Welcome to the Community Spotlight. Each week, Park Central features a member of the community who lives, works in, or is a regular visitor of the central corridor of St. Louis. This person may be front-and-center or be working behind the scenes, may be a local entrepreneur or a dedicated customer, a long-time homeowner or a new apartment dweller. We will bring you the folks who generally make life special in our neighborhoods.
This week we catch up with Bryan Taylor Robinson. Robinson is a Senior Associate and Project Manager for of H3 Studio, an interdisciplinary design and planning firm offering a highly specialized approach to projects within the public and private sectors dealing with community development and infrastructure, including a range of architectural, landscape, planning and urban design professional services.
Where are you from? What led you to living and working in St. Louis? How did you start working at H3 Studio?
I am originally from Central City, a small town in Southern Louisiana (about 45 minutes from New Orleans). I grew up on a sixty acre cattle farm; and graduated in a class of about 35 people. After completing my undergraduate education in architecture and working for a few years for a small design-based practice in Baton Rouge, I felt that I was ready to do further research into urban issues and expand my skills to urban design and planning. Basically at that point, every project that gave me personal satisfaction had contained some level of urban dialogue or discussion. I was quite interested in Washington University in St. Louis, and really liked the way the program looked intensely at the context of the City as a platform for design research.
After arriving at Washington University in St. Louis in June of 2003, I completed courses with John Hoal (co-founder of the City of St. Louis’ First Urban Design Department; the founding principal of H3 Studio; and chair of the urban design program at the Sam Fox School at Washington University); and started working with H3 Studio after I graduated in September of 2004. I have been working in the Central West End for 10 years; and currently live with my fiancé in the Bevo Mill Neighborhood.
What kind of work does H3 Studio do? What does your job entail?
H3 Studio is a design & planning firm; but, we actually have a lot of different types of projects in our portfolio. In fact, our office has made a concerted effort to find projects which have a diversity of disciplines involved. This multi-disciplinary approach is one of the main principles of the office. We consider our core services to include sustainability, urbanism, architecture, landscapes, and codes; but, we really just view these as different aspects of creating great neighborhoods and Communities!
My job is really interesting, and is actually quite different from day to day. We have a small office (7-10 people usually) with big ideas; so, it is fairly important that every member of the office “wears a couple of different hats”. The hat I most commonly wear is that of a project manager. It ranges from meeting with clients and research to preparing project imagery and final reports; and everything in between. One aspect that I really enjoy is meeting with the local stakeholders. Each project is different, and the best way to figure out the issues is to meet one-on-one and talk with people. They usually know their Community very well, and I can usually learn more in 30 minutes with them than an entire day of research!
What projects has H3 participated in throughout the central corridor? What projects does H3 plan on working on in the future?
H3 Studio has worked on a number of projects throughout the Central Corridor. I would say that we are very well known for much of our work on Forest Park. When John Hoal was with the City of St. Louis in the early 90’s, he was the leader of the Master Planning process; and H3 Studio has subsequently worked on a variety of the Phase II implementation projects over the last 15 years. We love the park, and have really enjoyed seeing its’ transformation! During that time, John also led several key urban redevelopment efforts relative to Downtown St. Louis, including the St. Louis Downtown Action Plan (Downtown Now!) and the Washington Avenue Loft District Plan & Streetscape Design. So, it was ultimately these types of very impactful urban scale projects that drove my desire to work for H3 Studio and with John.
As far as more recent projects that I have worked on at H3 Studio, we completed the CORTEX Area Transit-Oriented Development Study (for the future MetroLink Station), the Central West End Form-Based District, and the Master Plan for Chouteau Park. We are currently working on the Central Corridor Study (second phase of the CORTEX Transit-Oriented Development Study), a Neighborhood Plan & Form-Based District for Forest Park Southeast, and completing a Neighborhood Plan & Sustainability Recommendations for the Skinker-DeBaliviere Neighborhood. Again, we love tow work with neighborhoods.
Honestly, we enjoy working on any type of project where the Community is involved; and get the greatest satisfaction from building strong neighborhoods. With that in mind, the last few years of our work has really shifted more to sustainability, transit-oriented development, and form-based codes. We were involved in all three of the regions major sustainability planning efforts including the Parkview Garden’s Neighborhood Sustainability Plan, the City of St. Louis Sustainability Plan, and the Regional Plan for Sustainable Development. In reality, these types of projects are fundamental to building Sustainable Communities! So I suspect, that we will continue to move in that direction with our next projects.
What role does H3 Studio have throughout the form-based district planning process? What is your role?
Well, these processes can be different for each project; but the basic role that we perform is to help technically construct a code which will assist in the implementation of the Community vision. Every code is based on a vision for the future; and to some degree in every process, we have to work with the Community to develop a vision (or work with an existing vision). We propose alternate solutions for height and setbacks, and will then work toward a consensus solution.
We are the code designers in the process and during that time, our role is to essentially act as a translator between the Community and City. We meet with the Community to ensure that we know what they want and what their concerns are; and conversely with the City to ensure that we can construct a code to meet all legal and technical requirements.
Describe the process of planning and creating a form-based district? Whose voices are heard throughout the process? Is community participation important to a form-based district?
Again, each of these processes can be different for each project; but the basic approach is to formulate a vision for the future with the Community, and then construct a code which will aid in the incremental implementation of that vision. We will meet early on with local stakeholders and compile issues and ideas lists for exploration; then develop several options for consideration; and then work toward building consensus. At every step of the way, we make sure to ask the Community what they think about the project and which direction we should go. The process is a bit reiterative and driven by communication loops.
There are many types of voices within the local stakeholder Community. This includes folks such as property owners, residents, business owners, advocacy groups, City officials, political leaders, religious leaders, institutional leaders, and developers. Each type of voice provides a different insight into the project; and helps us to construct a code which is sensitive to all stakeholders. So if it wasn’t already obvious, community participation is absolutely essential to creating a form-based district! It is critical that the code reflect the Community’s vision for the future; thus, meeting with vested members of the Community should always be a major component of these types of processes.
The purpose of a form-based district is to create uniformity in buildings, streetscapes, and to preserve the historical fabric of a neighborhood. Do you think those things are important to the life and culture of a neighborhood? Why are they important?
Based on your question, I would suggest to you that the purpose of a form-based district is to ensure “place-making”; while upholding the qualities and characteristics of a given neighborhood, district, or street. “Place-making” is about shaping a vibrant public realm, and creating places which are unique to the local culture and life of a neighborhood. This doesn’t necessarily mean the creation of uniformity in all buildings; but rather means the establishment of a minimum level of character in building form and quality of construction which will ensure the integrity of the neighborhood, while also allowing for some uniqueness in design and flexibility in uses relative to the fluctuation of market forces.
I believe that “place-making” is incredibly important to building neighborhoods. Neighborhoods can only be as strong as the social and physical ties which bind them together. By working with the unique opportunities of a neighborhood, building social capital within constituency, reinforcing the existing assets (such as historic buildings), and activating public spaces with appropriate uses and activities; we can achieve long-term social, economic, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods.
How does creating a form-based district differ from previous planning you’ve done, specifically for some local parks?
We firmly believe that each planning process is constructed specific to the Community; but one important aspect of the form-based districts process is that they are legal documents. Form-Based Districts are under the purview of the City of St. Louis Zoning Division. This means that every element of these codes must be legally defensible; and meticulously reviewed by the Zoning Division. From a planner’s perspective, this means that it is critical to work with the City to ensure that these documents are constructed in manner which meets the requirements.
It is important to understand that the process to establish a form-based district is not a planning activity; but rather a zoning activity, which is another way of saying it’s legally required. Although there are some similarities between a form-based district process and a neighborhood parks planning process (for instance developing alternate design options, engaging the public, or meeting with stakeholders); they are very different in that the final product for a form-based district is a zoning document, established by ordinance through the Board of Aldermen.
The Central West End and Forest Park Southeast are the first two neighborhoods in the City of St. Louis to create a form-based district. What impact do you think these new districts will have on other neighborhoods in the City? What is the importance of these new districts to the City of St. Louis and to the region as a whole?
Our Zoning Code was established in 1947, so changing the way we look at zoning is not an easy task to undertake. I do not believe that the existing code is fundamentally flawed; but, until recently there was not a “place-making” component within the zoning code. Now since the City has adopted the form-based enabling legislation, there is; and that is an important step. Through the adoption of the Central West End Form-Based District, the City and Park Central Development have essentially established a city-wide model for neighborhoods that want to pursue “place-making” strategies. It’s a little hard for me to say what exact impact they will have on other neighborhoods, but I suspect that as these types of districts are refined and the review process is streamlined; we will see more neighborhoods considering them in the future.
I believe that it is important to acknowledge that Park Central Development was incredibly vigilant and dedicated (for almost five years) to getting the Central West End Form-Based District adopted for the Community. Without their dedication and the leadership partnership established with the Alderman and the City; there would be no new district to speak of today. Hence, these districts also build the bonds between the neighborhood, the leaders, and the City. Is this a good model for neighborhood redevelopment? I would suggest yes. Furthermore, I believe that the City of St. Louis is doing a phenomenal job with these new districts, and that City leadership has really set a strong precedence for the Region with these new districts. We are the center of the Region, and the City has taken a stance that “place-making” is important to building Community and essential to the economic development of the City. I cannot stress how important that is, both literally and figuratively.