Extreme Makeover

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

A strong MetroLink booster, Stanley is excited about the proposed north line, which will wind from West Florissant Avenue to Natural Bridge Road and into Wellston. Stanley flips to a slide of Natural Bridge. He then tells the story of a constituent who opposed running the line down the middle of Natural Bridge, preferring to use a railway corridor located three blocks north. "I fell to the ground clutching my throat," says Stanley, "got back up, gained my air back and said, 'Hang on a second. You're coming home from work. You get off the MetroLink, and you forgot to get milk. If you're at the railway corridor, where do you get that milk?'" The constituent couldn't answer. Stanley explained that if the line ran down Natural Bridge, which is more than wide enough, an individual could jump off MetroLink, grab the milk at a grocery, then hop a bus to wherever.

"I made them think," he says.

Then Stanley moves on to the future of residential downtown developments, in crumbling districts and in thriving areas like the Central West End. He stresses the importance of mixed-use developments, buildings with ground-level retail and residential above. His favorite residential development is the Louderman Lofts on Locust. His office is across the street. "I can walk out and, within two blocks, I can go to the hardware store, I can have lunch, I can go to the dry cleaners; just down the street I can go to the pharmacy. I can go to a restaurant. I can go to Famous-Barr. I can go to a men's clothing store, and the list goes on and on. I can do all those things because that's such an urban building."

Stanley wants to reinvent an underused business strip 
along Martin Luther King Boulevard (top). He 
believes new buildings, such as the one above, will 
help revitalize the district.
Stanley wants to reinvent an underused business strip along Martin Luther King Boulevard (top). He believes new buildings, such as the one above, will help revitalize the district.
In Toronto, drive-throughs are banned; doughnut stand 
walk-throughs, however, are not.
In Toronto, drive-throughs are banned; doughnut stand walk-throughs, however, are not.

New high-rises, he said, should offer a wide range of units that are affordable, not only to empty-nesters with money to burn, but to twentysomethings with a craving to live in the city.

"When I first came here," he says, "I couldn't believe the size of the units people were building. What created a market in places like Denver or Toronto was smaller units -- first-home buyers. And nobody's hitting that market. Nobody." Developers tend to balk, he says, at middle-income condos. "'They say, 'Well, I'm not sure. They're only making $40,000.' But they're buying a unit from you! What are they going to do, go upstairs and steal somebody's TV? No. They're going to be vested in the property. And that's going to be a wonderful thing for the city, because instead of living in O'Fallon in a townhome, they'll be able to walk to work."

"All those things are baby steps to success," Stanley concludes. "Now you've got bikes downtown, and you've got people walking, you start to see people thinking differently about the street patterns. But there's tremendous resistance down there."

Stanley can only push so hard, says Todd Swanstrom, a professor of public policy at Saint Louis University and co-author of Place Matters: Metropolitics for the Twenty-First Century. "One of his central dilemmas is, 'If I push too hard, I may frighten away the developers. But if I don't have standards, the land may not acquire its highest and best use,' to use the phrase of the planners." Swanstrom says that Stanley has to build a case for planning. "He needs to almost start from scratch to legitimize it. And that is a hard case to make, because everybody assumes that whenever you talk planning, you're talking about restricting what developers can do."

But Stanley is determined to change the mindset. Later, during a discussion in his office, he cites as an example a current project that developers Steve and Mike Roberts are creating surrounding the old Enright School on Union Boulevard. The Roberts brothers are investing heavily in north St. Louis, and Stanley has been working diligently to guide the project. It proposes twenty new homes to complement the Enright School, which the brothers are transforming into condominiums. Stanley says the initial plans were for a row of single-family homes, but they were turned in on themselves to create a kind of gated community. Stanley showed the Robertses a way to build the homes to better serve the residents: "If you put the houses facing the school, you have this wonderful muse, with little iron gates that open up, with spectacular oak trees."

The difference is small -- just one little development on the north side -- but building projects accumulate, Stanley says, and soon enough a sea-change takes effect. "When you see the Enright project built, I feel I've accomplished something, because that will set the standard for everybody else."

At the A.G. Edwards forum, Stanley pauses and looks at the group of architects. "I urge you -- I charge you -- with this assignment," he says forcefully. "I'd like you all to get people to think like this."


Rollin Stanley is driven. He used to collect vintage cars but sold all of them except for his 1961 Alfa Guilietta. He's raced go-carts at speeds of 120 mph. When he's cycling, he dresses as if he's riding in the Tour de France. He's a hockey nut, too, who doesn't mind showing his Canadian stripes. Last year, when the Blues hosted Vancouver in the 2003 NHL playoffs, Stanley made sure to attend the game in a Canucks jersey.

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