by Michael R. Allen
Vacant lots silently are starting to multiply on the city’s “state streets,” especially in parts of Gravois Park and Dutchtown between promising business districts on Cherokee Street and Meramec Avenue. Even worse are the innumerable signs of future trauma: bleached-red plywood, windows gasping through shards of broken glass, front doors hung ajar, downspouts and gutter pans already smelted in blast furnaces outside Beijing and weeds that cannot be cut enough to stay low. While much attention has been shed on vacancy’s impact on the north side, the south side is showing the signs of a future crisis.
Foreclosure has been a huge factor making neglect more difficult to sustain. As waves of investors abandoned underwater multi-family buildings, the vacancy rates soared in Benton Park West, Gravois Park, Dutchtown and other neighborhoods. In 2008, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded the city a $5.6 million grant to purchase and rehabilitate foreclosed homes. Under the direction of then-Deputy Mayor for Development Barbara Geisman, the city’s Community Development Administration targeted those funds in Gravois Park, Benton Park West and Dutchtown. At the time, the city projected the purchase of 87 homes and an application to receive $10 million toward purchasing 231 more.
Today, the area targeted four years ago suffers as much from vacancy and foreclosure. Furthermore, the Dutchtown south Community Corporation that once served the cluster of south side neighborhoods hit the hardest by the foreclosure crisis has lost professional staff and at the moment is receiving no Community Development Block Grant funding. No other organization has taken its place, and rehabilitation efforts are scattered aside from the area’s thriving commercial streets.
All of this is a long introduction to an item on the agenda of the St. Louis Preservation Board’s monthly meeting on September 24. Wells Fargo Bank is appealing the Cultural Resources Office’s denial of a demolition permit for the four-family building at 3006-8 Cherokee Street located on the block between Pennsylvania and Minnesota in Gravois Park. The long introduction here is a way of stating that the Preservation Board’s decision, which is likely to uphold the denial, may not be the most important decision regarding the future of the property. Should the Board uphold staff denial, 3006-8 Cherokee Street will remain a vacant building with an owner unwilling to cut its losses and sell the building.
The building is sturdy and sound, despite over ten years’ vacancy and a back wall that has suffered a collapse. (The rear wall here as in most historic masonry structures is not supporting the structure; the joists run between the side walls.) Built in 1907 by W.G.C. Wahlers, the two-story brick building has a fairly typical-four-family layout, and a shared wooden front porch common for the era. As with many of the “common” stock buildings of this city, this one has no identical twin. The facade is variegated and rises to a corbelled and metal-capped parapet that seems to have descended from the heavens above. Yet we know that it came from human hands, growing upward.
City records show that Steven and Deborah Kotraba owned the property until 2001, when they sold it to Tonya L. Jones. Jones owned the property until 2011, when Wells Fargo Bank foreclosed on a note with a little under $30,000 owed. (This is not the only recent bank foreclosure on a property owned by Jones, an investor.) However, property taxes on the building were paid through 2011, which means that the property cannot be seized by the Sheriff for the city’s Land Tax Auction. Barring tax delinquency, the city’s only leverage over the property is code enforcement — a slow tool, and one that rarely leads to property forfeiture.
Wells Fargo apparently wants to wreck the building and keep the land. The Building Division first cited the building for the collapsed rear wall on May 1 this year, and the company — from a South Carolina mailing address (note: there is no “South Carolina” among the state streets) — responded by applying for a demolition permit on July 31. The Cultural Resources Office examined the permit for what is a contributing building in the city-funded Gravois-Jefferson Historic Streetcar Suburb District, and denied the request. Wells Fargo bothered to appeal, when it may well have unloaded the building on one of Cherokee Street’s active rehabbers.
Next door, an owner (Allen Parish LLC of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania — a state represented by the street at the east corner) is rehabilitating the very similar four-family building at 3012-14 Cherokee Street, which was built in 1904 by Frank Lunt. That building had been vacant prior to sale late last year. The price of sale reported was $26,842.00, hardly an amount that outweighs value. The vacant buildings of Gravois Park are bargains.
Of course, Cherokee Street’s fortunes are stronger than that of surrounding streets. While the building at 3006-8 Cherokee Street will likely be met with Preservation Board and public scorn, other demolitions have gone unnoticed. Mounting vacancy in the rest of the building stock portends many more Preservation Board agendas with buildings from the area, unless a larger intervention occurs. At least slapping down Wells Fargo is a good step, but so much more is needed to translate denied demolition permits into an area full of strong and safe streets.
PRO Intern Emily Kozlowski contributed to this post.