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Friday, January 29, 2010

North of Delmar / East of Troost: Dividing Lines and Redevelopment

For Kansas City, Missouri, St. Louis's cross-state urban neighbor, Troost Avenue "has been dividing rich and poor, black and white, jobless and employed since the days of Jim Crow when it was a legal line of segregation."

Sound familiar, St. Louis? Delmar Boulevard has become St. Louis's version of Troost. It's a line of demarcation nearly every St. Louisan knows, no matter which side of the line you're on.

When Paul McKee, Jr. began buying dozens upon dozens of parcels in several distressed "north of Delmar" neighborhoods in the early 2000s, many commentators would applaud his major risk in tackling large scale development on the North Side. Both McKee and supporters of his vision for his massive redevelopment area claimed that his initially secretive land assemblage was the only way to acquire the land needed to revive a chronically depressed area. Some even stated the obvious; who else was going to touch such a large collection of neighborhoods north of Delmar?

Well, as the above-linked article demonstrates, knocking down these barrier roads doesn't have to be a secretive process that alienates local residents. Kansas City's new "Green Impact Zone" initiative seems an innovative approach to a redevelopment of a distressed and stigmatized group of urban neighborhoods. Let's read more about it below.

Today the neighborhoods east of Troost Avenue still bear the marks of disenfranchisement: abandoned homes, an unemployment rate that’s as high as 53 percent in some census tracts and gun violence that takes many young lives.

But tomorrow, this area could be a center of green jobs, retrofitted energy-efficient homes, a green transportation system and hopeful residents if Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver’s plans for using American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding come to full fruition.

U.S. Rep. Cleaver, D-Missouri, has developed an ambitious plan for a “Green Impact Zone” to be established in a 150-block area east of Troost Avenue. He convinced the Kansas City Council to vote 13 to 0 to allocate millions of dollars of ARRA money and considerable city effort to this part of the city. And he’s rallied dozens of community organizations, residents and even businesses to work on making it happen. Now Cleaver’s office and the team from the community are submitting applications to numerous Recovery Act programs, supplementing work that’s already begun to bring a greener, healthier environment to this area and jobs to its residents.

At the heart of the plan for the Green Impact Zone is a massive home weatherization project that would put area residents to work conducting energy audits and weatherizing the 2,500 homes in the Zone neighborhoods.

What do I see as a part of this proposal?

Number one: leadership with a vision. This scheme wasn't hatched by some private developer with a hidden agenda and no real commitment to the area in question. It was a local representative trying to better quality of life for his constituents and using his role in government to bring about positive change. Where does this happen in St. Louis? It has not happened for St. Louis Place and Jeff Vanderlou, at the very least. Further, Rep. Cleaver is arguing for a use of ARRA funding that goes beyond finding ways to better move vehicles on larger roads. He had a vision for the area and went about planning it and building a coalition--with neighborhood residents. No secretive "land assemblage" needed.

Number two: creating employment for local residents. It is clear to us now that Paul McKee, Jr. approached the NorthSide development idea with a slash and burn mentality. Many occupied apartments were emptied to lessen resistance and gain more control of the land. Residents who couldn't be bought out were subjected to little if any property maintenance on the acquired parcels, leading to brick vandalism and arson. Who wants to live next to that? Moreover, what resident who lived through this is going to find McKee  trustworthy in a redevelopment of the area? McKee's conduct with the NorthSide development is indicative of the fact that he merely wants to pull off a successful and profitable redevelopment--not better the lives of the people who currently live there. As he is a private developer, I can't say I'm surprised. While residents of the NorthSide project area are left to defend their own turf with little protection from the city of St. Louis (see the Community Benefits Alliance), residents of Kansas City can breathe a little easier. The Green Impact Zone would put residents to work weatherizing and rehabilitating area homes. This will contribute to quality of life for current residents and serve to refurbish the physical infrastructure of neighborhoods involved all at once. Which leads me to my next point...

Number three: preservation is a part of the plan! What a novel concept! You have a neighborhood full of solid, historic homes that have fallen into disrepair. Rather than landbank and demolish through messy eminent domain proceedings, you instead put people to work renovating the existing housing stock. A sense of place and history is preserved and everyone seems to benefit.

Number four, there's coordination with regional and neighborhood organizations. Kansas City's Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Mid-America Regional Council is administering the application process for the Green Impact Zones, while existing neighborhood organizations have already been consulted for their input and involvement in the initiative. Perhaps most importantly, there is public planning baked into the process. With St. Louis's NorthSide development, the prospects are much more glum. There are no true planning or urban design guidelines offered by the city of St. Louis--which may soon cut two full-time positions from its already weak, advisory Planning and Urban Design office. How can we ever expect sound urban development without a unified voice from the city as to the appropriate scale and design of new development in our neighborhoods? This vacuum of leadership has already lead to gas stations subsuming formerly dense mixed-use corridors, driveways and other suburban accoutrements in urban residential settings, etc. How can citizens be assured that the NorthSide development be above the current standard of development in the city of St. Louis: bare mediocrity? 

Maybe I'm giving this fledgling Kansas City plan too much credit. But do yourself a favor and read the whole article. Try your best not to be a little jealous. How does Kansas City "get it" and St. Louis does not? What might hold our activists back in realizing community benefits such as preservation and employment? We too can attempt to tear the Delmar barrier down, but I'd rather see it done the Troost way.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How Many Buildings Did St. Louis Demolish in the 2000s?

According to Building Division statistics, 7,960.

Just for reference, the Benton Park National Register Historic District included 1,168 "contributing" buildings (those said to contribute to the character of the historic district).

Demolishing 796 buildings a year is short-sighted, in my opinion. In all my urban exploration, St. Louis is one of the emptiest cities I've been to. Detroit certainly takes the cake, but few other places are quite so deurbanized as St. Louis or Detroit. Typically, in St. Louis, demolitions are merely to provide more parking or drive-throughs or for the owner of a vacant building to reduce his/her liability or taxes. I understand taking down buildings when solid new construction pressures exist, but clearly, in emptying St. Louis, this is not the case.

The demolition budget of the City of St. Louis should not be used so freely. More money should go into the stabilization of buildings rather than their demolition. This is especially true of neighborhood commercial buildings, the spine of many neighborhoods. There is not much of an excuse for the present state of Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd. and especially its run through the historic Ville. Beyond stabilization, "demolition" funds should go to facade preservation and other measures that protect a sense of place in St. Louis's long stagnant or declining urban neighborhoods.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department on a County Resident's Potential Move to Tower Grove South

First, the potential city-dweller, from CopTalk:

Posted by Noco Popo on 1/19/2010, 9:34 pm
Single female, currenly living and working in North County. Considering moving to the Tower Grove/South City area. Wondering if I will regret this decision, and hoping my brothers and sisters in blue working this area could advise. Should I give it a chance or go with the south or west county areas??
Then, the responses from our city's police officers:

Posted by third dist po on 1/20/2010, 8:14 am, in reply to "City Living"
I work in TG South (Dist 3). I would not move to TG South...many burglaries daily...robberies on S. Grand...South Hamtpon/Princeton Heights/St. Louis Hills (if you can afford the Hills) would be my recommendation if you MUST move to the City.

Posted by Comp Stat on 1/20/2010, 8:20 am, in reply to "City Living"
Stay away for your safety.

The chief just transferred a whole squad of officers from my neighborhood in District One in South Patrol to District Six on the north side of the city.

We have also had a unusual number of murders in the South Patrol since the first of the year.

That is the way I see it. I don't even need the pie charts.
Posted by po on 1/20/2010, 9:47 pm, in reply to "Re: City Living"
I don't want to give a fellow copper the idea of moving to TG South is a good idea. Some homes may look nice but crime surrounds them, daily, day in and day out...this city is done.
The conversation continues with the predictable response from police officers saying only they truly know what goes on day in and day out in the city. While I agree that their jobs must be impossibly taxing, and that the city does grapple with a severe crime problem, urging people not to live in the city solves nothing! It actually, of course, causes all sorts of problems.

Having had friends that live in north St. Louis, I have been pulled over by St. Louis MPD cops who assume I'm there to buy drugs. One officer saw that I was white, rolled down his window when he pulled next to me, and demanded, saying nothing else, "Go South!".

While I assume this is normal protocol to curb drug-seekers, it doesn't make it any less destructive and irresponsible in my opinion. I don't expect the fine people who protect our city to harbor the most positive image of the city with respect to what they see and do everyday. But when they serve as detractors to city-living, they're making their own jobs more difficult.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Soulard Alleys

Having visited Pittsburgh and now having spent a couple days in my new home city, Baltimore, I am reminded of the importance of density to urban, walkable environments.

In some cities, this means high- and mid-rises, but most urban neighborhoods cast nary a shadow. Plenty of these neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Baltimore are relatively low-rise (5-stories maximum--more typically 2-3). Yet there are fewer holes punched in their tightly-packed streetscapes. Some of them even have whole rows of alley housing. See below for a Pittsburgh example in its Lawrenceville neighborhood:

View Larger Map

St. Louis's Soulard is one of the only neighborhoods left in St. Louis with a fair number of alley houses. Often the builders of the street-facing home (if it remains) constructed a simpler alley dwelling to live in during the main home's construction. Upon completion, the alley house could become a convenient rental unit.

Sadly, even historic Soulard has seen the demolition of most of its former alley housing.

Check out this view of a piece of Soulard from the 1875 Compton and Dry Atlas:

Almost all of the "square" in the square blocks is consumed by housing--both main and rear structures.

A similar view today shows considerable demolition. Still, in this particular portion of Soulard, a critical mass of alley housing remains.

Why not build on this critical mass? Restoring Soulard's alley housing to its full potential would allow for a denser neighborhood where urban amenities such as mass transit and retail/service clusters would make more sense. Soulard could become one of St. Louis's truly "car-optional"--possibly even car-inconvenient--neighborhoods. People seeking an attractive, active, walkable urban environment (more than just nights and weekends) would undoubtedly seek out Soulard as an option. Renters of newly restored and constructed alley houses could even make some money by renting out their units to Mardi Gras revelers.

How do we go about repopulating Soulard's alleys with houses?

First, give the alleys names. That's the easy part. Pittsburgh's number streets make for alleyways with "42 1/2 Street" as an example of a name. In St. Louis, Laclede's Landing has some named alleys (Clamorgan Alley). Regardless of whether they'd be named "9 1/2 Street" or "Menard Alley" or something different entirely, giving them a name would elevate their significance beyond mere service functions.

Now for the hard part. I'd say get the Soulard Restoration Group to raise some funding and get some homeowners on board with the program for at least one block (the northern portion of Soulard, pictured above, contains the most intact alley blocks). For at least this one demonstration block, try to renovate all existing alley structures (if needed) and then attempt to construct new, historicist alley buildings consulting the Compton and Dry Atlas for reference. Obviously, this would be a tricky venture given private ownership of these rear lots. But I'd bet if any residents would be willing to subject their lots to the alley restoration plan, it would be the residents of historically-minded Soulard. If one solid block's benefits  became clear, the city could jump to the next adjacent alley.

The reintroduced density could transform Soulard in, I think, the most positive of ways.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Off the Grid, Ignorance Equals Bliss

I had an excellent time in St. Louis, racking up bar and restaurant tabs at some of my favorite places like the Cabin Inn, Mango, Foam, the Buttery, Local Harvest Cafe, Novak's, etc.

Despite the cold, I spent very little of my time inside the house, even spending some time walking around downtown, Grand Center, the Central West End, and Bevo (sadly, I didn't have my camera on me).

While back home, I saw St. Louis Hills and other neighborhoods lit up splendidly for the holidays, a sure sign of neighborhood pride. I saw a narrower Grand Boulevard with traffic moving more slowly. I got to introduce some suburban relatives to the wonderment of the pizza at Black Thorn Pub. Somehow, my mother had never been to the Art Museum, Old Courthouse, or the Fox, so I was able to get reacquainted with some of St. Louis's most treasured historic resources. On the snow-covered ground, St. Louis was looking and feeling good to me.

My Twitter account was abandoned, as was this blog. Visits to were few and far in between. I was basically off the radar during my visit, unable to observe and absorb all of the streaming news that comes to me from afar.

I'm glad, now. Finally situated in my new home, I read on the thankfully restored that the Roberts Tower project downtown has come to a halt, even though nearly complete. There was a murder on Morgan Ford in its popular Tower Grove South stretch, not to mention that horrible workplace massacre on the North Side (that news item I did catch while in town!). Demolition requests continue to be heard by the Preservation Board; this month's temporary agenda includes a request to tear down a property on stately Bartmer Avenue in the West End as well as a demolition proposal at 4125 Turner in the 21st Ward on an otherwise intact block. Why must crime and demolition, fear and emptiness plague my city?

I hope getting readjusted to my constant news stream will bring me some promising tidings for St. Louis soon in this new year. Anyone got some good news to share about our city?

Monday, January 18, 2010

I'm Alive...and in Beautiful Baltimore!

For the next couple months, I'll be calling Baltimore home.

My boyfriend, Michael, was honored to receive an internship position with the White House, and fate so had it that a friend of a friend had a place too lucrative to pass up in Baltimore (about an hour from D.C.).

This post is just a message that this blog will resume normal posting shortly.

As far as Baltimore observations, one word: rows. Row houses everywhere. Tons of business districts. Lots of people walking. But it's only my first day, so give me a while to collect my thoughts.

Thanks to those of you still checking this site for the end of my dry spell! More to come soon...I promise.

Friday, January 1, 2010


Happy New Year!

Updates here have been predictably light--I'm in St. Louis after all--but expect more soon.

For now, I leave you with the generic New Years' question: what should be St. Louis's New Years resolution?

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