Extreme Makeover

Rollin Stanley is a hotshot city planner -- which begs the question: What the hell is he doing in St. Louis?

As a young kid, Rollin Stanley had a passion for long-distance running -- a fitting pursuit for the man who would someday be charged with rebuilding the ragged physical landscape of St. Louis. Stanley got his start scaling the hills of his rural Ontario birthplace. He began modestly: 1,500 meters. Wanting to run farther, Stanley turned to cross-country, gradually upping his distance to 10,000 meters. In 1974 he represented Canada in a steeplechase at the venerable Crystal Palace outside London. Even 30 years later, the memory lives.

Stanley is recalling those running days from his office at the St. Louis Planning and Urban Design Agency, where he's been executive director for two years -- the equivalent of a wind-sprint in city-planning time. A desk-size scale model of downtown St. Louis greets visitors, displaying every street and building in the city. Rolled-up maps are everywhere. Some pinpoint specific neighborhoods, others target business development or riverfront industry.

"It was a big race," says Stanley of the steeplechase, a 3,000-meter race replete with wooden hurdles and a water jump. "The guy beside me didn't go on top of the barrier. He went under it, and his leg caught. You could just see it snap as we all cleared it. He was hung up on it." Stanley took his own tumble in the water jump and thought he'd sprained his ankle, but later, after 25 years of serious running, he had to hang up his shoes after his doctor discovered he'd actually broken it that day. Now he's a cyclist, sometimes pedaling 50 miles on a weekend.

Jennifer Silverberg
"Congestion," says Rollin Stanley, "is a good thing."
Jennifer Silverberg
"Congestion," says Rollin Stanley, "is a good thing."

Stanley's eleventh-floor digs offer a grand view of north St. Louis. Steeple spires and the smokestack of the old Falstaff brewery poke at the sky, surrounded by the remnants of a vast and once bustling city basking in architectural glory.

Stanley leaves the room.

"The guy's awesome, isn't he?" says Mayor Francis Slay's press secretary, Ed Rhode, who makes it a point to sit in when the outspoken planning czar speaks with the press. "I love to just sit here and listen to him talk."

Stanley returns with a 1947 St. Louis city map depicting that year's comprehensive land-use plan, a blueprint guiding all city development since then. When the plan was first unfurled, the population stood at 850,000 -- a half-million more residents than today. "This is an antique now," says Stanley, examining the old map. "It's unbelievable. See that whole cross-hatched area? That's the area of the city that they thought would get torn down and rebuilt." Stanley is referring to a large swath of north and south city -- Soulard, Benton Park, Hyde Park, Walnut Park.

The 1947 plan called for demolishing the existing homes, replacing them with single-family, suburban-style homes. "They looked at the demographics and how they were changing in the last 30 years. They were absolutely paranoid about the sprawl into St. Louis Hills. They were saying, 'This is terrible. Look at the decreasing population; everybody's moving [west].' They were trying to stabilize the population. That was their world."

In 1975 an interim plan recommended clearing away 70,000 homes -- all of them in north St. Louis. That plan, of course, triggered a firestorm in the black community.

Stanley is learning that the hurdles he faces in St. Louis are far taller than those he encountered during his 21 years as a well-respected planner in Toronto. There, he examined and guided development proposals that seemingly arrived by the hour. In Toronto developers begged to build, and the city held the bargaining chip. In St. Louis the opposite is true.

In Toronto innovation was the rule, as developers looked for novel endeavors that would set them apart from countless other projects. In St. Louis, says Joe Berridge, a partner at Urban Strategies Inc., the mentality is one of "endless second-guessing and doubting." His firm helped prepare a controversial 1999 revitalization plan that called for the infusion of nearly one billion investment dollars into downtown.

"There was a huge amount of skepticism," recalls Berridge. "There was a kind of show-me conservatism, which I found tricky to deal with."

Rollin Stanley has bold plans for St. Louis. If he had his way, downtown's one-way streets would be eliminated, buildings would have to retrofit their basements to include showers for bicyclists, and bike lanes would meander alongside major thoroughfares. Stanley envisions a pedestrian paradise where workers, residents and visitors can window-shop and run errands. He also wants more teeth put in Missouri's planning and zoning laws; currently, his department isn't required by law to examine, approve -- or see -- any proposed deviation from the zoning guidelines and comprehensive land-use plan.

But his ideas and recommendations, though commonplace in Toronto, would stun St. Louis developers, laments Stanley. "If people here even heard about the process up there, they'd fall to the ground and start coughing up hairballs."

Rollin Stanley, 46, is lean and fit, about five-foot-ten, and he wears his dark brown hair longish. He's handsome and smiles a lot, and when he does, he reveals teeth that resemble an urban skyline, all jagged and uneven, the sole indiscretion on an otherwise gentle face.

On a recent night, Stanley stands in front of about 40 St. Louis-area architects in the A.G. Edwards conference room. He's in his element. "Is anyone here from H.O.K.?" he asks, referring to the St. Louis-based architectural firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum. No response. "Good," he says jokingly, "then we can talk bad about them." The architects burst out laughing.

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