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Readers Mixed On Latest Blight Removal Effort

July 24, 2019 Featured, History/Preservation, Neighborhoods, North City Comments Off on Readers Mixed On Latest Blight Removal Effort

Blight was in the news last week, and was the topic of the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll.

Before I get to the poll results, let’s talk about blight.

We have obsolete and blighted districts because our interest has always been centered in the newest and latest houses and subdivisions in areas of new development. As home owners have moved to successive outlying neighborhoods the earlier homes have gradually been allowed to deteriorate. No matter how great the extent of disintegration these old homes are seldom adequately repaired and are rarely torn down. This is no way to build a sound city.

The above quote isn’t from a press release about the new effort, it’s from St. Louis’ Comprehensive Plan — from 1947!

Combating blight is nothing new, but what is blight? In 1947 part of their definition was the number of housing units built prior to 1900 (82,000), number of units with an outdoor privy/outhouse (33,000), and the number of units where families shared a toilet (25,000). Today we do still have units built before 1900, but I doubt a single housing unit in the city lacks a private bathroom.

Yet blight remains, in different forms.  Dictionary.com defines blight as:

the state or result of being blighted or deteriorated; dilapidation; decay: urban blight.

St. Louis certainly has lots of deteriorated, dilapidated housing stock. For every home lovingly restored there’s probably 10 in various states of disrepair. St. Louis has struggled with this for generations.  The latest effort because it involves two wealthy individuals trying to leverage their fortunes:

Tech billionaire Jack Dorsey, a St. Louis native and co-founder and CEO of both Square Inc. and Twitter, along with Detroit native Bill Pulte, whose grandfather founded national homebuilder Pulte Homes, were paying for the demolitions — $500,000 for a pilot program to completely clear more than 130 lots in a four-block area of the northwest St. Louis neighborhood hard hit by abandonment and vacancy.

“St. Louis is a lot easier to solve,” said Pulte, who several years ago launched the Blight Authority, a similar initiative in the Detroit area. “This problem can be solved. This problem can be solved in less than 15 years…. This is just about willpower at the government and private sector level.”

So why not renovated, rather than raze? Good question. The answer is complicated, but “willpower” is an important factor. If we look at Old North St. Louis many buildings in very poor condition were stabilized for many years until they could be renovated. It was a huge effort that paid off…eventually. The neighborhood has seen considerable new infill since, from Habitat for Humanity houses to a trendy shipping container house.  Very different than when I lived in the neighborhood, 1991-1994. It helps the neighborhood is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Former Arlington School on Burd Ave in Wells Goodfellow neighborhood was converted into housing in 2012, new construction was built around it. This former school is the only building in the neighborhood on the National Register of Historic Places. Click image to see my January 2013 post from the opening of the new housing, Arlington Grove.

The Wells Goodfellow neighborhood is very different from Old North.   It’s also old, but at least a generation newer than Old North.

Wells/Goodfellow is part of an historic section known as Arlington, which takes its name from John W. Burd’s Arlington Grove subdivision of 1868. A memorable disaster in the history of the Arlington area occurred in October 1916, when the Christian Brothers College building at North Kingshighway and Easton Avenue (now Martin Luther King Drive) was destroyed by fire, one of the worst in the City’s history, taking 10 lives.

The area received its name from John W. Burd’s Arlington Grove subdivision of 1868. More subdivisions were built in the mid-1880s, with residential construction continuing until 1910. By the mid-1920s, the last of the residential subdivisions were opened. (City of St. Louis)

The location is on the far west edge of the city:

Wells Goodfellow general boundaries are defined as Natural Bridge Ave. on the North, southward to Union Blvd. on the East, westward to Dr. Martin Luther King Drive on the South, northward to the City limits on the West to Natural Bridge Ave. (City of St. Louis)

The housing stock is a mix of brick structures like we see in many neighborhoods, and wood frame structures that are becoming increasingly rare.

I photographed this wood-frame home at 1928 Burd Ave in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood in January 2012. It was built in 1903.
If we look closer the original porch brackets remain, the porch light is on so it was occupied.

I’m a huge fan of old wood-frame buildings, especially large homes from St. Louis’ heyday. The home above was a pile of rubble by August 2017 but not cleaned up until this month.

Across the street 1927 Burd Ave was still standing on Saturday, but both brick structures on each side had been razed. This frame house is likely gone by now, it was built in 1884.

These large frame homes are the exception for the neighborhood, most housing is smaller and modest.

!912 Clara Ave, left, and 1904 Clara Ave are occupied, the two similar houses in between were just razed.

The two that were razed were in bad shape two years ago. 1910 Clara Ave was built in 1908, was just over a thousand square feet in size. 1906 Clara Ave was built a year earlier, was just under 900 square feet. The two remaining houses are similar vintage and size.

The red dashed line shows the initial 4-block “blight elimination zone”

I’m sure the owner-occupant of one of the remaining houses is relieved to have the dilapidated neighboring structure gone. Both of the razed houses might have been technically feasible to renovate, but the economics just don’t add up in Wells Goodfellow.

There is one neighborhood in St. Louis where modest frame & masonry shotgun houses are well maintained, and often renovated. The Hill — the Italian neighborhood.

A couple of modest frame houses in The Hill neighborhood

When these aren’t renovated you’ll see a larger home built where 2-3 once existed.

Here we see a large newer home, left, on the same block as very modest houses. The house two to the right is very small.

The Hill neighborhood is of similar vintage and the housing stock was originally very similar — modest worker housing of frame or brick construction. One has had continuous investment, the other large scale abandonment.  In Wells Goodfellow few buildings are listed for sale in the MLS.  Those that are listed cost less than the average new car. Hell, less than many good used cars. Other city neighborhoods with this type of housing the unfortunate reality is closer to Wells Goodfellow than The Hill.

So when an owner-occupant dies their family sells the house to the only buyer, likely an absentee landlord. At these prices they can recoup their initial investment in less than 5 years.  The landlord rents it for as long as they can, then walk away.

This brings us back to the issue raised in the 1947 plan:

We spend $4,000,000 general tax funds annually to maintain our obsolete areas. (This sum represents the difference in cost of governmental service and tax collections annually in these areas.)

In 1947 we had overcrowding and hadn’t reached our peak population. Since then we’ve lost nearly 2/3 of our population.  Do we write off this neighborhood, or keep investing like the successful Arlington Grove housing immediacy to the south of this blight elimination zone?

In 1975, consultants from Team Four Inc. advised St. Louis planners to pursue a strategy of neighborhood triage: ‘‘conservation’’ for areas in good health, ‘‘redevelopment’’ for areas just starting to decline, and ‘‘depletion’’ for areas already in severe distress. The firm’s recommended strategy reflected the latest thinking among urban planners, but it provoked outrage among residents of the city’s predominantly black North Side, who read ‘‘depletion’’ as a promise of benign neglect. (The Trap of Triage: Lessons from the ‘‘Team Four Plan’’)

While you ponder the implications of not rebuilding the neighborhood, let me share more of my photos from visits this weekend.

I’m in love with the architecture of both 2518, right, and 2520 Clara Ave.
Looking south on Clara Ave at cross street Highland Ave., the frame house on the corner also has very nice proportions.
5744 & 5748 Highland Ave, just before Goodfellow on Saturday.
24 hours later I returned to see 5748 Highland Ave had burned.
5711 Kennerly Ave, left, was the most interesting house on a very depressing block

I get these mass demolitions, if I lived in Wells Goodfellow the decay would be stifling. I also think the mass demolitions will send the message not to invest in the housing, because the neighborhood is disposable.

Here are the non-scientific results of the Sunday Poll:

Q: Agree or disagree: 15 years from now these cleared blocks in the Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood will be an asset, lifting the rest of the neighborhood.

  • Strongly agree: 3 [9.68%]
  • Agree: 7 [22.58%]
  • Somewhat agree: 2 [6.45%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 2 [6.45%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 4 [12.9%]
  • Disagree: 4 [12.9%]
  • Strongly disagree: 7 [22.58%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 2 [6.45%]

It’s very hard to think the area of cleared lots will be an asset in 15 years, a lot depends on what happens next.

— Steve Patterson

 

Stop Signs Remain Where Cross Street Was Removed For NGA West Project

July 22, 2019 Featured, Transportation Comments Off on Stop Signs Remain Where Cross Street Was Removed For NGA West Project

In St. Louis stop signs are quite numerous, to the point many rarely come to a full and complete stop. STL-Style even sells a “roll sign” shirt.

Our elected officials like stop signs, from March 2017:

You can’t just erect a stop sign by fiat, not in St. Louis, as Alderman Cara Spencer has learned.

Spencer, 20th Ward, put up the stop sign Wednesday afternoon at Chippewa Street and Marine Avenue because she said it was a dangerous intersection near a school. The city’s Streets Department removed it Thursday.

Mayor’s office spokeswoman Maggie Crane said no actions were taken against Spencer because “we recognize that this was a publicity stunt.”
 
Spencer said she had tried since September to get city officials to put one there, but didn’t receive an answer until January. The city told her there was not enough data to prove the intersection was dangerous or merited a stop sign, but recommended she introduce legislation to have one erected.
 
Spencer said that process might have taken until May to get a stop sign posted. The Board of Aldermen began a spring recess in February and will not reconvene until April. (Post-Dispatch)

Legislation is how stop signs usually get installed. Yes, a bill is introduced. A committee hearing is held. A majority of the 28-member Board of Aldermen must approve, it’s then signed by the mayor — becoming an ordinance. Two such bills were introduced at their last meeting before summer break — see BB91 & BB92.

But what about the reverse, when an intersection is no longer an intersection?

Stop sign on 22nd Street where it used to intersect with Montgomery Street — vacated for the NGA West project, right

The intersection of 22nd Street and Montgomery Street no longer exists, but the stop signs on 22nd remain. In my mind these signs should’ve been removed when Montgomery Street was vacated, closed, or physically removed.  Yet they remain.

While I’m here I wonder if the NGA, a high security government facility, will oppose on-street parking on the west side of 22nd Street. If so, it should be narrowed accordingly.

I’ll be contacting the city’s Citizen Service Bureau about this stop at an intersection that no longer exists.

— Steve Patterson

 

Sunday Poll: Will St. Louis’ First ‘Blight Elimination Zone’ Be An Asset Within 15 Years?

July 21, 2019 Featured, Neighborhoods, North City, Sunday Poll Comments Off on Sunday Poll: Will St. Louis’ First ‘Blight Elimination Zone’ Be An Asset Within 15 Years?
Please vote below

On Friday there was lots of activity in one North St. Louis neighborhood:

The Wells-Goodfellow neighborhood in St. Louis is undergoing a much needed transformation as part of a new Blight Elimination project.

The goal is to demolish 30 abandoned buildings in three days between Cote Brilliante Avenue, Maffitt Avenue, Clara Avenue and Belt Avenue. In addition, 130 vacant lots will be cleaned up for residents to enjoy. (KSDK)

The center point of this four blocks zone is Burd Ave & Wabada Ave.

At an event Friday, Dorsey and Pulte, along with Mayor Lyda Krewson, announced the city’s first Blight Elimination zone.

The zone will cover four blocks in the Wells Goodfellow neighborhood, comprised of more than 130 lots between Cote Brilliante Avenue, Maffitt Avenue, Clara Avenue, and Belt Avenue.

30 vacant buildings will be demolished, 12 by the City of St. Louis and 18 by the St. Louis Blight Authority. Additionally, the Blight Authority will clear eight acres of vacant lots and alleys with the goal of prepping them for future use and purchase.

The plan is to perform all of the removal in three days. (KMOV)

Here is some more specifics:

Tech billionaire Jack Dorsey, a St. Louis native and co-founder and CEO of both Square Inc. and Twitter, along with Detroit native Bill Pulte, whose grandfather founded national homebuilder Pulte Homes, were paying for the demolitions — $500,000 for a pilot program to completely clear more than 130 lots in a four-block area of the northwest St. Louis neighborhood hard hit by abandonment and vacancy.

“St. Louis is a lot easier to solve,” said Pulte, who several years ago launched the Blight Authority, a similar initiative in the Detroit area. “This problem can be solved. This problem can be solved in less than 15 years…. This is just about willpower at the government and private sector level.”

The new nonprofit he and Dorsey are funding, the St. Louis Blight Authority, aims to complement city efforts to tackle vacancy and demolish abandoned buildings, a key initiative for Mayor Lyda Krewson. This initial pilot phase will knock down 30 structures — 18 funded privately and 12 by the city — and then fund debris removal and beautification. Dorsey and Pulte hope to inspire other philanthropists to contribute to the effort and perhaps expand it to other city neighborhoods. (Post-Dispatch)

This effort is the subject of today’s non-scientific poll.

The poll will automatically close at 8pm tonight. Wednesday morning I’ll share my thoughts and the results.

— Steve Patterson

 

New Book — ‘Vacant to Vibrant: Creating Successful Green Infrastructure Networks’ by Sandra L. Albro

July 19, 2019 Books, Featured Comments Off on New Book — ‘Vacant to Vibrant: Creating Successful Green Infrastructure Networks’ by Sandra L. Albro

A new book I received earlier this year is about something St. Louis has in abundance — vacant lots.

Vacant lots, so often seen as neighborhood blight, have the potential to be a key element of community revitalization. As manufacturing cities reinvent themselves after decades of lost jobs and population, abundant vacant land resources and interest in green infrastructure are expanding opportunities for community and environmental resilience. Vacant to Vibrant explains how inexpensive green infrastructure projects can reduce stormwater runoff and pollution, and provide neighborhood amenities, especially in areas with little or no access to existing green space.

Sandra Albro offers practical insights through her experience leading the five-year Vacant to Vibrant project, which piloted the creation of green infrastructure networks in Gary, Indiana; Cleveland, Ohio; and Buffalo, New York. Vacant to Vibrant provides a point of comparison among the three cities as they adapt old systems to new, green technology. An overview of the larger economic and social dynamics in play throughout the Rust Belt region establishes context for the promise of green infrastructure. Albro then offers lessons learned from the Vacant to Vibrant project, including planning, design, community engagement, implementation, and maintenance successes and challenges. An appendix shows designs and plans that can be adapted to small vacant lots.

Landscape architects and other professionals whose work involves urban greening will learn new approaches for creating infrastructure networks and facilitating more equitable access to green space. (Island Press)

Here are the 6 chapters:

  1. Green Stormwater Infrastructure on Vacant Lots
  2. City Dynamics that Shape Vacant Land Use
  3. Vacant to Vibrant Planning
  4. Vacant to Vibrant Implementation
  5. Sustaining Urban Greening Projects
  6. Scaling Up Networks of Small Green Infrastructure

You can read an extensive preview of Vacant to Vibrant at Google Books.

— Steve Patterson

 

Readers: Union Station Made Right Decision To Ditch Failed Retail Mall

July 17, 2019 Featured, Retail Comments Off on Readers: Union Station Made Right Decision To Ditch Failed Retail Mall

St. Louis Union Station, built in 1894, has an interesting history.

By the last decade of the 19th century St. Louis found itself in an increasingly important role as “The Gateway To The West” since it lay at the conjunction of the mighty Missouri and Mississippi rivers.  The Transcontinental Railroad had been finished just over 20 years prior and new lines were still being built across the Frontier.  In addition, many eastern and western trunk lines, or their future subsidiaries, terminated at the city such as the Iron Mountain & Southern (Missouri Pacific); Wabash; Ohio & Mississippi (Baltimore & Ohio), Louisville & Nashville; Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago & St. Louis (the “Big Four” controlled by the New York Central); St. Louis-San Francisco Railway (Frisco); Missouri-Kansas-Texas (Katy); New York, Chicago & St. Louis (Nickel Plate Road); and Pennsylvania.  Following the Civil War, a growing St. Louis expanded to the point that it boasted the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan region behind only New York City, Philadelphia, and Chicago. (American Rails)

This was St. Louis’ second Union Station, the first was quickly outgrown. Additional tracks were added on the west side of the shed within the first decade — to accommodate increased passengers for the 1904 World’s Fair. The train was how people got from city to city at the time.

The beauty of Carl Milles’ work with Union Station in the background
Grand Hall in St. Louis Union Station, 2010

Passenger volume peaked in the 1940s, dropping off steadily after that as improved cars, highways, and air travel shifted how people got from city to city. St. Louis Union Station closed completely in 1978, the vacant station was then used in filming scenes from the post-apocalyptic (1997) film Escape From New York (1981).

The month I began my first semester of college, studying architecture, Union Station reopened as a “festival marketplace.” That was a fancy way of saying a speciality mall without a department store anchor(s). Though the retail mall was only a portion of the space under the massive train shed, that was a big part of the image.  At the time it was hailed as a way to reuse large historic properties.

Union Station had only been reopened for 5 years when I moved here in August 1990. I remember my excitement finally getting to experience what I’d only read about in college. The original retail mix was good — lots of well-known stores. One of my favorites was Kansas City-based Function Junction — I still have a tray purchased there in November 1990.

Also in 1985 a huge mall opened in the main Central Business District — connecting two large department stores. St. Louis Union Station’s retail mall was very different from the large St. Louis Centre mall. Like many other malls across the country, both failed. Prime tenants gave way to tourist t-shirt shops, eventually there were more vacancies than shops.

Vacant retail spaces in the midway, 2011

St. Louis Union Station’s current owners bought the property after the retail mall was on life support, they made the correct decision to pull the plug.  Not sure if the coming aquarium, Ferris wheel, and other attractions will be sustainable — but I appreciate their bold decisions.

In the recent non-scientific Sunday Poll a majority agreed dumping the retail mall was the right decision.

Q: Agree or disagree: St. Louis Union Station should’ve updated the retail mall & food court rather than switch to an aquarium.

  • Strongly agree: 1 [1.75%]
  • Agree: 3 [5.26%]
  • Somewhat agree: 6 [10.53%]
  • Neither agree or disagree: 2 [3.51%]
  • Somewhat disagree: 3 [5.26%]
  • Disagree: 15 [26.32%]
  • Strongly disagree: 27 [47.37%]
  • Unsure/No Answer: 0 [0%]

I personally look forward to riding the Ferris wheel on a clear day so I can enjoy the views and take hundreds of photos.

— Steve Patterson

 

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