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Spring in Summertime

A guest editorial by Jim Zavist, AIA

This is a post about urban artifacts, connections made, broken and the potential to reconnect, and about the curiosity of a relative newcomer . . . As an older city, St. Louis has more than its fair share of urban artifacts, things in the built environment that no longer serve the purpose for which they were originally constructed. The downtown loft district contains many examples, the caves under some of the old and extinct breweries are another example, and the Spring Avenue viaduct will be the focus of this post. The what, you may ask? It’s the remaining portion of a multilane viaduct over the rail yards a couple of blocks east of Grand Boulevard, south of Forest Park Parkway and SLU‘s main campus.

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Apparently, at one time (from the early 1900‘s through the 1950‘s), Spring Avenue had been “improved”, widened and streamlined to provide a bypass around the congestion at Grand and Lindell. By the 1950’s and ‘60’s, other priorities became more important, namely double-decking Highway 40 to create the I-64 freeway that we have today. Something had to give, and a 2-3 block section of the viaduct was removed a block south of Forest Park Parkway and either end blocked off. For some reason, more than half (the southern half) was left in place, over the railroad. And in a token gesture to urbanity, one of those wonderful Highway Department pedestrian bridges was added over/under the freeway, that, surprisingly, remains open today. SLU also took advantage of the viaduct closure to also close Spring Avenue on their campus (where the clock tower stands today).

A few months back, Steve was pushing the idea of making the Grand Boulevard viaduct more pedestrian friendly. While I agreed that the Grand viaduct is a terrible place to be a pedestrian, I couldn’t see the financial viability of the concepts being proposed. However, in poking around this area, to try and “understand” the Spring Avenue viaduct, I see much more potential for a similar concept a block west of Grand. [See ‘Grand Bridge Should Follow Columbus Ohio Example‘ from January 2006 – SLP]

This map helps give some context.

I’m not the graphics whiz that Steve is when it comes to online mapping, but this is the basic concept: The line north on either side of Forest Park Parkway, between SLU and I-64 is my “Northern Segment”.

The line just south of I-64 is my “Middle Segment”.

Off the right is my “Metro Connector”.

The next segment (with no line) is the actual remaining viaduct.

And the final line is my “Southern Segment”, on either side of Chouteau Avenue.

To repeat some of the previous assumptions: SLU’s two campuses are separated by some inhospitable terrain. Both campuses are growing, and students are receptive to the pedestrian environments currently in place. The Aquinas Center recently relocated into new quarters on the NW corner of Spring & Forest Park Parkway. There’s a new redevelopment on the SE corner of Spring and Chouteau. The Grand Metrolink station isn’t very friendly or accessible to either campus. And, we have unused urban artifacts.

Which brings me to (I think) a relatively simple concept — let’s just fill in the gaps and create a pedestrian- (and bike- and skateboard-) friendly connection between both campuses and the Metrolink station. Taking it a block by block, starting at the north . . .

Laclede to Forest Park Parkway – just wider sidewalks

Forest Park Parkway to I-64 – remove the trailers, make a connection to the existing pedestrian bridge.

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I-64 to Scott Avenue (Metrolink, north end of existing viaduct) — this is actually one of the two toughest stretches — in an ideal world, it could be great to return to an elevated connection, connecting the pedestrian bridge on the north and the viaduct on the south. The two big downsides are a) the cost, and b) what it would do to any potential street-level activity (at the old armory to the east and/or the old Macy’s warehouse to the west)

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Scott Avenue to Gratiot Street – clean up, fix up and put the old viaduct back into useful service! Besides a great pedestrian and bike connection, it could become a skateboard park, farmers’ market, year-round tacky midway (like an oceanside boardwalk), homeless encampment or a SLU-sponsored sculpture garden – it’s essentially a blank canvas.

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Gratiot to Chouteau – lose a traffic lane or two, widen the sidewalks, and replace the truck dealer and other industrial uses with more pedestrian-friendly uses.

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Chouteau to Rutger Street – just better sidewalks and more of a focus to and from the SLU Hospital campus – someone’s obviously doing a major project already on the southeast corner of Spring & Chouteau.

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East from Spring, between Scott and the Metrolink tracks — a block long, gradual ramp down to grade, to access the existing Grand Metrolink Station platform (the other “tough” segment).

This is one of the truly fun things about the Urban Review STL website — the ability to ask questions and to dream big dreams. At this point I have a lot of both – I’d like to hear what the rest of you think can and should be done to flesh out this vision . . . Or to tell me why it simply can’t work here . . .

Local architect Jim Zavist was born in upstate New York, raised in Louisville KY, spent 30 years in Denver Colorado and relocated to St. Louis in 2005.


SLP – I just had to add some additional thoughts. First, I want to thank Jim for his contribution — much appreciated!  On the Grand viaduct/bridge, it should be noted the city is planning a major renovation of the bridge to make it more pedestrian friendly — by widening the bridge and placing planters in the center.  My suggestion was to construct buildings on the ground on either side of the bridge and plan them so a main floor is aligned with the public sidewalk – quite feasible in my view.  Having said that, I am interested in Jim’s concept for Spring in addition to efforts on Grand.  OK folks, what do you think?

 

SLU Sells Bread in Clayton to Help ‘Inner-City’ Kids

Something about a university located within the City of St. Louis selling items in neighboring Clayton just struck me as a bit off. Here is the press release from SLU:

SLU Offers Breads, Vegetables at Farmer’s Market
Event Details: 8:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m., June 30
Check out the department of nutrition and dietetics booths 8:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. every Saturday at the Clayton Farmer’s Market, 8282 Forsyth Blvd., just west of Straub’s grocers in Clayton.

In addition to the seasonal organic produce and fresh-made artisan breads, bagels and muffins, the group serves omelets with fresh ingredients from their organic gardens.

Inner-city children help grow the produce while learning about healthy eating. Proceeds from the department’s sales help the University’s many projects with city children and fund scholarships.

To get involved with the nutrition and dietetics project, call (314) 977-8523.

Maybe they tried working with local markets in St. Louis but no space was to be found? Of course SLU is good at looking to western suburbs for money.

Wouldn’t it be more interesting if SLU helped start a midtown farmers’ market?

 

SLU + Grand Center; The Intersection of Asphalt & Demolition

Saint Louis University (SLU) President Fr. Biondi, a member of the Board of Directors of Grand Center, thinks a new basketball arena will help Grand Center by bringing thousands of people to midtown. Others apparently agree. However, they are all wrong. Yes, thousands will come to basketball games — all driving cars on the highways and streets. Some will come to the games via mass transit while some students will, it is thought, walk from their nearby dorms. The notion, however, that thousands attending a sporting event in a single indoor facility will have net positive impact on surrounding areas is unproven at best. This is the Reaganomics of urban planning theory.

A few years back Fr. Biondi and SLU VP Kathleen Brady wanted to locate their massive arena on the western end of the emerging Locust Business District, adjacent to Grand Center. SLU bought a number of buildings but could not get the huge quantity of land they needed, some owners thankfully refused to sell to SLU. Unable to get their first location they shifted gears and decided to locate the arena south of Laclede and west of Compton. The Locust Business District, many thought, was safe from SLU’s over worked wrecking ball.

At the ground breaking for the new arena last August I spoke one-on-one with the Alderman for the area, Mike McMillan (since elected License Collector). McMillan had this to say to me at the time:

“If there had been a lot of demolition over in the Locust Business District it would have had a significant negative impact on the long-term success of that area so this project being here is a lot better for the surrounding community.”

A very astute observation the part of former 19th-ward Alderman McMillan, demolition can indeed have a negative impact on areas in the long term. The problem is his hand-picked successor, Marlene Davis, seems to think demolition in the Locust Business District is OK. Unfortunately this area is conveniently excluded from any oversight by the city’s Preservation Board, a group appointed by the Mayor to review demolition permits and other preservation related matters. Yesterday the city issued a demolition permit to Bellon Wrecking to raze one of numerous buildings owned by SLU in the Locust Business District. The plan, as far as we know, is more surface parking for the new arena being constructed four blocks to the south.

This is the part where I get confused, how exactly is this area to rebound when it is the repository of cars for big events blocks away? Can Fr. Biondi, Kathleen Brady, Ald. Davis or former Mayor and currently Grand Center’s President Vince Schoemehl please explain this trickle over theory to me? Can they cite examples where large surface parking lots have helped neighborhoods thrive? I’ve visited many cities and studied many more and I personally am at a loss for a single example. Oh wait, the surface parking for Busch Stadium spurred activity in the form of Al Hrabosky’s Ballpark Saloon, a pre-fab metal building. People drink there before, during and after baseball games.

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The building SLU is currently razing in the area is an old 19th century livery stable, a rather unassuming building in its coat of white paint (see map). Cleaned up, renovated and adapted for modern use the building could be a showplace. For more on the history of the building see Michael Allen’s Ecology of Absence. The key to this building is not its long history (although that is important) or its very simple detailing (although that too is interesting). No, the key to this building is location. I believe this building, if it were to remain standing, would play an important part of the Locust Business District which is doing an excellent job of connecting downtown to midtown (aka Grand Center). The area is already parking heavy but some good infill buildings could quickly reverse that. Instead of edging toward infill and reconnection, we are moving toward increased parking and further separation. The city, university, and Grand Center are making this area a no-man’s land.

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SLU owns the next two buildings in the block to the east. Are these next?

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Across Locust to the south of the livery, SLU owns the above building which fronts onto Olive.

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Thankfully SLU does not own the 6-story building on the left, in the same block as the livery currently being razed. Signs indicate the possible conversion to condos, an excellent reuse of the building and an ideal location. However, the the city vacating the alley on half this block this building’s alley will be a dead end — not ideal for trash, fire or general use. By cutting off the alley they are ensuring the fate of this building will not be good. The buff brick building on the right is a new motorcycle museum while the old livery can be seen in the middle of the picture.

… Continue Reading

 

Biondi Razes Public Housing Building for Open Space

Don’t get excited folks, this is old news. Actually, it is more than 15 years old.  I was doing some research on the St. Louis Housing Authority and came across an interesting story that given the recent news about expansion of the law school I thought I’d share.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch March 15, 1992:

On Thursday, the Cochran Tenant Management Corporation, which [Bertha] Gilkey heads, submitted to the St. Louis Housing Authority a plan to buy one of its buildings that St. Louis University had wanted. The plan does not list a purchase price. Gilkey says she wants to turn University House into a cultural center as part of an education and training program she wants to offer to dysfunctional families at Cochran. University House, at 215 North Spring Avenue, is about three miles from Cochran, a public housing complex just north of downtown. Other parts of the program would operate out of a privately owned apartment complex near Cochran that Gilkey is negotiating to buy. Sources who did not want to be identified believe that Gilkey could be using her right under federal law to buy University House as a bargaining chip with St. Louis University to get its help with her family program. The university could be instrumental in starting an alternative education program for children in public housing, Gilkey said.

At the time Gilkey was trying to purchase the then vacant Neighborhood Gardens apartment complex adjacent to Cochran Gardens, the “privately owned” complex mentioned above. Neighorhood Gardens, architecturally very interesting, was recently renovated. Given how that vacant complex was next to Cochran Gardens it made sense to work togther but I am not so sure her plans for the building on Spring at Laclede would have been logistically feasible. For now I will assume that it would work and that transportation would not be an issue.

From Jerry Berger’s Post-Dispatch column in June 1992, just months after the building dispute started with Gilkey competing with Biondi:

Biondi wants to extend the malls on the Frost Campus by closing off West Pine Boulevard between Vandeventer and Spring and closing off Spring Avenue between Lindell and Laclede. He also envisions an outdoor amphitheater and a significant monument consisting of a bell tower and fountain at the intersection of West Pine and Spring. Removing asphalt on Grand Boulevard to allow the construction of a sculpture park. The university is quietly seeking a 6- to 10-foot sculpture as the park’s anchor. (Are you listening, Laumeier Sculpture Park’s Beej Nierengarten-Smith?) Sources close to Biondi say he is hoping alumni and benefactors of the university will dig deep into their pockets to finance the projects.

Does that say “removing asphalt on Grand Boulevard” for a sculpture park? Yes, yes it does. I can’t even think about that one right now. The main point of the above quote is that Biondi wanted to close off both West Pine and Spring and without control of the University House at the coner of these two streets he’d be out of luck, most likely. Gilkey’s plan, if you recall, would require transporting some people back and forth from the Cochran complex. Closed streets would certainly make transporting individuals more complex.

With no agreement between Biondi and Gilkey, a lawsuit was filed to help SLU & Biondi. From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch October 1, 1992:

St. Louis and its housing authority filed suit Wednesday to block a tenant management group from getting a 13-story building the city wants to sell to St. Louis University. The suit seeks to force the Department of Housing and Urban Development to sell the vacant University House, 215 North Spring Avenue, to the university. The suit was filed in federal court. On Monday, HUD tentatively approved selling University House to the Cochran Tenant Management Corp., headed by Bertha Gilkey. That organization runs Cochran Gardens housing complex north of downtown.

Mayor Vincent C. Schoemehl Jr. accused HUD secretary Jack Kemp of making a ”political payoff” to Gilkey, whom Kemp frequently refers to as a model public housing manager. ”This is an irresponsible use of power on the part of Jack Kemp and his millions of minions,” Schoemehl said. The Rev. Lawrence J. Biondi, president of St. Louis University, said he was ”completely frustrated and outraged” by HUD’s decision to prefer Gilkey’s bid. ”We will be left with an abandoned and decaying building in the heart of our campus and our community outreach programs will not all be housed in one convenient location,” Biondi said. Joseph G. Schiff, an assistant HUD secretary in Washington, responded: ”If Vince Schoemehl would spend more time improving the St. Louis Housing Authority and less time on needless partisan bickering and ridiculous lawsuits, the taxpayers of America would be better served.” …St. Louis University has been trying to get the 19-year-old building since the Housing Authority closed it in 1987. Gilkey has proposed a cultural and education center for families in public housing. The building once housed elderly people.

So in October 1992 SLU President Biondi wants to ensure their community outreach programs will all be in one location. The next day the Post-Dispatch reported that, “The university wants the building for offices and community programs.”  Well, that sounds good but in reality Biondi likely figured that if Gilkey got her cultural and education center it would mess up his plans.

Gee, was anything else going on in October 1992? Say, a presidential re-election campaign for Bush Sr. against some Governor of Arkansas? Could Kemp have been trying to help Bush get the black vote in St. Louis by siding with Gilkey? As we all know, Clinton made Bush a one-term President which meant Jack Kemp was out as HUD Secretary.
Besides the Presidential election of 1992 the mayor would elect its first African-American Mayor, Freeman Bosley, Jr., in March 1993. Geez, a new HUD Secretary under Clinton and a new mayor, would this help Gilkey? Nope! From the July 21, 1993 Post-Dispatch:

Bertha Gilkey, who failed in her bid to buy the 13-story, vacant University House, said Tuesday that she would sue the St. Louis Housing Authority and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in federal court to reverse the transfer of the building to the university.

Well, we could see that coming. I’m not sure if she sued or not but SLU got the building.  Back to the July 21, 1993 article:

The building, with 201 apartments that had been for elderly public housing residents, is on the west side of Spring Avenue just south of Lindell Boulevard. The university is turning that block, the block to the south of it and Pine Street between Spring and Vandeventer Avenue into a pedestrian mall. Victor De La Cruz, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority, said Tuesday that the agency had complied with federal procedures in the matter. “Our position does not change,” he said. The transfer was completed Friday, said the Rev. Lawrence Biondi, university president. He said he did not expect Gilkey’s plans to delay the mall’s completion. He said the university would raze the dilapidated building in four to six weeks.

What!?! Raze the building? Back in October SLU President Fr. Biondi wanted to ensure all their community outreach programs would be in a single convenient location! I guess Biondi conveniently found another location for the programs once the University House building was transferred to him — I mean to SLU.

The July 21, 1993 article continues on Biondi’s plans:

The university started working on the mall in May, closing Spring Avenue between Laclede Avenue and Lindell. The area will be transformed into a “contemplative park” that will include a lighted walking space, a 50-foot clock tower, a 10-tier amphitheater with waterfall, a fountain and sculptures. Biondi said that eventually, the university would complete its plan to define the school’s boundaries by closing West Pine Boulevard at Vandeventer Avenue.

A “contemplative park?”  Oh please, with all those ‘neked’ bronze statues around campus who can contemplate anything the Jesuits would approve.  Biondi got his street closings, clock tower, waterfall & fountain in addition to the sculptures.   I was not and am not a fan of the street closings but I get the “campus” logic.  What I don’t get is the razing of a building only 20 years old, most likely with a fine structure.
The Post-Dispatch has an editorial supporting SLU in the August 2, 19993 edition:

The St. Louis Housing Authority has given St. Louis University control of University House, a vacant public housing building on Spring Avenue near Lindell Boulevard. The university intends to demolish the structure and turn the block into a pedestrian mall. It might seem unconscionable to raze the building when this community has a waiting list of people needing decent housing. But the transfer can be justified in that it offers long-term benefits to public housing tenants.

As part of the transfer, the university promises to set up an $840,000 endowment for scholarships to be awarded over the next century to students who live in public housing. It also promises to help public housing managers develop and expand their business skills, and it will encourage public housing residents to make use of counseling and education clinics offered by the university. Though this transfer holds promise, it shouldn’t be regarded as a precedent.

There certainly should be concern over the fact that public housing is being demolished without being replaced.  Ordinarily, the federal government would require the construction of an equal number of public housing units to replace the 201 that will be lost when the 13-story University House is demolished. However, the federal government made an exception in this case. 

I intend to find out the current status of these scholorships and the rest of SLU’s promises.

The 201 units of public housing lost when the building was razed in 1993 is a bit dramatic, they were really lost six years earlier in 1987 when the St. Louis Housing Authority shuttered the building.  But that takes me back to one sentence from the Post-Dispatch from October 1, 1992; “St. Louis University has been trying to get the 19-year-old building since the Housing Authority closed it in 1987.”  What are the chances that Biondi helped make sure the housing authority, with members appointed by Mayor Schoemehl, decide the fate of the then 14-year old building housing elderly residents?  I think closing the University House was part of a long-term plan for Biondi.  When did he become President?  Oh yes, 1987 — the same year the Housing Authority closed the University House public housing building.  Schoemehl is now the head of Grand Center, Inc. which works closely with Fr. Biondi.

Returning to 2007 we have the current issue of SLU razing an old mansion for the law school expansion (see my post).  Architect Paul Hohmann has done some more research this latest issue, for his report see Vanishing STL.

 

Saint Louis University (SLU) to Raze Historic Building to Construct Fake Historic Building

Saint Louis University has announced plans to renovate and expand the law school building.

Saint Louis University President Lawrence Biondi, S.J., has announced that a fundraising initiative to expand and renovate the School of Law is beginning. The initiative will fund the construction of a new classroom building and large-scale renovation of the current facilities. The University’s Board of Trustees gave its approval to start fundraising for the project at its May meeting.

How much fundraising? How about $35 million? I can see why SLU needed $8 million in public tax incentives to build their new arena, it would make fundraising just that much harder. The only other thing standing in the way are two old buildings along Lindell Blvd.

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Demolition of this older building with a newer facade (1940s?) is being razed despite being a viable structure. I guess it is part of the Jesuit tradition to be wasteful with resources?

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This former mansion will also meet the wrecking ball. This part of St. Louis once had many fine homes but over the years they’ve pretty much all been razed. This one had been used by the university for some years.

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This beautiful home will not be razed, just surrounded by the new building. Here in St. Louis we have a long standing tradition of saving only the best structures (aka Landmarks) and destroying every bit of context around it. The home in the background and shown in the prior picture, on most streets, would be one of the finest buildings and considered safe from demolition. Sitting next door to this more elaborate home, it is considered disposible.

This is a really long block and the separate buildings help create a nice rhythm. The new building will destroy this wonderful rhythm of structures. It will also attempt to give a false sense of history by the use of gothic architecture:

The project will completely reconfigure the appearance and functioning of the current law school facility. Special features will include a new state-of-the-art classroom building, a stately courtroom, a grand commons, a modernized legal information center and an exterior facade in the classic Gothic style.

Below is SLU’s artist rendering of the final results.

Some may look at the above sketch and think it is an improvement over the current law school, below:

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I’d be hard pressed to convincingly argue this beige box is architecturally better than the thin veneer of gothic that will be applied to it like wall paint from Bella & Birch. In 2007 are these our only architectural choices? I’m guessing someone did a study showing that universities like SLU and nearby Washington University can east-coast old school tuition if the campus buildings look like old school east-coast campuses.

The stunning old historic mansion will be surrounded by nothing but pretent gothic. Classic…

 

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