by Michael R. Allen
In St. Louis, vacant land is a huge problem. Yet the details are small: a single lot here, a moribund city-owned red-brick house there, or a dead gas station down the block. As the city struggles to conjure systematic strategies for dealing with the vacancy and to gain rapid demand for land reuse — big solutions — some small solutions are emerging. Many business owners, neighbors and dreamers have conquered a building or a lot, often making a critical impact for a larger area.
The Sustainable Land Lab Competition, sponsored by Washington University in St. Louis, offers a moderate-sized method for vacant land reclamation. The competition secured four vacant parcels in the heart of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, and funds to offer both two-year leases and $5,000 to implement practical, ready-to-build ideas for reusing them. The proximity of the lots might provide a sizable visual impact, depending on the four winners announced next week.
Among the eight finalists chosen from the initial 48 submissions are the “Bistro Box,” a container cafe placed on 14th Street near Crown Candy Kitchen, and the Sunflower Project, which envisions an interim use of sunflower cultivation that also would aid soil remediation on a polluted vacant lot. Some might argue that these ideas are impractical or ephemeral — but they are not much like projects this city has ever tried before. New ideas are not “destined” to fail or work. New ideas carry the pulse of city’s best minds, without guaranteed results.
The great part about the Sustainable Land Lab Competition process is that these solutions are both malleable (a two-year lease offers a good test period) and transportable (they could be done on different sites, multiple sites or better sites). Also, the competition should encourage neighborhoods to take action now. All we have is now, the song goes — so let these ideas inspire more local, less-structured actions regionally. After all, the whole city came into being by furtive, sustainable land development. St. Louis remains an experiment.
SUSTAINABLE LAND LAB ANNOUNCEMENT:
Thursday, April 11
Bridge, 1004 Locust Street
Disclaimer: I serve on the Sustainable Land Lab Competition Advisory Committee.