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Monday, February 16, 2009

San Luis Love-In was a big success! Also, my conversation with the Archdiocese.

By now, you've heard the numbers (over 75 attendees!), seen the pictures, and read a bit of reflections on this past weekend's (specifically, this Valentine's Day's) Love-In for the threatened San Luis Apartments on Lindell.

What a wonderful event. It was excellent to finally meet some of the finest of the St. Louis blogosphere as well as non-blogging urbanists and preservationists.

For those that missed it:

I arrived around 11:30 a.m. at the northeast corner of Taylor and Lindell. It was chilly then, but I figured the sun would eventually rear its head and cast light on the wacky, stark white, compound-fracture pillars of the San Luis. It never did.

Still, the event could be described as nothing if not sunny, warm, and upbeat. Smiles abounded as "positive" signs declared this was no protest, but, indeed, a Love-In.

"I Love this Building!" (Replete with an arrow pointing towards it).

"I Love this Building More Than a Lot!" (Get it?)

"San Luis - You're sooo dreamy!"

There was even a homemade sign for Friends of the San Luis that looked alarmingly professional. The event was capped off by a reading of two statements of support by some groups that (I have a growing suspicion) do not even exist: the Great Rivers Blacktop Alliance and the North American Human Building Love Alliance. See the video here. Jeff Vines' love poem to the San Luis was a coupleted-classic, bound to be included in any future volume of preservationist poetry. The Post-Dispatch even quoted Vines' melodic recitation in one of its two (!) articles:

"If you're too lazy to walk, then move out to Wentzville, and keep your hands off of our Hotel Deville.

This building is cool — we won't let it fall. She's our Cinderella, and she'll be at the ball!"

The cops showed up--five officers, by my count--to usher us off the diminutive San Luis lawn--but not before the group present was able to hug the building to express our love! (Again, see the photos).

As far as counter protest, there was bound to be some. Overall, though, by my observation, most curious motorists and pedestrian passers-by found it ridiculous that the building would be wrecked for a surface parking lot--in the Central West End. Still, Lindell Terrace--itself a modern work of architecture not univerally loved--allowed for a balconied bullying of the lovers down below. "Tear it Down. San Luis = Eyesore", they, a group of four or so, wrote (and yelled).

But it was no matter on the street level. Despite the fact that the peaceful group was supervised by several police offers for a good duration of the time; despite a chill that seemed only to worsen into the later afternoon; despite the aforementioned sunlessness that cast an icy gloominess over an otherwise heatedly romantic event; and despite the high rise low blows from the counter-protest; the spirit of love could not be conquered. This was an event that changed St. Louis.

That sounds a bit hyperbolic--but a lot of residents came out to support a building that much of the general public is either indifferent towards or is openly spiteful of. Most Love-In attendees were not residents of the Central West End; those that were lived blocks away. This Love-In was a statement of a wider vision for the City of St. Louis, one where institutions and developers see that any action of the built environment should include its citizens, who are also its stewards and admirers. We are stakeholders, no matter where in the city we live, and we deserve a voice in proclaiming the direction of our city's future. That was clear.

In fact, I was able to speak to a communications director of the Archdiocese of St. Louis on this very topic(I am working on getting a name), to whom I foolishly tried handing a flier advertising the intended fate of the San Luis Apartments. She then flashed me her badge as a sign of disapproval.

But, as I was about to walk away, I yelled back "So, you want a parking lot on that site?"

She approached me and we began speaking. We probably spoke for over 20 minutes in all.

Some of her points: she's a preservationist at heart, too, but doesn't think the building is reworkable. She described the "bones of the building" as rotting. She says the Archdiocese has contacted numerous architects and developers about purchasing and renovating the building. She says all of them have presented much too costly a redevelopment scenario. The Archdiocese would rather have the "unworkable", "dreary" building torn down for a surface parking lot that will be "green". She remarked that the site's rendering was unfair, because the surface lot would not look so desolate. There will be two rows of trees. She claimed that this would help to create a campus.

She says the parking is sorely needed and the lack of it has forced Rosati-Kain to consider moving more than once. Their girls, she said, are forced to park five or more blocks away and walk to school.

Don't worry: I had responses to all of these points.

Regarding the cost of redevelopment, I told her that the building is National Register eligible and is already in a local historic district. This would allow it a 45 percent investment tax credit. Already down the street, the Bel-Air is being converted into the Hotel Indigo using such credits--and it's a mid-century modern, too.

Regarding the green-ness of the proposed surface lot, I told her this: I liked the idea of anything new being constructed or deconstructed to be done in a green manner. However, this surface lot was inherently un-green; the massive San Luis would be reduced to rubble bound for a landfill. Re-use is green, I told her. Plus, planting trees should be the minimum requirement, not the maximum amenity, of any new development.

Regarding the aesthetics of the parking lot, I told her that trees fronting Lindell simply weren't enough. Urbanists and preservationists would like to see this building, which has the perfect massing, scale, and architectural bravado for its context of Lindell Boulevard, be appreciated by future generations and would like the "walking urbanism" that a renovated San Luis would encourage. The new lot would once again, as it way too often the case in St. Louis history, reward motorists with convenient parking opportunities and would erode the life that should be taking place on the sidewalk, having spilled out from impressive buildings like the San Luis.

She asked me what my solution would be, then, if the Archdiocese were forced to keep the building up (which I reminded her, presently has more parking spaces built in to it than the proposed surface lot will have!) and the parking problems persisted. I told her that my concern as a planner with regard to parking convenience is for the elderly and disabled, primarily. These groups do demand and should get convenient and safe access to the Cathedral. However, the Euclid-Lindell garage is rarely at capacity (only on weekends is it full), and a parking-sharing program with a shuttle for the elderly/disabled would be the perfect solution. Surprisingly, she did not counter this--not even to say that it was presumptuous for me to assume the Archdiocese should provide its own shuttle.

She then seemed worried that the "protestors" at the Love-In were being antagonistic toward the Archdiocese. One attendee donned religious garb that she interpreted as ill-placed mockery and mean-spiritedness. She recognized that there were three camps of people in this debate: the first wanted to save the building at all costs; the second wanted to merely ensure urbanism for the corner of Lindell and Taylor (in other words, the anti-surface lot contingent); and the third was a group that just opposed the Catholic Church for the hell of it. I informed her that the group present was solidly in the first two camps. St. Louisans were used to being excluded from planning processes that only ended up harming the quality of life and vitality of their city, I said. Any sort of negativity could only be attributed to a citizenry that is fed up with ignorance, secrecy, bait-and-switch moves, patronization, deceit, and generally poor end product in planning and politics.

I also told her how important it is that we not damage the historic streetscape of Lindell and reduce its context as a boulevard of St. Louis's greatest architectural showcase. We flipped around and looked at all of the building eras represented: the ruddy Romanesque mansion across the street, probably from the 1890s; the swanky 1910s and 1920s Neoclassical mid-rise apartment buildings; the Cathedral itself; the Art Deco Chase Park Plaza complex; the San Luis and Lindell Terrace Buildings; 1980s Condos; 4545 Lindell's contemporary design, etc. A surface lot can simply not honor this tradition, and San Luis is arguably the best representative of the boldness of late 1950s/early 1960s modernism on the whole stretch. We should look to the irony of buildings like the San Luis, constructed during a mindset of a rigid belief in linear forward progress, and see that progress is still our goal but our path is different. Demolition should be totally off the table.

We had a very calm and cordial interaction despite our vastly differing views regarding the fate of the San Luis. I have a feeling that the Archdiocese may sit down with the group and have a more open discussion regarding urbanistic and preservation concerns if we continue to keep this bridge open. I will try to contact her again. I thank her for hearing my points and hope that she will consider some of my comments and suggestions.

After our conservation, I regrouped with the brave 20 or so who fought an unrelenting chill. Most of us walked down to Companions Bakery (because there is simply NO parking in the CWE ;) ), hoping for some warm soup and the ability to again feel our toes as we walk. Wait--having been one of two people there that left New Orleans when it was 70 degrees--perhaps these complaints are unique to me.

Regardless, the Love-In was a momentous event for St. Louis preservation, urbanism, development, and politics. I know everyone that participated enjoyed and will return to further this cause, since it is far from over. Please stay in touch with the group at the No Parking Lot on Lindell! website.

I will be posting my own photographs soon. And I haven't even gotten to the rest of what turned out to be a wonderful weekend in St. Louis. My review of new local/independent businesses is next!


Jason M. Stokes said...

Matt, you weenie, it was what, 40 degrees out? :)

Seriously, thanks for the update. Lots of good news, and I'm glad that you had a reasonable conversation with their communications director.

One of my big worries is that some might make it an anti-Catholic protest; I'm glad that was limited. Antagonizing people based on religion certainly isn't going to endear them to save the San Luis.

Matt M. said...

Hah! I warned you--it's warm down here. Come down here when it's 40 degrees and see if people don't complain the same way!


It was not an anti-Catholic protest and I don't believe it came off that way to any significant degree. But it is a fine line. My conversation with the communications person (again, need that name) might have been helpful in squashing that intepretation. At least, I hope.

STLgasm said...

Awesome recap, Matt. It really was an incredibly heartwarmning event, and seeing so much support reinforces my faith in the citizens of St. Louis. The tides are turning, and a new generation of urbanites demand better development policy for our city.

It was great meeting you and Michael again too.

Anonymous said...

wow! thank you for making such an eloquent argument to the comm. director. you many have done the San Luis and the CWE a great service. were i not stuck in VA i definitely would have attended (i'm not as hard-core as you and Matt).

Anonymous said...

oops! sorry, you are matt. weren't there two people that drove up from LA? never mind...

Brian said...

Sounds like a great day - wish I could have been there. I was there in spirit, at least. Glad you could make it up here from NOLA. said...

Matt, you were the hero of the Love-In, in my book. Every mile driven, every frostbitten appendage was worth it because of the opportunity you seized and aced. Cher Bless You!

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