Community Building

Forest Park Master Plan. Image from H3 Studio.

John Hoal designs with an eye toward community

Posted by Kara Krekeler, West End Word October 8, 2009

This story originally appeared in the West End Word.

Dozens of Central West End residents and business owners filled a meeting room in the Schlafly Branch of the St. Louis Public Library on Sept. 26 and listened as John Hoal explained how the CWE could promote sustainable development over the next several years.

It's the sort of situation that Hoal has become known for over the past 20 years. Hoal was a key player in the design of several of the city's major urban development projects, including downtown's Washington Avenue and the Forest Park Master Plan, as former director of urban development for the city. Today he heads H3 Studio, an architecture and urban design firm he founded in 1999.

H3 is based in the CWE, just blocks from Hoal's home, which he is working on renovating. It's the second house he's renovated in the neighborhood.

"[Since coming to St. Louis] my life's really focused within a short distance of Forest Park," Hoal said, noting that since moving to St. Louis, he's also lived in University City and the DeMun neighborhood, which straddles the city-county line.

"What's remarkable is when you think of the Central West End and the area surrounding Forest Park 20 years ago, and think about what it is today, it has been a remarkable reinvestment" with an increase in amenities and quality of life, as well as an appreciation for the urban environment surrounding Forest Park.

"Somehow in all of this, St. Louis has discovered just the amazing place it can become," he said.

Design by democracy

image of John Hoal

Hoal at a CWE planning meeting.

Urban design has always been a part of Hoal's life. South African by birth, Hoal followed in his father's footsteps, getting degrees in both architecture and economic development in his home country and working there for several years as an architect and urban designer.

"It's something I've always wanted to do. My father was an architect and city planner, so I sort of followed on," he said. "I've always been around building and architecture and city planning. I love cities. I've always lived in the core of cities."

In 1987, Hoal was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship, and came to St. Louis to study and teach at Washington University, where he remains an associate professor of architecture and chair of the Master of Urban Design program. While studying at Washington University, Hoal earned a doctorate of philosophy, focusing on how public space and civic dialogue intersect and create a sense of community.

"You can understand architecture, economic development and urban design. You can see that package," he said. "But the philosophy was a conscious decision because I wanted to anchor my thinking in a critical way of understanding the world. When you typically come through a professional program of architecture, you become part and parcel of the traditional professionalism. What I wanted to do was bring some additional thought and critical way of understanding the world.

"That's the essence of what I do in architecture and urbanism — we make these spaces and places for people with the intent that people form community and bonds and perhaps interact in ways that they never have," he said. "I see that one of the essential attributes of importance of design is to facilitate that sense of place, of community and for people to feel comfortable to participate."

It's a philosophy that soon becomes apparent to those he works with.

"He listens to the public when he enters the master plan process, he goes to neighborhoods to make plans," said Gary Bess, director of parks for the city of St. Louis, who has worked with Hoal on numerous parks projects.

The most notable of those projects was the often-contentious process surrounding the creation of the Forest Park Master Plan, which was finalized in 1995. It was the third attempt in as many decades to create a master plan for Forest Park. A plan in 1978 was created by an outside consultant and got the backing of some politicians but ultimately failed. "Aldermen wouldn't even look at" a 1983 plan, said Mary Bartley, a former member of the Forest Park Advisory Board and a longtime Central West End activist.

It wasn't until Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. was elected in 1993 that the master plan became a top priority for the city. Bosley hired Hoal to help found the city's urban design department, with the intent of having the Forest Park Master Plan created internally.

During the two-year process, Bartley recalled going to contentious early-morning meetings over what would be best for the park, focusing on everything from how to handle wildlife and River Des Peres to whether or not cars should be allowed in the park. Emotions ran high at the meetings and everyone wanted his or her idea to be heard. "If you had 110 people at a meeting, you had 110 opinions," Bartley said.

"What's good about the plan is that all the debates were aired out in public," Bess said. Both he and Bartley credited Hoal with being able to rein people in and keep them on topic while giving the impression that every last opinion mattered.

"John put a tone on this that you didn't have to be a bigwig" to help out or be involved, Bartley said. She said that that atmosphere is what helped the Forest Park committee raise $93 million in public and private funding, including some from kids who donated saved-up pennies to help the park.

Hoal, on the other hand, credited the partnership between the city and Forest Park Forever as the deciding factor in creating a shared vision for the park. "At that point, there hadn't been projects done of that scale without an enormous amount of federal or public money," he said. "Coming together with this partnership, that kind of made it all happen."

Since the Forest Park plan was finished in 1995, Hoal has created master plans for several other city parks, including Lafayette Park and Carondelet Park. With H3 Studio, he's currently working on plans for Taylor Park — a new park in the CWE just north of Lindell at Taylor — and Forest Park Southeast's new Chouteau Park. Both parks are being built as part of the Hudlin Park deal between Barnes Jewish Hospital and the city.

Site-specific designs

image of Lafayette Park plan

Lafayette Square Park Plan. Image from H3 Studio.

In addition to his work here, Hoal is also involved with projects in South Africa, Mexico, Omaha, Neb., and New Orleans, often taking Washington University architecture students with him.

"It's been a very important part of my teaching to expose students to other cultures and traditions," he said.

Hoal has led his students in continuing projects planning community centers in South Africa and rebuilding areas of New Orleans; currently, he and a group of students are creating watershed maintenance plans for Tijuana, Mexico, where waters regularly wash out hundreds of residents and send sandy water flooding across the border to the U.S. In each place, Hoal and his students lead community meetings like the ones he runs here.

"We've had this ongoing relationship for a number of years with New Orleans, which is just a remarkable city with remarkable people," he said, noting that the relationship with New Orleans began not long after Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. "The will of the community is just completely amazing. There are huge regional and metropolitan challenges relative to storm protection, but being on the ground, with the people, which is what we do ... they bring their neighborhoods back. It's a remarkable lesson in the resiliency of cities and people."

But wherever Hoal, his students and H3 work, they're driven by the same community-based philosophy: using "the design of a place to bring the community together," Hoal said, adding that he tries to make sure his designs are authentic in their surroundings, based on the history and contemporary community of that location.

While that means that Taylor Park and Chouteau Park won't look like one another, or any other park Hoal has designed, that philosophy also means that there are few concrete things Hoal can take from one location and apply to another. Fortunately, there are a few constants he can rely on, including the idea that all a community really needs is to build a consensus around an idea for it to happen.

"If you can build enough consensus around [an agreed-upon vision], we have found that money, in principle, has never really been a substantial challenge," Hoal said. "Money can be found. It might take a large number of years, but if you can sustain that vision and go after it vigorously" the project will happen, no matter how big or small it is.

Hoal said that while he enjoys working on projects around the world, he and his team at H3 are most proud of those that are in St. Louis.

"Our greatest satisfaction comes out of having spent our time contributing to the place where we live and work," he said. "It is very rewarding, not only for myself but for everyone who works [at H3], to see the implications of the endless hours of work we do. When you can go out and see it in Forest Park. That gives our work meaning.

"Elsewhere, yes, we can see the building coming up or the park being done, but we don't experience it on a daily basis."