Workshops develop ideas for new Sunset Hills comprehensive plan

Consultant offers workshops for new comprehensive plan

Workshops develop ideas for new Sunset Hills comprehensive plan

By Gloria Lloyd

In a key step toward Sunset Hills’ new comprehensive plan, residents, business owners and elected officials last week let planners know the many aspects that they love about their city, along with dozens of ways they would improve it.

The comprehensive plan is intended to outline the priorities of Sunset Hills for the next decade or more, expanding beyond just zoning issues to cover “everything that makes a city a city,” said Dan Gardner, a planner for the consulting firm that is developing the new plan, Houseal Lavigne Associates of Chicago.

If it is up to the residents who attended Houseal Lavigne’s workshops last week, the plan will focus on a strategy to balance commercial and residential redevelopment and zoning over the next decade, especially in the 10-acre area devastated by the 2010 New Year’s Eve tornado, with residents in attendance preferring that the area of Court Drive and West Watson Road remain residential.

Walkability and creating a town center were also some of the key concerns outlined by residents and elected officials in the workshops, along with a suggestion popular among residents that the city recruit a grocery store.

“We’ve lived here for 27 years, and we’ve been very happy,” a woman said at the end of the Jan. 29 community workshop. “The only thing we don’t have is a grocery store.”

In 2011, the Sansone Group said it was interested in building a grocery store on the area devastated by the tornado. But residents asked the Planning and Zoning Commission not to switch the area’s zoning from residential to commercial.

The planning panel and the Residential Recovery Task Force appointed by former Mayor Bill Nolan agreed with citizens, recommending villa-style housing similar to the Courtyards instead. With the existing houses destroyed by the tornado and commercial zoning rejected by nearby residents, none of the houses have been rebuilt, and the affected area west of South Lindbergh Boulevard is still empty.

Besides buying groceries closer to home, residents also made some more unique proposals, such as the city buying the state-owned commuter lots where Sansone wanted to build a QuikTrip, or building a zipline along the Meramec River.

Houseal Lavigne ended all the workshops by asking attendees to list the things they love about Sunset Hills that they wouldn’t want to change, even offering their own suggestion, Watson Trail Park.

“That is a gem that other communities would love to have,” said Doug Hammel, senior associate at Houseal Lavigne.

Other gems residents said they want to keep include Lindbergh Schools, which has been the top-ranked school district in the state academically for five years running, the county-owned Laumeier Sculpture Park — with some residents noting the park’s national prominence — and the city’s central location in the metropolitan area along two interstates, low crime, the Police Department, and what Ward 2 Alderman Tom Musich called the “spirit of the residents.”

Attendance at the community workshop exceeded the expectations of Houseal Lavigne with 65 participants, who were each offered the chance to personally tell Houseal Lavigne what their top priorities are for the city. Residents can also fill out an online survey at


Mayor Mark Furrer attended the community workshop, but not the forums for elected officials or business owners, and he passed when Houseal Lavigne went around the room during the community gathering to get everyone’s thoughts on what the priorities should be for the city.

Acting Board of Aldermen President Scott Haggerty attended every workshop and several aldermen attended two of the three, along with some of the candidates running for the board in the April 7 election.

Among the 20 elected officials attending the Jan. 28 elected-officials workshop were Haggerty and Musich of Ward 2, Ward 1 Aldermen Dee Baebler and Richard Gau and Ward 4 Aldermen Pat Fribis and Donna Ernst.

Some of the members of city committees attending included Planning and Zoning Commission Chairman Nick Dragan, planning panel members Pat Otto, Jeff Sanders and Terry Beiter and Ken Conley of the Finance Committee.

Community members made few references to the current atmosphere at City Hall, where six of the eight aldermen have twice requested that Furrer resign or take a leave of absence due to the two felony charges he faces for allegedly hitting a bicyclist, along with other issues.

Elected officials did not dwell on that issue at their workshop, which Furrer did not attend, but some of them alluded to the situation as an area the city could improve.

“We’re all in the same community, but we’ve lost our community a little bit,” Parks and Recreation Commission member Janet Bindbeautel said. “Things have been a little scattered lately.”

The city needs to give elected officials more information on projects and city business, work on its branding and vision and see if flexibility can be built into city ordinances for cases where it’s clear an exception needs to be made, city officials told Houseal Lavigne.

Ward 3 Alderman Kurt Krueger, an architect, real-estate agent Haggerty and Nolan, owner of Nolan Office Interiors, were among the dozen members of the city’s business community who attended the Jan. 29 workshop geared to business owners.

Catherine Fay, who owns an auto-parts store along Watson Road near the Sunset Manor subdivision where a failed lifestyle-center project put the city in the national spotlight for its use of eminent domain, said the legacy of that decision is still damaging area businesses.

“People are still coming to our business and saying, ‘We thought you were gone.’ And that ended in 2004,” she said. “Five years of that hurt a lot of people.”

Although business owners might disagree with residents on whether the city has too much red tape or ongoing issues like the preferred balance of commercial and residential in the city — which business owner George Despotis, who owns property in the area devastated by the 2011 tornado, called the “adversarial relationship” between businesses and the city — all three groups agreed that the city’s walkability is an issue.

“Because there are big five-lane corridors through town, I see those opportunities on Watson Road and on Lindbergh to make it more pedestrian-friendly, more bike-friendly, to add more landscaping, wayfinding, lighting — things that say, ‘Now we’re in Sunset Hills, we’re in a special place,'” Rick Randall of Pace Properties said.