Sunday, December 20, 2015

Street Trees And Re-establishing An Urban Canopy

In part one of my posts related to curb appeal and environmental sustainability, I discussed a "Milkweed for Monarchs" project undertaken by the Fox Park Neighborhood Association in 2015.

In this post, I will share my personal connection to a street tree project recently completed in the same neighborhood. I joined the Fox Park Neighborhood Association for a one year term through 2015. The board was looking for projects to bring to the general membership that would benefit the neighborhood in a meaningful way.  Several proposals were weighed including the median project mentioned previously, a sidewalk replacement project and finally a street tree replacement project.

The neighborhood had been seeking upgrades to the medians for years, so that was a no-brainer. The other two options took some research.

It started with some simple observations of the neighborhood.  Walking the streets and auditing the sidewalk situation and the largest contiguous stretches of streets without trees.  The sidewalks were ruled out after receiving a couple cost prohibitive bids, so we focused on street trees.

Why are trees an asset to the neighborhood?  Well, the benefits to the public, property owner and pedestrian along the sidewalk are indisputable and well documented.  One of my favorite reads on the subject is from Dan Burden's "22 Benefits of Urban Street Trees" published in 2006.  Burden is a Senior Urban Designer at Glatting-Jackson Architectural and Design Firm in collaboration with Walkable Coummunities, Inc.

In short, here's the list of 22 reasons urban street are a benefit to any city:
  1. Reduced and more appropriate urban traffic speeds. 
  2. Create safer walking environments
  3. Trees call for placemaking planting strips and medians,
  4. Increased security
  5. Improved business
  6. Less drainage infrastructure.
  7. Rain, sun, heat and skin protection
  8. Reduced harm from tailpipe emissions
  9. Gas transformation efficiency
  10. Lower urban air temperatures
  11. Lower ozone
  12. Convert streets, parking and walls into more aesthetically pleasing environments
  13. Soften and screen necessary street features such as utility poles, light poles and other needed street furniture
  14. Reduced blood pressure, improved overall emotional and psychological health
  15. Time in travel perception
  16. Reduced road rage
  17. Improved operations potential
  18. Added value to adjacent homes, businesses and tax base
  19. Provides a lawn for a splash and spray zone, storage of snow, driveway elevation transition and more
  20. Filtering and screening agent
  21. Longer pavement life
  22. Connection to nature and the human senses
Pretty impressive, eh...there is something on that list for everyone from the environmentalist to the staunch libertarian.  As I said, these benefits are pretty universal and many are backed by empirical data vs. subjective or academic reasoning, which adds to the rock solid line of evidence that street trees are a benefit to all.

Take for instance #6:
"Trees absorb the first 30% of most precipitation through their leaf system, allowing evaporation back into the atmosphere. This moisture never hits the ground. Another percentage (up to 30%) of precipitation is absorbed back into the ground and taken in and held onto by the root structure, then absorbed and then transpired back to the air. Some of this water also naturally percolates into the ground water and aquifer. Storm water runoff and flooding potential to urban properties is therefore reduced."
You can read up on all 22 reasons HERE.

Anyhow, here is how we went about our project. Each year the various wards throughout the city are allotted funds that can be spent largely at the discretion of the elected alderperson. In our case, we have a great working relationship with the alderperson, Christine Ingrassia, and she helped fund a street tree audit of the city's sixth ward. This will go a long way in understanding where to invest in trees in the future. We asked Ingrassia to help us navigate the system and make contact with the correct departments in the city.

For this particular project, the neighborhood association had some funds saved up from various fund raising campaigns and we wanted to show our commitment to getting Fox Park back in the tree game by making a purchase of trees directly from our organization's treasury.

Next we had to do some homework to bring a plan to the Board and then to the general membership for a vote.

We started by investigating available species. We went to the Missouri Botanical Garden's wonderful website to select species that are low maintenance, drought resistant and have low pedestrian trip-causing debris (e.g., acorns, gumballs)

We narrowed it down to three species including the ginko, Freeman maple and blackgum. Ginko's were voted down on the off chance that female trees (you only order males) could find their way into the supply chain and females produce the butyric acid-laden fruits which are quite foul smelling (that doesn't stop my dog from eating them like Skittles).

So we set a meeting with the city's Forestry Department to share our intentions and develop a game-plan to help us identify the species, associated cost, locations within the neighborhood and the logistics of ordering the trees and getting them planted.  So, our alderperson, the head of Forestry, the Urban Forester and two other certified arborists on staff were kind enough to sit down with us in April and talk trees and help plot out our path. We had the following questions:

1. species availability
2. height and trunk diameter available
3. planting instructions/location suggestions within Fox Park
4  what is needed from us?
5. next steps and other feedback from forestry

Turns out the arborists liked our choices for species and said either would work. We decided upon the blackgum as it is a hearty native that does well in clay soils and has colorful fall foliage and  has very little debris.

Blackgum:  Nyssa sylvatica 

Per the Missouri Botanical Garden, blackgum are a "plant of merit" and categorized as low maintenance and "tried and trouble-free".  The species selection was a go.

Forestry explained the process. They would be responsible for:
  • site assessment
  • recommendations for any box cuts (taking a saw and cutting ~6 inches off the sidewalks) to create more space for the tree
  • receiving and holding the trees from the nursery until time for planting in late 2015
  • planting
The cost for each 2-2.5 inch diameter tree was $140.00, all above labor included.

Forestry agreed to send out a staff arborist to help us identify ideal planting locations.

Now that we had an understanding of the process and associated costs, we took the details back to the board who agreed to propose the purchase of 20 trees to the neighborhood's general membership for a vote.

We then took the plan to a neighborhood meeting for a vote. The general membership voted unanimously in support of the project.

We were on our way.

In July, on what must have been one of the hottest days of the year, we met with one of the city's arborists to walk the neighborhood and select some good sites.

There was some heavy construction throughout some parts of the neighborhood, including Oregon Street and Magnolia Avenue, so we avoided those areas.  We also had to avoid some obvious obstacles such as utility lines.

We expresses an interest in having this first planting be in a high profile, high traffic zone. We wanted a large contiguous stretch that currently had NO trees to help make the biggest impact of a planting. The 2700 block of Russell Boulevard immediately came to mind as this is likely one of the most traveled east-west corridors in Fox Park.

Dan the arborist made his recommendations, a small group of board members concurred and we marked twenty planting sites with orange spray paint for the next step in the process: box cuts.

Depending on the width of ground between the street and the sidewalk, cutting the sidewalk could be necessary to give the trees enough space to grow.

This work was carried out by the city:

Then, we just had to wait for the weather to cool off, typically around October or November.

Well I was lucky enough to be on Russell and Ohio the day the Forestry Dept. workers delivered our trees to get some photos and thank the guys that did the truly hard work...the digging.

Here's the result of their hard work and the dedication and support of our local alderperson and neighborhood association.

Hopefully the neighborhood has shown that we are committed to reaping the benefits that urban street trees provide and we'll see the next generation of neighborhood leadership continue this worthy pursuit.

And if you were one of the lucky neighbors to have a tree planted in front of your abode, please consider helping establish these beauties by providing plenty of water.

Cheers, Fox Park! You are better looking and healthier today than you were a year ago.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Why I Think A Second NFL Stadium Is Bad For St. Louis

With a pending vote by the Board of Alderman on whether to fund the construction of a second NFL stadium in the city, I wanted to cobble together my thoughts here at the last minute as to why I think this is a bum deal for residents of St. Louis. I usually keep my mouth shut as it is endlessly frustrating to constantly disagree with decisions that local leadership make. I find myself in the minority when it comes to what we need and what is considered progress. Why even bother? Maybe a Hail Mary pass is in order; whatever, this time it feels like the vote could be close enough to reject this public money going to billionaires. Maybe people need to speak up more...who knows.  I don't think the state has much appetite to fund this stadium either, so who knows what could happen.

Either way, it'll be interesting to watch these next few days play out.

Before I share my thoughts I want to make some things perfectly clear:

I'm not anti-football. I love all sports from the Olympics to the NFL. Just like the arts, sports are a spectacle of human accomplishment, and I don't discount its beauty, history or place in society. I am not sitting on a high horse on this one. 

Secondly, I respect people who work for the Rams and those who think St. Louis needs a team. I disagree with them on the stadium issue as you'll see below, but I will listen and I feel no malice toward anyone on the opposite side of the argument...but, we've been down this path before with the Dome. And you can see where that got us.

Thirdly, I do not seek to point out differences between St. Louis and the many cities in the suburbs to perpetuate the divisiveness that exists in this region. In fact, if I were voting on it, I'd go for a full merge of the county and the city a la Kansas City, Louisville or Indianapolis so we can all act like one big region and voting/taxing block as opposed to 100 different cities all building walls and tiny empires and acting selfishly.  But, I know that won't happen anytime soon and therefore when I speak about our region, I am using facts based on tax bases, electorates and boundary lines that do indeed divide us up into cities which are distinctly separate from each other by all measures. At times these boundaries must be considered if you are to realistically break down the situation.  Think Ferguson after the Michael Brown events; the world became very clear that St. Louis and Ferguson are different if every conceivable measure other than proximity: different voters, different police departments, different set of problems, different way of raising tax money. I don't mean to come across like I hate the suburbs because I don't; I'm fully aware of the charm and pressures of suburban living. My hometown is one of those suburbs albeit on the Illinois side.

Finally, I'm not anti-tax subsidy where it makes sense for the majority of residents. If the return is there and it helps create a more functioning city that attracts decent jobs and more people and solid funding for schools and everything else a city has to offer, then it's worth it. 

So that said, here's why I think spending public money on a second NFL stadium is bad for St. Louis:

1. We already have a perfectly good stadium that was built in 1995. It is only 20 years old and functions perfectly as a football stadium. Trust me, people LOVED the Dome when Warner, Faulk, Pace, Zahir-Hakim, Holt and Bruce made magic there. It was insanely hard for the opposing team to hear and the place was electric...and I'm saying that as a baseball was the hottest ticket in town. NFL football was insanely entertaining and people came to the Dome in droves. Furthermore, the Dome provides multiple stadium configurations that can seat up to 70,000 people. Seating levels include: a private luxury suite level with 120 suites, a private club seat and luxury suite level with 6,400 club seats, a concourse level (lower bowl) and terrace level (upper bowl). The city leaders in the 1990s negotiated a bum deal that put the city on the hook for upgrades that couldn't realistically be met. The Rams ownership used this stipulation in the contract to demand crazy terms and unrealistic upgrades. We don't have that money. So a group of suburbanites chose to draw up plans for a second NFL stadium, not in their city of residence, rather within walking distance from the current one. The Dome is perfectly fine and will hold more fans than the proposed stadium. Instead of realizing the city is under true pressure financially, the Rams chose to gouge us on the Dome vs. work with us.

2. I don't know for sure but I don't think Dave Peacock, the leader behind the new stadium plan, is a resident of St. Louis. Per wikipedia, he was born in the small town of Webster Groves, just outside the city limits of St. Louis, I presume he doesn't live here now. I know there are eyes rolling after reading this.  But when the chips fall and tax dollars and electorates come into play, city boundaries become crystal clear and accuracy and facts must trump "feelgood regionalism".  This will become important in point #8 below. Peacock is however an investor in local startup LockerDome which does have a St. Louis office, so props are given there.  But yet again, we have outsiders who can't vote here and don't care about our schools, streets, alleys, parks, street lights, sidewalks, police/fire pensions, etc.  Those things are paid by taxes and voted on by residents. Some will cite Peacock as a leader and a savior of St. Louis. It's hard to canonize someone with that title when they aren't a true resident with skin in the game. You want to spend our tax dollars? Come live hear and send your kids to our schools and drive down our alleys and visit our firehouses to see what we really need. I imagine those things look very different in Webster. I think leadership needs to come from within. It's always easier to spend someone else's money.

3. The Rams are not a good franchise. Their owner's net worth is $7.6 billion per Forbes, 2015. That means he is the 62nd richest person in the richest country in the world. If anyone can afford a football stadium it is this guy. He is a horrible leader, non-existent to the fans and frankly people can't stand this guy. He is so shrewd and driven by $ that he has no face or personality that you can latch onto and support.  If we are going to pony up tax dollars to help a billionaire make more money, we should have it be a lovable leader. Isn't that one of the pluses of sports? Communal love for a team? The Rams are not that team. They are horrible and people have not gotten behind them in recent years for this reason as much as the deplorable level of play/coaching. I went to the Pittsburgh game this year and walked past the hard core tailgaters just north of the Dome and saw this effigy of Kroenke:

4. Some will say that St. Louis needs to be relevant and being an NFL city is part of that relevency.  Well, you have to take a look at the numbers to understand that being an "NFL city" hasn't translated into much success for St. Louis. A vibrant city means lots of people and lots of jobs...wealth.  St. Louis has neither and it continues to drop precipitously; I'll elaborate on this point in reason #5. Now remember, when I say St. Louis I mean it literally as in, the City of St. Louis. There is no doubt in my mind the County benefits more from the Rams than St. Louis does.  Why? Because the Rams chose to locate their corporate HQ in the suburbs in Earth City, MO avoiding property taxes and job creation in the city. So the Rams leaving St. Louis for Maryland Heights or Earth City or Carson or Inglewood have the same impact on our tax base...I suggest moving the team to the suburbs so you don't eradicate our architecture further and build another deadzone on the door step of our city. I realize the Rams do pay gameday earnings taxes, so that would go away if the Rams played their game in the burbs or California.

5. Speaking of people leaving St. Louis, let's see how we've done since we became an "NFL City", first from 1960-1987 with my childhood team the Big Red and then again with the Rams starting in 1995. So, when the Cardinals first started playing in St. Louis in 1960 the Census counted 750,026 residents. Since becoming an "NFL City" in 1960 and the Cards eventual move to Arizona in 1987, we lost 353,341 people and by 1990 we were down to 396,685 tax payers, citizens, know St. Louisans. Sure this brutal loss was not the direct result of the Cardiac Cards or NFL or pro sports in general. But the point I'm trying to make is that NFL football and the 2nd Busch Stadium (that is now bulldozed) did nothing to "save St. Louis" and it was active ~100 days per year since the baseball and football Cardinals played there. People vote with their feet and they continue to do that to this day in St. Louis...I wish it weren't that way, but it is. In fact, since the Rams moved from Southern California to St. Louis in 1995, we lost another 58,000 residents. We are down to a paltry 317,419 people in a once powerful, dense city of >800,000. NFL football has done nothing for the city of St. Louis. No one who moves to Kirkwood, MO or Maplewood, MO or O'Fallon, IL citing average game-day experience at the Dome as their reason for leaving St. Louis for suburban pastures.

6. St. Louis, as a result of devastating population loss, has become poor. Per our comptroller, our credit rating is at risk of being downgraded and our tax dollars continue to disappear as the region's largest corporations double down in the suburbs and former great employers/tax payers like AB send high paying jobs to cities with direct flights and better global access (read NYC and Chicago). The median income in the suburban county immediately west of St. Louis, called St. Louis County has ~90 cities and vast swaths of unincorporated land has a pleasant median household income of $53,482. Break that down to a city that most, if not all people know, say Kirkwood and you get a median household income of $77,420. St. Charles County, one of the fastest growing cities in the next county to the west is at $56,622. The U.S. median household income is $53,891. Where does St. Louis stand? $34,800 (source). Friends, we are poor and the last thing we need to be using our dwindling tax dollars on is a second NFL stadium and a team with a horrible owner.

7. The new stadium will not generate property taxes. Do you know why people continue to leave St. Louis? The answers I hear are crime or schools. Do you know how those are funded? Racism is the third reason, but it tends to get buried in the crime or schools reasons, so you won't hear many people say that out loud. But it is there. This is a bad financial deal for the city, generating little to no money to go back to our schools, infrastructure and bills that we have to pay.

8. St. Louis was asked to go it alone, without the financial help of the wealthier suburbs chipping in. Only St. Louis was asked to pony up at the local level for this $1 billion stadium. Again, I don't make these distinctions about our region to pull us apart and point fingers. But the fact of the matter is the County Executive (kind of like the Mayor of the suburbs) did not want to fund the stadium, so the wealthier suburbs are out. Dave Peacock (wealthy suburbanite) and his stadium team do not live here (my assumption, sorry if he does live here), yet lobbied a judge to deny St. Louis citizens a right to vote on this use of taxes to fund billionaires. Then in a blow to the residents of the city, a small group of alderman chose to vote against a bill (albeit a sacrificial lamb) to bring stadium funding to a vote of the people. This has made folks in my small circles increasing disenfranchised with the process and the pitch for a second stadium. Shut up and pay we are told; we know what you need and we don't even live there!

9. We have a perfectly good stadium within walking distance from the proposed new one. The last thing we need is to further demolish the history of this city with a horrible use of land. A deadzone is what NFL stadiums are. This plan is a so-so stadium surrounded by a sea of surface parking that will get used ~10 times a year. People come here, tailgate for a couple hours, go to the game, and drive back home. This NFL fanbase has done little for St. Louis. We need businesses that operate all year, jobs and residents. This stadium will do nothing to keep Schnucks Culinaria open or get us a Walgreens/CVS or City Target that we so desperately need Downtown. AT&T is not going to reverse course and fill up the tower with employees all of a sudden. That ship has sailed. Trust me, the Bissinger's rehab of a former warehouse/factory on the North Riverfront is what we need 10 more of, not stadiums.'d be so much better in the suburbs and office parks which are already soul-less deadzones.

10. I'm going to keep my commentary on the Rams and Kroenke to a minimum. But, they are horrible on every level. Nothing is fun, no one is lovable, they hate the city and treat us like we're lucky to have them here. You chose the suburbs to set up your HQ and you come down here only on game day. Lease some office space here for your corporate operations. Be part of St. Louis not Earth City, MO. But they don't do that. And people will say it is a blow to our self esteem if we lose our football team. It'll sting a bit at first, but we got through the Big Red leaving and nothing changed. The Rams coming here in 1995 changed nothing. Personally, I think ugly wake-up calls like Ferguson have the potential to slap the region in the face and merge and start making meaningful changes that will grow our region and reverse our trend of poor leadership and less investment than any football team winning or losing could ever do.

We don't need another NFL stadium in St. Louis. We can't do it, we can't afford it. We need our money for our bills and our schools and our infrastructure, which no one else will pay for but us. If Kroenke and Peacock want to build a new stadium, I suggest the wealthier suburbs as a location. They are in a better spot to afford it. The corporate HQ is already there, build a stadium in Maryland Heights or Earth City and let us off the financial hook and abandon St. Louis in full. Don't worry, we can work out a deal to license the naming rights of the "St. Louis" Rams back to the team for a small fee. We can use the money.