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Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Ghost Signs / Exploring St. Louis

St. Louis's urban blogosphere is getting so large it's hard to keep track of everyone's musings on the built environment of our fair city!

That's why I'm lucky to have discovered "Exploring St. Louis", one of the latest entries into the foray.

I think you'll really enjoy the author's post on St. Louis's numerous and storied "ghost signs". Don't forget to check out the accompanying Flickr photo set. And don't forget to bookmark!

Monday, December 21, 2009

New Life on Dolman Street

Back in August, the Zumwalt Corportation, located in Lafayette Square, sought the demolition of one heavily damaged unit in a trio of row houses on the 1600 block of Dolman Street near Lafayette. The company wished to renovate the remaining two houses while converting the site of the fallen row house to extra parking for their business. You can read the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) report here.

The Lafayette Square Restoration Committee, as well as the local historic district ordinance, does not take demolitions lightly. The apparent collapse on Preston Place just blocks away that I reported on earlier today was just that--a collapse, not a demolition--according to commenter Chris Yunker.

And so, the heavily damaged row house at 1624 Dolman Street did not receive approval for demolition by the Preservation Board during that meeting.

So many times on this blog I cover Preservation Board hearings and lament their outcomes. In this case, I was delighted to walk by the site this November and see it under renovation. The CRO staff report had said the owners found it financially infeasible to repair the structure; I'm glad to see they shored up the money!

To their credit, it was in a pretty pitiful state when the CRO photographed it this past August:

Here's my photograph, from late November:

Dolman Street was originally excluded from Lafayette Square's historic district boundaries. The detrimental effects of this arbitrary exclusion are clear today. Just a block over, on 18th Street, for the extent of the neighborhood, homes that are meticulously restored and maintained are the norm. Yet on Dolman Street, there are still many vacant properties and far too many vacant lots.

I lived in the 1000 block of Dolman Street in 2006. During my stay there, a derelict house across the street succumbed to a powerful storm and collapsed into the street. We had few neighbors as all adjacent homes had been long demolished. And our house even backed to the beautiful Harris Row. The alley between us might as well have been an interstate highway.

Luckily, the intervening years have brought stabilization of some of the properties and even plans for new construction. Case in point: tonight, the Preservation Board will review a proposal to construct a new home atop three vacant lots on the 1200 block of Dolman at the monthly meeting. The CRO staff recommended approval of the designs with some minor modifications. While it would be nice to see a higher density proposal, being able to witness Dolman Street fill up and rejuvenate is a personal pleasure for me.

Happy holidays!

Street Life in South St. Louis

Man selling Gus' Pretzels and roses on Cherokee Street at California.

So St. Louis. I miss Gus'.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Demolition or Collapse in Lafayette Square?

While walking through Lafayette Square over Thanksgiving weekend, I happened upon this site, at 1724 Preston Place. Click here for a Bing Maps aerial view.

Per the aerial view on Bing, this looked to be a large two-family structure. Being located in the Lafayette Square Local Historic District (and very likely a contributing resource to the National Register District), I am surprised to see it in ruins. The neighborhood group, Lafayette Square Restoration Group, is usually strongly opposed to any demolition of historic and contributing structures. Furthermore, the matter never appeared before the Preservation Board to my memory.

Researching on Geo St. Louis, I find that it was issued an "emergency" demolition permit in July of this year. (An emergency permit would have automatically bypassed the Preservation Board's review). The photo above, showing the collapse or demolition, is from late November. Yet the emergency permit was canceled on December 2, 2009 and swapped for a regular demolition permit. Curiously, the original permit noted demolition of a "2-story, 2-family brick" structure while the new one says "2-story, 1-family brick". Could this have been a demolition of a rear structure, too, or is it just a typo?

Either way, the loss of this building is rather unfortunate. The host block was already halved by the construction of the bloated I-44/I-55 interchange. Now, the shortened block has a noticeably large hole in it. To be more optimistic I'd say the site is probably bound for some historicist new construction given the speed with which vacant lots in the neighborhood have been disappearing.

Still, if this is another case of the "emergency" demolition permit striking, it's clear that these requests should at least be reviewed by Cultural Resources Staff and should definitely be examined by a structural engineer except in the most egregious of cases, such as outright collapses. Even then, the remaining intact materials should be set aside for salvage by the ordinance.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Final December Preservation Board Agenda Now Online

You may access it here.

You might notice that two proposed demolitions in the Visitation Park Historic District have been removed. I am unsure as to why. See Vanishing St. Louis for more information on these buildings.

Sadly, the St. Louis Carnival Supply building at 3930 South Broadway, in Marine Villa, is still proposed for demolition. The intended use? Parking lot expansion for the adjacent strip mall.

I can't repeat enough how much St. Louis needs comprehensive, citywide urban design guidelines that ban the above types of requests outright. It's almost ludicrous to suggest that a couple extra parking spaces for a strip mall benefits the neighborhood--or the city--in even the most remote way. At the expense of a sound, urban building, it of course actually harms the city. More traffic, noise, pollution, curb cuts, lower property values, a loss of a potential investment opportunity, and a compromised pedestrian realm sums up what we "get" from such transactions. Read more about the history of the St. Louis Carnival Supply building(s) at Ecology of Absence.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Buffalo, New York: Preservation by Neglect

Case in point from the last post. If you don't demolish historic buildings en masse, your city can eventually reap the benefits.

This take on the matter, from a USA Today article entitled "Buffalo charges ahead into the past", I found interesting:

Because there's no reason to tear down a building if there's nothing to replace it, Buffalo has benefited from "preservation by neglect." As Harvey Garrett, a neighborhood preservation activist here, sees it, "Buffalo was rich at just the right time" — 1870-1914, when great architecture was still relatively inexpensive — "and poor at just the right time" — after 1950, when many older buildings in cities with better economies were demolished.

While St. Louis was not "rich" in the modern period (1945-1975), federal monies were flowing in and the city was at its boldest and most progressive peak during this period. This does, of course, explain the part of St. Louis's culture that is so willing to part with old neighborhoods and housing. But countless cities, including ones often considered down-and-out like Buffalo, have done better by taking advantage of being more intact, having fewer interstates and other obstructions in their urban built environment.

My previous post was not meant to condemn St. Louis outright as a place with no hope to improve itself. My point is we have farther to go so we have to push even harder. The neighborhoods that remain preserved in St. Louis are outstanding, but those that are some of the most threatened today (Hyde Park, St. Louis Place) should be some of St. Louis's greatest. We can make this happen with sound urban planning and a refusal to accept mediocrity in urban design in the whole of our city.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Random Thoughts on the Cult of Destruction in St. Louis

In anticipation of a temporary move to Baltimore (more on that later), I was using Google Streetview to surf the city—extensively so.

After an hour or so of clicking and zooming and dropping the yellow Streetview man all over the city, several emotions came over me: shock, admiration, depression, and hope. 

Shock, primarily, because I cannot believe how intact the city of Baltimore is. I found a fairly large area on the northern periphery of downtown that seemed to have been cleared and replaced with a series of modern housing developments. Yet, for the most part, Baltimore’s signature (and unrelenting) row houses are e-v-e-r-y-w-h-e-r-e. The density and population capacity the city must have had at its height are simply astounding! Even knowing something of Baltimore’s history and architectural vernacular, I was still caught off guard. This was where the admiration came in; at the power of cities working at their best to produce a better quality of life simply by being cities. By being walkable. By having services located nearby. By offering opportunities for a tight-knit community to form. While Baltimore’s rows seem more monotonous than, say, St. Louis’s more architecturally diverse vintage 1880s streetscapes, even they offer a level of democratic individuality.

(I know I’m romanticizing a lot, but keep in mind I’m speaking of cities at their utmost ideal; the fulfillment of their potential).

The depression took me upon seeing whole blocks of these rows boarded, vacant. No cars, no trees, no pedestrians lining the streets. Just walls of row houses sitting vacant. I could “hear” the eerie silence even behind the computer screen, hundreds and hundreds of miles away. I got to thinking: how has Baltimore not torn out more of these rows and created park space or built new housing or just left them fallow, waiting for a time when investment would bring something new? Do whole abandoned blocks not cause issues with surrounding occupied blocks? Do they not pull the image of the city down? This, mind you, was my gut reaction, even as an avowed preservationist. Of course, I was happy to see them remain—thus the hope that later kicked in—but even I was wondering how they could have been spared the wrecking ball.

Then I remembered that I’m a St. Louisan; an automatic member of the cult of destruction. 

My leaders have, time and time again, supported the removal of a sturdy built environment and its replacement with something much less, something much worse. Often the replacement is meant to serve the purpose of moving or storing automobiles. This is the city’s greatest power because it is the simplest task at its disposal. Vacant buildings and lots provide convenient opportunities for combining narrow urban lots to form parking lots and garages. A 1920s-era bond issue already widened most roads to an extent likely even then excessive; certainly this was so by the time the region’s vast interstate network was introduced. So a declined city that wants to better move automobiles through itself need only maintain its roads and ensure every new development has ample parking.

The more and more I experience cities, the less and less I am willing to accept St. Louis's exceptional status as a destroyer of its most unique asset, its built environment.

Check out this recent thread on Skyscraper Page, but especially this 1950s-era photo of a recently-constructed Pruitt-Igoe complex at Jefferson and Cass:

You might see where this is going: I’m going to rail on the brand of urban renewal represented by Pruitt-Igoe. It’s out of scale, tore down a dozen blocks in the making, and apparently was not very well-built to serve the population it intended to serve. Sure.
But look around! Pruitt-Igoe’s decline certainly had a strong influence on its surroundings, but no one at the St. Louis Housing Authority held a gun to the city’s head and demanded they do this to the surrounding neighborhoods!  Of the hundreds and hundreds of structures shown in the photo, nearly all have been demolished, including the 33 11-story Pruitt-Igoe towers themselves.

Look to the south of the site (bottom and bottom-left in the photo). We see, in order, Cole, Carr, then Easton, today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Row after row of cast iron storefronts—gone, no matter how irreplaceable they might have been! Look to the west (far left in the photo), today’s Jeff Vanderlou with apparently beautiful rows of mid- to late-19th Century houses, shops, and churches.

North (top and top right of the photo) shows the portion of St. Louis Place that’s now an “urban prairie”. This site was already tattered when plans circulated in the early 1990s to place a golf course and gated community on the site. Of course, since there was a plan, even an unfunded and ill-conceived one, the buildings came down. Now, naturally, Paul McKee, Jr., of the North Side development, is picking and choosing which of these structures represent “salvageable” “legacy properties”. In other words, we can reasonably expect yet more clearance of a good number of properties in this photo that have clung to life over decades of turbulent change.

New Orleans has endured decades of decline, like St. Louis, and, recently, one of the nation's worst natural disasters ever recorded, unlike St. Louis. It is said that 33 percent of New Orleans' structures are officially "blighted" circa 2009. Certainly blight in either city is formidable and a problem that needs to be addressed sensitively. The answer, however, is not to simply tear out buildings right as they become vacant. No New Orleans neighborhood--not even the most-storm damaged--is as empty as St. Louis Place. New Orleans did replace old neighborhoods with a series of low-rise public housing complexes, but their surroundings did not become the urban blank slates witnessed in St. Louis.

We must look to our peer cities and realize that our history and heritage, but moreover our urban built environment are our greatest assets. We need a comprehensive plan, backed by the force of law, to protect our remaining assets and to encourage the growth of new ones bound for their own protection oneday. We need to make sure we no longer take lightly the piecemeal (or wholesale) destruction of our built environment for something less or worse than what was there.

We need to recognize that our autocentric infrastructure not only destroyed neighborhoods upon its introduction. Our interstates and oversize roads continue to provide barriers to pedestrians and still lower adjacent property values and, of course, are still ugly and disrespectful of their urban context.

We need to be bold and comprehensive with regard to stabilizing and strengthening our built environment. Planners and designers of Pruitt-Igoe had the wrong idea--the superblock, the identical hulking towers, the clearance projects--but they had the optimism, the sense of direction, and the boldness and comprehensiveness nailed. Today's stock of leaders in our city are diffident, conservative, fearful or unwilling to change anything for the better.

We need new zoning and urban design guidelines to ensure that neighborhoods such as those pictured surrounding the Pruitt-Igoe complex can repopulate and spawn a new, bold identity. While Paul McKee has apparently stepped up to the plate to do so, this blog has communicated before its lack of faith in the city to assure something bold and truly beneficial to the area, aesthetically or socially speaking.

So when I use this blog to harp on a business needlessly taking down two buildings for outdoor dining, or a gas station in Hyde Park demolishing a vacant but beautiful historic commercial row for expansion, or yet another church ruthlessly ripping out mixed use buildings for a parking lot...I'm thinking of the photograph above. If only we had pro-urban rather than anti-urban planning! None of this would happen. There would not need to be so many individual battles; prospective parking lot pavers would encounter difficulties, roadblocks in making our city less walkable, less enjoyable, more ugly, less human. The photograph shows we have suffered too much, too long, too deeply.

We can solidify St. Louis as an urban environment. We must!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

This is St. Louis's Best Street

No, I don't have the answer. I'm only posing the question.

Imagine you had a famous urban planner coming in town who wished to get a sense of the city, but s/he only had time to traverse one street, with no deviations from that one street. You're selected as her/his guide. You'd be walking, so would not need to worry about street blockages like barriers and closures.

Which street in St. Louis would be the greatest for telling the story of our city? Ideally this would be a mostly positive experience, but St. Louis has and has had some pretty down moments, so it's expected that you'll run into some trouble spots. But remember the point is to find the most "impressive" street to guide a visitor along. I'll let you define impressive.

Which street do you choose?

Rules: For the road you choose, you must traverse its entire length. For the sake of keeping it interesting, the road must be at least 1 mile long. (Sorry, fans of Hemp Avenue in Forest Park Southeast)! If the street breaks or dog-legs, you are allowed to move around the obstacle and resume the course of the street so long as it retains the same name and is understood to be the same street. You are also allowed to "walk across" interstates.

Friday, December 11, 2009

St. Louis Infrastructure and Development Review

I've been lax on updating lately, despite the fact that St. Louis has seen some big news as of late. So why not crunch it all into one convenient post?

First, Highway 40's open again. Interstate 64. Whatever.

I'm flabbergasted by the largely positive response to the re-opening of the highway. It provided nothing for St. Louis but more highway lanes, fewer homes in Richmond Heights, a look fresh out of 1960s Brasilia, and better-designed interchanges. For hundreds of millions? Pardon my dripping sarcasm, but grrrreeeaaaaat. Call me out for not actually having driven the highway yet (not been home since it opened), but the pictures seem to me to only highlight the project's total lack of imagination.

Where's the lush median?

What about High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) Lanes? These are pretty standard on many roadways. If you don't have at least one other person in the car with you, you cannot use the lane with a symbol like the one below:

HOV Lanes encourage (read: enforce) carpooling and therefore fewer smog-emitting cars on the road.

Better yet, as I've argued on this blog, why not simply end I-64/40 at McCausland/Clayton Road. At this point, there could either be an urban boulevard with a 35-40 MPH speed limit roadway at all. The region survived a year or so without this segment of the interstate; it's hard to argue that it was vital to the survival of the region at this point. This would have been a great opportunity to open up Forest Park to the neighborhoods to the south and show that pedestrian traffic flow matters as much as automobiles. Oh well; another generation or two of an obtrusive interstate in a city that has far too many.

I know it's too late to complain (yet I persist), but I just am nauseated by the positive response to this large and wasteful infrastructure project when the region has so many greater needs for transportation infrastructure.

Next, the Archgrounds International Design Competition! Hearkening to the original international competition that netted Eero Saarinen's landmark Gateway Arch proposal, the National Park Service will hold another competition with an eye to reinvigorating the present grounds and forging connections with surrounding neighborhoods, including the East St. Louis riverfront. In keeping with my teeth-gnashing over Highway 40, I am absolutely thrilled that the project could see the removal of the depressed lanes of I-70 and even the elevated lanes at Laclede's Landing. This portion of the highway is set to become obsolete as I-70 is re-routed into Illinois over the new Mississippi River Bridge. Proposals must include removing this divisive eyesore from the equation if the Arch is ever to be psychologically connected to Laclede's Landing and downtown. I am beyond excited at these prospects!

Ballpark Village. I agree with blogger Rick Bonasch's (St. Louis Rising) sentiments on recent discussions of the Ballpark Village development. There's no "village" component being discussed at all! Not including residential in this high-profile parcel would be an enormous mistake, especially considering Blue Urban witnessed a nearly instant sell-out of the Ballpark Lofts development in a down economy.

The Bottle District. HRI, Inc. of New Orleans is set to redevelop the old McGuire Moving and Storage building into lofts geared toward artists. Excellent! It's great to see the Bottle District development start off on a positive, organic note. There are no contrived 700-foot skyscraper pipe dreams--just a sensible proposal to restore a historic building and inject new life into it.

Grand Center. Not to be outdone by downtown, Grand Center may soon be getting its own artist loft development in the old Metropolitan Building. Right now, this is coming to me in the form of an unsubstantiated claim on the Urban St. Louis forums, but hopefully we'll hear some sort of confirmation soon. This building was scheduled to become a hotel of the Hyatt brand, but those plans have fallen through.

As for hotels, Grand Center may soon have two. Again, Urban St. Louis forum rumormongers (a term of affection, mind you) stated that St. Louis University President Lawrence Biondi was opposed to a hotel proposal on Forest Park Avenue just south of campus, this one of the Holiday Inn chain. That one may still be going forward. But SLU is not sitting idly by. SLU is partnering with the Lawrence Group to transform the former Interiors Unlimited Building adjacent to Triumph Restaurant and the Moto Museum into a luxury hotel.

Could St. Louis be emerging from the recession?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Favazza's Still Planning Two Demolitions on the Hill

While Favazza's restaurant on Southwest Avenue may have removed two demolition proposals from last month's  Preservation Board Agenda, their quest to rid of two adjacent commercial buildings is ongoing. (For some background, see this earlier post.)

The owners of the restaurant plan to demolish 5209 and 5211-13 Southwest for outdoor dining space. Right now, the plans to rid of 5211-13 (the farther west of the two structures) are only preliminary, while Favazza's is actively pursuing demolition of 5209 (the white building, pictured below).

Photo Source: Ecology of Absence

Here are the plans for 5209 Southwest:

I know Favazza has claimed that 5209 Southwest is too storm damaged to justify saving. I think, accepting that this is true, at minimum the facade should be saved. This would make for a unique outdoor dining concept.

Favazza has acknowledged 5211-13 is structurally sound and originally told me he had interesting plans for the site. Now it appears it will become outdoor dining, too, if things go their way.

I don't know what the next step is or if, somehow, Favazza has obtained a demolition permit for 5209 Southwest Avenue without going in front of the Preservation Board. The demolition item is not on the December agenda and so they may just be waiting a bit to have the space ready by springtime. Disappointing, indeed, to possibly face the loss of not one but two commercial buildings in one of St. Louis's most commercially successful and vibrant neighborhoods.

I would recommend calling Favazza's (314-772-4454) or emailing them ( to politely disagree with their plans to deurbanize the Hill.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

December Preservation Board (Temporary) Agenda Online

You may access it here.

There are three proposed demolitions on the agenda. One item contains two proposed demolitions at 5305-07 Cabanne and 5309 Cabanne, both in the Visitation Park neighborhood.

Another contains a request to demolish a "3 story commercial brick/wood warehouse" with a concurrent request to rehab an adjacent structure (3924 and 3930 S. Broadway, in Marine Villa).

View Larger Map
Based on the information provided, it appears the building on the left (the Second Empire) would be saved and rehabbed while the "warehouse" (an old theater?) would be demolished.

More information as it's available.

Is the Tiffany Neighborhood Nothing Special, Architecturally Speaking?

Daniel J. Monti, author of "Race, Redevelopment, and the New Company Town" (1990) stated as much.

Here is the clip from Google Books:

Monti's work is about late urban renewal projects (circa 1970s) in St. Louis, including LaSalle Park and the Midtown Medical Center Redevelopment project, which ultimately saw many homes in the Tiffany neighborhood renovated.

This isn't news by any means: that an author would find the neighborhood's Foursquares with Victorian ornament ultimately unexciting. Still, I though it worthwhile to disagree. Even compared to more ornate neighborhoods, tree-lined Tiffany is, I feel, attractive. The author's sentence that is cut off at the end reads something to the effect of "Tiffany's housing stock was apparently classic enough, in its own democratic way, to qualify for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places." The author clearly sounds unsure that Tiffany deserved this designation. He says basically the same of the "Ranken" neighborhood, a sliver of Forest Park Southeast whose central spine is Taylor Avenue.

Well, what do you think: is Tiffany anything special? Here's a Streetview capture of the 3600 block of Blaine Avenue.

View Larger Map

I find it very attractive and highly urban.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Want to See Where I Went While in St. Louis?

Check out my Skyscraper Page photos (and, if you're already registered, post a comment).

Part I: LaSalle Park

Part II: Soulard

Part III: Lafayette Square

Part IV:  Benton Park

Part V: Miscellany


I promise more updates soon. Finals weeks, moving, etc. are getting in the way of regular posting.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

We Love Cherokee (Yes, We Do)

Spotted in St. Louis (more on my return home later), an ad for Cherokee Street in the Riverfront Times.

Awesome! I checked out the website at the bottom--We Love Cherokee--and while it needs improvement in the functionality arena, it sure looks nice! Another confirmation that Cherokee Street is St. Louis's most promising, diverse, miscellaneous street/neighborhood.

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