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Wednesday, April 2, 2008

St. Louis's Industrial Antiques

With the housing market downturn and the recent collapse of the Ballpark Village deal, I started to think about other projects within the city, and especially those that have already claimed a piece of our built environment in order to start construction.

Specifically, the St. Louis Army and Ammunitions Plant (SLAAP) site at Goodfellow and I-70 came to mind, as did the old Gasometer in Forest Park Southeast. Both were demolished last year for new developments.

On the SLAAP site, “Goodfellow Crossing,” by Koman Properties, complete with a Home Depot store, is slated. With interstate visibility and a mostly missing urban context south of I-70, there is nearly a one hundred percent chance of this development joining the CSD (Conventional Suburban Development) club. Is a big box better than the industrial landmark that used to be on the site? I’m no engineer, nor environmental specialist, and so cannot assess the safety of living on such a contaminated site, even post-remediation. Even so, the awesomeness of the defunct and demolished SLAAP should have warranted unique redevelopment proposals. I hate to play the naysaying game, but this big suburban box will likely need reformatting in a decade or two. Who knows, though? Perhaps increased rehabilitation activity on the north side will warrant a large Home Depot store?

[Edit (4/2/08): Michael Allen of Ecology of Absence just confirmed that Home Depot has has backed out of this development. Refer to the end of this post and reflect even more ruefully.]

In Forest Park Southeast, the turn-of-the-century gasometer was torn down for a proposed residential development from Jerry King. Luckily, Built St. Louis snapped some photos of the doomed relic of the Laclede Gas Company. While there is a rendering of the development proposed for the adjacent vacant lot along Taylor and Chouteau, not much has been said of the Newstead side where the gasometer once loomed. I hope the housing market collapse has not precipitated a needless demolition of a onetime south side “landmark.”

Since I cannot find a copy of a group project I worked on as an undergrad regarding the salvage of this venerable skeletal structure, I will post my door-to-door quickfire interviews of nearby residents below. These were what residents had to say about the gasometer, circa December 2006.

Denise, waiting at the bus stop on Tower Grove and Gibson, on the gasometer.
"It's an eyesore. Tear it down and built apartments. Something. Anything."

43xx Chouteau
Teenage Girl: I think it should stay
Teenage Boy: What is it?
Me: Well, it's a natural gas tank. But they don't use it anymore.
TB: How long has it been there?
Me: Since 1903.
TB: Keep it up as a monument.

43xx Chouteau:
Martez: It doesn't bother me.
Me: Well you know they're tearing it down, right?
Martez: What are they building there then?
Me: Some apartments
Martez: Gotta get with the change!

43xx Chouteau
Jerry: If it doesn't have no purpose, knock it down

43xx Chouteau
Melvin: Why not tear it down?

43xx Chouteau
Mary explained to me that she had a friend whose house was seized by eminent domain right across the street. She says he did not get reimbursed at market value. She mistakenly thinks the gasometer, too, has been acquired using eminent domain, and she wants to see it stay to spite ED.
Mary is a large woman. Her hanging midriff is exposed as she explains she took so long to answer the door because she has arthritis.
Mary: I think it should stay up. People should have more rights.

43xx Chouteau
Mark: It's of no real consequence whether it stays or goes. In fact, I don't know if you know this since you're in the neighborhood and all, but, the neighborhood residents like to add a couple bullet holes in it come Fourth of July. So maybe it'd be better to see it come down."

43xx Chouteau:
Amy, who seems distracted and wanting to shoo me away: I'd like to see it turned into an art project. I have a couple ideas for it myself.

43xx Chouteau
Dorian: I'd like to see it stay. It lets you know you on the South Side! It's like the Arch, you just know you here when you see it. It's a good symbol. I like seeing it when I wake up in the morning and come outside."

43xx Chouteau
Algnieszka (I suspect this is a last name): I'm used to it.
Me: There are plans to demolish it.
A: Ah, yes. I have lived here for several years. I remember when it used to go up and down. What are they going to put there ... another parking garage?
Me: Actually, they're going to put some apartments and rowhouses there.
A: Well, that will be about the time to move.
Me: Oh? Why?
A: Because the neighborhood will not be the same.
(I suspect she thinks this is low income housing that I am speaking of and is suggesting the neighborhood will get worse.)
Me: Well, they're going to be fairly upscale, I believe, though there will be affordable units.
A: Yes, but I like the neighborhood's feel right now. I think this will change it. Yes, there are gun shots. Not as many as before. But I like it now.

44xx Chouteau
Woman who would not give me her name: It doesn't make me no difference.
Her building is in the shadow of the structure, which has kept a sheet of ice intact and safe from the heat of the sun.

44xx Chouteau
Cozette: It doesn't make any difference to me.

44xx Chouteau
Unnamed person: We really could care less
I peer inside. A whole family is sitting at a dinner table, filled with kids kicking their legs impatiently under the table. The door slams. Again, the gasometer's shadow preserves an icy porch.

44xx Chouteau
Truess: What is that thing? I have no idea.
Me: It is a gas tank. It used to supply natural gas to the city. It was built in 1903.
Truess: I say, keep stuff like that. It's a monument. Is that the word I'm looking for? No wait, it's a landmark. That's it.

44xx Chouteau
Doris: Keep the thing as long as it does not blow up. I mean, let inspectors in so they can make sure. But keep it if it not doing any harm.

Brian Phillips, Executive Director of the Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation
BP: I wouldn't mind seeing it demolished. It's been sitting vacant for years. Laclede gas company doesn't use that type of technology any more
[Is it entirely due to the gasometer's literal transparency, its bare skeletal structure, that people do not see the history and promise of such a structure?]
I explain to him that a group of gasometers was reused in Vienna, Austria.
BP: That would be highly unusual in the St. Louis market. ... Basically, any quality development on that site would be a boost to the neighborhood. If it brings more residents and businesses to the area, that would be great.

Beverly, 44xx Gibson: It needs to go. Something else could be put there in its place for children...a recreation center or something. People throw their environmental waste in there too. It's just bad.
Me: What?!
Beverly: You know, they beer cars and stuff like that.
Me: Oh.
I speak about memorializing the structure. I ask for her input. She seems skeptical about remembering the tank until I tell her it's from 1903.
Beverly: Well, that could name the new apartments after the gas thing, know...thing.
I am about to walk away.
Beverly: or they could decorate the light poles with the metal!

Unnamed woman 44xx Gibson: it's ugly

Greg, 44xx Gibson: I don't's a's an interesting piece of the neighborhood

Brenda, 44xx Gibson: I really have never thought about it. It's going to look real strange without it. It's been there for what...20 years, 30 years?
Me: It was built in 1903
Brenda: Oh Lord!

Patricia, 44xx Gibson: I haven't seen it yet.
She has just moved in to her new apartment. Boxes dominate the floor space. She's about to leave anyway, so I escort her to the side of her new apartment where she sees the gasometer, she says, for the first time.
Patricia: it has gas!?
I ask her if she'd care if it were demolished for new apartments.
Patricia: You know...all that stuff that they'd be doing will make money, you know.

Celeste, 44xx Gibson: it's not being used, right?
Me: No.
Celeste: I really think they should tear it down.

Tyree, 44xx Gibson: " can go...quickly"

Charles, 44xx Gibson: They should keep it up. That's antique. Know what I'm saying?

For more information on and photos of the SLAAP plant or the gasometer (including the other St. Louis gasometers in north St. Louis and Shrewsbury), follow the links.

What will become of the rest of St. Louis's abandoned industry--the Carter Carburetor plant on North Grand and the Carondelet Coke Plant on the extreme south side of the city, to name just two? And will these developments ever get built--and will they be better than what they replaced?


Michael R. Allen said...

Home Depot walked away from the SLAAP site project.

Matt M. said...

I knew I read that somewhere and was not making that up! Thanks for reminding/assuring me!

Matt Fernandez said...

Oh how I wish I had a copy of that gasometer project as well. I wonder if one of us contacted Dr. Heathcott if we could get one.

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