by Michael R. Allen
This blog continues to chronicle the loss of north St. Louis building stock. Our goal is to illuminate the repetitive impact of careless demolition policy, and the social impact of individual demolitions. There is a special problem posed by demolitions in neighborhoods that are proximate to parts of the north side that have retained architectural integrity and are already listed or eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.
Demolitions across the north side don’t just remove problem properties. They remove housing stock and reduce the voter rolls. Demolitions destabilize neighborhoods. They erode sense of place, which turns owner-occupants away from neighborhoods, or north St. Louis entirely. Demolitions and persistent vacant lots lower land values. Expedient, perhaps. Damaging, for sure. The long-term impact of demolishing vacant buildings is the fulfillment of the “Team Four Plan” mythology: a depleted half-city easy to dismiss and lacking in density needed for truly flourishing urban life.
Yet the culprits for the outcome are not consultants hired forty years ago, but rather aldermen and Building Division staff who put city resources behind the destruction of north side neighborhoods. Long-term planning is subsumed by knee-jerk response: tear it down, tear it down, tear it down. That phrase then whispers in the weeds, maybe forever, as neighborhoods from College Hill to The Ville end up with more vacant lots than buildings. With city population shrinking, it is entirely possible that these neighborhoods might disappear forever. Without retention of building stock, these places don’t stand a chance of surviving — but will become the dreamscapes of developers with big plans.
4347-49 College Avenue: Another Day, Another Demolition
The 4300 block of College Avenue is a typical block of late 19th and early 20th century St. Louis vernacular masonry buildings. Unlike surrounding blocks in Fairground, most of the buildings still stand with proud red brick walls, ornamental brick tracing and the occasional slate-clad mansard roof. The setting certainly is one of those that combines with others to form a major city with unique, irreplaceable character.
Back to the specifics: two buildings have been torn down on this block in the last month. One of these buildings is a three-story multi-family building at 4347-49 Warne Avenue, under demolition right now. On April 2, the Building Division issued the demolition permit to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority, and work started mid-May. The reason for demolition? The back wall had spalled off a lot of its brick, leaving a gaping hole. Yet the building was otherwise intact, and the damage was not structurally threatening.
The Land Reutilization Authority acquired the building in 2000 after the prior owner, Sovereign Realty 1984-V Partnership, defaulted on its property taxes. If that corporate name is unfamiliar to readers, the name of at least one of its general partners won’t be. Sovereign Realty 1984-V Partnrship’s 1984 filing for fictitious name registration lists Floyd C. Warmann and Jesse Horstman as the company’s two partners. City records show that the building stood vacant since 1992.
For a building that was vacant so long, this one was in remarkably good condition. This block’s location just south of the O’Fallon neighborhood, one of north city’s most intact architectural settings, makes it a key bolster. The back wall of the building at 4347-49 College Avenue was part of the viewshed from the commercial district at Warne and West Florissant avenues. Yet demolition in the Third Ward, in which encompasses the Fairground and College Hill neighborhoods south of O’Fallon, continues rapidly. Warne Avenue is the neighborhood boundary between these depleting areas and O’Fallon, which is on the oath to becoming a National Register of Historic Places historic district. Warne Avenue is fast becoming the edge between an area being conserved and an area that may be depleted beyond recognition in the next decade. That is not good for either side of the line.
What is happening in O’Fallon, driven by Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) and residents, is the antidote to decades of north St. Louis depletion. French’s first bill placed the ward under demolition review, extending the power of the Cultural Resources Office to block needless demolition (most cases). Then the alderman funded survey of the neighborhoods leading to historic district nominations, which will enable historic tax credits to be used in the neighborhood while providing some official protection of the great buildings of the neighborhood.
Nothing is guaranteed through implementing preservation policy, except that the building stock will be retained while economic development planning occurs. O’Fallon won’t end up a sea of vacant lots dotted by a handful of remaining buildings. Would that more of north St. Louis — and there are many great parts — follow the same path. The creation of stark contrasts in neighborhood condition where there are formidable physical edges don’t help.
Following that path means being patient. North St. Louis was built up with great buildings over the course of at least 150 years, and its decline has been ongoing for at least 60 years. Reversing that decline won’t be completed within a four-year aldermanic election cycle, even stretched over three terms. We have to think in spans of generations when we think about building cities. North St. Louis will reborn for its children, and their lives will be shaped by how it gets treated today.