St. Louis Can Learn From St. Charles History

As I sipped my “Aztec Cocoa” and looked out of Picasso’s Coffee House window on Main Street, I thought, “You know, downtown St. Charles is quite nice.” There are many other places to get coffee in St. Charles than Starbucks. Crooked Tree on First Capitol is also a good option. Although Main Street has been doing well, it was not always this way. It was practically abandoned in the 1980s when it was in trouble and almost bankrupt. The pedestrian mall was a horrible American urban planning trend. Main Street was closed for several blocks and was eventually abandoned. While pedestrian zones are a popular option around the globe (I have seen them work well in Europe), they don’t work here. Americans should see cars parked on the streets. We now have a thriving Main Street after St. Charles razed the pedestrian mall many decades ago.

Yes, I do. St. Charles County is blessed with a wealth of tax dollars. I am fully aware of that. It is much easier to achieve things when you have the money. However, I know that there are many things downtown St. Charles can do right, just as I did last week when I looked at downtown Clayton. City leaders made a mistake, and they took action to correct it. The vacant storefronts have been replaced by tax-generating businesses. They also restored cobblestone streets which discourage speeding and traffic. You can also learn other important lessons.

St. Charles maintains its urban structure, which has been so useful since its inception. Although there is much debate about whether we should consider I-70’s construction to the south of downtown as the first interstate to be built, one thing is certain: that large expanse of concrete runs a safe distance from St. Charles’ urban core so as not to disrupt the quality life of the historic French settlement. Interstates can also crash through the historic center of St. Louis and cause damage. I-70 is a service that serves St. Charles, but it doesn’t threaten it. Main Street is quiet. I can’t hear or smell rush hour traffic. It is also one of the most well-preserved collections in Missouri of 19th-century architecture.

Because no interstates interrupt the historic street grid, another important aspect of St. Charles’ urban form is preserved: residents can walk to their downtown. You can easily reach the beautiful residential areas surrounding the government and commercial center in 5-10 minutes. It was a beautiful Friday and people were walking to their homes and meeting each other on the sidewalks at Main Street cafes. There are also no huge traffic arteries that divide neighborhoods like in St. Louis. Many of these have been replaced by parallel interstate highways. Suburban Nationalso says, and I paraphrase: Americans want to be able to walk short distances to get a cup or a small candy bar. Another crazy idea is that St. Charles traffic engineers use side streets to alternate stop signs at each intersection. This prevents four-way stop fatigue.

There must be blocks of historical buildings that have been destroyed to make way for parking lots. Again, I looked into it, and visual inspection and examination of Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps revealed that downtown St. Charles had not been subject to massive demolitions for urban renewal and large parking lots. Some churches are the exception, but their identities will not be revealed. St. Charles County government buildings have very little surface parking. This is in stark contrast to St. Louis County and St. Louis City. There are large lots on the surface in Downtown St. Charles, just behind the buildings along Main Street East and Riverside Drive. These lots are often empty according to the Sanborn Maps. They were probably used for loading riverboats or railroad cars. Passive storage of parked cars is the best use for parking lots that flood. Amazingly, people will walk just a block to the riverside lots to shop on Main Street. Sometimes, I hear people saying, straight-faced, that every business must have a parking space adjacent to it. Otherwise, it will fail.

The economic diversification of Downtown St. Charles is another factor. History has always existed, with the First Capital and the log cabin church dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo. These are not enough to support a tourist economy. After spending an hour at these two sites, people must have a reason to stay. It was not financially sustainable, as I can recall the days of “knick-knack” shops. The ones that have real business plans are the ones that survive. However, there are many more businesses out there, including a microbrewery, other restaurants, and fine art workshops. It seems that downtown St. Louis is always at the forefront of a new trend every ten years. Right now we are on the “new hotels trend,” with more than a dozen opening within the next year. Let’s not get bogged down by the current trend. We need a steady income from slow, steady development. Yes, even St. Charles can teach St. Louis.