A Comprehensive Plan for the City of St. Louis: 70 Years is Too Long to Wait

By Robert Lewis, FAICP, CEcD, Principal at Development Strategies

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Public safety was a foremost topic of our St. Louis mayoral and aldermanic candidates in this spring’s elections. But there were also undercurrents about development and developer incentives in the Central Corridor versus the lack thereof in the rest of the city. How are decisions on development and the distribution of incentives determined in St. Louis?

While I have my own opinions on such questions, more important to me is the lack of a comprehensive vision of how we—the residents, workers, businesses, and institutions of St. Louis—want our city to function and look. Almost all of us have no idea how decisions on incentives, zoning, parks, traffic flow, streetscapes, public health, and so on are made by the Board of Aldermen and the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.

As a career-long urban planner—two years in the public sector and 39 (so far) as a consultant—I am astonished that we do not have a functioning comprehensive plan to guide such decisions at the political and citizen commission levels. Wouldn’t it be better if there was a common vision, expressed in text, graphs, and pictures, of how we want our city and neighborhoods to evolve? Wouldn’t decision-making be easier if the politics and horse-trading could be eliminated? Development decisions and priorities could be determined by comparing ideas to the common vision.

Technically, St. Louis does have a comprehensive plan on the books. It was adopted in 1947 at virtually the height of the city’s population and economic density. Since then, we’ve had astounding challenges in urban decline, but also great successes with pockets of revitalization. The population is less than half what it was, the tax base has dramatically declined, and we now have many square miles of redevelopment opportunities. We have space and infrastructure to support roughly double our current population and employment. Yet we have not adopted an up-to-date plan.

We tried in the early 1970s. It’s a beautiful plan that was well-conceived and involved a lot of citizen engagement, but the Aldermen couldn’t agree. Racism, elitism, and the paranoia of urban decline got in the way.

We’re a lot more grown-up now. Aren’t we? We should act that way.

Downtown St. Louis got its act together in the late 1990s with the Downtown Now! plan, which triggered substantial, coordinated changes. Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation has adopted and adapted plan after plan to lead the Central West End and much of Midtown from the ravages of urban decay in the 1960s to a national model of urban functionality. Forest Park Forever prepared and is updating a master plan for this world-renowned park.

It can be done! Sure, Downtown and the Central West End had well-funded leaders (banks and a world-class university, for example), and so did Forest Park, thanks to its world-class institutions. All those strong leaders worked with and continue to work with city officials and state-enabled planning and development laws to re-shape crucial parts of the city.

The 2013 Sustainability Plan for the city is a remarkable achievement that encompasses many comprehensive planning and visionary concepts. It lacked some citizen engagement, but all City government departments helped shape it into a comprehensive plan by another name. We don’t call it that, and we don’t use it that way. And the Board of Aldermen has never formally adopted it as City policy (although the City Planning Commission did, to its credit).

There are inklings that planning could once again be held in higher regard in St. Louis. The Board of Aldermen is working closely with St. Louis Development Corporation to perfect better policies and quantitative analysis of development proposals to remove political motivations from decisions and ensure that not too much is given away in parts of the city that don’t need it. Several neighborhood plans exist, most created by the neighborhoods themselves. There are Great Streets plans in the city, community development plans, parks plans, economic development strategies, and public health plans. And the recent mayoral and aldermanic elections (including those of 2015) show signs that more progressive political leadership is emerging.

In short, St. Louis has a disaggregated appreciation of the value of planning for the common good. What we need now is to pull this city together into a one-to-two-year engagement process, with ample technical support and formalized facilitation, to civilly discuss our likes and dislikes, our trusts and mistrusts, and our wide range of visions and desires. A properly designed planning process will make this city-wide conversation fun, exciting, and even exhilarating. We’ll learn more about one another and that we have far more in common than otherwise. We’ll find unexpected ways to develop leadership, share funding, attract investment, and guide our decision-makers instead of relying on them to tell us what will happen.

St. Louis was a big city. It has capacity—functionally and in our hearts—to be big again. We continue to demonstrate creativity in addressing challenges. Just look at Cortex or Great Rivers Greenway or any number of city and regional efforts that we’ve invented and now serve as examples to other cities. And we can learn from other cities, in turn.

But we need to agree on our direction, mission, vision, and the paths to collective success. We need a comprehensive plan, now 70 years in the waiting. The process to create it will be stimulating. Let’s get started!


Bob directs economic planning and implementation assignments at Development Strategies, based in St. Louis. He was part of the team that created Development Strategies in 1988 after ten years with Team Four and two years with the St. Louis County Department of Planning.

The focus of Bob’s professional work is analyzing the market, economic, and organizational forces that influence urban development and economic growth. His consulting services yield strategic recommendations for clients seeking to maximize economic value. Clients include state and local governments, private property owners and developers, corporations, government agencies, non-profits, and institutions all around the United States.

A native of Glencoe, Illinois in the Chicago area, Bob holds a master’s degree in city and regional planning from Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville (1976) and a bachelor’s degree in business economics from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio (1973). He is a member of the Leadership St. Louis class of 1986-1987.


Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri-St. Louis.