Saturday, May 22, 2010

"The Coolest Thing I Have Ever Seen in My Whole Life"

Moment of Impact
So declared my five year-old son at the end of yesterday's demolition ceremonies that kicked off the plan to redevelop the St. Louis Centre mall into ground-floor retail and upper-level parking, and the Dillard's building into the "Laurel" project that will house an Embassy Suites, apartments, and additional street-level retail.  I think a bit of exaggeration was going on, but perhaps I could have saved some money on that Disney trip last summer--next time we'll just hit a nearby construction site!

I agree that the pedestrian bridge was an ugly barrier and that its removal will help beautify Washington Avenue and, later, Locust Street (removal of that skybridge is scheduled for later this year).  Hopefully it will be, at least symbolically, the "turning point" intended by city leaders in the ongoing rejuvenation of downtown (although the proposed use of the St. Louis Centre will continue to be a subject of much debate).  Beyond that, I can't say that the removal of the skybridge has as much emotional meaning for me as it clearly does for many people--I simply haven't been in St. Louis long enough.  I wasn't around for the controversial decision to clear the site for a large indoor mall, or to see the project's painful failure.

I am, however, greatly interested in the future of downtown, and in that respect, I thought the most exciting aspect of yesterday's events was simply the large crowd of St. Louisans that gathered for what was clearly an important (even emotional) moment for many.  It is always exciting to see how many people care about the city, and it is that spirit that needs to be cultivated and expanded.  Here are a few pictures and a video of the festivities.

Your Friendly Downtown Guide and Downtown Clean Team,
part of the St. Louis Downtown Community Improvement District

Thursday, May 20, 2010

St. Louis United: Thoughts on Reunification

The City of St. Louis, 1844
In February 2010, St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay made the first of several recent public statements advocating the reunification of St. Louis City and St. Louis County.  His blog post on February 25th lamented that much of the metropolitan region's "energy is spent competing with each other--municipality against municipality, City versus County."  To heal those divisions, Mayor Slay called for the City to re-enter the County as an "important early step," and proposed in an interview that same day to put the issue to City and County voters within two years.

The secession of the City from the County became official in 1876.  (For a detailed look at the events leading up to and following secession, take a look at this recent paper written by Joe Huber, a junior at Christian Brothers College High School, first published by and subsequently picked up by several media outlets).  By the early 20th century, the City's decision to split from the County was already recognized as a mistake. As the population of the County grew (from approximately 27,000 residents at the time of secession), the City (with 310,000 residents) "found itself pushing against its western border at Skinker and began to regret its decision to divorce itself from the county." Several failed attempts to reunite the City and the County were made in the century following secession, most recently in the 1980s.

Today, the separation of the City and the County--not to mention the existence of 91 separate municipalities within the County--is often cited as a principal cause of regional stagnation. Wasteful duplication of services and intra-regional competition are two primary factors seen as resulting in a self-defeating metropolitan area that fails to realize its potential and loses opportunities to its geographic rivals. Proponents of re-joining the City and the County, including Mayor Slay, believe that reducing this infighting and inefficiency is a key step toward staying "competitive both nationally and globally."

The City of St. Louis (and Chicago), 1856

If, however, the City's original decision to split from the County was controversial, the notion of re-joining the two today is even more so.  This seems particularly true for those County residents who believe that the City--facing problems of poverty, crime, and education shared by many urban cores--would be a "drag" on the more prosperous County.  Others think that re-joining the City and the County is simply unachievable at this point, or even unnecessary.  In early 2006, John Temporiti, campaign manager for County Executive Charlie Dooley, ruled out the possibility of the unification of the City and the County in the short-term, and said it was unlikely even "in our lifetime."  UMSL political scientist Terry Jones in 2007 characterized the split as "irrelevant today," and even that it "makes us what we are." 

Although any government consolidation is likely to have both good and bad ramifications, preliminarily I agree with those who believe that reunification would be a net positive for the St. Louis metropolitan area, at least in the long-term (which, I believe, is the only way you can think about this kind of issue).  In addition, I think the region may be at a critical juncture that, despite multiple setbacks over the last century, could provide a unique opportunity to actually achieve that goal.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Costs, Benefits, and Politics of Historic Tax Credits

Syndicate Trust Building, Downtown St. Louis
Count me among the many who believe that the continued, unfettered availability of the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit is critical to the ongoing revitalization of not only downtown St. Louis, but many other historic areas and buildings across the state. I do not doubt that Governor Nixon and his allies truly believe that their proposed changes to the program are necessary in light of the increased use of the credit over recent years, especially at a time of economic and budgetary hardship. Nonetheless, the apparent thoughtlessness with which they are approaching the issue--at least if we are to judge them by their public statements--is incredibly galling.

In these last few days of the 2010 legislative session, we will find out the extent to which Governor Nixon has been able to garner support for lowered caps on the program or other harmful modifications.  For the time being, it appears that he may be backing off some of the more controversial proposals, such as giving total control over the program to the Department of Economic Development, but significantly reduced caps remain very much on the table.  While we wait for the final results of this session, here is a quick look at the historic tax credit ("HTC") program's documented costs and benefits, and some of the political considerations that should be on the minds of the program's supporters as the fight inevitably continues.

The Costs

Missouri HTCs are a dollar-for-dollar credit against a taxpayers' liability for certain state taxes, including income tax (excluding withholding tax), bank tax, and insurance premium tax.  The credit is equal to 25% of a project's qualified rehabilitation expenditures ("QREs"), providing a powerful incentive when coupled with the 20% federal historic tax credit (and, often, "twinned" with other incentives such as the low income housing tax credit). 

There is no question that the use of Missouri tax credits, including HTCs, has greatly increased over the last decade.  As noted in a March 2010 Program Evaluation released by the Missouri Committee on Legislative Research, Oversight Division, overall tax credits (not just HTCs) have increased from $145 million redeemed in 1999 (representing 2.97% of related taxes), to $588 million redeemed in 2009 (representing 8.04% of related taxes).  In 2009, historic tax credits constituted approximately 20% of all Missouri tax credits issued (approximately $120 million out of $581 million total), and approximately 32% of all credits redeemed (approximately $186 million out of $588 million total).

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Open Streets: A Great Way to See Downtown

Looking East from 16th Street and Locust Street
Today was the first of four Open Streets events in St. Louis, giving walkers, joggers, bikers, and skaters an opportunity to enjoy a vehicle-free route stretching from Forest Park to downtown.  The next three events (with a different route) will be held on Sunday, June 13th (featuring Trailnet's Bike St. Louis City Tour and an opportunity to watch the Tour de Grove), Sunday September 19th (featuring a "Bike to Busch" event), and Saturday, October 9th.

My wife, kids (in a bike trailer) and I used the first Open Streets as an opportunity to explore downtown, rather than ride the entire route from Forest Park (next time!).  In all, this was a great, really fun event.  Here are a couple of thoughts on how it can be even better.

So Close, Yet So Far Away
First, what a shame that a 6.5+ mile ride ends (or begins, depending on which way you go) less than a half mile from the Arch and the river.  Imagine if the route took you all the way into the Memorial, culminating in family-friendly events on the waterfront.  This is a perfect example of the gross underutilization of the very best features of the City.  Hopefully, this will not be an issue once the infrastructure barrier problem is mitigated (or better yet, completely eliminated) upon completion of the Memorial improvements in 2015.  In the meantime, I would suggest that the route at least be extended further east to allow participants to see and enjoy even more of our beautiful downtown.

Second, I don't know what level of attendance/participation was expected, but there is no reason we can't do better next time.  I'm not sure when this event was first announced, but I didn't hear about it until blogged about it this past Monday.  Subsequently, not one single person I mentioned it to or asked to join me had heard about it.   Maybe this first event wasn't announced until this past week, but if it was earlier than that, the City has got to do a better job in communicating to the public for subsequent events.

I think we can, and should, help in that regard.  Let's view Open Streets as an opportunity to invite people who might not otherwise be favorably disposed toward downtown to come and view it in a new light.  It's great that people who are inclined to participate in these sort of urban events do participate--but I don't think that's enough.  Let's get new people downtown.  It's the old idea of changing "hearts and minds," one person at a time.  I believe that just getting people down there is half the challenge, and that once there, most people could not help but appreciate and enjoy the beautiful built environment the rest of us love.

Louderman Lofts and Rooster restaurant, 11th Street and Locust Street
So here's a challenge (and I hope that Open Streets does not mind my piggy-backing on their event, the purpose of which is not specifically to promote our downtown).  I would ask everyone who reads this to do what they can to get the word out about Open Streets, with a goal of getting at least ten people who would not otherwise have participated (or, perhaps, even known about the event) to attend the next event in June.  I don't know if ten is the right number--hopefully most people could get many more than that.  Let's use this as an opportunity to bring to downtown people who would not otherwise go, even people who think they don't even like the City.  This goes to something that Alex at mentioned to me in an e-mail: that those interested in downtown revitalization need to work to "move out of the echo chamber . . . and really have an impact on the city."  So, let's shout it from the rooftops folks--and see you in June!

End of the Line at 8th Street and Locust Street

Detour to Citygarden