It's a funny thing about having a passion for a topic, and the expert knowledge both deep and wide that often accompanies it: you either ignite everyone around you or bore them to tears.
And so I barely noticed, as I hunched over a bird's-eye schematic map of downtown Toronto with Rollin Stanley, St. Louis' recently appointed director of Planning and Urban Design, that the city public relations handler who had been present at the beginning of our interview had slipped away. I did notice that she never came back; someone, perhaps, who doesn't share the intensity of Stanley's passion for planning, design and how to build a city that works.
By all reports, Stanley has had some success in winning both the attention and the buy-in of department employees and movers and shakers in the St. Louis development community, although he's also stirred the pot a little since his arrival this past May. One of the first directives he issued changed the way that Planning and Urban Design meeting agendas and official reports were presented for various committee meetings; it was time, he says, for the agency to "look a bit more professional, and for committee members to have all the information they needed, when they needed it, in a form they could use to make the best decision."
Stanley, however, doesn't seem like a functionary who's going to get lost in the minutiae of agendas and bullet points. All of the streamlining is merely a means to an end: better, smarter development for St. Louis, and "design that exudes success."
Tired of insta-stores and fast-food joints in seas of endless parking finding their way into the city? Stanley thinks you should be, and further, that those situations don't have to perpetuate themselves.
"The urban form is not the suburban form," he says, "and there are ways to make these same kinds of developments sensitive to the environment. Can you put a store to the sidewalk and push the parking to the side or back? Sure you can. And some national developers are doing these things in other places." When Stanley left his position with the City of Toronto, he was in the midst of an initiative to ban drive-throughs within downtown Toronto, "not because a drive-through can't be made to fit an urban environment, but because we wanted to control the circumstances under which they might be developed. We must consider the way the buildings relate to the pedestrian realm." Along Spadina Road, a main shopping drag in downtown Toronto, this consideration got down to the level of master planning for how many hours of unimpeded sunlight (3, 5 or 7) planners wanted various sections of the street to receive.
Planning and design are quite different in the States than in Canada, though; for one thing, Canada has no interstate highway system, so lots of the money that could've been so spent was instead poured into public transit. The high transit usage in Toronto has had an immense effect on the city's character. On the other hand, Stanley finds that development in the U.S. is made significantly easier by the great flexibility in access to funding, a situation that does not exist in Canada. "Up there, there are no tax incentives and interest rates are set by the federal or provincial government, which doesn't spend money on cities. It really hampers what you can do."
The city doesn't just have to approach new development from a defensive posture, either, according to Stanley. Beyond general advantages conferred by different financial systems, St. Louis has many specific advantages that put it in a favorable position in negotiations.
"My wife is from St. Louis, and I've spent a good amount of time here over the years," he said. "I have always been struck by the quality of the building stock here, and simultaneously by the lack of capitalizing on those opportunities. You can walk through this town and just envision what these buildings would be in other cities," he says of downtown. "And it's finally happening here, now. What's going on with the convention hotel, the Merchandise Mart...I was on the Downtown Housing Tour in September and it was just amazing what's going on within these few square blocks."
Beyond downtown, he notes the tremendous amount of investment going on in other neighborhoods, a trend he credits partly to the articulation of Mayor Slay's action plan. "The opportunities are here to tap into now, but they won't be here forever. And that's okay sound planning can happen quickly. Every city in North America is competing, so we have to approach what we do with common sense and convince even people who are doing small things that they need to think long-term. Above all, people need to think beyond just what they alone can reach for at the moment."
Another initiative Stanley has piloted at Planning and Urban Design is a dogged pursuit of realistic census counts, traffic statistics and disposable income information that can be used to cause developers and even some alderpeople to take a fresh look at city intersections and neighborhoods. "Because of our housing density in the city, our demographics are often as desirable or more so to developers as many parts of the county," he says.
The most encouraging note at the moment is the amount of residential space coming onto the market in Downtown; Stanley also hopes to see new residential construction taking place alongside the loft conversions currently capturing the popular imagination. He believes there is a market for a progression of housing options, from high-rise rental studios to swanky condominiums. To build a large population with a taste for downtown living, he says, we should look no further than the many colleges and universities around town.
"People in the Midwest are not as likely, by nature, to move into multi-unit buildings as they are on the coasts," he says. "But you get students, who are often coming out of a high-rise living situation, and they like the interactions and energy that come from that situation. If we create nodes where people coming out of our institutions of higher learning naturally gravitate, you build a small community there. Students typically bring ethnic diversity, too, and diversity in population is the best thing that can happen to a city."
And he's in it for the long haul. Convincing big-time developers to stop their tried-and-true, cookie-cutter projects in favor of a more nuanced approach won't be easy, but Stanley offers two keys: "Education and negotiation. We have to make people understand the self-interest they have in putting up projects that make sense in their surroundings, so that they continue to work in ten years, rather than being monuments to failure."