by Dan Rafter
Dorsett Road is a busy one as it cuts through the city of Maryland Heights in Missouri. One end of the road is filled with typical suburban strip malls and shopping centers. The other end is surrounded by residential development. Interstate-270 cuts through its middle.
As Mark Levin, city administrator for Maryland Heights, said, the road already features some strong development. But, Levin also says, Dorsett Road could be much more.
It could be more inviting.
And that’s where the Urban Land Institute — St. Louis and its Technical Assistance Programs come in.
The institute’s Technical Assistance Programs — better known by the acronym TAP — provide municipalities with unbiased opinions on how to improve roads, boost business districts and use undeveloped land. TAP members have no stake in the sites they analyze. They don’t benefit if a piece of land becomes home to a lifestyle shopping mall. They receive no extra financial compensation if a luxury multi-family building springs up on a site.
That’s why Maryland Heights officials turned to TAP for ideas on how to improve the city’s Dorsett Road corridor.
“That road is an old-style suburban road,” Levin said. “It’s typical of what you’d see in a community in the 1970s. What can we do with it? How can we make it more inviting?”
To help answer this question, the East-West Gateway Council of Governments — a coalition of government bodies that oversees several counties in Missouri and Illinois – hired a consultant at a cost of $500,000. That consultant came up with a list of recommendations for the corridor. The price tag for the suggested changes? $13 million, which was too rich for the council of governments.
“That’s what consultants do,” said Levin, who is also ULI TAP committee chair for the St. Louis area.
The consultant’s report also didn’t seem overly specific to Dorsett Road. Most of the recommendations seemed to be steps that other communities had taken that didn’t take into consideration the unique needs of Maryland Heights and its residents.
So, at a much more affordable cost of $7,500, the council turned to the Urban Land Institute — St. Louis’ TAP to provide its own recommendations.
In October, the TAP members finished their review and provided the council of governments with useful, attainable goals to transform the Dorsett corridor into one friendler to pedestrians and businesses alike. The council of governments is now studying the recommendations.
“The TAP recommendations were more realistic,” Levin said. “They more accurately reflected the community’s needs.”
TAP might not receive much press. But the East-West Gateway Council of Governments isn’t the first to turn to it. In 2012, the municipalities of Cool Valley and Ferguson in the St. Louis area relied on TAP for ideas on how to improve busy Florissant Road, which unites both cities. Citizens for Modern Transit and Metro have worked with TAP to optimize the development potential of MetroLink stations.
And in 2012, TAP members presented their ideas for the future of the land surrounding a metro stop at the University of Missouri — St. Louis. TAP members proposed creating an area filled with restaurants, retails and green spaces, a pedestrian-friendly heart of the university.
Levin says that the Urban Land Institute’s TAP committees provide a value service to communities, even if communities don’t follow all of the recommendations that these low-cost consultants provide.
“Like many communities, at some point in a conversation about the future of a piece of land someone will say, ‘The market won’t support these ideas,'” Levin said. “Nobody says it, but certainly some of the people in the room are thinking, ‘I’d like to talk to the market. How do I talk to the market?’ You can’t call up the market. But the TAP panels are made up of professionals who do work in the market. Many have been working with the market for years. This is a way to, essentially, call up the market.”