We Can’t Outlaw Water or Stupid Men (But We Still Can Preserve Buildings)

by Michael R. Allen

Chicago’s renegade activist Richard Nickel, whose passion inspired a generation of preservationists, once stated: “Great architecture has two natural enemies: water and stupid men.”

Too bad neither can be avoided on this planet.

Even in 2010, the roof of Cupples 7 was not too far gone to be temporarily stabilized. No action was taken.

Whether the onset of actual demolition of the Graham Paper Company Warehouse — known colloquially as “Cupples 7″ — supports this theory is a sour-grapes hornet’s nest, but some things are certain. The building’s physical death was due to water. Lots of water over lots of time. And that time, presided over by men ranging from officials at Washington University to developer Kevin McGowan to former Treasurer Larry Williams, was long enough that the water could have been stopped. Ten years ago, a temporary roof may have cost as little as $100,000. Today, stabilization would cost over $5 million and demolition at least $250,000.

“Cupples 7″ as the Graham Paper Company Warehouse after its completion in 1907.

Demolition is about to start at “Cupples 7.”

This demolition could have been avoided, and shows the folly of letting city agencies spend tax dollars on land acquisition and demolition. We won’t know the real costs of demolishing the building until later, when the potential profits and revenues generated by an elegant five-story mass will linger only as ethereal presences invisible to most eyes. What will be visible will be a fenced-off patch of grass and the cold hard slab of a parking garage staring out at pedestrians.

Still, this is a teaching moment. This week Mayoral Chief of Staff Jeff Rainford told the St Louis Post-Dispatch that the city was ready to learn lessons from the demolition. Here are a few that this preservation practitioner sees:

1. New ordinances won’t save buildings. There has been talk of a “demolition by neglect” ordinance. While politically the stuff of good theater, such an ordinance is redundant. The building code already makes willful neglect illegal. The Building Division and the City Counselor struggle to enforce the code with limited resources. Instead of a new wrist-slap law that will cost as much to enforce as it would collect (see the city’s dubious “Vacant Building Registration” ordinance), the city needs to do smarter things.

This is already violating city ordinances. The rear wall of St. Mary’s Infirmary at 1536 Papin Street.

2. Code enforcement could be improved. Technically, having a giant hole in the roof of a building – or a collapsing back wall – is illegal. Cities like Baltimore have targeted code enforcement to deal with vacant property. St. Louis can do the same.

3. Existing redevelopment agreements offer the city plenty of leverage, but the city needs to use it. Cupples 7 actually was governed by a redevelopment ordinance for a multi-building project. Nowhere did that ordinance, passed by the Board of Aldermen and signed by the Mayor, spell out any requirements for stabilization of the worst building in the mix. The city can’t force property owners to save their buildings — but when an owner comes to the city looking for incentives and subsidies, the city has the power to set conditions that safeguard buildings. The city has an agency, the Cultural Resources Office, that can consult on these agreements with professional expertise on issues like stabilization and demolition.

Will the city require Northside Regeneration to stabilize the James Clemens, Jr. House before it activates a $390 million tax increment financing package?

4. The city has another chance to prevent another “Cupples 7″: Northside Regeneration. This week the Tax Increment Financing Commission approved a public hearing on August 28 for activation of Paul J. McKee Jr.’s $390 million tax increment financing package for Northside Regeneration. Northside Regeneration owns scores of historic buildings, including the James Clemens Jr. House — the city’s only pre-Civil War mansion to sit vacant. Water is working on the Clemens House. Why won’t City Hall use leverage to get a roof on the building?

The last part of “Fout Place” (1892) sits vacant at 4200 Cook Avenue. Owned by shell company Urban Assets LLC, the historic house is one of those neighborhood anchor buildings that would benefit from a new way of dealing with vacant buildings.

5. The city needs to follow its own Sustainability Plan. The plan itself should have guided a different outcome for Cupples 7. Under “Urban Character, Vitality & Ecology,” Objective F, Strategy 4: “Provide resources to preserve and prevent demolition of key historic structures that do not have parties immediately interested in investing in the building.” The plan lists the time frame for implementation as “short term.” It’s unfortunate that the first test of this part of the new plan leads to a failure by multiple city departments to follow the plan. Yet there are other tests ahead: Crunden-Martin Building 5, St. Mary’s Infirmary and smaller buildings across the city.

Not much has happened with Building 5 at the Crunden-Martin Manufacturing complex south of the Arch since it caught fire in December 2011.

6. Create policies that recognize that there are two options for buildings: Demolish OR repair. While $250,000 might not have saved Cupples 7, it could have helped. The demolition budgets for smaller buildings often are higher than the cost of roof patches, temporary gutters and other short-term repairs. Rainford discussed the possibility of using demolition money to repair buildings and then placing a lien against the owner. Preservationists and neighborhood activists have called on the city to do that for years – what a relief to read that the mayor’s office is on the same page. Whatever that takes, let’s do it.

The Mullanphy Emigrant Home at North 14th Street and West Florissant Avenue in Old North still stands because preservationists and neighborhood leaders raised money and materials to rebuild its collapsed walls in 2007.

7. Preservationists need to be willing to help the city raise money. This isn’t a lesson for City Hall, but for all of us who are looking to the city to change its ways. We need to change our own. This city lacks a preservation fund for repairing buildings, ever since Landmarks Association of St. Louis killed its Revolving Fund in the early 1980s. Rainford talked about creating a fund administered by the city. That would be great, but preservation advocates need to do their part and building funding mechanisms instead of complaining about city inaction. The same part of the Sustainability Plan quoted above implores the city to “Establish a local funding stream for preservation work which directly contributes to the City’s economic growth.” Such a stream won’t build itself, and if it is not attenuated with private donations, would never be of use on the scale of a building like Cupples 7. We have to help the city build the fund.

We can’t stop the rain, and we can’t keep property owners from making bad decisions. Yet coordinated, strategic vacant building preservation efforts — wiser code enforcement, smarter redevelopment agreements, changes in city demolition funding and preservation community hustle — could send water and stupid men on the run.

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  • T-Leb

    What are other cities doing that StL could try/do?

  • PhilS

    Good points, but I can’t help feel that nothing could have been done without addressing the unspoken but long ago decided upon assumption that building 7 was to be demolished. Even Kevin McGowan said (quoted by the StL Post-Dispatch’s Nick Pistor on July 9th) that he’s “sad to see it go down, but we always thought it would go down.” He thought that even when he bought it? He did say he had hoped to get financing for it, but I still don’t understand why there was no effort taken to stabilize the roof?

    We can have procedures, laws, even funds available, but how can we address Star Chamber-like decision making? That might sound fatalistic and paranoid, but I’m hopeful that something can be done.

    I’ve been recently near the St. Mary’s Infirmary on Papin and it is a wonderful building – that is becoming dangerous. If I can see that, how is nothing being done to stabilize it? Who owns it? Does anyone want it down badly enough? Is it just ineptness, apathy and lack of funding?

  • guest

    Good report, Michael. You alluded to the “smaller buildings across the city”. Thanks for bringing those into the discussion. It’s one thing to rally around a large, famous building. It’s quite another to come up with an action plan for the thousands of buildings in our neighborhoods needing interim assistance. I stand with you on a commitment to working on this problem.

    So where/when do we start a preservation fund and who would handle the money and manage the program? I think it almost needs to be done at the neighborhood level. Say Dutchtown wants to focus on preservation. A lot needs to be spent there. A lot of neighborhoods have needs. On the North Side, O’Fallon comes to mind.

    To get an idea like this into action, there needs to be a good plan, a substantial funding source, and a multi-year commitment. I’d love to work on it. Part of the case might be that having strong urban neighborhoods is part of a regional economic development agenda. That vibrant neighborhoods help attract young knowledge workers and increase the quality of life in the region.

    Rick Bonasch
    314-605-5811

  • PhilS

    Thank you Mr. Bonasch for stepping up. I’d be willing to help too. I’m curious to know more about how and why Landmarks ended their fund. At this stage, would an entirely new extra-governmental non-profit be needed, or do you think getting an organization like Landmarks back into it would be better? Would the goal of this stabilization fund be to assist developers, community groups, regional development agencies, and local government? I expect with such a diverse potential for partners the fund’s holding org need to be an exemplary example of fiduciary integrity and nimbleness.

  • guest

    I don’t know the history of what happened with the Landmarks’ fund, but I agree with everything else you’ve said. Having a solid organization handling the funds is vital, but I think a bigger challenge is figuring out what to do with the money.

    That’s why I really think something like this needs to be driven at the neighborhood level. Or at least have a high level of neighborhood involvement.

    Vacancy and decay need to be managed before the crisis stage, and having a well engaged, working neighborhood with many working strategies for marketing, rehab, home repair, and community development is critical to success.

    You could ask the question, what would the organization do with a hundred dollars? A thousand? Ten thousand? A hundred thousand? And so on. Raising that kind of money is tough enough. And it doesn’t go very far when repairing or stabilizing a derelict building.

    It is an interesting challenge and would be best part of a larger conversation and action plan related to the preserving and strengthening our urban core neighborhoods.

    Rick Bonasch

  • samizdat

    Baltimore has had a program in place for a number of years which mothballed properties by gutting them to the walls (most Bal’mer houses are attached rows), maybe putting in new floor joists where needed, sealing up the windows with CMU, and perhaps a new roof, again as needed.

    I’m not certain if this program still exists, as the Wall St. Ponzi scheme crimes perpetrated on the global financial markets have forced cities to make drastic cutbacks.

    The 10 MillionUSD demo program the City stupidly initiated (it ran out of money before the target numbers were met, thank goodness) should have been devoted to mothballing. And that money would probably have gone further, in many ways.

  • dempster holland

    ,It is easy to say the city should take a hard line on private owners of
    dilapidated old buildings. But the basic result will be that no one in
    their right mind would take a chance on buying these buildings, except
    maybe trust fund babies with time on their hands.