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17th Annual Post on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis

January 18, 2021 Featured, MLK Jr. Drive, North City Comments Off on 17th Annual Post on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in St. Louis

Since 2005 I’ve looked at Dr. Martin Luther King Drive every year on the national holiday to honor the civil rights leader killed in 1968. This is my 17th such post.

In St. Louis two streets were renamed in 1972 — Franklin Ave east of Leffingwell Ave and Easton Ave west of Leffingwell Ave became Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. This travels through north St. Louis from the Mississippi River to city limits.

Though not bustling like new suburban malls, it still had lots of commercial activity. In the nearly half century since the streets were renamed the black middle class largely abandoned north St. Louis — moving to either other parts of the city, north county & beyond, even out of state. With some exceptions, retail activity on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive has collapsed — as have many buildings.

Today we’ll start at MLK & Tucker then head west. Why not start further east? Well, only one block of MLK remains east of Tucker (12th) — between 9th & 10th. On the south side of the street is the side of an anti-urban hotel and on the north side a surface parking lot enclosed by chain link fencing. The blocks between Broadway (5th) and 9th are part of the convention center and dome.

At Tucker & MLK you have the former Post-Dispatch building being renovated into office space for Square and others. All photos, except where noted otherwise, were taken on Saturday January 9, 2021.

The first block of MLK east of Tucker is closed during building renovations, left. The main entrances used to face Tucker & MLK, but that will change when it reopens.
The new main entrance will be on the opposite end, a previously windowless addition has been transformed into the new main entrance at Tucker & Cole.
In 2020 the few remaining old buildings on MLK between 13th & 14th were razed. This view from the NW corner of MLK & 14th we can see all the way to Tucker & Convention Plaza (aka Delmar).
In 2020 the city leased a former RV park that occupied an entire city block bounded by MLK, Jefferson, Cole, and 23rd.
Tiny houses began being set into place so unhoused individuals could have a safe place to live.
The storefront at 2706 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive was boarded up.
I’ve been watching the house at 3047 MLK slowly deteriorate. It has stood here since 1880.
In 2012 the rear wing was still intact.
The McKee-owned warehouse in the triangle where Page & MLK meet is another that has been slowly crumbling.
The MLK side is actually the back. At the top you can see a wall on the mechanical penthouse has collapsed.
Here’s a cropped view to show the wall collapse. This will allow more water & animals into the structure.
On the block west of Whittier Street stood large 3-story building. In the foreground the sign for the late Ald Sam Moore is still in place at the Ville Mall business incubator he helped build. It’s suburban-style front parking lot is in stark contrast to businesses in older buildings across MLK
A better view of the site where a large 3-story warehouse stood for decades.
From my 2019 post: Bricks are starting to fall from this building. It should be stabilized, but it’ll likely be allowed to crumble until neighbors demand it be razed.
The well-proportioned, but vacant, building at 4277 MLK has lost brick from the exterior row.
The closed Marshall School building that faces Aldine Ave is still awaiting a buyer.
A positive sign just west of Newstead, very glad to see this building getting some attention.

 

This handsome building at 4524 MLK needs attention to keep it from getting beyond the ability to save it.
The building at 4534 MLK is getting some tuck pointing to help it keep standing.
Something is happening at 4668 MLK.

In the last 16 years the building has been a dollar type store at least twice, it’s closed again. 4949 MLK
For a few years now a new building has been under construction at 4973 MLK, set back suburban-style. It looks finished, but has yet to be occupied.
The former Sears on Kingshighway near MLK is now the Urban League, the building is still named after Victor Roberts.
The auto & tire business at 5018 MLK is burnt out.
The facade at 5153 MLK has collapsed.
Last year I knew the facade wouldn’t last long so I included it for documentation purposes.
And sadly one of my favorite buildings in the entire city was finally razed.
5716 MLK in 2019.
The former National market at 5870 MLK has had other uses over the years, last as Ali Market. A medical marijuana dispensary license has been awarded to Growing Jobs Missouri. Hopefully this will still happen.
In late August 2020 the upper floor collapsed while the business at 5917 MLK was open. I doubt the building will be here next year. Click image to see Post-Dispatch story in a new tab.
Here is what it looked like in 2019.

As in prior years there are a few bright spots along an otherwise bleak street.

As long as there is extreme poverty in this world, no man can be totally rich even if he has a billion dollars.
— Dr. King, “The American Dream” speech, June 6, 1961 at Lincoln University. Listen here, quote at 14:23.

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Initial Thoughts On Proposed ‘City District’ In North St. Louis

January 4, 2021 Featured, North City, Planning & Design Comments Off on Initial Thoughts On Proposed ‘City District’ In North St. Louis

In 1990, at just 23, I fell in love with St. Louis and its quirky street grid. I hadn’t yet been to New York or Chicago but I knew many big cities had rigid orthogonal grids — nothing but right angles.

St.Louis’ grid, on the other hand, had right, obtuse, and acute angles. This meant interesting views from various directions, buildings designed to fit into the odd-shaped parcels. Some streets follow old trails, the neighborhoods built up around the meandering paths.

I simply adore this about St. Louis.

In my first 6-9 months here I made my way along North & West Florissant Avenue as it makes it way up through North St. Louis. My destination was O’Fallon Park — the neighborhood and city park.

Right before the park was the remnants of once-thriving commercial district. I’ve been back there many times over the years in a car, bike, bus, and motor scooter.

From the bus on August 5, 2017, looking at West Florissant Ave & Harne Ave. Click image to view in Google Streetview

This old commercial area is the center of a new revitalization project called “The City District.”

Phase One
During the $34 million Phase One, 66 parcels will be demolished and the land will be reallocated for new construction of retail, homes and community greenspaces. More than 50 percent of these properties are currently vacant. The construction team is working on master plan and design development and bidding. Demolition will begin in March. Kwame Building Group is serving as the construction manager and program manager. The architect is Jackson Design Group.

In Phase One, the construction team also will build City Plaza, which will create vibrant shopping and recreational opportunities and a thriving local labor force. The commercial center will feature extensive retail and office space, including a grocery store and bowling alley.

Phase Two
The O’ Fallon Neighborhood is home to some of St. Louis’ largest and most historical homes rivaling the size and stylings found in the Central West End and surrounding Tower Grove Park and Forest Park. In Phase Two, $1 million will be invested in rehabilitating 26 existing homes. Large single-family homes will be converted into multi-use rental properties while retaining their architectural history. A $24 million project will construct new single and multi-family homes.

Culturally competent and equitable redevelopment practices will be central throughout the five-year project. The KWAME team is committed to maximizing MBE/WBE and local firm participation. The project team has established a partnership with the City of St. Louis to increase community safety and security focused on community competent policing. Existing infrastructure will be reimagined to improve and promote public transit and pedestrian accessibility. (Kwame Building Group)

My initial thoughts are generally positive, the area desperately needs investment after decades of disinvestment by whites and then blacks. I’m very glad this effort is coming from the black community, not an old white suburban developer. It’s a very good thing they’ve given this commercial district a name — that’s important for creating a positive identity.

However, I’m very concerned about demolition of currently occupied structures. Reallocating land sounds like making wide suburban lots rather than the existing narrow lots with garages and services off the alley. How the large triangle created as West Florissant splits is treated will be very important. It’s all asphalt now. Lots of unanswered questions.

Wisely they’ve said it will take multiple phases and five years, though I expect it’ll take even longer. And that’s ok, it didn’t decline overnight so we can’t expect an immediate reversal. I’m looking forward to seeing more details.

— Steve Patterson

 

Population Loss in Six North St. Louis Wards

November 16, 2020 Featured, North City, Politics/Policy Comments Off on Population Loss in Six North St. Louis Wards
The six wards on the top 1/3 of the city had lower registered voters in 2016 & 2020.

As I pointed out recently, north St. Louis continues experiencing population loss. In my post on the election results I wrote:

Despite the increase in registered voters, six contiguous north city wards (1,2,3,4,21,22,27) had decreases in registered voters. These same six also had decreases in 2016. When the 2020 census numbers are released next year we’re going to see population loses in the north side, but increases in the central corridor — the same pattern happened a decade ago. The overall increase in registered voters tells me the overall population loss slowed again or we might even see a very slight increase in population. A loss is more likely.

Overall the city had increased voter registration compared to 2016, so something is going on. Once we have the detailed census results we’ll get a clearer picture what is happening.

In the meantime I have some thoughts on this subject.

The 1940 census saw a decline from 1930 — those who could afford to move to the new suburbs  were doing so in large numbers.

Peak population in St. Louis in 1950 was around 856k. That population exceeded the physical capacity of our housing units — major overcrowding occurred in the oldest housing. Housing in the NW & SW was only 20-30 years old during the 1950 census, it likely wasn’t overcrowded. It was the 19th century housing that was overcrowded. The increased population masked an underlying problem — the white middle class was fleeing rapidly. Rural/poor whites & blacks looking for work after WWII made the census numbers look good but it was a huge shift in people.

In the seven decades since we’ve razed a significant percentage of the 19th century structures for highways, urban renewal projects, and due to abandonment. During this time the total population each census was less than the previous census. Initially it was large scale and widespread, but has slowed. Within a few decades all white neighborhoods became all black neighborhoods.

After the 2010 census we saw increased population in the central corridor (downtown west to city limits) but losses north and in parts of south St. Louis. I don’t think we’ll ever see widespread abandonment south of the central corridor. So much has been rehabbed — just too much invested to walk away. This is not to say that small areas on the southside won’t see losses, they very well could. Another thing we saw in the 2010 census was the black population dropped to just below 50% of the total, the white population remained unchanged as a percentage.

The six wards that make up the northern third of the city, on the other hand, are highly likely to see significant losses in the 2020 census results. These losses will most likely account for the majority of the overall population loss of the city.

What’s happening is the residents of these six wards are likely finding better housing elsewhere — either in the rest of the city or in St. Louis County. Population in the St. Louis region has long shifted around in search of better housing. What’s new is in these wards we are seeing a significant shift out with no new group shift in. When older homeowners die their kids don’t want the dated old family home.

To be sure there are some very nice pockets within these six wards with well-maintained houses, tree-lined streets, etc with relatively dense populations.  These islands are in contrast to the food/job deserts of the rest of the wards. Large non-residential sites include O’Fallon & Fairgrounds parks, Bellerive & Calvary cemeteries, and the contaminated government facility on Goodfellow occupy a lot of land, but a lot of the land is where buildings used to exist.

With these longtime wards emptying out it presents problems for redistricting next year. Ideally political boundaries are drawn to be compact, ideally square in shape. But you also want wards to reflect the demographic makeup of the population. After redistricting each ward represents roughly the same amount of people so the number of wards doesn’t matter as much when a third of the city is being vacated while the two-thirds is stable or increasing. It’s going to be challenging keeping the same number of majority black wards. I could see a black alderperson representing a diverse south city ward.  The next redistricting will reduce the number of wards from 28 to 14.

In a future post I’ll share my thoughts what St. Louis should do to counteract the increasingly empty third of the of the city.

— Steve Patterson

 

Decade Since The Failed 14th Street Pedestrian Mall Was Reopened in Old North St. Louis

October 29, 2020 Featured, Neighborhoods, North City, Pedestrian Mall Comments Off on Decade Since The Failed 14th Street Pedestrian Mall Was Reopened in Old North St. Louis

It has now been a decade since a 33-year mistake was corrected. During the 1960s & 1970s removing a street to create a “pedestrian mall” was a magic bullet tried by cities coast to coast. Almost fall failed.

In the early 1970s North 14th Street merchants began looking for solutions to a decline in sales as residents of the surrounding near north neighborhood left for better housing elsewhere.

From a May 1972 Washington University graduate thesis

The solution, they thought, was to mall 14th Street. Some buildings behind the street were razed to create large surface parking lots, so former residents could drive back to their old neighborhood to shop at chains like JC Penny & Woolworth’s and local businesses like Sobel’s Furniture.

Open air and enclosed malls were attracting more and more customers so remaking a decades-old neighborhood shopping district to emulate suburban malls would attract customers. Well, that was the theory that led to hundreds of streets nationwide being malled.

More like mauled.

The new 2-block long mall opened on March 2, 1977.  Two blocks of North 14th Street were closed to vehicles, from Warren Street on the south to St. Louis Ave on the north. The one cross street, Montgomery Street, was also closed. See current map.

By the time I first saw it in the Fall of 1990 very few businesses remained.

Looking south on 14th, Spring 1991

By the Spring of 1991 I was living in the Murphy-Blair neighborhood, the local group was working to rename it Old North St. Louis. The neighborhood located just north of downtown St. Louis was a separate village 1816-1841, when it was annexed by a growing St. Louis.

Two business that were were just beyond the mall were Marx Hardware (Est 1875) and Crown Candy Kitchen (Est 1913), both are still in business.

I left the neighborhood in August 1994, but others finally figured out how to put together a project to both renovate the buildings that remained and put back the street. I applaud all involved for their perseverance.

The ribbon cutting was held on July 29, 2010

After the ribbon cutting & celebration traffic didn’t immediately begin driving up & down 14th Street. The new streetlights were delayed, so the city’s Streets Dept wouldn’t let cars use the new street. Within a few months the lights and a few other punch list items were completed.

The former Woolworth’s at 14th & Montgomery in 2010.

In the decade since the reopening new occupants of the  storefronts have changed, retail is a struggle everywhere. The spaces aren’t empty, which is important.  The street trees have matured nicely.

Old North Provisions diagonally across from Crown Candy Kitchen in August. Click image to see their website in a new tab.

Some say the mall helped keep these buildings from being destroyed, but I think had the mall not been built the street might have been slowly brought back one business at a time, like others in St. Louis.

— Steve Patterson

 

KC Nonprofit Proposes Tiny House Village In North St. Louis To Assist Homeless Veterans

October 22, 2020 Featured, Homeless, North City, Planning & Design Comments Off on KC Nonprofit Proposes Tiny House Village In North St. Louis To Assist Homeless Veterans

Homelessness is a problem coast to coast — in big cities and in small towns, in downtowns and in the suburbs. Often it’s invisible, other times it’s too visible. One of the groups who find themselves homeless are our veterans, men & women who served our country but then fell through the big holes in what’s left of our safety nets.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) states that the nation’s homeless veterans are predominantly male, with roughly 9% being female. The majority are single; live in urban areas; and suffer from mental illness, alcohol and/or substance abuse, or co-occurring disorders. About 11% of the adult homeless population are veterans.

Roughly 45% of all homeless veterans are African American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 10.4% and 3.4% of the U.S. veteran population, respectively.

Homeless veterans are younger on average than the total veteran population. Approximately 9% are between the ages of 18 and 30, and 41% are between the ages of 31 and 50. Conversely, only 5% of all veterans are between the ages of 18 and 30, and less than 23% are between 31 and 50.

America’s homeless veterans have served in World War II, the Korean War, Cold War, Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama, Lebanon, Persian Gulf War, Afghanistan and Iraq (OEF/OIF), and the military’s anti-drug cultivation efforts in South America. Nearly half of homeless veterans served during the Vietnam era. Two-thirds served our country for at least three years, and one-third were stationed in a war zone.

About 1.4 million other veterans, meanwhile, are considered at risk of homelessness due to poverty, lack of support networks, and dismal living conditions. (National Coalition for Homeless Veterans)

The above organization lists some stunning statistics:

DEMOGRAPHICS OF HOMELESS VETERANS

  • 11% of the homeless adult population are veterans
  • 20% of the male homeless population are veterans
  • 68% reside in principal cities
  • 32% reside in suburban/rural areas
  • 51% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities
  • 50% have serious mental illness
  • 70% have substance abuse problems
  • 57% are white males, compared to 38% of non-veterans
  • 50% are age 51 or older, compared to 19% non-veterans

It should be clear that homeless veterans are a big group. Programs to assist the general population might help some, but a targeted approach will yield better results.

Veteran homelessness is related to another problem: veteran suicide.

Veterans with a history of homelessness are five times more likely to attempt suicide than other veterans, a new study by researchers at Yale and the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs has found. (Yale)

The solution to homelessness appears to be getting them off the street and treatment for issues like substance abuse. Such treatment won’t work while on the street looking for their next meal or where to sleep. Housing becomes the key, but what kind?

Tents for homeless, downtown St. Louis in April

In the past SROs (single room occupancy) were an important housing option, but these have mostly disappeared. Tent cities are an option, but those lack privacy, showers, etc. Tent encampments are often run off from the land where they spring up. Five years ago a group opened Freedom House, a renovated apartment building, for homeless veterans. See Housing For Homeless Veterans Nearing Completion At 4011 Delmar.

A relatively new nonprofit, based in Kansas City, is trying a solution other cities have utilized: tiny houses. Veterans Community Project (VCP) now want to expand into St. Louis, focused on helping veterans with anything they need. Apparently accessing services available through the Veterans Administration (VA) isn’t easy, so they help veterans navigate the bureaucracy. They can also help veterans get other services outside those offered through the VA. And 50 tiny houses will give the men & women the security & stability they need to rebuild their lives.

At the land dedication event on friday a couple of speakers mentioned eradicating the problem of homeless veterans in Missouri. Sounds good, but homeless veterans exist outside of the Kansas City & St. Louis metro areas. While I’m skeptical about any claim to eradicate homelessness, this project will potentially make a significant dent in our total homeless population.

Let me walk you through their proposed project, then I’ll share a few areas of concern.

Located on a 5-acre property in the heart of the Jeff Vander Lou neighborhood, the Veterans Community Project campus includes a village of tiny houses for Veterans experiencing homelessness and a Veterans Outreach Center to provide walk-in support services for any Veteran in the St. Louis metro area.

VCP Village

VCP Village is a specialized community of 50 tiny homes with on-site, wraparound support services designed to equip Veterans with the tools needed to return to a stable, prosperous, independent life.

Each tiny house provides everything a Veteran needs to live with dignity and security; new furniture, appliances, housewares, bedding, personal items, and utilities – all free of charge. The homes offers sanctuary and the emotional space needed for each Veteran and VCP’s specially-trained team to thoroughly address the underlying causes of his or her homelessness.
With the support of their case managers and battle buddies, Veterans work to achieve incremental, lasting results in the areas of health and wellness, income stability, education and training, fiscal understanding, and the development of a personal support network. Once the Veteran’s individual goals are met, VCP assists him or her in securing a permanent housing solution and transitioning to a new life. 

The Veterans Outreach Center

Located on Grand Ave, the Veterans Outreach Center is a “one-stop” shop for any Veteran requiring support services such as emergency rent and utility assistance, food and hygiene kits, employment supports, military documentation and benefits navigation, and case management.

The project is modeled after VCP’s Kansas City model which has already served more than 4,100 at-risk Veterans and successfully transitioned more than 40 formerly homeless Veterans into permanent housing since its opening in 2018. (VCPSTL)

You can see an early construction aerial of their KC village here, so let’s take a look at their St. Louis proposal.

Three groupings of tiny houses would face a central area, to create the village feel.
They want to build on 3 areas around Aldine Ave & Spring Ave, west of Grand (right). Their Outreach Center is on the right, at Grand. The yellow building on the left is the village community center.

There’s a lot to like about their proposal:

  • The services to veterans seems very important, even if not homeless. Too many serving the homeless offer just one part of what they need, sending them off to find the rest. This will hopefully result in a higher success rate.
  • It’s close to the VA Hospital on Grand.
  • The number of separate structures is roughly equal to what was here in 1909 (See Sanborn map).
  • Tiny houses can be on wheels, modular, or built on site. This is the latter. These are permanent structures.
  • Tiny houses are psychologically better than other transitional options because they immediately help the individual see themselves living in their own place, independent of others. It’s a baby step toward an apartment.
  • Case managers will help keep these vets on track.
  • There’s no rent, no limit how long they can stay.
  • Ugly mostly vacant lots backed up to auto salvage businesses aren’t likely to be used for anything, especially new housing.
  • No public streets vacated!

Obviously I’m a believer in tiny houses for transitional housing for the homeless, but I do have a problem with a couple of things and I have some suggestions.

Grand Boulevard is our longest north-south corridor, with the busiest bus route (#70). Pedestrians use the bus, and as part of an urban area all new construction along Grand should be urban in placement and massing. First, here’s how they plan to face Grand.

 

Unfortunately they’ve shown the outreach center building set back behind parking, rather than up to the public sidewalks. It also requires 3 driveways interrupting the sidewalk. Very suburban design, totally inappropriate for an urban neighborhood with heavy pedestrian use.
This is easily addressed by designing the building to be located at the corner, with the entrance directly on the Grand sidewalk. Ideally it would be 2-stories, or 1-story with a raised roof area at the corner.

Rather than a curb cut leading to a garage door, this function should be off the parking lot — not interrupting the public sidewalk. The sidewalk along Grand should be as wide as possible, with tree wells, not tree lawns. This allows people who arrive by car to park in the parking lane and then step onto pavement, not grass. Same for the Aldine Ave side of the building.

From both streets you see the blank backs of the houses — no eyes on the streets.
3708 Aldine Ave will be razed. It was built in 1889. In the last decade two wood frame houses to the right were razed. At least this block has a history of different heights and materials.

In addition to the above issues I have some suggestions to improve the project.

  • Make the Aldine Ave 2-way as shown on the site plan.
  • Corner curb bulbs to narrow streets, slow drivers. Also reduces the crossing distance, adds planter opportunities.
  • Add some bioswales/rain gardens to Aldine Ave to catch water and reduce the amount of paving. With parking lanes Aldine Ave is too wide.
  • Plan for internal walkways to alleys so residents can take their trash/recycling to the dumpsters.

The main thing I’d like to see is the outreach center building be up against the Grand sidewalk — not pushed back behind parking.

— Steve Patterson

 

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