by Michael R. Allen
What’s a neighborhood without a corner commercial storefront?
What’s a corner commercial storefront without a neighborhood?
These questions are pertinent to the fate of the building pictured above, located at the northeast corner of 25th and Howard streets in the southwest end of St. Louis Place. This lonely building is one of three remaining on its block, which is surrounded by blocks of similar low density.
Many do not realize that the forlorn appearance of this “urban prairie” is the result of city policy. In 1973, under Mayor John Poelker, the city identified this six-block area north of the Pruitt Igoe site bounded by Cass on the south, 22nd on the east, Madison on the north and 25th on the west as ripe for industrial expansion. In fact, the Planned Industrial Expansion Authority began buying up land there, while the Planning Commission urged clearance of these blocks. Speculators moved in, arsons were common, and people were pushed out. With Pruitt-Igoe gone, city planners figured that large vacant site and these emptying blocks were a perfect area for a large-scale industrial park.
Yet, thankfully the industrial park project never happened. The city wasn’t able to push out all of the residents — nor were city government or the area’s alderman willing to invest in rebuilding the area. In 1996, Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. revived the idea of using this area for something big. Bosley’s administration created the ridiculous Gateway Village golf course subdivision plan, which was shelved by Mayor Clarence Harmon during his first week on the job.
The urban prairie was left behind, with residents, businesses and churches spread out across a quiet pocket of the neighborhood. Many people love living in that area and hope to stay for the rest of their lives. When developer Paul McKee Jr. began purchasing land, many speculated that his intention was to combine this area with Pruitt-Igoe for a massive commercial development. However, the plan that his representatives showed residents last week showed commercial development confined to the Pruitt-Igoe site and the six blocks platted with high-density residential development much like what was once there.
What that means for remaining buildings and residents is unclear. The plans unveiled last week are not detailed enough for further assumption. How the corner commercial building at 25th and Howard, built in 1920, managed to survive is pure luck — and solid construction. This building is in great condition, and was occupied by a tavern only a few years ago before McKee’s holding company Sheridan Place LC purchased it in 2006.
Sure, there might be retail at Pruitt Igoe, but great urban neighborhoods do not cluster retail into centers. Neighborhoods like St. Louis Place have always had their main streets and their corner bars and stores. The less concentrated commercial activity is located in a neighborhood, the more people will be able to walk to buy a carton of milk or meet friends for dinner.
Preservation is not simply a matter of saving pretty buildings (which this one is) or keeping buildings from the landfill (which is important if we want “green” to be more than a catch phrase). Preservation fundamentally is about maintenance of the relationships between people and place that foster a high quality of life. Having a corner storefront increases a neighborhood quality of life, provides a place for social interaction and gathering and encourages people to experience their neighborhood on foot — where they will meet more people doing the same.
Architecture is fundamental to building and sustaining community, although other factors are also fundamental — some more so. If McEagle is serious about building community in north St. Louis, its principals will do more than just calculate the future of a building like the corner storefront in dollars and sense. The project must build up from what is already in place — buildings and people. The intrinsic connection between architecture and community comes from daily human action. After all, the corner bar stayed open even after the loss of most of the rest of the block and the industrial park never got built!
If this storefront is lost in the development to come, that will be a shame. However, if the neighborhood mode of life is lost, that will be a tragedy. Architecture should never come at the expense of community.