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Property on Virginia Illustrates Mixed Uses, Evolution of Buildings

Buildings are hardly static and the property at 5411 Virginia in South St. Louis is a perfect example. What was once a 1-story structure grew over the years into a 15,000+ complex that includes a storefront, an office, an apartment, a garage and lots of open space. Over the years this property has been an early gas station, a bowling alley, a dance hall, a fried pies stand, a tavern and, most recently, a large-scale costume shop.


Preservation of buildings usual involves looking at a “period of significance” architecturally or historically. When originally built the complex was much smaller than today but we know from records, like the above, that the dance hall portion of the building on the 2nd floor was in place by March 1935.


The modern storefront may date to the 1930s as well.

The terrazzo entry clearly identifies the use as a bowling alley. The wood floor remains as well as some of the markings but the gutters have been filled in with wood and the manual pin equipment has long been removed.


The 5,000sf upstairs ballroom is a more “raw” space as the current owners removed the old plaster ceiling when they purchased the building back in the 90s. The space was used occasionally for parties, weather permitting (this floor is not air conditioned).

St. Louis is full of equally interesting buildings that, over time, have changed and evolved — sometimes for good and sometimes for bad. They are always fascinating. A great book on the subject of buildings is How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand.

As you might expect by this point, I do have an other motive for this post.

At my previous real estate company I had this listing and when I left the listing stayed there, I’m on good terms with the company & seller so all is good. In the MLS the listing still shows as “pending” but a backup is requested. I know a bit more than this but it is inappropriate for me to share details.Let’s just say if you or someone you know might be interested in such a property get on the phone and call your agent, me or the folks at Schaller Realty. The listing price is $199,900. Click here to view the listing detail (w/additional photos & contact info). And for full disclosure, yes I will receive a referral fee upon closing of this property.


St. Louis’ Marine Villa Neighborhood Latest Battleground for Ald Schmid

Ald. Schmid, D-20th, survived a brutal spring election whereby many voiced opposition to his leadership in the ward. At the end of the day, more supporters showed up at the polls than opponents. Just when you thought things might calm down for another four year stint, residents of one neighborhood in Schmid’s ward are critical of Schmid’s role as president of the “Improvement Association.”

A recent post on Steve Wilke-Shapiro’s excellent 15thwardSTL site about a sunshine law bill sponsored by Ald Schmid quickly turned to the issue of the Marine Villa neighborhood. The first comment called into question the alderman for the area acting as president of the neighborhood as well as his reluctance to turn over a copy of bylaws to members once requested. This drew a response from a former resident, Joe Frank:

I was secretary of Marine Villa Improvement Association during part of 2001-02 when we were trying to reactivate the organization after a long period of dormancy. Just to get things going, we decided to use the original 1969 bylaws, so that we could have something semi-legal to go by. Those included silly statements like “no members of a Communist or activist group” may join.

The following from “MV Resident” seems to sum up an opposing perspective:

Marine Villa has seen a resurgence of new residents who want to be equally involved in their neighborhood as Craig. Unfortunately Craig does not give them this opportunity. Residents of Marine Villa have repeatedly tried to become more involved in the MVIA by becoming elected officials, chairing committees etc. As president, Craig would not allow this. When MVIA members asked for the bylaws, Craig refused to provide them. It wasn’t until a large group of Marine Villa residents sent him a letter voicing their displeasure that Craig disclosed the bylaws, agreed to elections, allowed the formation of committees and a formal agenda for the meeting. All of this lasted only one meeting. Last meeting Craig did not have an agenda, copies of the bylaws or committee sign up sheets.

And these hard to find bylaws dating to 1969? Yes, I have them for you to read in full (click here for 2-page bylaws in PDF format). So any of you socialist party or activist group members please note that if you are “recruiting members or causing a confrontation at a meeting” you will be “asked to leave quietly.” Interestingly, as a non-partisan organization I wonder if Ald. Schmid used his “title” as President of the organization during the recent campaign? If so, this would appear to violate Article III, section D.

The by-laws call for elections of officers every two years although some say elections haven’t happened in a while. The President is responsible for creating a nominating committee.

Marine Villa is #18 on the city’s list of 79 neighborhoods (see alphabetical list). The website linked to from that list is one of the old fashioned ones dating back to the late 90s (ancient in web terms). Right away you can see the next general meeting is April 23, 2007 while the next board meeting is “to be announced.” Scroll down just a tad and you’ll see about a fire hydrant painting event from 2002, bulk trash pickup news from 2006 and 2007 and then another 2004 event.

A history page talks about the origins of the name of the neighborhood:

The name and boundaries of this tiny enclave came into existence in 1968. It is theorized that the name was chosen as tribute to the large number of rivermen that once had their own community in this area. The old Marine Hospital, one of several hospitals authorized by an act of Congress in 1837 for the treatment of sick and disabled rivermen, was located at Marine and Winnebago Street, a site currently occupied by the National Record of Archives.

So the neighborhood is named for a hospital that no longer exists. Hmmm…

I really don’t care for these “improvement associations” either. These bylaws focus on “strict application of zoning” which is a bad idea really given how suburban focused our zoning really is. Come on, the guys that wrote our zoning wanted to replace Soulard with a suburban cul-de-sac subdivision!

Also keep in mind that when many of these were formed in the late 1960s we had over 600,000 in population (619,269 as of 1970 census) vs only 353,837 as of July 1, 2006 (see prior post on census figures). Times have changed over the decades as zoning, demographic shifts, attitudes and policies have caused our population to plummet nearly 60% since 1970. To some, this reduction in density is good. While having too many people stuffed into a housing unit (aka overcrowding) is bad, having more housing units is a good thing (minimum density to support retail, transit, etc…).

Gentrification is often thought of in terms of white folks pushing out minority groups or similarly those of middle to upper incomes pushing out lower economic segments. I believe in Marine Villa and in other parts of the city we are seeing a new, and much needed, form of gentrification — pushing out of the ‘I hate cities’ people that have been ruining our city for decades — the types that want all neighborhoods to have only single-family owner occupied housing units, to have fewer total units (aka reduce density), to enact policies which discourage small business districts over sprawling auto-focused strip & big box centers. People can tell you they live in the city, love the city and on and on but actions speak louder than words. For example, the fountain where Chippewa, Broadway and Jefferson meet was not designed to be a community gathering spot. In fact, it was designed to discourage gathering of any kind. This “improvement” is a hostile element in the city.

Another website exists for the improvement association at http://www.marinevilla.org. While attractive I think this site is just getting started. I’m not certain if Schmid is behind this or those who seek different leadership, or quite possibly someone in the middle. Regardless, I think good marketing is critical to attracting new residents, businesses and fresh capital.

Marine Villa is oddly defined with edges of interesting stuff along both Jefferson and Cherokee. Some interesting stuff is taking shape along old buildings on Broadway at Chippewa. Great potential exists in the building stock, the interesting topography, and the street pattern. One of my favorite views of the city is to look south-ish down Marine Ave from Chippewa (map link). From here you get a great view of the Mississippi and on a clear day, the JB Bridge. I was on a bike ride with a friend the first time I saw this view — it took my breath away as it was totally unexpected. For those of you that think St. Louis is flat, bike around this neighborhood for a while.

I will continue to watch the goings on in the neighborhood although I doubt I can attend any of their meetings. The main issue for me is they fall on the same night as the city’s Preservation Board so that usually trumps other things on my schedule.


City of St. Louis Lacks Good Street Tree Requirement

One of the key ingredients, in my view, of making cities more walkable (ie: walker friendly) is the proper placement of street trees — trees placed between the sidewalk and curb. These add order to the street as well as create a sense of division between sidewalk and passing traffic. Sadly, the city doens’t have a street tree requirement for new projects.

Above is Hartford looking eastbound with the old Commerce Bank parking lot on the right. Planned housing for this parking area has hit a financing snafu but evntually we’ll see something built here. This post is about the great street trees that line both sides of Hartford.


Sadly, when Commerce Bank torn down the more urbna 2-story structure a few years ago and built a new branch they neglected to include urban street trees along the entire south side of Hartford.


Combined with mostly blank walls this treeless area gives off a much different feel than the surrounding area with its tree-lined streets and sidewalks. At most six trees could have been placed along the side length of this property for a total cost of maybe $3,000. The true value to the area would have been far greater.


In stark contrast to the side street, the Grand side of the Commerce does have urban street trees at nice intervals. I have to wonder if the city made Commerce include these? Was there a concious decision to not have trees on Hartford just around the corner?

The retail building just to the north of Commerce Bank, built in the early 1990s, includes street trees along Grand (above) and Hartford (below).


So often it is the little things that make a difference and when it comes to increasing pedestrian activity (and thus a reduced burden on car storage) little details such as street trees do make a difference.

The city does have some suburbanish landscaping requirements that basically require some token trees/shrubs between the sidewalk and parking lots to screen cars but when it comes to the public right of way — the public sidewalk — it is perfectly OK to allow it to be a wide expanse of blank concrete. Somebody in city government needs to wake up and work on improving our standards. They could start by reviewing the Great Streets initiative from the East-West Gateway Council of Governments.


Land Trust Receives $15,000 to Clean-Up Former Gas Station Site, Plans Permanently Affordable Housing

Last week the Missouri Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority (aka EIERA, yes we joked about E-I-E-I-O) presented a $15,000 check to the Red Brick Community Land Trust (RBCLT) for clean-up of the brownfield site where they plan to build some affordable housing. The St. Louis Business Journal announced the event last week.

First let’s figure out who is who and what is what.

The EIERA explains best who they are on their website:

“The Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority (EIERA) is a quasi-governmental agency that serves as the financing arm for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. Established by the Missouri General Assembly in 1972, the EIERA Board Members are appointed by the Governor.

The EIERA’s primary mandate is to provide financial assistance for energy and environmental projects and protect the environment. The agency also conducts research, supports energy efficiency and energy alternatives and promotes economic development. The Authority is not a regulatory agency.”

So what is a brownfield? In short, a brownfield is a previously developed site (with or without a building) that is contaminated (see wiki entry). Contamination can happen a number of ways; from the type of construction materials used to the former activities on the site, such as this former gas station site with two empty tanks remaining in the ground. These tanks will be removed before the RBCLT can construct the new affordable housing. RBCTLT’s press release covers more about how a land trust works:

RBCLT separates the cost of the land from the cost of what is built on it. This allows low-income residents to buy a quality home and at an affordable price. When homeowners choose to move and sell the home, they sell the home at a price that balances their interest to have a downpayment for their next home with the community’s interest in keeping the home affordable for another low-income family. In this way RBCLT homes remain permanently affordable from generation to generation. Community land trusts also help to preserve open green space for community gardens, parks and playgrounds.

“The land trust locks in resources like the state grant, permanently securing the benefits for the entire community. This allows the state agency to recycle the subsidy,” said Sarah Coffin, RBCLT board president and assistant professor in the Department of Public Policy Studies at Saint Louis University. “The benefits of the subsidy to the wider community include connecting previously fragmented segments of neighborhoods into cohesive units. One more brownfield will be removed from the urban landscape and the cleaned up site will be maintained as a public good in perpetuity. But more importantly, Red Brick CLT will be able to create homes that low-income people can afford from generation to generation, improving the quality of life for the children and the families who buy these homes, further increasing neighborhood stability and securing economic and cultural diversity in the community.”

So basically a home owner buys just the home, not the land. With the trust retaining ownership of the land the property can stay more affordable for the next buyer. This is a big contrast to how we’ve been doing affordable housing in St. Louis in the past where the original owner gets a grant or other incentives to help them get a home but once they sell the place basically becomes market rate.

The affordable housing “will be built through a partnership with Youth Education and Health in Soulard (YEHS) and YouthBuild St. Louis Americorps.” Here is more info on YouthBuild:

YouthBuild St. Louis AmeriCorps (Youthbuild St. Louis) is an alternative education, construction training, employment, and leadership development program serving low-income St. Louis youths, ages 18-24, who have not completed high school. Youthbuild St. Louis, which began in 1992, is sponsored by Youth Education and Health in Soulard (YEHS), a community-based organization founded in 1972.

What is uniquely exciting about YouthBuild is that it is combating the St. Louis public schools’ high school drop-out crisis, while helping to replenish St. Louis’s critical shortage of affordable housing.

Although a site plan was distributed the architecture for the new construction has not yet been finalized. Representatives indicated existing buildings adjacent to the site will also be renovated by YouthBuild. As you may recall, this area was threatened with complete demolition earlier this year (see post) but in May the city rescinded their offer of purchase (translation: we no longer seek to take your property away from you).


Above: members of YouthBuild join Mark Bohnert, executive director of Red Brick Community Land Trust; Sarah Coffin, president of RBCLT; and Robert Kramer, EIERA board member.


Above from left, Kristin Allen, development director with EIERA; Karen Massey, deputy director of EIERA, Bob Brandhorst, executive director of YEHS; Mark Bohnert, executive director of Red Brick Community Land Trust; Sarah Coffin, president of RBCLT; Solana Rice, vice president of RCBLT.


Above from left; Sarah Coffin, president of RBCLT; State Senator Maida Coleman (D-5th District); Robert Kramer, EIERA board member; Kristin Allen, development director with EIERA

Above, Sen. Coleman discusses project with RBCLT Board VP Solana Rice and ED Mark Bohnert.

I talked with Exec. Director Mark Bohnert after the presentation was over, here is a short clip:


Ald. Phyllis Young was invited to the event but she sent her regrets in advance.

I personally look forward to seeing the progress on the project.


Newly Constructed Starbucks and Others Lack Mandated ADA Access Route

I want to see St. Louis reach its potential and be a much more pedestrian friendly place to live. I see many people out walking and jogging but we could have so much more sidewalk activity. I’m seeing more and more couples with babies out in strollers trying to navigate our sometimes unfriendly environments. I’ve written many times about the lack of an ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) access route at Loughborough Commons to which people say someone is not going to walk to Lowe’s to buy drywall. Well, no sh*t. But people do still walk or use mobility devices to buy smaller items. I’m not suggesting we ban cars, simply make places accessible via various means. The ADA is federal civil rights legislation and, if actually followed, would make places more accessible to everyone including those elusive families we seek to attract to the city.

The newest Starbucks in the City of Saint Louis is located where Chippewa St (aka Watson, formerly Route 66) and Lansdowne Ave intersect — just east of both the well known Ted Drewes Frozen Custard Stand and a MetroLink light rail station. It recently opened but unfortunately it is about as auto focused as you can get.

The drive through lane, above, is front and center as seen from the public sidewalk. In the above image the front door is basically behind the right most umbrella. I’m not sure how they expect people from the very nice adjacent neighoborhood to walk there from the sidewalk — through the drive lane and over the shrubs? Someone in a wheelchair is out of luck.

Above, the situation is the same from the other side. You can stand on the sidewalk and read the menu of the drive-thru but you cannot access the door!


View from public sidewalk.


Basically anyone using a wheelchair to access the site must use the auto drive to get to the accessible area just beyond the maroon SUV and then backtrack to the door.


Not only is this dangerous, it is not ADA compliant. Regardless of ADA, this type of poor planning simply assumes everyone will arrive by car. I was unable to spot a bike rack anywhere on the site or in the public right of way. The public sidewalk completely lacks street trees. Sure, the building is nice and new but poorly planned. By contrast, the dated Arby’s location in the next block to the West has an access route to their entrance from the sidewalk. Although it does not meet current ADA standards, it complies with the intent which is more than I can say for Starbucks.

The City of Saint Louis is not alone in permitting poorly planned projects to be built. The adjacent suburb, quite dense and pedestrian friendly, is allowing new construction to erode what there good urban roots. One such project, is another new Starbucks which opened within the last month or so.

Located on the SE corner of Delmar and North & South this new Starbucks drive-thru is more geared toward motorists than the many pedestrians in the area. Despite a high level of pedestrians in the area, this new Starbucks shrugs off any notion of complying with the federal ADA requirement for an accessible entrance from the public street.


Above, a new Bentley, valued at roughly $170K, waits at a red light while a young couple with dog and twins in stroller cross the street.

The couple from above enter the site of the Starbucks via the outgoing auto lane and head toward the back of the building to access the ADA ramp to get their kids out of the parking lot. As others leave, a minivan attempts to back out of a space.The Royal Banks branch diagonally across from the Starbucks, built recently, also suffers from the same issue. From the sidewalk we can see the entrance and an accessible parking space but if you are on the sidewalk (and not driving a black Porsche) you are not welcomed.


Some might say this is better than the gas station that used to be on the site to which I would agree. But, when building brand new from scratch shouldn’t these businesses do a better job attempting to connect people to their front door? The best way is to build up to the street but short of that they need to provide an access route.


Those trying to enter the bank on foot (or mobility device) end up facing the outgoing auto traffic. Those able to can jump onto the sidewalk adjacent to the building but others are forced to risk it in the auto lane until they reach the ramp from the drive to entry.

Given this bank’s sidewalks and ramps I don’t think they’d get an access route right anyway. The red ‘truncated domes’ are used to help those who are visually impaired to know when they are crossing a drive/street. Their direction is meant to guide them, by feel under foot, to the other side. However, here we can see that these will send them out into the street.


The two remaining corners each have older buildings that are urban in form — butting up to the sidewalk. This makes it much easier for pedestrians to access local businesses and spend money. Of course, they must first get past the Post-Dispatch newspaper box blocking the top of the wheelchair ramp.

Back to the city we see the new big box store, The Restaurant Depot, on Manchester Road across from St. Louis Marketplace.

This store is not open to the general public, you must be a restaurant owner to get in. Still, this facility should have an ADA route from the public sidewalk as an employee might use a wheelchair or simply decide to take transit and walk from the nearest bus stop to their job.


Above is yet another new Starbucks being constructed between Broadway and 7th at Russel, just east of Soulard.  An adjacent building will have a new Bread Co (Panera for you non St. Louis readers).  I’m guessing they will lack an ADA compliant access route to both of these locations.

We cannot continue this cycle of building places hostile to pedestrians and then say there are not pedestrians as a justification to build ever more hostile environments.  People arriving at these sites on foot, bike, wheelchair, scooter or car can all be accomodated if we as a city/region make it a priority.  Our leadership in the city and in adjacent municipalities have failed to look out for the interests for whom they are supposed to serve.