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Neglected Castle Ballroom to be Razed

March 8, 2014 Featured, History/Preservation, Midtown 41 Comments

In June 2011 I posted about the Castle Ballroom on Olive in Midtown. I’d hoped to spark the interest of someone to buy and renovate the building.  Here’s how the building looked at the time, followed by how it looks now:

Castle Ballroom, 2011
Castle Ballroom, 2011; click to view map
And the Castle Ballroom yesterday
The Castle Ballroom yesterday
Close up of the west facade
Close up of the west facade

Here’s the story:

In November, severe weather caused one of those walls to collapse. Building inspectors have since concluded that the vacant structure at 2839 Olive Street, which is on the National Register of Historic Places and considered one of the city’s last remaining buildings with a deep connection to the black community in Midtown St. Louis, is a public safety hazard and must be demolished. (stltoday)

Another important part of history will soon be gone. The front facade could be stabilized, but I don’t know who’d pay for that. Plus the bricks have been painted so I’m not sure it’s worth saving. If the St. Louis Streetcar moves forward we may see a new building go up on this site. I just hope something like a drive-through restaurant or a one-story retail store like a Dollar General doesn’t get built on this site.

— Steve Patterson

  • guest

    I hope this case spurs some serious discussion about saving important buildings. We don’t do a very good job of that, do we? Photographing ruin porn is one thing; documenting lost buildings of significance is quite another. But even with that knowledge, where are the decisions being made to have a preservation agenda? “Plans” alone are nutless wonders. St. Louis has a “Preservation Plan”. There needs to be money used in a smart way. When buildings owned by well-connected St. Louisans end up getting razed, it shows how feckless our system is. And after the fact, eleventh hour campaigns are frustrating and nearly universally fruitless. The loss of this building began five, ten, fifteen years ago, and not with the recent storm damage.

    • JZ71

      Agree with many of your observations, however your statement that “there needs to be money used in a smart way” presupposes that there is actually money available, and that using tax dollars to stabilize / “preserve” / renovate this old building would be using public money “in a smart way.” Unless we’re going to help every private property owner who “needs” help maintaining their property, how do we determine if a structure has any significance? Some significance? How would we prove “need”? Are we stretching to declare that this building is truly “important”? It’s history is primarily as a theater – people performed there, they didn’t live there. The performers who played here also performed in many other venues, around the city, the region, the country. Are we going to “save” every bar, social hall, church and theater that specialized in or served a specific musical genre or ethnic group?

      The thing that preservationists don’t seem to get is that a) pretty much every old building has a “history”, and b) that there is no endless supply of “other people’s” money to fix up / maintain / “preserve” every old building that some “preservationist” (or group) may like. The best solution is to create market demand for these old structures, giving owners a reason to maintain their property (they can make a profit). The next best solution would probably be a more aggressive LRA, taking ownership of of non-compliant properties more quickly, fixing the roofs and working more aggressively to return them to viable private uses. Justifying architectural significance is easier than justifying “history” – if history is the dominant criteria, then we need to plan on “saving” every casino in the area, since that’s where a lot of musicians end up playing, as their careers ascend or wind down, or both!

      The third leg of this stool needs to be changing the perception (the reality?) that old buildings require a lot more maintenance than a new one would. McDonalds (and other fast food operators) has obviously made the decision to tear down many of its 40-year-old mansard-roof restaurants and replace them with new structures on the same sites with essentially the same functions. This takes money and means losing business, yet someone in management has determined that it makes financial “sense” to do so. I can see similar arguments with the Castle Ballroom – if the plan were to continue to use it as an entertainment venue, it’s would need modifications to meet the ADA (an elevator, changes to the main entrance, changes to restrooms) and may need better exiting from the second floor and, potentially, a fire sprinkler system. And like many old brick buildings, it obviously needs a new roof, probably needs tuck pointing and probably needs a new sewer lateral, new windows, more insulation, major electrical work and a new HVAC system. About all that may be in good shape is the basic structural systems, and even those may be suspect.

      ALL of these would take money – are you willing to write a check? To crowd fund the preservation? (It’s still not beyond “saving”!) To pay more in taxes? Or, would you rather focus the expenditure of your own, hard-earned money on your own property? Yeah, it sucks that another old building is most likely going to bite the dust, but we live in a city full of old buildings, built for a population more than twice our current one. So, to put it in simple terms, the only real “answer” is for each of us to maintain both our current home and our current business, then to accept total responsibility for another, likely falling-down, building somewhere else in the city! I can’t afford that, especially if I can’t find a tenant!

      • guest

        There is money. Public money. The city just started a preservation fund to stabilize vacant buildings. It fits with the city’s newly adopted Sustainability Plan. The question is where and how?

        • JZ71

          How about starting with Stan Musial’s former home in St. Louis Hills? What about designating Ted Drewe’s as a “historic” structure (and use “public money” to help “save it)? I agree, the question truly “is where and how”?! Which privately-owned structure is so “important” that it deserves a public investment? And do we have enough money for 20 roofs? 100? 1000? And, are we planning on trying to recover (and reinvest) these monies if and/or when these structures are eventually sold and/or renovated? The reason we have so many deteriorating buildings, “ruin porn”, is the same reason East. St. Louis, Welston, Detroit and Trenton do – a very basic lack of demand and a very basic excess of supply!

        • moe

          As a Democrat, I agree with JZ and is why your post gives Democrats a bad name. We can NOT keep spending money we don’t have. Where is the line drawn? Trolleys, derelict buildings, sidewalks….there is only so much money to spend and priorities need to be set.

          • guest

            Moe and JZ, I don’t think you understood my comment. The money is there, I think maybe a million a year. Or something. It’s a new fund that’s been earmarked to stabilize buildings in the city. If there was ever a “devil in the details” situation, this is it. Google “City of St. Louis building stabilization fund” and I bet you find out more details

          • guest

            Or maybe not…from this link it appears the bill never went anywhere:

            https://stlouis-mo.gov/government/departments/aldermen/city-laws/board-bills.cfm?bbDetail=true&BBId=8835

            Hmm…

          • JZ71

            I remember that proposal, to increase building permit fees to pay for deferred maintenance on other buildings. I’ll repeat, we, individually and as a city, don’t have the “extra” money to pay for the maintenance on our own property AND another piece of property that’s fallen into disrepair! If the private sector saw ANY possibility of a return on their investment, they’d be buying these properties for pennies on the dollar – see Paul McKee – and holding onto them and doing minimal maintenance on them. The fundamental problem is that no one in the private sector (who has the doallars to make it happen) sees any upside, any possibility of a positive return on their investment! Taking permit fees / tax dollars to do something the private sector sees as a fool’s errand makes no real fiscal sense. If “preservationists” want to “preserve” any privately-owned building, raise the money and do it – just don’t expect the rest of us to be forced to do it!

          • guest

            This was supposed to go to a “spring vote”. Is the idea now dead? Haven’t heard a word about a campaign for this fund. When it comes to action, where are the supporters?

          • JZ71

            I’m obviously not a supporter of the current proposal – if you want to “help” save historic structures, the last place you should be looking for funds is from people who are a) “playing by the rules” and actually getting permits and b) investing in the maintenance/improvement of their own property. Increasing fees will just be viewed as a(nother?) huge disincentive for living or doing business in the city – if we want to create a “stabilization fund”, we really should either be looking at general revenues or something like a real estate transfer tax/fee, not at building permits. That said, I continue to have serious concerns about how any program might work – do we go after the buildings that are in the worst shape or do we throw less money (on a per-building basis) at more buildings (that are in relatively-better shape)? Do we focus on keeping roofs on vacant structures or do we invest in weatherization efforts that will result in lower utility bills (allowing more people to stay in their older buildings)? And who will get to decide who makes the cut and who doesn’t? Will it be based on equality among wards? Demographics, favoring poor people? The politics of race? Matching contributions from owners? I’ll repeat, the fundamental challenge remains simple supply (too much) and demand (too little). “Very affordable” sales prices and rental rates may be great for buyers and enters, respectively, but they’re hell on both maintenance and reinvestment. We live in a city where even the Catholic Church has seen the need to close and sell both church buildings and parochial school buildings – name one other city where this is happening on the scale that it’s happening here! We’re also not Disney World, where a daily admission fee goes a long way towards keeping things presentable.

          • guest

            You want to see how the politics could accelerate very quickly in an evolving policy like this one? As soon as some neighborhoods get targeted for assistance over others. If the strategy is to target the money where it will attract the greatest amount of private investment, you are erasing a lot of the city from consideration, but you may be more effective in the long run when it comes to stabilizing areas with real stabilization potential. That will be the toughest call of all. Preservation advocates have a hard time accepting market reality, but funders are demanding more and more impact and market feasibility.

            The days of huge public subsidies, unfocused in a ward by ward strategy, are over. So in such a new world, we have no idea how buildings like the Castle Ballroom or the Clemens house would fare, let along the little vernacular shotguns in the Ville, four families in O’Fallon, two-families in Dutchtown, or single families in Carondelet. It’s a big conversation, and St. Louis has a real hard time having big conversations.

      • dempster holland

        I agree basically with J271. He is being realistic: it takes money to fix these old buildings
        and someone has to come up with that money. Right now the city has disincentives to buy
        and fix up old buildings, unless you have an “in” with someone to get a subsidy. If you buy and
        don’t fix up an old building fast enough, the city will haul you into court and instead if giving
        you a subsidy, will make you give them some of your repair money to pay a fine in housing
        court. Many people react by simply saying: not again; no longer will I buy old buildings
        and hope to gradually fix them up. More recently, the city and MSD have raised water, trash
        and sewer fees using a regressive formula: you pay the same for an old beaten down
        building in a poor neighborhood as you do for an expensive house on Portland Place

        • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

          Pretty much in full agreement with what J, guest and Dempster just said.

          In a city where so much of the abandoned Housing stock is historic, it’s pretty much impossible to single out some over the other (be that block by block or neighborhood by neighborhood) without further neglecting one or favoriting the other.

          In a perfect world, the City itself could take proactive measures first — mainly opening up its LRA list to ANYONE (not just the multi-corp silver bullet “saviors”).

          I imagine a system through which anybody can pay a purchase price for an LRA property with the intention of either rehabbing it or remediating it. You rehab it after two years, the City gives you back 80% of your purchase price. You remediate it after one, you get back 50% and rights for another year. You fail to do either after two, the property reverts back to the City and you get 30% back.

          In that way you’re opening up the system to those who want to “do” — whether it’s a grand old ballroom or a two-story multi-family — and letting them put in the effort (and reap the benefits) for a worthwhile investment.

          Any way you shake it, you’re giving an incentive (unconnected to City tax breaks) for a company or an individual to invest in a property (or properties) that would otherwise go the way of the dodo.

          Sure there’s language and law to figure out, but the end result could (would, hopefully) be reduced vacancies, more tax rolls and a deeper community investment in the City and it’s structures.

          • guest

            It’s not language and law, it’s money. LRA buildings have negative value and require subsidy to redevelop. For years, development subsidies were divvied up by ward. Those days are over. Today, subsidy is being targeted according to neighborhood data and indicators. So the question is where and how.

          • JZ71

            No, LRA buildings have A value, just one that is a lot less than they were once worth. In most cases, you’re buying a lot and a shell. You know full well that it “needs work” and whatever price you’re willing to pay reflects that reality. If you can buy a property for $3000 – $5000, put $30,000 – $50,000 into it and end up with something worth $50,000 – $80,000, or more, you don’t need any subsidies – the “subsidy” comes from the initial discount (and since the LRA is getting these properties from unpaid taxes, they don’t have any real, direct, acquisition costs, just foregone tax revenues). But all this assumes that the neighborhood will support that “value” on the resale market – if there is no market for the real estate, most “subsidies” would be a waste of money!

          • guest

            Agree if you count a negative value as value. When it requires in excess of $50,000 to subsidize development cost in order to market in a given area, sometimes much in excess of $50,000, the underlying land, shell ,etc. have no positive value. It can easily cost $200,000 to rehabilitate an abandoned home and the neighborhoods rife with LRA properties often have home prices under $100,000. Without subsidy (a.k.a “gap” financing), the buildings are a liability, not an asset, and “redevelopment” is financially infeasible.

            It is pretty much impossible to rehab an LRA building for $30,000-$50,000. I don’t think people appreciate the rock bottom condition of these buildings. The reason they are in the LRA inventory in the first place is because all former owners bled every ounce of “value” out of them. Then once abandoned, vermin, scavengers, etc, take whatever salvage value they have left. Then a developer comes along…and rehabs it for $30,000-$50,000? Nuh uh.

          • JZ71

            Like Kevin Barbeau, I was thinking individual, single family homes, using sweat equity, not a developer, looking to flip. But that gets to the crux of the argument – if a structure has “negative value”, by definition, it has more value being demolished than in being renovated. Unlike you, I don’t believe that we can or should “save” every old building, just because it’s “old”, has “good bones”, “they don’t build ‘em like that anymore”. We may not want to accept it, but we’re living in a semi ghost town – we simply don’t need as many buildings as we have for our current population. We either need to grow our population, from 325,000-330,000 back up to 450,000 or 500,000, or we’re gonna have vacant buildings and vacant lots. Yes, we should prioritize which ones should be saved, but we can’t save every one of them – if it were cats, they’d be calling you the cat lady. And that’s where money subsidies get to be really tricky – do we have a larger social reason for picking “winners” and “losers” when it comes to maintenance, much less preservation? Should we subsidize high-dollar, period-correct, historic preservation over weatherization of the non-descript, non-historic homes occupied by poor people? Should we subsidize the construction of new cracker boxes on vacant lots or should we subsidize the reconstruction of vacant shells? Should we penalize owners who don’t do a “good enough” job on maintenance (and apply the same standards across the city, in both poor and wealthy areas)? Or, should we just keep government out of it, and let the market determine what gets renovated and what is demolished? I’m for fair, minimum standards, and I support public subsidies to help preserve truly outstanding structures, but no, this structure does meet the criteria for being outstanding – it’s nice, it contributes to the urban fabric, but so do many, many other similar structures, and, we, as a city, simply can’t afford to “give” each of them $50,000 or $100,000 just to help “save” them!

          • guest

            I must be doing a good job keeping you guessing if you think *I want to save every vacant building*. Far from it. I’m an ardent advocate of certain demolitions. And that $50,000-$100,000 number is an estimate for subsidizing *one* single family rehab. The public subsidy needed to save the Castle Ballroom would run into the $X millions. By the way, what happened to “piloter”? Was hoping to get some reaction from piloter to this continuing discussion…

          • JZ71

            So . . . . you believe it would be in the public interest to invest at least $1 million in public tax dollars to stabilize, and to start to renovate, the Castle Ballroom?! We obviously have very different priorities. I’m no fan of public subsidies, arbitrarily divided up among a limited number of property owners (leaving many, many, many others, most likely just as “deserving”, without subsidies), but if we had a spare million or two lying around, I’d be more in favor of doing multiple smaller grants to existing owner-occupied residential properties in lower-income neighborhoods, to improve their energy efficiency and to lower their utility bills – things like new windows, more insulation and more-efficient HVAC units. We seem to agree that we have too many vacant structures. I firmly believe that we’d get more bang for the buck helping existing residents than we’d get chasing million dollar projects, like this one, with public money, where there has been no, and continues to be few, if any, viable (as in able to pay their rent for an extended period) users.

            There are few iconic music venues that have survived the tests of time and changing tastes in music – Carnegie Hall and Red Rocks are two that come immediately to mind. Many, many other have come and gone, places like Woodstock and Fillmore West. What’s important is the music and the memories, not the venues, themselves. It’s the interaction between talented performers and energized, involved audiences that creates memorable performances, not the shell that the show is performed in. Springsteen and Bon Jovi don’t need to be in New Jersey to put on a great show – their production values, just like every show that happened at the Castle Ballroom, are transferable and repeatable in multiple other venues – that’s what makes the performers and their performances special.

          • dempster holland

            I agree about smaller grants to existing properties, but it should not be limited to owner
            occupied. Many St Louis city buildings are rental units, and in many cases people do
            not have enough money to pay the rent necessary to maintain buildings/ I know there
            is a social argument to fostering owner-occupancy, but the financial reality is that
            many people cannot afford to buy a house, but have to live somewhere

  • JZ71

    Steve – unless you’re trying to be ironic or sarcastic, you probably need to add something like “does not go in” to the end of your last sentence . . .

    • http://urbanreviewstl.com/ Steve Patterson

      Thanks, was late when I thought I finished this post last night.

  • Liz

    If you truly want to save the city – move back into it. A city’s vibrancy comes from its people. I live in the CWE and have done so for 31 years. It is vibrant and vital. Now I am done. We are moving downtown. Before the CWE we lived in Hyde Park, No StL in the 70s.

    • guest

      ^ Basically, yes. The city is the people in it, not the buildings.

      • imra

        Buildings are what connect us to the city lovers who went before us and those who will come after,

        • guest

          No, sorry, they’re not. It might seem that way at first, but it’s much more than that. That connection comes through living memory, not vacant buildings. That living memory is shared by people, not empty walls. And Steve especially will hate hearing this, but that living memory is a spiritual thing, passed down through generations. To become part of it is to share in the divinity of man. Buildings can help, but they can’t do it without people making those memories eternal. Once the memories are gone, we are a dead people.

          • guest

            If I could amend the above post, it would read:

            “Once the memories are gone, we are a dead people, and the buildings won’t matter”.

  • piloter

    It’s a shame we can’t save more buildings. Man, but some of your arguments for why we shouldn’t are dumb. Stan Musial’s former home? Ted Drewe’s? Those are not locations of the same caliber as the Castle Ballroom. Ted Drewe’s is still up and running last time I checked and doing quite well. Why would public money go there? And Stan Musial’s former home does not compare to a public meeting place that served an entire generation and represented an entire age in the history of music. The damage to the structure looks quite fixable to my untrained eye, but of course, in St. Louis demolition is usually preferred to preservation. That location will make for a really picturesque empty lot. The Castle Ballroom will be another name on the long list of victims to St. Louis’ self-destruction fetish.

    • JZ71

      Of which “we” do you speak? And yes, some of my examples are “dumb” – they’re put out there to make a point. So who writes the checks? The current owners? `A historic preservation group? A blues preservation group? The taxpayers? EVERY older building in the city needs maintenance, some more than others. Every older building has a history – how relevant, important or unimportant it may be has a lot to do with individual perspectives and priorities. The Cardinals have played in at least 3 major ballparks in St. Louis – should we have preserved both of the previous ones?!

      When it comes to music, it’s the music and the performers that are important, NOT the venues. If the Castle Ballroom had kept booking performers and attracting crowds 2, 3 or 4 days a week, for the past thirty or forty years, guess what? We wouldn’t be having this discussion, it would be a viable venue, just like the Sheldon or the Pageant! Blame the building owner, blame the promoters, blame the audiences, blame the performers, blame the changing neighborhood or blame a lack of parking, one or more “dropped the ball”, killed the revenue stream and made it financially impossible to keep the building maintained and competitive. If the Castle Ballroom were still of the “caliber” that you remember, it would not need any public assistance, much like Ted Drewe’s doesn’t need any.

      Using your logic, the Diocese shouldn’t be selling any churches because they served multiple generations as public meeting spaces. Unfortunately, times change, use it or lose it – I’m all for “preserving” buildings with viable uses, my objections are aimed at the concept that we need to “save” every old building, just because it’s “old”, because it has a “history”. Yes, the Castle Ballroom is still “quite fixable” – all it’s going to take is several hundred thousand dollars, to rebuild the brick bearing wall, rebuild the roof trusses, put on a new roof deck and roof membrane, repair the damaged ceilings and floors, and on and on and on. How much do you, personally want to contribute toward the cause? $50? $250? $500? $1000?! It’s always easy to advocate for the expenditure of other people’s money, of tax dollars, it’s a lot tougher to be generous when it’s coming out of your own pocket!

      • piloter

        “We” is the people who have emotional investment in this little place called St. Louis. I am not going to argue you with you. I’ve been reading your comments on this blog for years and they are always pessimistic and insensitive. It seems your love for the city is pretty limited, so I can’t figure out why you keeping coming back to this blog? Just to criticize Steve and anyone who is trying to offer solutions beyond “tear it down already!” I am sorry I don’t have enough the money to fix up the city, and to preserve places like this for future generations. But if I did have the money, I would have bought this place years ago when I first read about it. There are dozens of properties I would like to preserve in the city, not even because they’re historically significant but because there are a lot of structures in this city that are simply unique and every time another one gets torn down St. Louis is being eroded away by a rising tide of mediocrity. I don’t care about the Cardinals. I really don’t. I value the Cardinals as a city institiom, but the way people like yourself talk about them, you’d think that was the only thing St. Louis has going for it. Buildings like this are a reminder of what the city once was and what it could be again. I know that kind of thought is lost on you. The city is not where it is due to an over abundance of love and imagination. All you seem to care about is the bottom like. What’s the cost? Possibilities are complete nonsense to you, unless someone has already stepped up to foot the bill. Let’s just leave St. Louis up to the bottom line, and see where it gets us. We’ll have a fraction of the the history we could have. It isn’t because there’s no money here. It’s because the people who have the money don’t care. They’re content to live their days in Ladue or Wildwood or Huntleigh or wherever the richest people live, and they city on their money, send it to people in different parts of the world, turning their backs on the neighborhoods where they’re from, the houses their grandparents live. It’s actually pretty awful the way St. Louisans don’t care. But some of us are trying to care, and people like myself may not speak in purely logical but cold hard logic is what built the expressway through the middle of South City, it’s what destroyed the neighborhood where Pruitt-Igoe was built. It’s the logic that declared Soulard a slum, ready to be raised for new modern housing and logic that tore down 30 blocks of the city to build the Arch grounds. I’m saying you have to have some heart. St. Louis doesn’t get worked up enough. It’s not concerned with its own history like it should be. People in other cities would absolutely shudder if they saw the kind of capriciousness this city has with abandonment of buildings, absent landlords, and demolitions.

        • guest

          Love the passion of piloter and I bet if you put piloter and JZ in the same room, they’d have more in common than some might think based on the rather opposing sympathies being presented in this discussion. I appreciate the bottom line focus of JZ and I appreciate the heartfelt passion of piloter and many other like him and her. I suspect most people reading this block could make a list of people just like piloter, and unfortunately, not as much of a list of people like JZ.

          We need more JZs and more piloters. There’s plenty of work to go around. Mostly, we need more people like Liz: people living in the city, owning homes in the city, spending money on their homes and then maybe a second or third city home, and then staying in the city. That’s what we need. Buildings need people that love them, and I’m guessing that whether you’re Steve Patterson, JZ, piloter, or Liz, you love buildings. And you love historically and architecturally significant ones. To me all of this is really a challenge for leadership.

          The love is out there. Leadership needs to figure out a way to harness that love into a sustainable and improving future for the many different faces in town, both the human ones and the architectural ones.

          • Liz

            I love the sense of community that exists within the “city.” And you are correct, I do love the buildings. They are beautiful. They were built at a time when people cared about what they built. I currently live in a four square built in 1898 that was bastardized in the sixties. It is not a beautiful building but it was made well. Yesterday, we drove and walked around downtown, our new home. We met young people both in front of and behind our building as they were exiting. They were eager to speak of life downtown. I think that we have always seen ourselves as pioneers although, I must admit in this case I am sure we are not. Most persons near cities opt for suburbia, a place that I find empty and vanilla. There is simply something about it that is “not” real. I like to be a part of something, cities are vibrant. And wether or not I participate – that vibrancy touches me and ignites my own energy.

        • JZ71

          I love vibrant cities and I fought a lot of battles in Denver (before I moved here) that have, in retrospect, helped make it a better city. What you view as pessimism and a focus on the bottom line are really battle scars and an attempt to move the talk from dreams to reality. Yes, we need to respect our history, but we also need to move forward. Whether you like it, or not, the world has changed, a lot, over the past century, and will continue to do so – adapt or die. I agree, in some ways, “St. Louis doesn’t get worked up enough,” in other ways, it gets way too worked up, usually about “protecting” some perceived small piece of turf. We need dreamers but we also need successes that we can continue to build on. We need to build on Cortex’s success and we need McKee’s Northside to succeed.

          But the biggest challenge I see facing St. Louis has very little to do with buildings, new or old, it has everything to do with the reasons people have for choosing to live and/or work here or somewhere, anywhere else. Our public schools have a terrible reputation, we’ve become desensitized to the daily carnage on our streets and an undercurrent of racism seems to pervade every political discussion we have, here. Yes, we’re “affordable”, but so are our suburbs (and their schools are better and their crime rates are lower and you don’t need to “know” your alderman, yada, yada, yada). We have high taxes and high legacy costs for infrastructure and pensions. Choosing to live in the city carries costs, and it’s one big reason people choose to live elsewhere. Sure it’s easy to vilify the people who choose to leave, but we really need to focus on getting people to move in, to make St. Louis desirable, again – where you went to high school shouldn’t matter!

          But getting back to the discussion at hand, “saving” the Castle Ballroom. Ignoring the direct costs (which are significant), what, exactly, would the building be used for?! Yes, back in the day, it was great music venue. Could that be repeated today? Which acts should be booked there (and not somewhere else)? What existing venues should it replace? Could Harris-Stowe or SLU be interested? Or do they already have enough / better / other facilities? And if not a music venue, what else? A church? A residential loft project? Offices? Retail? A boutique hotel? An urban grocery store? An urgent care or a Gold’s Gym? A brew pub? Yes, the potentials are endless, but how do you attract that one use that will be a good, viable fit? (And no, making it another museum ain’t the answer.)

          “Saving” a building (and a city) is more than keeping a roof on it and the windows boarded up, it’s about finding actual uses and users. I certainly don’t expect to see the day when the city’s population reaches 850,000+ (where it was in 1950), but I also don’t see much opportunity to save old buildings as long as we continue to lose population. Yes, it appears that we have stabilized at about 320,000 (after dropping an average of 100,000 every decade, for five decades, through 2000), but the math is pretty brutal, if you lose 60% of your population, you probably don’t need (or can justify supporting) half of the buildings that are / once were in the city, no matter how “significant” they may or may not be! Until we see actual, substantial, positive population growth, buildings like the Castle Ballroom will continue to be at risk for demolition through neglect. I can afford to maintain my own home and my one rental property; I can’t afford to take on a whole ‘nuther, non-revenue-generating project, as well.

        • http://yastlblog.blogspot.com/ Kevin Barbeau

          Gotta say, I find myself up voting J2’s pragmatic comments WAY more than, say, “guest” above waxing poetic about the spirit of the people and the soul of our built environment.

          Look, we’re all passionate about St. Louis and its people and its buildings and its politics and its…well, you get the point. It’s easy to be saccharine and pie-in-the-sky. It’s much (much, much, much) more difficult to love a thing, recognize its shortcomings, and consider the solutions or causes (as ugly and unnerving as those may be).

          But enough about J271’s severe-yet-appropriate rationality… :)

          • guest

            The soul of a building starts to die when it loses it’s occupants; and, it quickly becomes much more expensive to repair or renovate. Every time we get caught up in these unfortunate demolition narratives, it’s almost without exception about a vacant, abandoned building. We need to figure out how to keep buildings occupied. Once they go vacant, they begin a path toward demolition.

          • JZ71

            Agree completely – the fundamental reason we have so many vacant buildings is that we, the city, lost an average of 10,000 residents, every year, for fifty years! If you lose a half million people, 60% of your peak population (in 1950), you ARE going to have unused, neglected, vacant buildings. The ONLY way to change that is, duh, more people. Fortunately, we seem to have bottomed out, population-wise, and hopefully our dirt-cheap prices will help to attract an increasing number of urban pioneers, willing to tackle the challenges of long-neglected structures . . . .

          • Lazy

            You don’t seem too passionate. There is nothing saccharine and pie-in-the-sky about anger over a city’s abandonment and neglect. You think that the recognition that there are options besides demolition is “pie-in-the-sky” thinking. Got it. I didn’t realize St. Louis’ issues boiled down to too much imagination and not enough practicality! You should run for mayor. There’s buildings to be demolished!

          • guest

            I have a basic question on the whole demolition by neglect issue. The Board of Aldermen is now passing an ordinance regarding demolition by neglect, giving power to the city to punish landlords and seize properties if the owners fail to provide basic upkeep of historic buildings, leading to their ultimate demise due to demolition by neglect. How is this any different than current property maintenance codes? Doesn’t the city have this power already? Isn’t the problem not so much a lack of authority but rather a lack of enforcement, a lack of space in the housing courts, a lack of funding to do such emergency repairs, and so on? What’s different? And what happens to buildings outside of official historic districts? From news reports, the demolition by neglect ordinance would only apply to buildings in historic districts. Those boundaries are pretty hard to distinguish in lots of areas. More obvious in places like Soulard and Lafayette Square, less so in places like Hyde Park (historic district), College Hill (next door and not historic).

          • JZ71

            Demolition by neglect is certainly frustrating but is also a direct response to “too much” government regulation. There will always be property owners who will want to do things “their way”, the guvmint be damned. Still, most property owners maintain their properties to some basic level as long as they continue to see value in the structure(s) – they don’t need some city inspector to tell them to do it. It’s only when the “value” evaporates that maintenance ends, and “value” takes many forms. To some people, it’s the beauty of the structure(s), to others, it’s the revenue stream, to some, it’s the challenge of restoration or the historic vibe, to others, it’s just a roof over their heads. As long as people see more “value” in the land than in the structure, structures will be at risk for removal. It doesn’t matter if it’s accomplished by an expedited demolition permit process, demolition by neglect, Benny the Torch or an “accidental” gas leak, a motivated ($$$$$) owner WILL figure out how to “get rid of the problem”, housing courts or not!

            I’d argue that it’s not a lack of enforcement but a lack of demand – where are buyers and tenants looking to spend their money? Is it in an historic retail structure or in a strip mall? In an old, brick, urban apartment building or in a suburban apartment complex? In an old brick home in an historic city neighborhood or in New Town St. Charles? Are shoppers looking for quaint, walkable, retail districts or the convenient parking of suburbia or the convenience of online shopping? Do diners pick the Shaved Duck or Bailey’s Range or do they pick Red Robin or Applebee’s? Money talks – the CWE, the Loop and Soulard are all full of old buildings that are mostly fully leased and well maintained. The Wellston Loop, East St. Louis and other struggling areas have multiple vacancies and crumbling buildings because most people are spending the dollars someplace else. It’s not because government has failed to enforce its rules, it’s because it no longer makes much financial sense!

          • dempster holland

            And if the city starts penalizing you more for not making repairs fast enough
            you will see even more vacant and abandoned buildings

  • guest

    Responding to JZ – didn’t say that either. I just put the estimate out there. There’s no question that subsidizing the redevelopment of the Castle Ballroom would be a big ticket item. This thread has brought up a calculus that would make for a good post in its own right: where, when, and how to subsidize real estate developments/home improvements/repairs in St. Louis? JZ is right – there are way more needy situations than resources available. Most programs are federal or local grants that come with income restrictions limiting assistance to lower income households. Not very helpful when you’re trying to attract middle and upper middle income households. And since they are government dollars, the programs come with rolls of red tape, driving up project costs.

    So much time is spent on blogs and other conversations talking about “architecture”, our “built environment”, “historic whatever”, etc. No where near enough time is spent discussing the financing side of the equation. That’s where work gets done. With the dollars, not the drawings or vision. Lots of rolls of plans on the shelves. Not as many projects under construction. Back to the where and when of subsidy targeting, that’s where public policy meets program investments. “Program” have priorities, goals, etc. The investments are targeted to achieve those program goals. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work.

    So bringing this full circle, nowhere out there is a “program” of public policy in place to target money at the Castle Ballroom. So it’s toast, regardless of its architectural and historic merit. And that probably makes sense since there are many more important uses for public assistance, as established by the very many programs existing to rebuild communities. Those programs are by and large targeted to assisting low income persons and neighborhoods, not icononic vacant music venues.

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