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St. Louis struggles to maintain $17 million Washington Avenue streetscape

St. Louis struggles to maintain $17 million Washington Avenue streetscape

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ST. LOUIS • Washington Avenue wasn’t supposed to look like this.

More than a decade ago, the city pumped about $17 million in state and federal tax dollars into renovating and beautifying the downtown street hugged by warehouses. The complicated face-lift was a nod to the street’s history as the center of the city’s garment and fashion industry.

The new streetscape was special: custom lights, unique trash cans, expanded sidewalks and a zipper-and-stitch-like paving pattern with LED-lit button “runway lights” striped down the center.

But the city has struggled since then to maintain the new look.

Now, essential design elements are starting to crumble, lights and sidewalks have been altered and the runway lights haven’t worked in more than a year. The unique stitch-like paving pattern is pocked with asphalt infill after recent underground work by Ameren.

“It’s a shame to have something so beautiful after so much work end up like this,” said Missy Kelley, chief executive of Downtown STL Inc.

The city says it simply doesn’t have the money to keep the street the way it was designed. So, for example, patchwork is often done with asphalt instead of the original materials. Public utilities tear up the street, but they are allowed to reimburse the city for repairs at rates meant for streets with fewer amenities.

“It’s a good lesson learned going forward that we factor in a long-term maintenance fund,” Kelley said.

The streetscape plan was part of a major success for downtown. It created a pedestrian-friendly stretch filled with new bars and restaurants as well as millions of dollars’ worth of loft developments. In 2011, the American Planning Association named Washington Avenue one of America’s “10 great streets.”

Over the last 15 years, downtown has seen its population boom, with most residents flocking to the area around Washington Avenue.

Downtown STL says it has asked the city to give it an estimated cost to maintain and restore the streetscape.

Todd Waelterman, the city’s operations director under Mayor Francis Slay, said his team was working on compiling the detailed cost study. He said exact figures were not yet available.

“We have some very expensive amenities down there, from the zipper in the middle to the street lights to the brick sidewalk,” Waelterman said. “It was built pretty extravagantly.”

Waelterman said the city would need outside help to keep the street in the best condition. He said that meant involvement from Downtown STL.

Downtown STL already pays for maintenance on several of the street’s amenities, including bulb replacements for the Christmas-style lights that hang over a portion of the street.

But many of the street’s problems go beyond maintenance — including the damage utilities make without paying the full cost of restoration.

Waelterman said Ameren had done a lot of work downtown and had paid significant amounts of money to repave several streets.

“In a normal average street, we end up with a great product,” Waelterman said. But on Washington Avenue, he said, “it could easily cost 10 times what they’ve been paying on the other streets.”

For example, Waelterman said the “stone zippers” running down the middle of the street would carry “an extraordinary” replacement cost.

So, Waelterman said, the city didn’t ask Ameren to pay for returning the street to how it was.

Ken Worland, director of Ameren’s underground division, said Ameren was upgrading its infrastructure downtown, which required tearing up Washington Avenue. He said the company had gotten a cost estimate from the city and agreed to pay for the repaving.

When asked if Ameren was informed of the complexity of restoring Washington Avenue, Worland said: “I don’t think that was ever a discussion point.”

He said Ameren didn’t get involved in the details of the repaving. “They’ll send us an invoice and we’ll pay the invoice,” Worland said. Worland said he was not sure what could be done now.

“We’ve been having a conversation with the city about what to do,” Worland said. “I know the property owners aren’t happy with the paving job.”

Brad Waldrop, a downtown developer with property on Washington Avenue, said the city allowed the streetscape to be “destroyed through mismanagement and fiscal irresponsibility.”

“It is good that the city leveraged taxpayer money to create a purposefully customized street to attract private investment,” Waldrop said. “It is bad that the city and Ameren are showing our state and federal governments they are wasting the 1999 funding.”

Waldrop said he had spoken with Ameren before the utility did the work. He said Ameren had told him Washington Avenue was “special.”

“They said they had taken specific precautions to resurface the street and maintain its customized stone and granite components. They budgeted to do it right and not do a patch job,” Waldrop said.

But that’s not what happened.

Jared Opsal, who heads the Downtown Neighborhood Association, said he hoped the problems could be fixed.

“We would definitely like to see more investment to maintain what we have down there because it definitely adds a sense of place which spurs economic activity,” Opsal said.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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