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Historic District Standards Need Updating

June 27, 2012 Featured, History/Preservation, South City 13 Comments

Many of St. Louis’ first historic district regulations were written in the early 1970s, the thinking at the time was we needed to strip away “clutter’ such as projecting signs in order to compete with the tidy new suburbs.  Later regulations used the earlier ones as a base so today we have many regulations that are out of sync with our thinking 40 years later. Attitudes and thinking change.

ABOVE: Bastille on Russel in Soulard was denied a permit for a solar panel
ABOVE: Air conditioners visible on the roof of Joanie's Pizza from the same spot as viewing Bastille's

In 1947 the St. Louis Comprehensive Plan called for razing all of the Soulard neighborhood and building a new suburban-style subdivision, complete with cul-de-sac streets!!

Plate Number 16 is a plan for the reconstruction of the Soulard Neighborhood. Some of the more important features of the plan are: the extension of Gravois Avenue from Twelfth Street to the proposed Third Street Interstate Highway, providing a direct route to the central business district; the widening of 18th Street, the widening and extension of 14th Street, the widening of Park and Lafayette Avenues; underground garages in the multi-storied apartment area between 12th and 14th; a neighborhood part of 10 acres or more complete with spray pool, community facilities and game courts; the extension of Lafayette Park to serve this as well as other neighborhoods; landscaped areas throughout the community for passive recreation; enlargement of the City Hospital area; grouping of commercial areas into orderly shopping centers and the complete reconstruction of the neighborhood into super residential blocks with a new street pattern to serve these blocks and to discourage through traffic.

Such a plan would transform an obsolete area into a fine residential neighborhood with a good standard of housing, enlarged open areas, greatly improved environment, small concentrated shop centers, and much needed park and recreation space. The new interstate highway passes diagonally through this neighborhood and could be most advantageously undertaken simultaneously with the reconstruction. This is an area well suited for families of medium incomes. (Obsolete areas)

Just 25 years later Soulard is designated a historic district! Again, those early days of preservation regulations attempted to freeze the natural evolution of buildings, no doubt a reaction to a few decades of pro-demolition thinking. It’s possible, I believe, to preserve the historic neighborhood while allowing solar panels but not white vinyl windows with too many dividers between the panes. Yes, it’s subjective. In 25 years solar panels can be removed…of course so could inappropriate windows.

Here are the poll results from last week on this topic:

Q: St. Louis denied a solar panel on a visible roof in historic Soulard, thoughts:

  1. Ridiculous, all the air conditioners that are visible in Soulard are equally out of place 46 [39.66%]
  2. Just following the set standards, but they’re outdated and need to change 31 [26.72%]
  3. Good, we need to keep historic districts looking nice 12 [10.34%]
  4. Owners of historic buildings are better off buying power from alternate sources rather than clutter up their buildings 11 [9.48%]
  5. Understand the rules before you buy/rent/lease a buildling! 6 [5.17%]
  6. Other: 9 [7.76%]
  7. unsure/no opinion 1 [0.86%]

The “other” answers were:

  1. Why not rent rooftop space from a more practical building (warehouse, box store)
  2. dumb, other cities can add this to the evidence that STL is a dying city.
  3. I guess no one has noticed the potential of energy shortages
  4. Where are the options for letting them install solar panels???
  5. I think it is interesting that this was enforced, but Pevely was demolished…
  6. Creative solutions that maintains the historic facade but allows modernization.
  7. It’s not rediculous, but well designed/installed panels should be allowed.
  8. is there a compromise such solar panels in the shape of tiles?
  9. Understand the rules before you buy/rent/lease a buildling!

Just like ordinances, these historic district standards need to be reviewed and updated on s regular basis. Monday the Preservation Board granted a variance to allow solar panels at Bastille.

— Steve Patterson


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. Eric says:

    “underground garages in the multi-storied apartment area between 12th and 14th”

    That’s what you call a “suburban-style subdivision”?

  2. msrdls says:

    Soulard home owners, condo associations and owners of buildings that house businesses (only) should be allowed to vote on any proposed changes to the district’s historic regulations. These people have invested in the area, and for various reasons, and many did so at a time when only true pioneers had the vision to do so. One reason for the regs MIGHT be that they felt the stringent regs were important to maintain property values within the neighborhood. And if this was a valid concern then, it probably still is today.  Another reason MIGHT be that they didn’t want the neighborhood to become like south Broadway. And I doubt that those concerns are any less real today.  But, IMO, if the regs were in place at the time of purchase, then the regs shouldn’t be changed until the current property owners have had their say.  It is the right of the owners to decide their own fate. It is NOT the right of Silly Hall to relax the regs just so that a potential campaign contributor, whether  he owns or leases,  can jingle a few more pennies in his pocket at the end of each month.

    Maybe FUTURE/currently unnamed historic districts need to relax their standards….if and when the new district is established.  But existing historic districts have already developed THEIR standards, and their motto should be: “Don’t let the door hit your ass when you leave”.

  3. JZ71 says:

    My concern remains trying to “freeze” any neighborhood at some arbitrary point in time.  Neighborhoods / districts are / should be living entities, continually evolving, hopefully for the better.  To make it clear, I do support designating specific, individual, significant structures, with all the attendant restrictions and incentives, especially when done voluntarily.  I do not support using “history” to impose arbitrary design controls over multiple blocks of structures, especially if the structures date from multiple decades.  Form-based zoning, where bulk, setback, land coverage and, potentially, materials are defined, is a better way to balance the desire to maintain certain design “standards” with both private property rights and evolving technology and uses.

    To use your example of Soulard, realistically, if we want to be historically accurate, we should prohibit Bogart’s Barbeque (with it’s picnic tables), I-Tap (with its patio), diagonal street parking and cable TV wiring, to say nothing of central air conditioning.  Making certain architectural features sacrosanct (window mullions) while ignoring others (roofing materials) is the definition of arbitrary.  Neither of these businesses, nor many of the other restaurants in the area, are historically accurate, things you would find in the 1890’s.

    A neighborhood or a district is more than a collection of structures and architectural details, it’s a collection of people and uses, creating a daily dynamic.  The challenge that apparently faced Soulard 50 years ago isn’t much different than what’s facing many parts of north city (and county) – people and business are leaving, in droves, and those left behind have neither the inclination nor the resources to maintain the fabric of the area.  In contrast, southwest city (and many parts of the county) seem to be doing fine without either regulations or incentives, even though they, to, have a history to share.

    • I moved to St. Louis not for a few “significant structures” but the collection of ordinary structures. Without districts of buildings I’d lose interest just like I have little interest in the Old Cathedral since it doesn’t have its context.

      • msrdls says:

        Actually, I disagree. The Old Cathedral has a “context”. The first is obviously historical. Currently the building serves  as a venue for special masses, weddings, baptisms and other legitimate events sponsored by religious-affiliated groups. Plus, it is often on the visitors’ circuit, especially for those who have studied a bit of architecture or Catholic Church history.  It has as much, maybe even more, “context” as the Arch, in my opinion.

        • imran says:

           If you look at historic photographs of what used to be around the old cathedral, it might change your ideas about what historical context

          • msrdls says:

            As recently as yesterday (even 3 minutes ago) historical context was establlished, imran. Today, at this very minute, “context” exists.  

  4. moe says:

    Totally agree JZ71.   Updating should be done.  Neighborhoods are living entities.  Their ability to adapt as a whole to the different generations is what makes them successful.  The “whole” being key.

    • msrdls says:

      …and it’s perfectly ok if you’ve improved and continue to maintain your investment…thinking that FINALLY you were settled in an area where there were some actual exterior building covenants to protect your property……and some hoosier moves in next door and hangs hubcaps from his window lintels and covers his third floor dormers with rigid insulation and galvanized corrigated siding in an effort to (attempt to) minimize attic heat gain in the summer months?  And if these examples are NOT ok–if they’ve gone just a bit too far even for you–, just how far should we allow some of these hoosiers go before we can legitimately complain? If you want to live in areas where there are few, if any, restrictions, move to Southampton or Northampton, or any one of several other decent areas where things are a bit more relaxed.  But don’t think you should be able to move into a historic district, one that has already suffered through and amazingly survived years of makeshift maintenance, abuse and neglect, and change the rules that have finally been established to prevent history from repeating itself. 

      And if you want to change the rules, LET the owners do it….if they want.

      • JZ71 says:

        The two problems with establishing (or modifying) historic districts are that, given their arbitrary boundaries, rarely is any vote unanimous.  There are always owners included unwillingly, who are forced to accept the tyranny of the majority.  The other is that, many times, creating an historic district is one of the few tools residents have to impose any sort of design review or design controls in existing areas that are not covered by design covenants.  The actual “history” is secondary, the desire for “control” is primary.  If they were called design districts, I’d probably have less of a negative view, since they would be focused a range of solutions, not just replicating old technology, aka “history”.

        Our positions are both shaped by real-life experiences, yours in California, mine in Colorado.  They’re both valid, and they both illustrate the difficulty of balancing individual “freedom” with governmental “control”.  I choose to live in the city precisely because the controls are less stringent.  If I wanted to live someplace where every house looked the same, I’d move into a boring, covenant-controlled subdivision.  Am I a big fan of the house across the street that has green, indoor-outdoor carpet on their front steps?  No, but I respect their right to make that choice, because I want the same latitude.  That’s the challenge with visual design and decorating, unlike structural engineering, is that there will always be better and worse choices, rarely will there be only one “right” or “best” answer.  I like that I can decide where to build a planter, what to build it out of and what to put in it without passing review by some committee of “experts”, seeking to create some arbitrary “vision”.

        The real, underlying issue is how people view change.  Some people don’t want to see ANY change.  They like what’s around them and they want to make sure that it stays that way, to “freeze it in time”.  Others are more comfortable with evolutionary change, while a few even embrace radical change.  My experience is that no neighborhood ever stays exactly the same, they’re either getting better or they’re getting worse.  Residents (and businesses) age and move out, new ones (hopefully) move in and leave their mark.  There are many parts of north city that have changed little architecturally (except for plywood over some windows), but they’re no longer “good” neighborhoods.  They could easily be designated as “historic”, but that won’t do much to “save”, or even stabilize”, them IF the owners don’t have the resources or the financial motivation to pour more money into a depreciating investment.  To assume that more government control is the only way to make neighborhoods better is ignoring the reality that, bottom line, it’s the people who choose to live and invest in a neighborhood truly make it what it is (or is not)!

  5. JZ71 says:

    Out of Denver – some different perspectives:  “Neighbors of the old warehouse once owned by the Mine and Smelter Supply Co. want the 50,000-square-foot brick building on Huron Street to remain intact and have petitioned the city to grant it landmark designation.”

    “Owners of the building want it razed, have already torn down a portion of the building and have buyers who want to construct five-story apartments on the site.”

    “The owners are upset that a potential multimillion-dollar real-estate deal is being held up by a $250 application filed by neighbors seeking landmark preservation on something they don’t own.”

    “As of last year, the city tallied 50 historic districts and 330 individually landmarked structures.”Read more: Denver neighbors crusade for historic LoDo building – The Denver Post http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_21007927/neighbors-crusade-historic-lodo-building


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