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French Introduces Bill to Place 21st Ward in Preservation Review

by Michael R. Allen

Today Alderman Antonio French (D-21st) introduced Board Bill 78 to make his ward one of the preservation review districts governed by the city’s preservation ordinance. Preservation review allows the city’s Cultural Resources Office to review demolition permits in the ward and deny them based on the architectural merit and reuse potential criteria established by the ordinance.

The 21st ward is one of nine city wards that are not preservation review areas. Here is a map showing the distribution of wards that do not participate (in white):

This map shows that the area covered by the McEagle NorthSide project (mostly the 5th and 19th wards) is not included in preservation review. Neither is most of the north city swath in which Urban Assets and other holding companies are buying buildings and land.

A ward’s lack of preservation review enables demolition on a wide scale — not necessarily all at once, either. The conditions of many wards without preservation review have deteriorated through the loss of one building at a time for decades. Loss of buildings means loss of residents, loss of job and loss of a sense of community — adding up to conditions that make wards vulnerable for land-banking. Preservation review is not designed to keep every old building standing forever, but to create a mechanism for careful decision-making about the physical resources of our neighborhoods.

Alderman French has a great ward with a largely intact building stock. Placing the 21st ward under preservation review will help keep the 21st ward in good shape for generations to come. By making the move to place the ward under such review early in his tenure, French shows that he will be working to protect and strengthen the neighborhoods he already governs, rather than jockeying for the big development that can shatter communities.

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Video from Last Night’s Meeting on the McEagle Project

Seth Teel captured video at last night’s public meeting on McEagle’s “NorthSide” project and posted it to YouTube.

Here are some of Alderwoman April Ford-Griffin (D-5th)’s opening remarks:

Here is the talk by Paul J. McKee, Jr. in several short segments:

Here is the closing address by Alderwoman Marlene Davis (D-19th):

Here is the closing statement by Alderwoman Ford-Griffin:

St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Board of Aldermen Back in Session With New Faces

by Michael R. Allen

Today, the St. Louis Board of Aldermen convened for the first time since the general election. New members Antonio French (D-21st), Joe Vaccaro (D-23rd) and Shane Cohn (D-25th) joined 11 re-elected incumbents and 14 members whose terms do not expire until 2011. The board approved several consent resolutions and had first reading of 25 bills, including several to vacate streets and alleys.

Shane Cohn and Antonio French are young, neighborhood-oriented aldermen whose reputations as activists precedes their efforts at electoral politics. In Dutchtown, Shane has been part of an emerging renaissance of the business district around Meramec and Virginia. Shane is also the first openly gay member of the Board of Aldermen. Coming from the heart of south St. Louis, that is a great accomplishment.

Through Pub Def (reborn today), Antonio has kept the flame of intelligent political advocacy journalism alive in St. Louis. His prior campaign for the Board of Education showed that he is willing to act on his principles. In the six years since that run, Antonio’s work has only gotten better. One of his strongest traits is his penchant to build coalitions around issues he cares about — sometimes drawing together people who otherwise would not talk. He’s also been an ambassador to other cities, attending the Great Lakes Urban Exchange conferences to represent the great things happening in St. Louis to young people from the broader region.

Readers of this blog will take heart that both Shane and Antonio are preservation-minded. In fact, Antonio ran on a platform centered on re-directing block grant money from new construction to existing housing where constituents need home repairs. Both represent areas densely populated with abundant, aging stocks of historic buildings — pivotal wards for the future of preservation in the city.

I don’t know what Vaccaro will do in terms of preservation and development, but I have no reason to be alarmed.

Some may still mourn the lack of competition for Room 200, but I’m overjoyed that we elected two young, progressive aldermen this year. Change starts at home, not the executive office. Few call the mayor when they want the vacant house next door torn down — they call the alderman.

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Kennedy Out as Public Safety Chair, Preservation Board Member?

by Michael R. Allen

Word from the Board of Aldermen this week is that Alderman Terry Kennedy (D-18th) is out as Chairperson of the Public Safety Committee, to be replaced by Alderman Phyllis Young (D-7th). Kennedy is supposed to chair the Transportation Committee instead.

This move is significant to historic preservation because the chair of the Public Safety Committee by ordinance has a seat on the city’s Preservation Board. The chairperson can take that spot himself, as Kennedy did, or appoint a proxy member of the Public Safety Committee. No news yet on Young’s intentions.

Terry has been a thoughtful member of the Preservation Board, often raising issues of class, race and public policy that no one else would. While more often than not we have been on opposing sides of granting demolition permits, I have always appreciated Terry’s principled voice and willingness to discuss — and find solutions to — deep divides between preservationists and communities.

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Detroit City Council Members Play Structural Engineers

by Michael R. Allen

If you think that the preservation system in St. Louis city government is screwed up, count your blessings. In Detroit, the City Council just passed a resolution calling for the emergency demolition of the landmark Michigan Central Station. The resolution comes after the council has done the following: not conduct a structural assessment of the building; not consult the building’s owner about plans for redevelopment; not implore the building owner to redevelop or sell to someone who will; and, most important, only get interested in the building’s plight after the mayor made a move.

Strange priority for a City Council that is having a hard time dealing with a $300 million municipal budget deficit.

Although the building is owned by billionaire developer Manuel Moroun, Mayor Ken Cockrel, Jr. had requested federal stimulus funds for demolition work that could cost around $3.6 million. Since Michicagn Central is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, federal funds for demolition will entail a Section 106 demolition review that could complicate the mayor’s plans. (Michigan Central Station dates to 1913 and was designed by Warren and Wetmore with Reed and Stem.)

The Council’s resolution directs the owner to pay for an emergency demolition, attempting to use a 1984 ordinance that gives the council discretionary power to take down “dangerous” structures. Council President Monica Conyers, perhaps America’s most self-serving urban politician, opines that the building should have come down years ago. Despite years of decay, Michigan Central Station is not unsound and clearly not dangerous in any legal sense. Check out Forgotten Detroit and see for yourself. The old station has great reuse potential!

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen has never passed a similar resolution, despite its many redevelopment ordinances that override preservation review. Then again, the St. Louis of today is a city where many aldermen are often the first in line defending the economic value of our landmarks. Thank goodness for the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit and the paradigm shift it allowed!

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Odds and Ends

by Michael R. Allen

MCPHEETERS WAREHOUSES NEARLY GONE: The McPheeters Warehouses on Leonor K. Sullivan Boulevard, subject of a Vital Voice column of mine published in June, are nearly gone. Demolition started two weeks ago, and now the one-story cold storage warehouse and most of the center building are gone.

SHANK SONS HONOR ISADORE: Peter and Stephen Shank have published Firbeams, a lovely website featuring the residential architecture of father Isadore Shank.

KIEL PROGRESS: In the St. Louis Beacon, Charlene Prost reports on progress in the plan by SCP Worldwide and McEagle Properties to re-open the Kiel Opera House.

VACANT BUILDING INITIATIVE: As featured in a story on KSDK TV this week, Alderman Kacie Starr Triplett (D-6th) has introduced Board Bill 174, which would require owners of vacant buildings to pay an annual registration fee, carry liability insurance and secure all openings, among other requirements. Church and nonprofit property is exempt, but Land Reutilization Authority property is not. More later.

STATEWIDE PRESERVATION CONFERENCE SEPTEMBER 10-13 IN ST. CHARLES: The 2008 Annual Statewide Preservation Conference begins on Wednesday, September 10 in St. Charles. I am co-presenting a workshop with Jan Cameron of the St. Louis Cultural Resources Office entitled “Vernacular Architecture from the Stone Age to the Space Age.” Details here.

DRURY WANTS TO DO WHAT?: At Vanishing STL, Paul Hohmann reports on a bizarre plan by Drury Hotels to demolish the northwest corner of the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood for a new hotel. The plan threatens the Lambskin Temple and many historic homes. Drury will present the plans tonight at the Gibson Heights Neighborhood Association meeting, 7:00 p.m. at 1034 S. Kingshighway.

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Will Aldermen Consider McKee Plan This Year?

by Michael R. Allen

My latest “Inside the Metropolis” column for the Vital Voice is more timely than I imagined when I submitted it:

Will Aldermen Consider McKee Plan This Year?

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3500 North Grand: One of LRA’s Many Available Buildings

by Michael R. Allen

Photo from Land Reutilization Authority.

This three-story commercial building with a distinctive chamfered corner stands at 3500 N. Grand Boulevard (northeast corner of Grand and Hebert) in the Lindell Park neighborhood. Formerly home to a bank, this building in the Classical Revival style was built in 1909.

This is just one of the thousands of properties owned by the city’s holding agency, the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA). LRA seeks $15,000 for this building — a price below market value. A recent sales contract fell through and the building is again on the featured properties section of LRA’s website.

Last September, I published a blog entry entitled “LRA’s Problem With Marketing: It Needs to Start.” I chastised LRA for leaving properties that had sold in the featured properties list without adding new ones. One year later, I am pleased to report that LRA’s website features only available properties on this list. I am not pleased to report that the online list still represents the bulk of LRA’s marketing efforts.

While many blame LRA itself, that’s a cop out. As a municipal authority, LRA is hidebound to funding and operational binds placed on it by those with budgetary and legislative authority. Ultimately, each of us city residents is a stakeholder in LRA. LRA’s staff cannot effect major and necessary policy changes related to the disposition of city-owned buildings and land — but our elected representatives can.

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Who Has the Power?

Tomorrow, residents of the near north side neighborhoods affected by the acquisitions of developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. have a chance to share their concerns in a public setting hosted by elected officials. In addition to appearances by state representatives, there will be presentations from alderwomen April Ford-Griffin (D-5th) and Marlene Davis (D-19th) as well as mayoral aide Charles Bryson. While the issue of the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act is important, we should not lose sight of the big picture of development — and that the fact that most of the political power to shape McKee’s development lies at the local level.

Long before anyone amended the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act, there was local control over the near north side. Under our municipal government system, the aldermen have a lot of power to either facilitate smooth sailing by developers or hold them accountable. Lately we have watched the two aldermen representing the wards most affected by McKee’s project act to hold the developer accountable. We have watched the mayor’s office use its power to set the big picture of what is permissible by lending support to the embattled developer.

Tomorrow is a chance for citizens to ask questions, learn facts and discuss solutions. The meeting’s attendees should not lose sight of the fact that they have a lot of power — both through the officials who will be speaking and on their own.

Hopefully, the spirit of the forum will be one that acknowledges the power. Hopefully the officials will identify ways in which they can use their power to shape outcomes to the problems they will be detailing. Too often, we see public process get mired on problems. Citizens watch their leaders identify problems without offering real involvement for citizens who want to solve the problems. The resulting feelings of powerlessness and cynicism further stagnates our anemic civic culture.

With the McKee development, the aldermen are gatekeepers of redevelopment. They don’t need to see McKee’s plans to articulate a vision for their wards, and ask that the developer act accordingly. They can expedite nuisance complaints. They will be on the front lines of the fight in the Board of Aldermen on McKee’s plans. No matter what version of Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act passes the General Assembly this week, it will require a tax credit applicant to get a redevelopment agreement with a municipal government — and that has to come from the Board of Aldermen in St. Louis.

Nothing can happen for McKee without the support of these alderwomen. That’s mighty power. Furthermore, nothing can happen for these alderwomen without the support of their constituents. That may be the biggest power in play here, if people use it well. Any power imbalance here can be overcome, and tomorrow offers a great chance to start.

Brick Theft St. Louis Board of Aldermen

Bosley Wants to Get Strict With Brick Dealers

Alderman Freeman Bosley, Sr. (D-3rd) has introduced Board Bill 232 to increase the regulation of brick recyclers in the city of St. Louis. The bill has two aims:

– To require that brick dealers videotape all transactions on their yards, keep the tapes for thirty days afterwards and make tapes available to the police department.

– To limit the hours of operation of brick yards so that they close at 6:00 p.m. on Fridays and do not reopen until 5:00 a.m. on Monday.

Bosley’s bill imposes the punishment of fines not to exceed $500.00 and imprisonment not to exceed ninety days for each violation of the bill by a dealer.

These measures are practical and seem to be effective steps to combat the rising tide of brick theft that is decimating vacant buildings in St. Louis Place, JeffVanderLou and Hyde Park. While the theft occurs at all hours, theft is increased during late night and weekend hours, and most thieves lack storage space and money, and thus quickly sell the stolen goods to yards. Late-night sales are not uncommon at some yards.

While the bill does not harm dealers in the suburbs who are also buying stolen brick, perhaps it will inspire ordinances in St. Louis County and other areas where dealers operate. The punishment called for in Bosley’s bill may also not be severe enough to serve as a major deterrent. However, the provision for use of cameras will no doubt have a major impact on the incomes of those who profit from dealing stolen bricks.

Hopefully, the Board of Aldermen will swiftly pass Bosley’s bill.