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Friday, March 14, 2008

Bohemian Hill, Part II

As promised earlier, here is the second part of my October 2007 post on the demise of Bohemian Hill (sans preachy intro--thank God!). If you'd like to view part one, click here.

There seems to be a bit of confusion as to the ultimate fate of the buildings along Tucker Boulevard–some of Bohemian Hill’s last remaining housing. After a battle with Jim Roos (who had the building facing the I-44/I-55 interchange painted with the words “stop eminent domain abuse” inexplicably crossed out) and concerned residents, the city has apparently, for now, given up on its quest to seize these houses.

Bohemian Hill, what’s left of it, that is, is far from safe though. With the departure of the Century Building and its onetime ground floor tenant Walgreens, the city of St. Louis has not one Walgreens that has “hermit crabbed” into an older structure. All are new construction, and all new Walgreens have the same basic architectural elements, if ascribing the word “architecture” to such formulaic construction is even accurate in the first place. Perhaps more importantly, not one has a truly urban format.

I suppose the most walkable Walgreens is Grand and Gravois, which has an entrance that abuts the sidewalk along Gravois. It pains me to give that Walgreens site any sort of distinction though in light of its builders bullheaded, shortsighted, and downright asinine insistence upon pressing for demolition of the now-rehabbed art-deco beauty once known as the Southside National Bank building, a.k.a. the South Side Tower. Luckily the effort failed and they were relegated to the side of a major street just steps away from the corner of Grand and Gravois. Of course, as you know, Walgreens stores can’t succeed without a high profile, visible corner. Let the eye-rolling begin: the “Grand and Gravois” Walgreens is doing just fine.

But I digress. Needless to say, when Walgreens sets a footprint on Bohemian Hill, even if it is as currently planned (to build around the existing structures), that shrivel of a context of a neighborhood will be lost. We cannot have a generic Walgreens as a neighbor to these buildings. Simply put, what is right now difficult to recognize as a part of greater Frenchtown will appear even more out of place next to a suburban Walgreens store.

Plus, there is the thought that Gilded Age/Koman will design the shopping complex (known as Georgian Square) with loading docks facing 13th Street, thus visually polluting the properties along that street, including the year 2000-constructed infill housing, with the hope of convincing owners to sell for future shopping center expansion opportunities. I would list these properties as endangered.

The current site plan, however, makes it difficult to determine what the intent of the developers is. Since the city’s announcement that it will not seek to buy out the Bohemian Hill homes, Gilded Age/Koman has not released renderings that reflect the preservation of these homes.

From Koman’s website:

Buildings “H” through “M” would clear everything on the site. By the renderings, 13th street looks to be street level retail, even mixed use with residential atop. Who knows what to trust? Renderings are so temporary.

The point of these posts is not to chase away investment from St. Louis, as some of my detractors have said. Sure, I do think that these large developments that invite all the typical chains into the urban landscape (Starbucks, Panera, Walgreens, Qdoba) without the urban form are misguided and not necessarily good at all for our city. Still, I’m sure residents of the surrounding neighborhoods will be pleased to have a grocery store in the immediate neighborhood. When I lived in the 1000 block of Dolman in Lafayette Square, I used to either walk to the Salama Market (a small and to my knowledge local chain serving mostly Clinton Peabody residents, located on Chouteau at the end of the new Truman Parkway), drive to City Grocers if it was just an item or two, or I would drive to the Schnucks at Grand and Potomac. Blech, by the way on that last one.

Shooing away development dollars and needed services is not the message from atop my soapbox. What I hope to bring to your attention is the opportunity (the need?) for the city to work with the developer to provide a different site–or to integrate their retail with the reestablishment of Bohemian Hill as a residential neighborhood.

After all, South African architect Jo Noero developed a site plan for Bohemian Hill that envisioned a neighborhood punctuated with infill housing not unlike what sits today on S. 13th Street just south of Lafayette. Of course, in 2001, when the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation recognized the site plan as a recipient of the McReynold’s award for architectural preservation, much more of Bohemian Hill’s older housing stock was present.

Read the story here and see the site plan below.

Unfortunately, this small, blurry photo is all I can offer. Still, imagine the possibilities of creating a new mixed use neighborhood, having preserved all of the old in the process. In my opinion, Noero’s models are splendid urban homes that evoke elements of the old while retaining a distinct post-post-modern look. Imagine a neighborhood that included these houses and incorporated the larger retail proposed by Koman/Gilded Age on the larger corner lots at Lafayette and Tucker and Lafayette and 13th?

Courtesy of Rob Powers’ Built St. Louis

Isn’t it sad that in St. Louis today, that kind of development is expressly unthinkable–even forbidden by outmoded zoning?

This retail could have gone into a reformatted I-44/55 interchange (which needs to happen anyway–what a waste of land!). It could have even gone into the wedge along the western side of Truman Parkway with some skilled planning. Or hey–how about building onto the massive parking lot behind the Georgian (former City Hospital) and replacing it with retail buildings and structured parking?

Oh…I forgot for a second. Visibility and extra parking is more important than the legacy of one of St. Louis’s fine and nearly forgotten neighborhoods.


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