Wydown ranked in the nation’s top ten streets

| Contributing Reporter

The South 40’s tree-lined southern border was named one of America’s “Ten Great Streets for 2010” by the American Planning Association.

Thanks to its history and innovative planning design, Wydown Boulevard is a beloved and well-integrated part of the Clayton community. However, despite its proximity to the Washington University campus, students rarely engage with the boulevard.

Wydown was a controversial choice for a “great street,” according to Andrew Faulkner, a lecturer in the Sam Fox Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Design.. Previous great streets, like University City’s Delmar, which was given the title in 2008, have been more heavily commercial. In contrast, Wydown is almost entirely residential, apart from its three church institutions, two small private schools, and small node of retail close to the corner of Wydown and Hanley.

“It doesn’t have the vibrancy that places like South Grand or Delmar might have,” Faulkner said. The street, he said, was just lucky enough to be built at the right time.

In the early 20th century, Wydown was the main route for streetcars, which ran from Skinker to Ladue City Hall. The median, which is now landscaped and used for recreational purposes, once housed the tracks of the streetcars, so as not to interrupt traffic.

The area around Wydown began to seriously develop around 1904, the time of the St. Louis World’s Fair. Wealthy businessmen invested in homes on the street, many of which still remain today. According to Faulkner, these homes stand out because they are built close to the street, contributing to a sense of community it, building the sense of community.

“It supports strong neighborhoods,” Faulkner said.

The interaction among the street’s components, Faulkner says, is especially unique. For example, only a small fence separates the playground of the St. Michael’s School from the sidewalk, making it seem like a part of the street.

“It’s this kind of proximity makes for great streets,” Faulkner said. “Being able to walk, be near people, see people you know, engage with your surroundings.”

The landscaped median on Wydown is officially recognized as a park by the city of Clayton, and parts of this median have jogging paths, benches and drinking fountains. The street is also part of a 77-mile bike path laid out by Bike St. Louis, and serves as an extension of and connection to Forest Park.

There are also smaller parks scattered along the sides of Wydown, often skirting up against homes set farther back from the street. Faulkner says these smaller parks provide moments of pleasant surprise along the street, contributing to its sense of rhythm.

Wydown also engages with other streets in the area with several small, pedestrian walkways, which run perpendicular to the street and connect it to parallel streets. These side paths were included in the design of the long boulevard so that pedestrians would not have to walk to the nearest intersection to access a nearby street.

These connecting points create an interesting balance, Faulkner said, as Wydown is fairly public and permeable, connecting to other streets that are more secluded, quiet and suburban.

“It’s only about two miles, but it’s a very well-designed street that’s maintained all of its original character.”

Faulkner is critical, however, of Wash. U’s failure to engage meaningfully with Wydown. An iron gate beside Hitzemann, which used to open up foot traffic to Wydown, was closed and locked some years ago, largely in response to both concerns for campus security and to avoid too much student traffic running through the quiet neighborhood around Wydown.

“The 40 is very internally planned,” Faulkner said. “As they start to rethink the 40, it might be interesting if they can have a little bit more of a presence on Wydown than just a really long fence.”

Faulkner suggests a café or other small business on the corner of Wydown and Big Bend Boulevard, which would draw students and also serve community members, as a way to help engage the campus with this recognized street.

He also envisions a more hospitable interface of the dorms along Wydown; perhaps a lawn facing the street side in which students could recreate. As it is, the South 40 seems sequestered from the outside, shut off by a long fence with tall berms on either side.

“It almost seems fortified against the outside. It completely isolates people here from the outside,” Faulker said. “And I don’t know what sort of image it conveys to the outside either about our attitude towards them.”