Few trees line West Florissant Avenue south of Interstate 270 in north St. Louis County.
It’s a wide road, with four lanes and a center turn lane, traveled by about 28,000 vehicles on an average weekday. Sidewalks running parallel to the road sometimes end abruptly, leaving gaps for pedestrians to navigate on the often bumpy surfaces.
There are no bike lanes, and marked street crossings aren’t always close together.
It’s an unremarkable suburban thoroughfare of shopping centers, fast-food restaurants and homes — one that became the site of protests, some of which turned violent, seen around the world after Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, in 2014.
Several buildings were destroyed after a grand jury’s decision not to indict Wilson, with more damaged. The area has worked hard to rebuild — an Urban League job center at the site where a QuikTrip was looted and burned is among those efforts.
As local officials explore how to revitalize a roughly 2.5-mile stretch of the road from Interstate 270 to near Ferguson Avenue — a Great Streets project that comes with a price tag expected to be upwards of $33 million — one of the goals is to combat the “negative media attention placed on the corridor” that hurt its image, according to a project description.
The project was in the works before the unrest but remains years away from any construction beginning. The East-West Gateway Council of Governments completed a three-year preliminary study into improvements along West Florissant in June 2014, two months before Brown’s death nearby.
“It’s strictly a street and pavement. There’s no greenery. The lighting is not that great,” said Reggie Jones, mayor of Dellwood. The project runs largely through his city and Ferguson.
Today, there’s enough funding to study the portion of West Florissant from the Norfolk Southern Railroad near Ferguson Avenue to Stein Avenue. That portion of the project is in the preliminary design phase, which is expected to last through this year.
The $2.5 million to do that study has been secured, with $2 million in federal money and $500,000 from St. Louis County, said Nichalos Gardner, director of the county’s transportation department.
But that’s it.
“There’s no more money,” Gardner said Thursday at an open house to seek input on the project, where renderings showed flower-filled medians and brick sidewalks.
Gardner said the project aimed to make the street more pedestrian-friendly, to set the table for development and to make it usable for more transportation than just cars.
It could mean more green spaces, and design recommendations could come to accommodate a bus-rapid transit line or even light rail.
“We’re committed to moving this forward,” said County Executive Steve Stenger, calling the project a high priority.
He said it’s typical in such projects for the design to be completed before seeking funding. The county hopes to apply for federal dollars for construction by June, Stenger said, and is seeking financial help from private entities. Money from a sales-tax fund that has been around since the 1970s also could be used.
People at the open house wrote their ideas on Post-it notes and affixed them to a map of the street. Suggestions included better lighting, as well as adding trees, native plants, recycling bins and water fountains. They used stickers to mark where they live, shop, work, go to school and get health care. About 20 percent of people who live in the area don’t own cars, and 10 percent have a commute of at least an hour.
“I would like to see it be like the area in Normandy,” said Ann Wilkins, a Dellwood alderman, citing another Great Streets project on Natural Bridge road near the University of Missouri-St. Louis that included adding a wide sidewalk/shared-use path, green spaces and fewer lanes of traffic.
Adrienne Mazdra, 61, said she wanted West Florissant to be prettier, with more lighting, and not as rundown as it looks now. But she worried that adding medians could make it difficult for drivers to turn into shopping centers.
“It needs to be a homey community,” said Sandra Hill, who like Mazdra lives in Dellwood — a description Mazdra used as well.
Hill, who said she’s in her 60s, remembers coming to West Florissant Avenue as a youth, and said it felt like more of a community then.
She wants that feeling back, something that remains dependent on millions more in money being found.
Officials are working to secure more funding for the project, and if all goes smoothly, construction could start in 2019 or 2020.