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.

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.

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."

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."

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."

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.

In Toronto he was part of an eight-man rowing team that sped thirty-two miles across Lake Ontario. His team won the race four out of five years. The one time they didn't win was when they got slammed by a cold front. Lost in fog, Stanley's team ultimately managed to finish the race. After touching land, though, he collapsed with hypothermia and his heart stopped. After being stripped of his clothes and wrapped in warm blankets, his pulse resumed and he was rushed to the hospital. "That was fun," he laughs. "Oh, it was a blast, I tell you, a blast. It was really an experience."

The fifth of six children -- a veritable Canadian Brady Bunch of three boys and three girls -- Stanley grew up in North Bay, Ontario, three hours north of Toronto. He opted for a career in urban planning during a high-school cross-country meet in Vancouver. His father mentioned a friend who was a planner, recalls Stanley, a guy making a lot of money from it. "I said, 'Hey, that sounds okay. Do you need mathematics for that one?' I was not stellar in math." He attended Ryerson University in Toronto despite an early aversion to city living in general -- back then, he was more comfortable in rural settings. After majoring in urban and regional planning, he was hired as chief planner at Toronto Pearson International Airport; a year later he moved over to work for the city of Toronto.

Stanley earned his stellar reputation, says Joseph Heathcott, an assistant professor of American studies at Saint Louis University, when, on January 1, 1998, Toronto increased its population from 600,000 to 2.4 million overnight. The provincial government of Ontario ordered the city to merge with five cities surrounding it -- and it was Stanley's job to make it work. "He's well known among planners and educators for pushing the envelope, of thinking regionally," says Heathcott. "He was one of those people who actually worked it out in practice. Stanley was right there in the middle. And that's an enormous accomplishment."

In Toronto Stanley had a rap for speaking his mind and for being unafraid to clash with adversaries. Frank Lewinberg, also of Urban Strategies Inc., is a Toronto-based development planner who often worked on building proposals with Stanley. "When you got Rollin," he says, "you were pleased, because you knew you weren't going to get any bullshit. You knew you were going to get the straight goods." Some of that can be perceived as bullheadedness, adds Lewinberg. "He's not a shy guy. He likes to get attention. He likes to sort of say, 'Look, I'm here. I have something to say.'"

Stanley's planning philosophy was forged in part by urban theorist Jane Jacobs. Her landmark 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, is the bible of the new-urbanist movement, stressing the need for cohesive, tight-knit neighborhoods and decrying ways the automobile fractures the fabric of urban life. Jacobs used to attend Stanley's Toronto planning hearings.

Despite the respect given to him by academics, Stanley's feeling for them is not quite mutual. "I'm not huge on academia," he says matter-of-factly. "I think they need to get out more."

After two decades in Toronto, Stanley chose a new direction. "I started studying how things were done in America. I always thought that I wanted to be the planning director of either St. Louis or Detroit, because those would be the biggest challenges." It didn't hurt that Stanley's wife of eleven years, Ann, was born and raised in St. Louis. After accepting the job, the Stanleys settled in Soulard.

Joe Berridge of Urban Strategies says Stanley is the perfect antidote for St. Louis. "Rollin's a ballsy guy," he says. "He's always had an attractively flamboyant quality to him." And that might help St. Louis, he says. "It's actually a good idea to have people with an exaggerated personality. It helps to stir things up a little bit."

SLU's Heathcott couldn't believe it when he heard Stanley got the top planning job. "It was an accident," jokes Heathcott. "Someone was asleep and actually pushed his pile into the 'yes' category with their elbow when they were nodding off. I don't know what happened."

Mayor Slay says he was looking for an experienced idea man when interviewing candidates for the job. "One of the things I found out about him was that he had a wonderful reputation in Toronto as somebody who wasn't just a utility person, but somebody who was a true visionary," says Slay. "I liked him right away because he exudes passion for urban areas. He likes rejuvenating places."

"The way I look at myself and a lot of the other folks -- and I mean metaphorically -- is that we've got a lot of plumbers and builders, but we need some dreamers," echoes Jeff Rainford, Slay's chief of staff.

So far, however, Heathcott has been disappointed. "I think a lot of us had really high hopes. I'm still a big fan of Rollin Stanley's. I happen to like his abrasive style. I think St. Louis needs that. But on the other hand, he is serving a very backward, strong-headed administration that seems to not really care about the long-term viability of the city. "If you're a small-minded person like Francis Slay," he adds, "why would you hire someone like Rollin Stanley? I don't know. I think he got good advice."

As planning director, Stanley can use his clout to deny developers tax incentives for their projects. He has the power to make recommendations whether a proposed development is worthy of tax abatement, tax-increment financing, tax credits and the like, all of which can potentially save thousands of dollars on a project.

But, adds Stanley, "You don't have to slap people around. You just say, 'Hey, look, have you thought of this?' In an environment where people aren't used to hearing something else, it works real well if you just go and say, 'This can benefit you, it can benefit us.' If it makes sense, it makes sense, and people tend to see this."

Jim Shrewsbury, president of the City of St. Louis Board of Aldermen, is impressed with Stanley but cautions, "We've all had bad experiences with the wonder boys who have come in and told us everything we do is wrong, and everything has to be changed -- and then, two years later, go somewhere else."

The purpose of the 1975 interim, stopgap land-use measure was to stem the city's dramatic population decline. But the plan was quickly condemned as "a racist attack on the people of St. Louis" when it left the predominantly white south side intact while recommending the demolition of 70,000 north-side homes.

In an open letter to the architects of the so-called Team Four Plan, black leaders wrote: "It is a plan by which [Team Four] intend to first let the black community rot by cutting services and discouraging investments, then move the people out by condemning their homes....."

SLU's Todd Swanstrom says St. Louis' planning history has taught the black community to greet land-use plans with skepticism. "The people in the minority communities are suspicious, and rightfully so. There's not a tradition of trust that's been developed over the years in which responsible, grassroots organizations and ward leaders can work with the city to improve their areas."

Third Ward Alderman Freeman Bosley Sr. agrees. "Most of those plans were devoid of community and neighborhood input," he says.

St. Louis leaders have learned from that mistake.

Last month Mayor Slay introduced the fourth draft of the updated strategic land-use plan for St. Louis. The thirteen-member planning commission will ultimately approve or reject the plan. The Board of Aldermen is not required to vote on it. Addressing the commission, Slay said of the plan, "It's going to be something that's going to demonstrate to others looking at the city that we're not some backwards city working from a 1947 plan."

Window-size maps consumed one side of the room, each identifying a different aspect of the plan. In all, ten categories of land use suggest the proper uses of the entirety of St. Louis city. The most interesting parts of the new plan (see stlcin.missouri.org/landuse for details) are identified as "opportunity areas," dead zones ripe for imaginative solutions.

Under the plan, these areas are, in essence, up for grabs. They include the warehouse district just south of the Arch, where Stanley envisions an arts district with lofts, studios and galleries. Also, on land just south of the Cupples Station warehouse complex, near the mass of railroad tracks, a developer has proposed a lake surrounded by condos. A vast, 30 square-block chunk of midtown is also open to new ideas, as is a smaller south-city plot near the intersection of Gravois, Sidney and Jefferson.

Stanley was uncharacteristically brief in his statements. "It's a clear road map for investment. This is not cast in stone. It's a plan. And it's a plan that leads to other things."

Like the Team Four plan of 1975, the new land-use plan also opens large chunks of north St. Louis to redevelopment -- but does not recommend tearing down people's homes. Rather, says Stanley, who opted not to read the Team Four plan because he wanted to arrive at his own fresh conclusions, the plan suggests filling the vacant and abandoned property with new homes. Developers will build around old homes that are well-tended.

To avoid accusations of racism, Stanley and his team sat down with each alderman at least twice to have those conversations. "We went over this and fine-grained it as much as possible," he says. "Obviously there are more large tracts of vacant land up near [the] Pruitt-Igoe [housing project] than there are near Carondelet. That's a fact of life."

Alderman Bosley says he and other north-side community leaders are happy with what they've seen of the plan and have no qualms with the redevelopment zones. "It came with a great amount of input from our community," Bosley says. Concerns have been addressed, and "people [are] believing that there's a light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not the train coming to run over them."

Will the plan fly? No one is certain. In the past, land-use plans end up looking like Swiss cheese as residents and developers petition aldermen to allow for exceptions, or variances -- which, Stanley notes, are illegal in Toronto. Aldermen, eager to remain in office, have the ability to grant variances to anyone who asks.

Still, says Joseph Heathcott of SLU, the plan is vulnerable. Because of weak planning laws, Stanley ultimately can't prevent variances. "An alderman would say, 'Well, my brother-in-law runs a junkyard in Soulard, and I know that it's against the comprehensive plan, but I'm just going to grant them a variance,'" says Heathcott. "One of those is fine, but a thousand of those mean that you don't have a comprehensive plan anymore."

Shrewsbury denies that variances are much of a problem but says that they're inevitable and necessary. "You're always going to have variances," he says. "Land-use plans and zoning codes have to be a bit flexible."

And that's why the team consulted with aldermen and have gone through four drafts. Now, it's up to Stanley to sell this plan to the aldermen.

"He's got a tough row to hoe," says Todd Swanstrom. In successful cities without much vacant space, he says, land-use plans reflect existing uses. A tavern or industrial complex that's been in the same location for 30 years won't be forcibly moved. "But here in St. Louis," he continues, "there's tremendous potential, tremendous elasticity. It's a key moment in our history, I think. There's potential for development. But how do you get it out of that very parochial, ward-based politics and get the ward leaders to buy into the process? You have to get the stakeholders to buy into it."

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