The rebuilding of St. Louis should be permissible.

St. Louis in 1875 — from Compton & Dry’s “Pictorial St. Louis”

As I’ve spent countless days in North City St. Louis over the years, a recurring thought of mine has been What were the policies at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, when most of these neighborhoods were established?

It’s amazing that the majority of our city was built — mostly by hand! — to support three times the current population, in less time than we have been attempting to recover from our mid-century urban implosion. Accomplishing this feat today would be impossible by the current permitting process.

We have yet to build anything more beautiful since, so clearly there was some degree of form-based codes or at least a mutual understanding of good taste. If erecting a simple fence in 1875 required multiple visits to city hall only to sort through conflicting answers, wooing an alderman (of which there were a third available per capita), then waiting weeks or months for approval, I can confidently say that the “Great Metropolis of the Mississippi Valley” would have never existed.

An academic opportunity exists to learn from a policy standpoint what worked well and allowed such unprecedented, and handsome, growth. While I am not a wonk, hopefully someone is up to the task.

In lieu of a formal proposal, I would like to offer two simple suggestions, from the perspective of a person who just wants to help make St. Louis better for everyone.

1. Easy to understand, explicit exemptions

“Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

Oh, how lovely it would be if Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s counsel was applied to bureaucracy!

In the case of a small city with over 20,000 vacant parcels — 7663 buildings on 2620 acres — empowering individuals to build isn’t just a rosy thought, it is a critical response to a devastating public health crisis.

To unleash citizens’ ability to rebuild the city, we must make it explicitly permissible, and you should not need a law degree to know that your work is in good standing.

Some examples of possible exemptions:

  1. Personal
    Is this your own domicile or garden? Will the public not have access to the space? Go for it.
  2. Impermanent
    If whatever is being built can be removed without the use heavy equipment, give it a try. Temporary structures can serve as a cost-effective way to pilot ideas in the community in real life.
  3. Permeable
    The paving of the city is a it’s own crisis, a multi-billion dollar struggle for the Metropolitan Sewer District. When you impede water’s desire, the most precious of substances to life becomes a curse for everyone else. If your land use absorbs and your structures absorb water, it isn’t restricted.
  4. Not publicly visible

These are just a few examples where any lawman could assess their plans and determine whether they are able to proceed unhindered.

The third thought may be more appropriate as an element of form-based code precedents, which should be able to reference clearly-defined and local-as-possible (maybe even neighborhood-specific?)

2. Where permits are required, capping the time and money investment demanded to obtain a permit

The cost of the permitting process should be proportional to the scope of the project.

Obtaining permission where necessary should not be more difficult than the actual production. This sounds obvious, but in my own personal experience it definitely is not the case.

To illustrate with an example, let’s roll with the aforementioned fence. To follow along with the exemption suggestion, it is for a cafe in and the fence is along a busy street — in this scenario the neighborhood has decided street-facing commercial improvements need permission.

The proprietor will build this fence on a Sunday afternoon, and it will take 5 hours to construct. An arbitrary metric for the purpose of example is the permitting process shouldn’t take longer than a minute for every hour of construction. The application in this instance should not take longer than 5 minutes to submit.

Unless you live inside the Building Permits office, to meet this standard an online application for small projects should (and easily can!) be made online. The city then has a set amount of time to inspect if desired and ask for revisions. Let’s call it a business day per estimated hour of work, so if the city hasn’t taken action after one week for this hypothetical case, the applicant can proceed. There should be a cap for total time and monetary expense regardless of the size of project.

Our city needs builders and doers — contributing should be explicitly permissible.

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bootstrapper, daily blogger, soil farmer, urban agriculture professional, wannabe programmer || perennial.city

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Timothy Kiefer

Timothy Kiefer

bootstrapper, daily blogger, soil farmer, urban agriculture professional, wannabe programmer || perennial.city

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