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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Tree-House in Compton Heights

What do you do when the street tree shading the front of your home succumbs to death by natural causes?

Paint its impression on your house, of course, as this homeowner did prior to the tree's removal from this home on Nebraska in Compton Heights:

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Counterpost to Patterson's Dish-Drainer Bike Racks

I'll be darned if I didn't just read Steve Patterson's manifesto against "dish-drainer" style bike racks, arguing that they were inefficient since you can't secure the bike frame, only the front wheel, when I walked out my door (I now live next to a grocery store), and saw this:



And a zoomed-in view:




This method, which secures the frame, could fit at least six similar bicycles, if not more. Steve's public apology to the "dish-drainer" bike rack may be forthcoming. Stay tuned for details.

May Preservation Board Meeting Update

You can breathe a sigh of temporary relief: two proposed demolitions of North Side commercial buildings (one on North Grand across from Lindell Park and one on North Broadway in the Baden Business District) were not considered at the May 27, 2009 Preservation Board meeting since the applicants did not show.

In addition, two North Side alley structures--one in Hyde Park and one in North St. Louis, the latter a free-standing flounder--were denied their demolition permits yet again.

This is great news overall, though I expect another appeal down the road for the two contested commercial buildings. Let us hope the Board continues to deny these permits as these historic commercial buildings are truly neighborhood anchors and future investment opportunities.

Pictures of all of the reprieved buildings are below, courtesy of the Cultural Resources Office staff report:

3501 North Grand
From Preservation Board


7944 North Broadway
From Preservation Board


3424 (rear) North 14th Street
From Preservation Board


3015 (rear) North 19th Street
From Preservation Board


Commercial buildings and alley houses are increasingly threatened property types, especially in north St. Louis. We need to keep a special eye on these types and develop two separate Multiple Property Submissions to the National Register for both St. Louis classic commercial buildings and the much rarer and even more vernacular alley house.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Blairmont. McEagle Project. NorthSide.

With so many bloggers shedding further light and offering constructive comments on the recent Blairmont plan (the Post-Dispatch has caught on, too), I hope you forgive me for a somewhat narrative-style post more laden with commentary than solutions/suggestions.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I was in St. Louis last week and was able to attend Thursday's public announcement--McKee's first public appearance and official announcement of his plans for dozens of acres of the Near North Side.

It seems that the planners have gotten everything right for this project. I fully endorse sustainable design, new and improved transit options, urban formatted retail, and new jobs for the city.

The one thing they completely botched? Scale.

By now, St. Louisans should be wary of the promises of a silver bullet scheme. There have been so many in the city's history and its recent past.

Lumiere Casino was going to salvage Laclede's Landing. I see more traffic and people within an area generally thought of as the Landing, but it's doubtful that the project has improved the viability of the compressed little district. Somehow, it's still not possible to rebuild the fallen Switzer Building. And the only thing possible for the former Port St. Louis residential development? An "observation wheel" that's bound to turn the Landing into even more of a dysfunctional and unfriendly urban funhouse. In addition, Lumiere requested and was granted the demolition of the McPheeters warehouse complex (for what?) along with a swath of North First Street for a surface parking lot. The city has simply handed the keys to the city over to Lumiere and there is little evidence that it's actually benefiting the area it was meant to benefit. (Granted I'm sure it's revenue added to the city's coffers, but what happens when the glitz and glamor wear off and Lumiere becomes a tired-looking megastructure with an odd lighted crest?).

A new ballpark for the Cardinals complete with an adjacent village was supposed to build on a revitalization in the southern portion of downtown. "Ballpark Village" will be a softball field and surface parking lot for years, in all likelihood, before development begins. When built, Ballpark Village will likely be a smattering of boring Class A office space that will suck space from other parts of downtown. I hope I'm wrong, but this is the stated goal of our mayor with the Ballpark Village development. With a narrow vision, the city sees a wedge of land north of the stadium as a silver bullet project, not realizing that working in tandem with the Cupples redevelopment, the Chouteau's Landing project, and rebuilding the life-sucking parking garages around the stadium would already constitute a "village".

So suddenly Paul McKee, Jr. awoke to discover that north St. Louis matters to the whole city and region--much like Laclede's Landing and downtown. Yet the myopic vision is still the same, no matter how well the urbanistic concepts (mixed use, walkability, etc.) seem to be incorporated. The notion of one developer with total control simply doesn't work for vibrant urban areas. Sure, "NorthSide" is set to have development partners, but I tend to think this is more out of necessity than a realization of the organic nature of urban growth and development. Plus, MODOT, one of the partners, has shown itself to almost completely disregard the residents of St. Louis City. Where was the series of public meetings that should have occurred regarding the alignment of the new Mississippi River Bridge? I'm sure there were some, but should there not have been a massive, massive campaign to inform all affected parties? I may not have been in St. Louis, but I didn't see too much coming from the Post-Dispatch either.

The scale of NorthSide is too large and the development team already suspect. The promise that McKee will "save every building he can save" and designate them "Legacy Properties" is already rendered moot by the fact that Near North Side architectural gems--vernacular, mid-19th century architecture not to be found anywhere else in the country and certainly never to be replaced--have been felled by the dozens. Plus, as Robert Powers has articulated on his blog, McKee could have shown himself a North Side hero if he had simply renovated all of his owned properties within the reviving Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Instead, he has slowed down that neighborhood's remarkable progress and now nonchalantly insists he'll gain control over the property that is the resilient neighborhood's future renovation showpiece--the Mullanphy Emigrant House. This development team--and its partners--have little sense of the history and importance of north St. Louis no matter whose father operated the Cass Avenue streetcar. If they did, they'd understand that buildings like the Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings that they owned--on Cass--were crucial to the existence of that very streetcar.

Yet we can already see the pattern renewing itself: the city is handing the keys over to McEagle. Political backing? Check. Massive TIF? Check. A PR campaign that markets the project as the "only way to save" north St. Louis? Check.

The scary part of this development is how little trust the citizens can have in their own government. The involved North Side Aldermen have gone from outrage to co-optation. The Mayor and his Chief of Staff have known of the development for a long, long time. Michael Allen and Rob Powers' work in exposing the deplorable conditions of Blairmont properties has made a liar out of McKee. How? If he thinks the only way to assemble vast tracts of land (a questionable task in and of itself) is to remain secretive so as not to stir up the speculators, then his scheme's cover was blown long ago. That would have given said speculators enough time to imitate his actions. But no one did. Government has been behind this from day one. And there is no Planning Agency with teeth to speak of that, when the government pushes this development through despite any and all opposition, will then review the plans and make sure they fit in an urban and historic context. There is also no Preservation Review because Clarence Harmon had the forethought to make Preservation Review an opt-out, ward-by-ward system. So there is basically no governmental mechanism to either resist the development outright or demand that it be better.

That leads me to my assertion that, despite all of this, I am optimistic. There is a group of "wired" St. Louisans--bloggers, UrbanSTL forumers, and other young professionals--that genuinely want to improve the quality of life of their city. They're educated already or are educating themselves on what makes a vibrant city and what quashes vibrancy. They're learning to scrutinize "economic development" and to critique plans that promise jobs/development but are inappropriate in scale, design, or implementation. Beyond that, there is also a good group of dedicated residents of the project area who are willing to fight for sound development. I had the pleasure of meeting Sheila Rendon of the Neighbors for Social Justice in St. Louis Place, and I believe her voice, and other residents, will be critical in crafting a better plan.

Despite Lumiere, there's still a huge interstate barrier that reduces the Landing to a single-use nightlife district with extreme parking pressures. Despite clearance of the old Busch stadium, there's still an undeveloped parcel with dreary parking garages surrounding it. Silver Bullet projects need more than one developer's vision. They need a public to refine their visions and see them to proper implementation.

A public voice founded on civic optimism and community betterment is growing stronger, louder. The NorthSide project could provide the tipping point where a broad coalition of St. Louis residents unites, finally, to ensure that these silver bullet schemes are refined and do what they're supposed to do: enhance the quality of life in the City of St. Louis.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Blairmont Meeting

Tonight I attended the Paul McKee meeting at the Central Baptist Church on Washington in Midtown (yes, I've been in town for the past couple days). From the sound of the meeting, it was similar to, if not the same as, the event held last week that was exclusive to invited stakeholders. Therefore, offering a summary would just be a repetition of earlier posts from other blogs--Ecology of Absence, Urban Review, Vanishing STL, St. Louis Urban Workshop, and others.

I don't know if the last meeting had a particularly potty-mouthed heckler that had to be dragged from the meeting, but this one did.

I'll hold my full thoughts until this thing develops further. For now, I think that this is a more than moving description of, shall I say, a couple caveats about the Blairmont "redevelopment" project: read Curious Feet's beautiful post here.

Monday, May 18, 2009

May Preservation Board Agenda Includes Four Proposed Demolitions

This month's agenda includes four demolitions--two preliminary reviews and two appeals of staff denial.

The first of the two preliminary reviews is located at 7944-48 North Broadway.



This building in the Baden Business District is classic red brick St. Louis commercial architecture. The city says it was built in 1900, though it looks to be from an earlier era. Regardless, it's attractive and looks in good shape from the Google Streetview window (circa 2007). This Business District has a good portion of its DNA left to inspire a Main Street revival. The loss of this building (for what?) will definitely set things back considerably. See Toby Weiss's recent post on the Baden Triangle for a view of the architectural diversity and the potential of the area.

The second of the preliminary reviews is 3501-09 North Grand.


View Larger Map

I see a pattern here. Commercial buildings have seemingly been the first to go in any struggling neighborhood. When they go, a sense of a neighborhood's center fades and soon the residential component disappears too. This 3-story commercial building used to have similar in scale yet uniquely ornamented neighbors that lined the street for miles, unbroken. This building faces the intact and attractive Lindell Park neighborhood within Jeff Vanderlou. It would be most unfortunate for North Grand, which barely clings to a sense of urbanism from nearly its entire span north of Delmar, to lose yet another attractive historic commercial building.

The first of the two appealed denials is 3424 N. 14th Street in Hyde Park. If you click the link, the building in question is the multi-family building third from the left on the east blockface of North 14th.

The second of the two appealed denials is 3015 N. 19th Street. I can't seem to find this one in city records or on Google/Microsoft Live. Yet there are two important observations: it's located in the sensitive Murphy-Blair National Register District (part of Old North St. Louis) and the applicant is a church. This happens all too often.

It looks like May will be an important Preservation Board meeting. With a full scale attack on the North Side's architectural legacy, often-vacant commercial buildings and sometimes troublesome multi-family buildings are the most threatened.

More to come.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Gateway to Bevo


Photograph by me, February 2009.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Old and New in Old North

Following the amazing progress of Old North St. Louis has been inspiring. One of St. Louis's most historic neighborhoods, Old North seemed consigned to a fate of perpetual, yet slow decay (see today's Hyde Park). Yet the neighborhood's historic housing stock is rising along with the population; both are outmatched by the growing enthusiasm and excitement, however.

From Old North St. Louis

Caption: This shot of the now renovated N. 14th Street "Mall" would have been unthinkable ten years ago, when this lovely row of commercial buildings was rotting into a faded memory. Photo Credit: ONSL.org

As the reviving neighborhood continues to come into its own, it will certainly face issues with how to construct new buildings to fit in to the historic context. We have already seen some new historicist construction along North Market (below).




From Old North St. Louis

Photo Credit: ONSL.org


It's wonderful to see North Market's unfortunate gaps filled with new buildings that respect the scale and context of the neighborhood's history. I, however, am most interested in new takes on history--new construction that challenges the historic mold without necessarily breaking it. There are some exciting rehabilitation projects that incorporate creative new uses for a building (1303 N. Market), or add a contrasting addition (1318 Hebert). But what about cutting edge new construction that references the ONSL Federal/Greek Revival/Italianate red brick heritage?


Enter the container house. Yes, people are now shipping in containers (as in the ones that you see on the back of trucks on every interstate) and are stacking them into highly unconventional living spaces. These pre-fab units are cheap, but when done well they don't look cheap.


Check out this house just outside of San Francisco.

Under Construction:

From Old North St. Louis


And Completed:

From Old North St. Louis

Source: Inhabitat


You can easily see how these stackable, incredibly affordable housing units could be done up to fit the form of a classic ONSL home with its wraparound lintels (example). Instead of limestone, they could be metallic.


If you stacked up three tall by three wide, you could recreate this lost beauty, formerly located at 1404-14 Monroe. It would have the added benefit of bringing a higher level of density to ONSL.


From Old North St. Louis


While I'm not sure what the life span of the container house is, they're brilliant nods to industrial heritage and offer a lot of breathing room for design elements. What do you think?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

BRB

I am moving out of my current apartment as we speak. That means a continued lack of updates. Please stay with me as I make my transition. If you do, I'll show you some pictures of the new neighborhood--called the Fairgrounds--which is a great urban showpiece.

How's that sound?

Saturday, May 9, 2009

TODs

Wait, planners/developers, I'm not talking about this.

I'm talking about this--Transit Oriented Drinks (TODs)! It's an event I came up with as a way to end a long semester on behalf of our planning student group, the Crescent City Shapers at the University of New Orleans.



What is it? Well, of course, it's a pub crawl that's completely dependent upon transit. Bars on transit lines win out, as does the transit agency.

It sounds to me like a great way to break in bus-wary people and to have them warm up to public transit. This also sounds like a good scheme to support Metro in light of its recent cutbacks. Who wants to spread it to St. Louis?

Speaking of Metro, how was the MetroBus funeral?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Axed in April

So what have we lost of the built environment just this past month? Over the next couple days, I'll show you.

First up is 4220 N. 20th Street. Michael Allen has already covered the loss of this striking set of commercial buildings in Hyde Park, so I need not post it here.

But I did notice that the wreckers took down a smaller residential building (a Second Empire) at 1916 Farragut Street to complete their new parking lot as well. See below. There are now no buildings on the south side of Farragut at all. All of this demolition took place in a very fragile historic district:

From Axed in April


This was a shameful and unnecessary loss. There is no justification for a parking lot for the Treasurer's Office in Hyde Park at the expense of historic buildings. As one can see from the aerials, on-street parking is plentiful.


It's these incremental losses to the built environment that get too little air time. Places like Hyde Park will continue to slip away one building at a time without any intervention.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Case Study of Anti-Urban Design


Photo Source: Geo St. Louis

Forget the terrible series of one-story commercial buildings not even visible from the street they "front".

Forget the ridiculous contrast between early 20th Century red brick homes and the boring-as-could-be tan hue of the shopping center.

Forget that these homes face an unsightly commercial rear end.

Forget the ugly light poles; the lack of sidewalks; the perpetually unused parking spaces.

Forgetting even all of that, what do you have at so-called Gravois Plaza?

A design that spits in the face of urbanism--and environmentalism. This expanse of impermeable asphalt is so unneeded and so treeless it practically begs for a schlocky New Urbanist development to clean it up.

Where are the trees, at least? Seriously, this is not an ordinance? No wonder urban runoff and combined sewer overflows keep St. Louis polluting its natural resources.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Cinco de Mayo Festival on Cherokee

By the look of these photographs, Saturday's Cinco de Mayo celebration on Cherokee looked like a funky good time.

In fact, some of the photos remind me of a rowdy, lively, and never uninteresting New Orleans event/parade.

The beauty of the maturation of Cherokee Street over the past couple of months is that it has not shown a familiar trajectory for a St. Louis revitalization. There are no posh nightclubs with "pioneer" status nor any ultra-elite art galleries present. Rather, there's an organized community dedicated to improving quality of life and maintaining the uniqueness of St. Louis's most diverse and urban business district.

That makes for a winning combination. As it continues to grow, it will be interesting to watch Cherokee Street to see if it stays its New Orleans-like course of shirking the normal for the splendidly unpredictable.

Here is a photo from the aforementioned set posted on the Urban St. Louis forums by member "njenny". Thanks for the excellent photography!

Friday, May 1, 2009

The Patch Neighborhood and its Hidden Heritage

The independent city of Carondelet was a French Creole city upon its establishment in 1767. Like its larger sister city upriver, its French customs, language, and building traditions continued even despite a transfer of the land to Spanish rule. A lot of the early architecture that survives in today's Carondelet and Patch neighborhoods is influenced by the Creole building conventions. In other words, these neighborhoods are probably St. Louis's best representation of the city's French and Spanish Creole heritage. The two neighborhoods, and especially the Patch, are also unique in their later German influence, with limestone being their material of choice.

While Soulard is another great example, the Patch has some truly stunning examples of Creole architecture. Yet the Patch has suffered a worse fate than Soulard. The neighborhood has long been a graying residential area, most of its business district dispersed and abandoned. Along with slow decline or stagnation comes on-the-cheap renovations and alterations to historic buildings.

Many of the Patch's diminutive Creole cottages have been altered beyond recognition. Usually, because the structures were relatively small and simple, the replacement of the dormer alone confuses the building's style and history.

The Patch and Carondelet neighborhoods together represent one of St. Louis's most historic neighborhoods. To me, they should be tourist attractions in their own right. There should be a lovely row of businesses--antiques, groceries, clothing, etc.--along South Broadway. There should be red brick streets, gas lamps, historic markers, and all the trappings of a self-consciously historic neighborhood. The Patch/Carondelet could arguably be called St. Louis's "French Quarter"--or its "German Quarter". Yet a lot of the physical markers of this heritage have been hidden behind insensitive alterations.

For some New Orleans (the center of Creole culture in the U.S.) examples of Creole Cottages and their variations, click here. It's a series from 1984, but it might as well be from 1884, since not much has changed since with most of these buildings. There is more information about Creole structures in New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood here.

In the Patch, there are some examples from the St. Louis Community Information Network's Geo St. Louis site. It's important to note that Creole influence bled into other styles that were developed in the early to mid 1800s. That means you'll see some Creole buildings with Federal detailing (tooth-like dentils on the cornice line) and Greek Revival (temple-like entrances, with columns).

From Patch Neighborhood

This little cottage on Water Street likely had a skinnier dormer at one point. The owners probably wanted a bit of extra space with this Craftsman-esque dormer.


From Patch Neighborhood

That previous house is actually right next door to a relatively intact example of a simple Creole cottage. Typically, these are built right up to the street and are symmetrical. This one defies that convention.


From Patch Neighborhood

I'm willing to bet that this 7700 block of Michigan house also once had a skinny dormer and no side porch. While Creoles almost always preferred front entries rather than side, I could see this little structure being a Creole-structure with a German twist.



View Larger Map
Here's another, on the 7900 block of Minnesota. Almost surely the original dormer was boxed in on this otherwise lovely Creole building.


The 7700 through 7900 blocks of Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania have a huge concentration of old Creole buildings that probably date to the 1850s or earlier. If they are later examples, they obviously referenced this era during their construction. Unfortunately, the Creole character is obscured by decades of alterations, such as vinyl siding, replaced dormers, and the addition of porches or Craftsman elements (which is confusing, because Craftsman structures are fairly common in the Patch and Carondelet as well).


UPDATE: Apparently, per the National Register nomination for the area, most of these homes were built in the 1880s or 1890s, with some dating back to the 1860s.


That said, if you Google StreetView those aforementioned blocks of Minnesota and Pennsylvania (Streetview didn't go through the Patch very extensively, so you're relegated to these two streets only), you'll see about as many intact examples.


From Patch Neighborhood

This is a lovely little house that seems directly inspired by its New Orleanian roots, save for the side entry.


From Patch Neighborhood

Many New Orleans Creole cottages are stucco over masonry. This one seems to have taken its inspiration from New Orleans as well.


UPDATE: Reading the St. Boniface Neighborhood National Register District Nomination, this structure is listed as non-contributing since its entry was removed from the front facade and its arched windows were replaced with rectangular ones. Fooled me! I still think it's attractive house, but could also be a candidate for rehabilitation given its history.


From Patch Neighborhood

This is a very well preserved example on the 7700 block of Michigan. It could definitely pass in the French Quarter if its windows were full-length to allow for better air circulation in the steamy Gulf Coast climate.


For those who regret the loss of St. Louis's French and Spanish Creole heritage, a lot of which was concentrated in the neighborhoods close-in to downtown...


From Patch Neighborhood

(CREDIT: HABS)

...such as this example, formerly located on Poplar Street, at least take comfort in the fact that the Patch and Carondelet neighborhoods (along with Soulard, Benton Park, Old North St. Louis, and Hyde Park) do retain a good number of them.


With a facade improvement program, some of these structures could see their original Creole character revived. St. Louis could really market this area as another historic showpiece, as it does with Soulard. With a new casino rising blocks away in Lemay, the Lemp Brewing Company proposed to anchor the old Coca Cola Syrup Building, and several historic renovations and new home construction by Rothschild in the area--new residents, tourist inflow, and newfound vitality don't seem so far off.


UPDATE:

From Patch Neighborhood

This image comes to you from 1989's A Guide to the Architecture of St. Louis.

You can see here how the two smaller Creole houses on either side of the two-story structure have seen alterations since the 20 year old photo.

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