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John Norquist talks streets and St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 30, 2012 - “You’re a river town,” John Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism reminded attendees of his lecture Thursday night at Washington University. “[The city] should be a place where you can interact with the river."

His talk, "Rethinking Our Streets: The Value of Flexible Street Design," anticipates two large transportation projects that have the potential to affect St. Louis in a lasting way.

City to River, a volunteer citizens group, is proposing that with I-70 being rerouted toward the new Mississippi bridge, the portion of I-70 from the Poplar Street Bridge to Cass Avenue is redundant and should be replaced by a boulevard. Such an action, the group says, would reconnect St. Louis' downtown with the city's beloved monument: the Arch.

The second proposal, South County Connector, seeks to alleviate traffic congestion and provide a more direct link between South St. Louis County and Mid-County.

Norquist was introduced by alderman Scott Ogilvie of St. Louis’ 24th ward, who has introduced a board resolution backing the removal of I-70. He emphasized the importance of livable communities over merely drivable ones.

According to Ogilvie, 2005 was the first year in a hundred years that Americans' driving declined. Since then, people have driven 9 percent less, he said, a fact met with loud approval from a packed Steinberg auditorium.

Ogilvie noted that Portland, San Francisco, Manhattan and Milwaukee have all successfully removed freeways within their boundaries.

“If they can do it, St. Louis can do it,” Ogilvy said.

Norquist, the mayor of Milwaukee from 1988-2004, oversaw the removal of Milwaukee's Park East Freeway. He now heads the Congress of New Urbanism, an organization of approximately 2,500 designers, architects and planners striving toward a return to urban form.

For thousands of years, Norquist said, streets served movement, market and social purposes. But in the past 60 years in the United States, with the proliferation of highways, movement has dwarfed potential for commercial and communal functions. 

He goal is to reframe congestion, which is traditionally associated with traffic and a lack of efficiency. Congestion, he said, is a symptom of success. Norquist pointed to Chicago’s Wicker Park, Toronto’s Chinatown and New York’s Manhattan, arguing that, in an urban context, congestion means people want to be there.

City to River pushing for change

Anticipating potential fears about highway removal, Norquist dismissed concerns of increased traffic: It will distribute itself into the grid, he said.

In St. Louis, expanding highway capacity has actually undermined economic viability of the city, Norquist said. In some cases, communities with complex histories were sliced into pieces or simply erased, he explained.

Norquist contrasted what he considers an outdated approach of utopian and sprawl-based ideologies with a shifting national and generational mood toward density and livability.

With a broad presentation, questions focused on specificities. One attendee asked how to deal with the realities of fragmented bureaucracies and conflicting interests: How do you make something like highway removal actually happen?

Norquist advised getting property owners downtown on board and ensuring that the reconnection to the Arch becomes a public conversation. But in the end, at least in his experience in Milwaukee, all of that was enough only in an oblique way — it gave him momentum to strike a backroom deal with then-Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.

Jennifer Allen of Trailnet urged people to stay involved and take a look at the Environmental Impact Statement for the South County Connector when it will be released in January. The sentiment of staying informed and reaching out to one's alderman was echoed frequently.

Indeed, Alex Ihnen, who runs the urban blog nextSTL and who is the Chair of City to River, said that right now groups have to fight simply to have a conversation.

"What kind of city do we want to be?"

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