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Sprawltastic Grab Bag #3: St. Louis, ECC, and a New Book

Three subjects related by sprawl and the short-sighted decisions that rule our world.  So, without further fuss:

St. Louis:

I’ve written about ST. Louis here and here and here, so without repeating too much of what I said in those earlier stories I wanted to express a few of my impressions from a trip last week.  St. Louis is a gorgeous city which has been abused just as Buffalo and other American cities have.  Its last 60 years, like Buffalo’s,  have been characterized by consistently ill-advised attempts to revive the city’s faltering economy.  These included mass removal of historic neighborhoods, chopping up the city with highways designed to get people out of the city fast, concentrating poor people in giant housing projects, and construction of giant silver bullet projects.  The city recently completed a new round of silver bullets in the form of mega costly stadiums and a casino.   The biggest of them all is the new Mississippi River bridge, still under construction.  It is a massive project including centered on a new signature cable stay bridge with ancillary ramps and interchanges.  The cost is a staggering $667M.  But, that’s not all folks.  The ultimate build out and renovation plan, consisting of connecting streets and highways, is projected to be as much as $2.2B (that’s $2,200,000,000!).  The project includes no rail bed, no bus rapid transit, no pedestrian access, and no bike lanes. Cars, cars, cars, and trucks, that’s it!

The approach to St. Louis on I55 from Illinois is dismal.  The first view of the city is of the Gateway Arch over a gigantic hill of garbage.  Further on, the spaghetti of highway interchanges and ramps floats you over East St. Louis, a desperately impoverished and mostly abandoned city on the Illinois side.  Look to your left and you see once glorious old buildings with no windows and  literal forests growing on their roofs.  Look to your right and you see the spectacular  view of downtown St. Louis framed by the Arch.  The Arch is a stunning structure and is deservedly the pride and symbol of the city.  The irony is that the people of St. Louis look through the arch to the east where the Arch frames the miserable symbol of American throw away society, abandoned East St. Louis and its lonely sad-looking river edge casino. The park that the Gateway Arch is in is quite beautiful but was built on the rubble of the old original streets of St Louis as a giant urban removal project.  This park, in good mid-century fashion, was separated from the city by a river front highway.  Much much more of Downtown was removed for silver bullets and sweeping plazas.

The removal of historic St. Louis was ruthless and continues to this day along with the silver bullet thinking.  But something new is also taking place. While much of St. Louis was being actively destroyed in the name of progress much of it also survived – in some cases, barely survived.  To a great extent it is this surviving stuff, the intact old neighborhood fabric, that is driving the city’s reemergence as a place to live, work, and play.  Neighborhoods like Soulard, Grand Center, the Washington Street corridor of downtown, and the Central West End among others are thriving and growing and emerging as places to be.  These places are filled with incredible historic buildings and beautiful active urban spaces.  We stayed in a historic hotel in the Central West End.  It is hard to express just how beautiful the Central West End neighborhood is.  Its ancient trees interact with elegant masonry houses which mingle closely with intimately scaled commercial streets.  It is a nearly perfect neighborhood. Unfortunately these great old neighborhoods often stand as island like villages floating in vast sweeping areas of emptiness,  tattered historic remnants, and bland new builds.  Not one residential neighborhood is directly linked to Downtown St Louis. This gives the city a feeling of disconnectedness.  As bad as Buffalo has been abused there is still a wonderful continuity through large chunks of the city.  This is a valuable asset that needs to be enhanced and strengthened.


ECC chooses Sprawl:

Erie Community College unveiled  its long-awaited facilities evaluation report called the Space Needs Analysis and Space Utilization Assessment. It was touted as a tool for determining how and where to spend  substantial new capital development money (i.e. where to expand with a new building).  College officials hailed the report as proof that their plan to add a new $30,000,000 building to the ECC Amherst Campus was right after all.  In good “spread the limited resources around to make everyone happy” style the Report recommends  investment and revision of the educational mission for all three college campuses but reserves the biggest investment for the north campus in Amherst.  The Report recommends that Amherst remain the biggest and most important campus with the most comprehensive selection of course offerings designed for students planning further academic  advancement beyond the 2 year program.  The city campus curriculum would be redesigned for those seeking blue-collar style career paths. I guess the assumption is that the dumb old people in the city don’t need no real college or something.  I could not find anything in the  Report that gave explanations for  how this split in course offerings was determined.

The North Campus has long been the campus with the highest enrollment  with the city campus bringing up the rear as the smallest.  ECC officials continually point to this as a major reason they need to expand the north campus.  What they fail to mention is that the North Campus has a higher student population most probably because that is where college administrators have decided to offer the most classes.  In my opinion the Report is designed to confirm what officials wanted it to confirm.  In my reading I find no objective reasoning which points to the North Campus as the best place for expansion and no where did I read a thorough study of the reasoning for continuing a three campus system.  In fact with minimal effort you can list several objective reasons why the North Campus is a horrible place for this campus. For example:

  1. Almost half of all ECC students live in the City of Buffalo. This alone is reason to concentrate classes in Buffalo.
  2. 52% of North Campus students come from Buffalo. That is 2,994 buffalo residents to 668 Amherst residents.
  3. Land costs, which is cheaper? The Report says one big reason for using the North for expansion is that the  college already owns the land.  This means, they say,  that no money need be spent on purchasing new property.  This is true, sort of.  The college owns huge tracts of mostly empty space at both the north and south campuses.  But this empty land is not free. Any simple cost benefit analysis would include a tally of lost real estate tax on that land.  It would also include in the ledger a sum for what the land could be sold for.  The only way you can compare the true cost of land for a new building on any of the campuses it to compare all of these costs.  It is highly likely with a true comparison of all costs of land and facilities the determination would be that expansion in the city is cheaper.  This is very basic math, the kind they teach in 100 level business school classes.  If this comparison is in the Report I could not find it.
  4. Transportation? The city campus is the obvious choice if ease of transportation is a criteria for locating facilities. In this case it seems transportation was not an important factor in determining where investment should be concentrated.  The City Campus is served by 4 major highway spurs radiating out into the metro.  It is also served by 35 bus lines and by Metro Rail. There are 32,000 parking spaces near the campus.  Additionally there are nearby dense and attractive neighborhoods within walking distance which cater to all economic levels. It is by far the most accessible campus to the most people in the metro area.  The 3 campuses are served by an NFTA run campus bus shuttle but service is sporadic and the round trip between campuses is over 2 hours.  A quick use of the NFTA’s online trip planner makes no mention of this shuttle but does guide you to several options from downtown which include multiple transfers and a 1 hour trip minimum each way.  Don’t miss that last bus or you are in trouble. You can drive to Amherst of course but then you have to own a car. 30% of buffalo residents do not own a car. Are we saying that low-income Community College students need to own a car to have  reasonable access to an education?  I did not find any discussion of this in the report.  The report did list complaints about the shuttle system often being late.
  5. Access to jobs: Even after 60 years of decline Downtown Buffalo is still the dominant  job hub in the region, with the densest concentration of jobs.  In recent years the downtown work force has expanded and will take a huge leap forward as UB adds its medical school and Children’s Hospital moves to the Medical Campus.  ECC north and South campuses have minimal to no connection to local job centers.  Students already burdened with a  1 hour or more bus ride will be hard pressed to make connections with local employers from the remote and desolate suburban campuses.

College officials originally floated the idea for the new $30,000,000 building at the North Campus to concentrate and expand their offerings of medical services and technician training courses.  Many pointed out that these MEDICAL type educational services would be a great complement to the growing concentration of MEDICAL facilities in the  the Buffalo Niagara MEDICAL campus in downtown Buffalo and wouldn’t downtown be a more logical place for this new ECC facility for both staff and students?  College administrators quickly changed the name of the building eliminating any mention of medicine.  The Report uses a new trendy acronym for labeling the proposed building’s use, STEM.  This stands for Science, Technology,Engineering, and Math.  The Report provides a long list of careers related to these core subjects including chemical technician, aerospace,  web developer, physicist, etc. most of which will not be located in the new building.  The Report goes on to recommend that the new building to be designed to meet the needs of 10 educational offerings.  8 of these 10 subjects are for MEDICAL related fields!  So, the so-called  “STEM” building is going to be primarily for MEDICAL training after all!


My Newest Book Purchase

I picked up an easy new read called  A Country of Cities, A Manifesto for an Urban America by author  Vishaan Chakrabarti. The book jacket describes Chakrabartis thesis that well designed cities  are the key to solving America’s great national challenges including Environmental degradation, economic stagnation,rising health costs, and decreasing social mobility. The book is filled with crisply composed graphics prepared by SHoP Architects and is load with interesting stats on how we use and abuse the planet.  For Example:

  1. As job density doubles productivity rises between 6% and 28%
  2. The entire population of the world could fit into the area of texas if it was houses at a density of 25 units per acre.
  3. In America household size has gone from an average of 4 people living in 1,200 sf homes to an average of 2.25 people living in 2,135 sf sized homes.
  4. 68% of Americans now live in suburbs.
  5. 61% of Americans live in detached single unit housing at less that 1 unit per acre.  Only 8% of Americans live at densities of 20 units or more per acre. (an acre is slightly less than a football field in size)
  6. Land consumption has increased at a rate twice population growth.
  7. Prevalence of obesity increases with commute distance.
  8. Commute times over 45 minutes have been shown to induce a 5% higher rate of divorce and separation.
  9. The federal government spends $42,800,000,000 per year on highway projects. This is more than double the amount the feds spend on all other transportation combined.  Mass transit gets just $10.6B annually.

These are all interesting factoids pointing to the folly of our love of sprawl and our adamant belief that we have the right to make the choices we make no matter how stupid and destructive they are.  But rights should come with responsibility.  Our short-sighted selfish management of the planet will eventually lead to a planet increasingly harsh and less habitable.  Too many people live a zombie existence in which they take for granted what we have and how we do things. As if they are the natural order of the universe.  the universe does not care if we occupy the planet earth or not.  the universe will continue after we have destroyed ourselves.  Its time we wake up and start making smarter decisions.  The book is packed with more of this kind of information but I will leave you with this last shocking statistic.

The current American consumption rate on average requires 550% more land and resources than are on the earth.  The world is being consumed faster than it can replenish itself and world consumption is increasing at an alarming rate as developing countries mimic the wasteful standard set by the United States.


Written by David Steele

David Steele

Architect ( a real one, not just the armchair type), author of "Buffalo, Architecture in the American Forgotten Land" ( ), lover of great spaces, hater of sprawl and waste,
advocate for a better way of doing things.

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