My dining companion commented to me Monday that Clayton’s downtown was quite nice, while we were eating sushi on Forsyth Avenue and looking out at the Pierre Laclede Center. Despite being a strong supporter of St. Louis and longing for its downtown to be reborn, I was forced to agree. Downtown Clayton is nice. Despite some city backers comparing it to something like the Antichrist, I don’t think that St. Louis or the region can view the suburban county seat as such hostile. Downtown Clayton is a success. It has millions of square feet worth of office space, dozens of great restaurants within a small area (though St. Louis City still produces more innovative cuisine), and real residential density. There’s also a safe, healthy pedestrian environment.
This made me think about what makes a central business district or downtown and its surrounding city so successful. Clayton is an example of a thriving, successful downtown that doesn’t need to be successful according to common sense logic. It is small and landlocked, for example. It is only a few blocks from downtown that is surrounded by low-density residential areas. Clayton has not expressed an interest in rezoning. Architecturally, the office buildings are not remarkable. On the south side of the city is Forest Park Parkway. This road, which I doubt anyone would consider the best in automobile circulation, creates an inadequacies traffic artery and wall. The Parkway connects to the outdated Interstate 170. This obsolescence is made worse by the reconstruction of all other interstates in this region. It is very slow at rush hour. Hanley connects to I-64/40, the same interstate 170 feeds into. Centene will build a skyscraper in Clayton instead of downtown St. Louis which is served only by four interstates.
Just like downtown St. Louis has a Master Plan, Clayton also has one. They are always capitalized. Urban planning is a fascinating field that dates back to human history. There are many versions of urban planning all over the globe. Teotihuacan in Mexico has a particular urban plan, as does Nara, Japan. Perhaps America’s cities are the most influenced by the rational Romans and ancient Greeks who loved their right angles. The Renaissance further reinforced the idea that rational thought could create successful cities. Palmanova, in the northeastern corner of modern Italy, is perhaps the most vivid example of these ideas in practice. However, I am a little concerned by some of the goals of urban planners today. Too often it seems to try to perform open-heart surgeries using tiny instruments from the board game Operation instead of building new successful cities.
Maybe that’s why I loved the Master Plan Clayton’s downtown. The Master Plan for Clayton’s downtown does not attempt to create an urban utopia from a barren environment. Instead, it aims to enhance what is already thriving economically. Clayton would be fine without any of the recommendations. They are quite progressive after reviewing the plan. Clayton would be fine without any of its recommendations. It calls for pedestrian safety and accessibility improvements, as well as making the area surrounding the office buildings more like downtown. Also, it aims to implement what we call “new urbanism”. Clayton can use the tax revenue from fully leased office buildings. This reminds me of a key lesson from the book Suburban Nation. If people don’t walk around the streets, no amount of park benches or ornamental plants will revive a downtown. Walking and driving through St. Louis, I am often struck by surreal streetscapes of abandoned stores tucked behind shiny new “old-timey”, lampposts, and concrete sidewalks. Please save the money for small-business loans.
As I look back on Western Civilization, Clayton and St. Louis are part of it, I find myself wondering how important the field of urban planning is. Even at its peak as the center of a huge empire, Rome had no urban plan and only a few major streets. The Roman Forum was a jumble of historic buildings and shrines, which were all chosen hundreds of years ago by hunter-gathers. Also, I think about Florence, which was admittedly founded by the Romans as a colony. It has a nice grid of streets in the center of the city. This shows how urban planning may have had little or no effect on the Italian Renaissance artists that made it such an iconic cultural hub. Were we to believe that Michelangelo was motivated to create David because he had straight, rectilinear streets in downtown Florence? Do you know that the traffic arterial system in St. Louis County was created by farmers in 1850?
Here’s why Clayton is doing so well. People who have power and influence will tell others Clayton is the place to locate their offices, buy a home, and eat out. Clayton has cache, despite its bizarre Parkway running right through it and the awkward 1970s office building architecture. It is unique in that it has a value you can’t put on a dollar. The cache of downtown St. Louis was there back in the Wainwright Building’s construction or when Union Station was still the busiest railway station in the world. We must stop spending money on Master Plans and studies if St. Louis is to succeed again. Let’s instead work to get our cache back. It is worth more than four interstates.