Extreme Makeover

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

He's here for "An Evening with Rollin Stanley," part of an American Institute of Architects educational workshop His mission: to explain his vision for St. Louis -- and perhaps inject it into the veins of those who can turn it into reality. He stands at the center of an arena-style classroom wearing a finely tailored dark green suit and holding a PowerPoint remote control. He's a talented public speaker. It's as if he's sitting in a bar with his buddies, sipping a pint of Warsteiner, his favorite beer.

"Toronto's a very diverse city," he says to the group, "and it's very expensive. Some people will say that it's the most diverse city, culturally, in the world. And that's different from here."

Stanley tells the architects that even in his brief time in St. Louis, he's witnessed a dramatic transformation. "It's just astounding how fast it has changed. It's really quite fascinating. I think I've done more planning here than I ever did back in Toronto."

Members of the community inspect the new land-use 
plan. An earlier plan was decried as "a racist attack on 
the people of St. Louis."
Bob Boston
Members of the community inspect the new land-use plan. An earlier plan was decried as "a racist attack on the people of St. Louis."
Stanley used to collect cars, but he sold all of them 
except a 1961 Alfa Romeo Guilietta.
Stanley used to collect cars, but he sold all of them except a 1961 Alfa Romeo Guilietta.

Stanley talks a lot about Toronto, but he's not interested in remaking St. Louis in his former hometown's image. Rather, he wants to infuse the thought processes of a successful 21st-century city into the brain of a city still mired in the setbacks of the mid-20th century. Stanley flips through slides of Toronto to illustrate a few key points. Surface parking lots are not allowed -- same with drive-throughs.

"I have a philosophy," jokes Stanley as he displays an image of a Toronto walk-up doughnut stand. "If you can't get out of your car to buy a doughnut, you should probably not be eating it."

Toronto requires that a percentage of big buildings be devoted to retail space and provide bicycle parking, showers for cycling workers, public art and daycare facilities.

"Rollin was very much looking towards the public interest," recalls Lawrence Zucker, vice president of corporate development at Osmington Inc., a Toronto-based real estate investment company. "Rollin, from his experience, can convince you that it makes sense to put a little bit more money into something that you might not see the reward or return on right away."

It hasn't been that way in St. Louis. Developers have been given carte blanche when they bring proposals to city hall. St. Louis politicians have long portrayed any new construction, be it a strip mall, a fast-food restaurant or high-rise public housing, as a sign of progress and success. Stanley's goal is to push architects and developers to design better buildings in logical locations. But that's like turning an ocean liner in a pond.

"What he's got in St. Louis that he didn't have here is an incredible challenge," says Stanley's friend and colleague Stan Makuch, a Toronto lawyer. "And that's what he rises to."

At the A.G. Edwards forum, Rollin Stanley is praising traffic jams. "Congestion is a good thing," he says adamantly. "Some people might not believe that. But think about any city that you like and compare it to here. Chicago is congested. Boston, Seattle, they're all congested. You've got to look at the street patterns, and one-way streets are a disaster. They kill retail.

"Density, to some people in St. Louis, is a four-letter word," he adds.

Boston comes up a lot in conversations with Rollin Stanley. Part of his job, he explains, is to give people confidence in St. Louis' future -- "to think that all things that people love when they go to Boston can actually happen here. It's not actually a good thing to get into your SUV, drive back to the county, sweep over the Page Avenue extension waving your pistol out the window."

Stanley recalls his first visit with his wife to Creve Coeur Lake. "The sun was setting, and sure enough, there was an expanse of concrete going nowhere. Somebody told me the cost of the Page Avenue extension could have rebuilt every road and sidewalk in the city of St. Louis. It's astounding."

Stanley shines when he starts rattling off his perceptions and suggestions, when he's indexing his brain and drawing on ideas that are utterly foreign to St. Louis. He presents it all so matter-of-factly that one wonders how the city has managed to survive without him. Most interesting are the little things he's noticed, aspects that most residents miss. He adores Olive Street, from downtown to the Central West End, and has been pushing for a connecting bike path.

"You can drive down Olive headed west to get home in the Central West End at five o'clock, take your hand off the wheel, cover your eyes, and you're not going to hit anything. There's no traffic. Everybody's on the highway." These roads, Stanley explains, were built for a city of 850,000 people with cars.

"Streets are public assets," he says. "Streets are our legacy."

He then brings the discussion back to his sizable concern about downtown St. Louis' one-way streets. One-way streets, he says, are obstacles to commercial traffic and successful retail in just about every major city. Past St. Louis planners focused on quickly funneling the 100,000 downtown workers to and from the interstates. "And that's a positive thing," he qualifies, "but it becomes a secondary question if you're trying to rebuild the inner city."

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