Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ideas for the Jefferson & Virginia Ave. Streets and Sidewalks Project

As many of our readers know, in 2010 Crystal City will be launching the first of a series of major and much needed roadway improvement projects. The first project will be a Surface Transportation Project (STP) for Jefferson Ave from 10th to 4th street and Virginia from 4th to Bailey Road. This project will include road milling and new overlay, new curbs and sidewalks, new decorative street lighting, and the addition of tree lawns in areas with sufficient right-of-way. The grant is an 80/20 split, making this project a phenomenal deal for Crystal City residents. On August 17th the City Council and project engineers held a public comment hearing for input on the upcoming project. The hearing was well attended and all of the comments were very constructive with many good ideas put forward.

We've talked before about the need for adopting a Complete Streets Policy in Crystal City to serve as a design standards document for projects like these. In the meantime, we took a look at other similar road projects in our region and have put together a list of ideas and principles we feel can make the Jefferson/Virginia project (and the next project, 11th & Mississippi) a rousing success!

1. Ensure ADA Compliance

ADA compliance is, of course, being engineered into this project. Its an important component in 21st century design and certainly a moral obligation to be included. We hope that the engineers ensure that all of the curb access ramps are sufficiently graded to allow motorized and non-motorized wheelchairs to go up and down freely. We also want to ensure that all sidewalk ramps are fitted with a dimpled plate to assist our visually impaired residents in knowing where the sidewalk meets the street, and also to help provide traction in wet weather to guard against slipping. These ideas seem simple enough, but the number of projects that include improperly graded ramps or are not fully ADA compliant are many in number and not all of them get fixed.

2. Ensure Compliance with the Bike/Pedestrian Trail Master Plan

We noted that the engineers have included "Bikes Share The Road" signage in the plan, but we'd like to see them go a step further. Crystal City has a Bike/Pedestrian Trail Master Plan in place from a grant project a few years ago. The City should ensure that instead of merely placing "Bikes Share the Road" signage that appropriate "Bike Trail" or "Bike Route" signage is placed. The project should also include a bike trail logo stenciled onto the road where appropriate. Both Jefferson and Virginia Avenues have recommended trail treatments in the plan and we feel that the City and its engineers should follow those recommendations where appropriate. Signage and stencils are cheap and easy upgrades. City officials would do well to promote non-motorized transportation and recreational travel in Crystal City.

3. Watch the Light Pollution!

We really like the planned upgrade in street lights-- they'll match the new lights on the Mississippi Ave bridge. We have a minor concern, however, about possible light pollution from so many of these new fixtures. Rather than project light down toward the ground, the new fixtures are essentially omni-directional. The lights are bright enough, when bunched together, to be extremely bright, (as one can notice crossing the tracks on Virginia and looking east toward the bridge late at night) which has the unfortunate effect of bleeding light into the night sky thus making the stars more difficult to see. The recently passed conditional use permit for the Wings Iron Reduction Facility has restrictions on its types of lighting specifically to combat this issue. Not being lighting experts, we are unaware of whether a lower wattage bulb could be used to dim this effect in the new lights being placed along Jefferson and Virginia Avenues or whether a modification to the light, such as a kind of cap, could be placed to limit or redirect the light. Street and sidewalk lighting is very important for the safety of our residents. A happy balance can definitely be achieved that keeps our streets safe and our skies dark!

More information on this subject can be found at the International Dark Sky Association FAQ

4. Have a Plan for the Street Trees

We were very happy with the announcement of new tree lawns and street trees being planted in Crystal City-- we feel that our community forest is an important and valuable resource to our community. In fact, we openly advocate Crystal City taking the steps neccissary to become a Tree City USA! In the meantime, to maximize the effect of these improvements and new trees we recommend that Crystal City team with the local Resource Forester to come up with a solid plan for our new plantings. Its important to be diverse in tree selection to avoid mass killings from one disease or insect, but its also important not to simply allow people to pick any tree they wish. The result of completely free choice would be a hodgepodge look, trees of varying sizes which would not provide a full street canopy, and trees that would have a root system that spreads too far outward, possibly tearing up our new sidewalks within a few years. A good plan will ensure we get maximum value, aesthetic improvement, enjoyment, and longevity from our new street tress.

More information on Community Forests and Street Tree Planting can be found at the Missouri Department of Conservation site.

In the past these ideas would have been considered extravagant or over the top. Today, they are essential and demanded parts to any public infrastructure improvements. We are excited about these street improvements as they represent a major step forward in Crystal City's evolution into a 21st century, modern community!


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Planning for Crystal City's Parks System

As we've covered in other posts, for Crystal City to become a 21st century community new approaches and new ways of thinking need to be introduced into our policy-making process. From our streets to our trees its time to update the way we do things. We at 2010 adamantly believe that the best way to achieve these goals is through an open, community driven planning process, conducted by a professional planning firm if appropriate or needed.

One of the most utilized city services is our parks. Crystal City has 4 (5 if you separate the north end and lake areas from the main park) parks in its system- Crystal City Municipal Park and Pool, Hickey White, Charlie Brown, and the little known Bird Sanctuary. When the park system was started, there was only 1 park (Municipal Park) to maintain. Today there are 4-- yet the funding for our parks remains at the same level as when it started almost 40 years ago. Our Park Board members have done a fantastic job maximizing every dollar in their very tight budget to keep our pool open and our parks clean and safe.

A 21st century community values and improves its parks rather than watching them barely get by year to year! Our Park Board has worked hard for years to make improvements to our parks despite a flat budget. Now its time for Crystal City to step up and give its parks a hand.

Our proposal: The City Council should offer funding to the Park Board for retaining a professional planning firm to aid in the drafting of a Park Master Plan.

1. Why a Park Master Plan?

Park planning is a process that helps establish long-term goals, priorities, and capital improvements for a parks system. Best of all, the ideas and direction comes from the citizens who pay for and use their parks every day! Think of it like this- you want to build a house. Would you just hire a construction crew to come in and start building it? Or would you go to an architect to design and plan first? Of course you'd want plans. So why would we expect anything less from our parks? In our analogy, the Plan is the blueprint, the Park Board is the construction firm, and the Parks Director is the actual builder. Once the plan is set the Park Board will work toward its goals and objectives with the Park Director carrying out daily tasks.

2. What would a Park Master Plan look like?

The final plan would be a document voted on by the Park Board that would contain maps, geographical information, and planned improvements laid out along with a general plan and schedule for implementation. Think of it like a blueprint-- it would show the park in the future after the plan has been implemented with images depicting planned improvements or changes. An excellent example of a Park Plan is the Fox Park Master Plan.

3. We're just a small town with a small park system. Its not like we're Forest Park or a big city. Why do we need a plan like this? Why should we spend the money on this when we could buy new swings or a new diving board?

These are questions we hear a lot- and they are fair questions to ask. No, Crystal City isn't a big city- but that doesn't mean we shouldn't have high standards for our city services. Crystal City's parks are dwarfed by Forest Park- but that doesn't mean we wouldn't benefit greatly from an open, community driven planning process designed to generate public input into the future of our parks system. Planning is a process that doesn't depend on city size. Crystal City is about to begin the process of updating its ancient Comprehensive/Master Plan. Just because we aren't a big city doesn't mean we shouldn't plan for our city's future-- parks included. Just because we could buy new swings doesn't mean we know the best place to locate them, the best type to buy, or how many to get. A Park Master Plan, written by a professional planning firm with input from the citizens that use our parks, will provide a blueprint for the future, agreed upon by consensus, that the Park Board members can then implement with confidence.

4. OK you've sold me. We need a plan! But where will we find the money to implement it? Or to pay the planning firm? You said it yourself-- the parks budget is too small!

The park budget IS far too small for its needs. We believe that the City Council should authorize money to be spent from the Parks, Stormwater, and Levee Maintenance fund that was approved by the voters approximately 10 years ago. Stormwater projects and levee maintenance projects have both received funds from this dedicated tax, but the park system never has. By funding a Parks Master Plan the City Council and Park Board will be making a sound investment in our park system's future. With a plan in hand, the Park Board can then come back to the City Council and other funding entities and request money or grants for specific projects that work toward plan implementation. These projects will not only have been created through citizen input, but they will also have been ranked by necessity. Both the City Council and Park Board will know that the money requested will be money well spent, helping to fulfill a community's goals and ideas about its park system.

The Crystal City parks system faces many challenges in its near future, from both a budgetary and a services/amenities provided perspective. In these times of change, now is the opportunity to budget some money, work with the public on a new Parks Master Plan, and make sure we're meeting the open-space needs of our community now and for the next generation.


Sunday, September 6, 2009

Suggestions for Improving City/Citizen Relations

We here at Crystal City 2010 have a few suggestions to help improve City/Citizen communications:

1. Update the City Website - The City website is OK, but navigation can be difficult. Minutes and Agendas aren't readily apparent and only cover City Council business- no P&Z, BOZA, Park Board etc. Proposed ordinances, zoning change requests, lot subdivisions, policies and resolutions aren't posted either.

Our Proposal: The website should be updated with a fresh, clean look, a search feature, and a clear navigation system that emphasizes high-demand items like agendas, minutes, ordinances, etc. Information should be updated in a timely fashion-- ie minutes, agendas, etc, ideally within one week of approval or submission.

2. Create a Citizen Information Listserv (email list) - One common complaint is that people often don't know what's going on with the City Council, Planning and Zoning, the Park Board, etc. Some have complained about newspaper advertisement sizes being too small or information posted at city hall being too vague.

Our Proposal: To keep citizens better informed, city government should collect email addresses from interested citizens and begin emailing them with updates at regular intervals. Information on upcoming ordinances or zoning requests, links to online agendas and minutes, and general meeting schedules could all be included in these City Info Emails. A city listserv would function as a mechanism to instantly distribute information, for FREE, to citizens in-between newsletter issues.

3. Adopt Stricter Zoning Change or Lot Subdivision Notification Requirements - In the past some citizens have complained that they were not aware of pending or completed zoning changes made to properties adjacent to them, despite the city having met its notification obligation through newspaper ads and postings at city hall.

Our Proposal: In order to improve citizen notification the city should require the owners of all properties seeking a zoning change or lot subdivision, at THEIR cost, to post a 4x8 sign on the property being considered for action. This sign should be white with black type, face the street, and contain the following information in block print:

Parcel or Lot Number
Current Zoning
Proposed Zoning or Action (subdivision, etc)
Date of Hearing
Building Department phone number

There should also be a dedicated area at the Public Works building where P&Z and BOZA agendas, minutes, and action items can be posted and viewed. Ideally this would be an exterior cork-board with a glass or plastic covering, allowing any citizen to look at the posted information at any time.

4. Professionalize Applications - Many of the submitted applications for rezoning, lot subdivision, and other actions are often illegible or difficult to read and understand.

Our Proposal: Require all applications to be typed when submitted or re-typed by office staff for easy public consumption. At the very least all applications should be filled out in legible block print. No cursive or handwriting styles. If it can't be read by the commissioners, councilmen or members of the public then what good is having an application at all? Typed applications would also be far easier to scan and upload to a redesigned website.

If the city works to improve communications with its citizens, the bonds of our community can only grow stronger.


Crystal City Farmers Market: Coming Spring 2010!

We're pleased to announce that planning has begun for a Farmers Market in Crystal City. Our neighbors in Desoto have enjoyed success with their market and many of our neighbors up north in St. Louis have thriving markets as well. The time has come for Crystal City residents to be able to purchase fresh, locally grown or made produce, flowers, baked goods, and meat from a Farmers Market that they don't have to drive 30 minutes to find. With some hard work and a little luck, the Crystal City Farmers Market will open next spring on Saturdays in the Grace Presbyterian Church Park! Check back often for more information as it becomes available.

In the meantime, check out these Farmers Markets sponsored by some of our neighbors-

In Jefferson County:
Desoto Farmers Market/

In the STL Area:
Tower Grove Farmers Market
Clayton Farmers Market
Ferguson Farmers Market


Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Commercial District Design Standards : A Policy Proposal

As the completion of Crystal City's new Economic Development Plan grow near, we at Crystal City 2010 want to look at an important aspect of commercial development that the new EDP will not address- aesthetic appeal and design standards. While some might eschew design and aesthetic standards as over-regulation or overly subjective, we believe that such standards are necessary for positive, controlled growth and to enhance the quality of life and property values of Crystal City's residents. It would be a shame if our new EDP brought in several new retail establishments but they were all allowed to construct buildings like the red metal shed on Bailey Ave, or were painted in a color that clashed with the surrounding developments and were visually unappealing.

Our Proposal: In order to protect and enhance property values and aesthetic appeal, Crystal City should contact the Heartland Brick Council to request the free planning services that they provide to adopt building material and design standards that will require new commercial buildings, at a minimum, to construct their building fronts out of glass and brick or stone and restrict their color selections to prohibit the use of garish or visually unpleasant colors.

From the Heartland Brick Council FAQ:

What is the Heartland Brick Council?

Heartland Brick Council is a not-for-profit association of Midwest clay brick manufacturers. Like most industry associations we market and support our products in various ways and serve as a gateway to the industry as a whole. Heartland Brick Council has a particular interest in communities, which is the foundation for our program of free community planning assistance.

How can you offer your services for free? What's the catch?

Heartland Brick Council believes that strong development standards generally result in thoughtfully designed, high-quality development for a community. This kind of development in turn attracts more of the same. The end result is that both the community and the clay brick industry (which makes a high quality building product) benefit. By working to build healthy, beautiful communities, the brick industry wins too! There is no catch. You will never receive an invoice for Heartland Brick Council’s community planning services.

If my community asks for your assistance, are you going to help us or just try to sell us brick?

While we believe that design guidelines and standards are generally ineffective unless they address building materials, we tailor our advice to fit the unique issues and economic and political realities of your community. However, once citizens begin to analyze what they really want from development in their community, brick usually becomes part of the conversation. We believe in our product and will definitely promote the community-wide benefits of local policies that call for its use.

Who provides your services?

Heartland Brick Council employs a small staff of experienced community planners who are members of the American Institute of Certified Planners (AICP). Collectively, the staff has nearly 30 years of local government planning experience. While many community planners are generalists working in a variety of disciplines, our planners focus entirely on one aspect of community planning – policy solutions that generate better design and construction. Click here for bios of our planners.

The planners at HBC use a variety of tools to help communities achieve their goals:

Incentive-supported standards or guidelines: Policies don’t have to be mandatory to have a positive impact on a community. Heartland Brick Council has helped communities reward well-designed development with tax abatements, grant funds, density bonuses and other incentives.

Alternative compliance: A type of incentive, this tool offers builders and developers the opportunity to substitute community-preferred design for other zoning requirements, or even to expedite the development approval process.

Overlay zone: This is a common means of applying written design standards or guidelines to the geography of a community. The new standards of the overlay zone are layered on top of the preexisting base zoning requirements, adding to them rather than altering or substituting for them. Overlay zones are particularly useful when the new design policy needs to be applied uniformly to an area that may consist of several different base zones.

Planned unit developments: PUD’s are neighborhoods that are mostly designed long before the ground is broken. Because a master plan that contemplates the look and use of virtually every building in the development must be approved by the local government before construction starts, PUD’s naturally lend themselves to the implementation of design guidelines or standards.

Design review: Some communities opt to support their design guidelines with a review of the design of each proposed development project. This term typically implies that the review is done by a specialized board made up of volunteers who are qualified to make judgments about architecture, urban design, and historic preservation.

The HBC has video interviews with officials in communities that they have worked with in the past-- and that have seen great success with their implementations

HBC Success Stories

Crystal City needs a solution designed by Crystal Citians to solve the problems of aesthetic development standards- and with the help of the Heartland Brick Council planners we can find it! We do not need to become a clone of Ladue, Town and Country, Clayton, etc. We should not turn away new businesses- far from it! A happy medium between excessive standards and no standards does exist!

Retail establishments-- with the money, jobs, and shopping opportunities that they bring to a community are very important to Crystal City's future. Crystal City is under-served by its current retail base in many ways and improving that base is critical to improving Crystal City over the next 10 years. To be effective, that improvement must be made hand-in-hand with improved expectations and clear design standards that developers and property owners will have to follow. It is not acceptable in the 21st century for a community to allow a massive red sheet metal barn to go up in the middle of brick residences and brick commercial buildings. It is time to raise our expectations and by doing so raise the level of beauty of our community.