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It is now standard practice to conduct extensive public outreach in neighborhood planning. WeCollab in the St. Louis neighborhoods of West End and Visitation Park took this idea further—citizens became part of the consulting team to rebuild their own community.
This effort lays the groundwork to realize one of the central visions of the Charter of the New Urbanism—the revitalization and growth of existing urban centers, according to YARD & Company, the planners who facilitated the process. “It does so through gently adding density near existing rail, streetcar, and bus lines; improving multimodal access to schools, libraries, and daily services; providing a robust mix of housing types, price points, and tenures that meet the diverse demands of the current and future market; and establishing a supportive ecosystem for wealth building through small business resources, property ownership, and growing local capacity for construction and building,” they explain.
The plan includes 757 new residential units, including a mixture of affordable and market-rate apartments and attached and detached single family homes, plus 100,000 square feet of retail, and office and light industrial space.
The Charter Awards jury was impressed by the community leadership—the residents wrote the request for proposals, selected the consultant, managed the budget, and made decisions. Community members were compensated as part of the team. The jury praised the substantial engagement process, with more than 40 pop-up events in addition to standard community meetings. “This plan is likely to be executed because it was developed from within the community,” the jury notes.
The overarching philosophy of WeCollab was to authentically commit to building a resident-led plan, YARD & Company said. The Community Ambassador Program, a team of five paid residents who were responsible for community engagement and programming, was developed to realize that goal.
“This approach communicated to the community that we were serious about resident-led planning and equitable decision making. Just as importantly, it helped the planning team gain access to and opinions from corners of the community that historically have been left out of neighborhood planning,” the design team reports.
“All of this concluded with the residents themselves presenting the final plan for acceptance to the community and subsequently to the Planning Commission and City of St. Louis. This capped off a process where the consulting team was largely an invisible support arm to the residents themselves who were the face of future change in the West End and Visitation Park.”
The bottom-up method built trust during the planning process, YARD & Company reports. Community led conversations brought out key ideas, such as a redesign of a greenway that runs through the neighborhood into a locally-owned business hub.
“Our project includes the re-design and activation of the Ruth Porter Mall into a pop-up and semi-permanent entrepreneurship hub for Black-owned businesses,” notes the design team. “This entrepreneurship hub is aimed at creating a pipeline of retailers and food/beverage uses for the mixed-use business district along Delmar Boulevard.” The Boulevard is sometimes known as the “Delmar Divide,” a geographic dividing line of race and socio-economic disadvantage for places like West End and Visitation Park.
Community members observed an immediate change in attitude. “Hearing about this plan and knowing someone cares motivated folks to fix up their properties,” said Chaz Walker, a resident. “We saw neighbors starting to paint, fix their railing and make little improvements here and there—it had a domino effect. This all started because people learned about the plan.”
City planners also took note. “It's amazing to witness the values and engagement this planning process has created for the West End and Visitation Park neighborhoods. It has helped to ensure that it's a plan truly owned by the residents that will be implemented and not just sit on a shelf,” says Alexa Seda, a senior planner for the City of St. Louis.
View WeCollab's Charter Awards ceremony video here.
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