets since these will require large medians that will look out of place in an urban setting. However, running in-street trams/streetcars would be excellent --- including on the narrow portion of Grand.

And finally Clifton Heights. Don't overlook this area as it is not as pricey as you might think. Both houses I've sold in the area have been quite reasonable.