- Stan Mulvihill
Hillcrest Streets, Entrances and Gates
Design and Management
Venturing into the rush hour traffic on Skinker Boulevard in the late afternoon... Or pulling into the school drop-off line on DeMun Avenue... Or strolling along Wydown Boulevard with a turn at the Dartford Avenue entrance monument... These scenes of today would seem familiar to Hillcrest residents from one hundred years ago – except for the absence of streetcars, which have been replaced by the explosive growth of automobiles and their speeds.
In 1912, as the Hillcrest Subdivision was platted and the first homes began to rise, there were less than one million vehicles in the entire United States. Missouri had just a bit more than 7,400 of them dispersed over a wide area. St. Louis, like America, was emerging from the horse-and-buggy past to a petroleum-powered future, impacting many community patterns and assumptions. Now Missouri alone boasts over two million cars.
This is a brief summary of those traffic and public safety impacts on the Hillcrest Subdivision, and how the residents and Trustees have addressed these conditions through management of Hillcrest streets and entrances over the years.
Intent Drives Design
With streetcars crisscrossing it, and large parks and academic campuses surrounding it – Hillcrest was conceived as a part of a much larger and active urban environment. Members of the Thomas Skinker family and their development associates designed the streets layout in the most straightforward and efficient way, an urban plan with long thirty-feet-wide avenues running east/west (Aberdeen, Arundel) and intersected by three north/south streets (Dartford, University, DeMun) connecting to adjoining major city thoroughfares... and with seven formal entrances… and serviced by alleys for refuse collection and garage access.
The “04” streetcar along Wydown Boulevard, and the “City Limits” streetcar along DeMun Avenue are long-gone, but their rights-of-way are outlined today with pleasantly repurposed and well-planted medians. Skinker Boulevard, created during preparations for the 1904 World’s Fair, was widened and improved following World War I to its current substantial dimensions, to accommodate growing vehicle traffic at the City’s western edge. Convenient access for both transit and cars was a significant selling point for the developers. The Subdivision quickly grew as lots were purchased and developed under an Indenture within strict dimensions and setbacks.
Post War Traffic Challenges
Growth in car ownership climbed by the late 1920’s, stalled somewhat through the Great Depression and World War II, and resumed an exponential rise in the following post war years. Locally, the enormous increase in vehicle traffic and the slow demise of streetcar usage created frustrating bottlenecks and unpleasant consequences for neighboring residents. Drivers, looking for faster routes, began “cutting-through” subdivisions like Hillcrest to avoid large arterial road backups. It was particularly rough along Skinker Boulevard and Clayton Avenue – where numerous intersections were overwhelmed by rudimentary traffic control signals and “Stop” signs. DeMun Avenue was also very busy by today’s standards as a north-south connector from Wydown Boulevard to Clayton Road and even beyond to Manchester Road. Meanwhile, the streetcars arrived at their demise, slowly and quietly, by the late 1960’s.
In response to the nuisance of cut-throughs, the Trustees implemented several measures to reduce traffic overall and bring down the speed of cars. These measures essentially just redirected the same volume of traffic, with substantial tradeoffs for residents.
The Trustees began a system of weekly alternating Skinker entrance closures by 1950. Sawhorses – chained across Aberdeen Place one week and switched to Arundel Place the following week – were designed to discourage “outside” drivers from turning into the neighborhood. The alternating sawhorses also tended to frustrate Hillcrest residents, who experienced little traffic for one week on their street and then nearly all the Subdivision’s traffic the following week. In addition, emergency response (police, fire, ambulance) and street cleaning crews were slowed; unsure which of the entrances were open, EMS drivers just entered from Wydown Boulevard, delaying their arrival and departure by a couple of minutes each way. From time to time motorists unfamiliar with the area or inattentive drove into the sawhorses and the entrance monuments.
Speed bumps installed by the Trustees in the early 1960’s were another significant traffic control measure. The familiar sounds of brakes being applied, a couple of sets of tire thumps, and then engines accelerating (till the next bump) were part of the Hillcrest driving experience. The bumps were designed to slow traffic speeds. But no matter how slowly a car accomplished them, their sharply sloped shape gave drivers a punitive jolt, though it did briefly slow their speeds.
Streets Reconstruction and A New Order
By the early 1990’s, Hillcrest’s privately-owned streets, lights and sidewalks were literally crumbling – and far outstripping the ability of the neighborhood to maintain on its own through its antiquated Indenture assessment limitation. In 1995 a comprehensive infrastructure reconstruction project ($1.2 million) was funded through a combination of homeowner capital assessments and a City of Clayton public improvement bond program. As part of the funding arrangement, the Subdivision common areas within the City of Clayton were publicly dedicated to the municipality, to be maintained as other City public streets. Residents insisted, however, that the eastern-most end of the Subdivision – the area within the City of St. Louis – would remain private and managed by the Subdivision’s trustees.
At the same time, sawhorses at the Skinker entrances were upgraded with new formal metal gates, and alternate weekly closures resumed to control cut-through traffic. The speed bumps, however, were permanently removed throughout the Subdivision at Clayton’s insistence, to align with its other city streets. The result was a very mixed bag of driving conditions and impacts.
Traffic snafus along Skinker Boulevard – particularly at the Wydown Boulevard and Clayton Road intersections – began to abate almost immediately in 1999, with the full signalization of the crossroads. And in tandem, the volume of cut-through traffic in Hillcrest also disappeared. By the following year, the Trustees and several residents began to review the continued need for alternate entrance closures, since the traffic it was meant to discourage no longer entered the Subdivision. Following a series of straw polls among the residents, the Trustees suspended the entrance closures on a six-month trial basis. The demonstration project was concluded after just three months by acclamation. A vast majority of homeowners preferred “open” entrances, though a number of residents also expressed concerns over speeding. A Homeowners Association survey in 2012 also found widespread agreement with the open entrances arrangement. The Hillcrest entrances along Skinker have remained open for over twenty years, except for special events as authorized by the Trustees.