Brick Theft North St. Louis St. Louis Building Division

How Brick Thieves Do It

This Pub Def video features Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) explaining how brick thieves do their work. This first appeared in August 2007, but it is relevant this summer as the streets of north St. Louis gear up against this wave of criminal activity.

Moore’s comment that “somebody is doing it from the inside” of the Building Division still rings loud and clear. Has the Building Division ever investigated links between thieves and its demolition staff? If not, Alderman Moore and his colleagues on the Board of Aldermen should.

Demolition Fox Park Historic Preservation South St. Louis St. Louis Building Division

How About Condemnation for Repair?

by Michael R. Allen

Here’s the sort of neighborhood stabilization issue that you probably won’t hear being discussed by any mayoral candidates. Above is the corner storefront at 2001 S. Jefferson (at Allen) in Fox Park. Built in 1892, the two-story building is a contributing resource to the Compton Hill Certified Local Historic District, and anchors the first solid corner of Fox Park on Jefferson south of I-44.

Believe it or not, this building has been condemned for demolition by the Building Division! (Of course, the New Vision Demolition banner on the front takes some of the surprise out.) In June 2007, the Building Division issued a condemnation for demolition order. Why? Take a look.

This is definitely not a good situation here, but it is hardly grounds for demolition. This building has that great detail found on some of the city’s neighborhood commercial buildings: the wall extends to shield the end of a multi-story gallery porch at the rear that provides access to residential flats above.

Obviously, the porch collapsed. Permit records show that a permit to replace the “rear deck” was issued on April 2, 2007. Obviously, the owners failed to replace the porch and left the building in terrible shape. The Building Division was wise to act with condemnation, by why is the order “for demolition”? The Building Division is allowed to condemn buildings “for repair,” and in this case should have done so. The loss of the porch caused damage, but not anything that makes the building unsound.

Of course, a condemnation for demolition order could scare a problem property owner to sell. However, that order could also lead to a building’s being placed in a city demolition package down the road, no matter if the building truly is unsound under the definitions established in our public safety laws and preservation ordinances. The good thing is that a demolition permit in a local historic district will go to the Cultural Resources Office. In this case, neither owner nor the Building Division has pursued demolition — for now.

What is then accomplished by this condemnation order? Very little, except creating another threat to this building. Clearly, the order has made no impact on the owners, who have not even removed much of the debris behind the building.

Instead of condemnation for demolition, an order used too often, why not condemn buildings for repair with enforceable deadlines? There is, after all, more than one way to enforce the public safety laws, but the Building Division too often relies on the ineffective, destructive “condemnation for demolition.” The Building Division would do well to help neighborhoods stabilize their neighborhoods while preserving valuable buildings. Clearly, demolition contractors would not get as much work but hopefully better-paying construction work would be encouraged.

Whoever is Mayor on April 7 should make changes at the Building Division. At the very least, all demolition decisions should be made by a qualified structural engineer. At the most, there should be a reorientation of code enforcement away from the mindset that the Division should eliminate all that is broken. The Building Division’s goal should be fixing all that is broken for the benefit of our citizens, and reserving demolition orders for those cases where public safety is truly threatened.

Demolition Historic Preservation Northside Regeneration St. Louis Building Division St. Louis Place

Emergency Demolition? No, That Might Make Sense.

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 1512 Montgomery Street in St. Louis Place is a perfect example of the city’s senseless approach to dealing with vacant buildings. This handsome old tenement happens to be owned by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.’s Blairmont Associates LC, but that’s not what is notable here. What is notable is that the old building has had a severe lean to the east for many years. The building appears twisted, as if it were made of pliant red rubber. The building has also been vacant for at least a decade — not surprising, considering the slope of each floor. In December 2006, the Building Division condemned the building for demolition, putting it on a long list with a wait period for demolition funding.

During an early July storm, the gable end collapsed onto the parking lot of the adjacent Church’s Chicken. Thankfully, no one was hurt.

We all know what’s next, right? The Building Division swoops in with an emergency condemnation and demolition order, and the lot is quickly just another expanse of straw-covered dirt.

Guess again. The building still stands as of the date of writing! The Building Division has not issued any emergency order, and the owner has applied wooden and tube-steel bracing of questionable utility. (Honestly, the part of the building most likely to fall has already fallen.) Here is a house that could not be rehabilitated without complete demolition and reconstruction. Even moderate correction of the lean would cost more money than the house would ever be worth. Contrast this condition with other vacant houses in St. Louis Place and other neighborhoods that have been put under the “emergency” axe for happening to have a non-structural rear wall collapse or by literally being adjacent to a building that has collapsed after a bout of brick thievery. I’ve watched the Building Division take down structures easier to repair (and located in more desirable spots than next to a fast food restaurant) than the sad house at 1512 Montgomery Street.

There is no consistency in the use of emergency condemnation procedures. Often the decisions make no sense in regard to preservation planning or structural necessity. Discussions about how to shape a new vacant building policy in the city should examine ways in which the Building Division’s power to use emergency condemnation powers could fall under some sort of review. We have relatively weak cultural resources and urban planning laws, but what good comes from those laws often gets undermined by a quick decision over on the fourth floor of City Hall.

There needs to be coordination — not a new board, office or commissioner position, but simply a smart policy of cooperation between the Building Division, the Cultural Resources Office, the Planning and Urban Design Agency and the aldermen. As this house shows, even the most tenuous-looking building isn’t going to fall over tomorrow. There is time to make smart choices.

Update: The house was demolished in September 2008.

Demolition Fountain Park North St. Louis Public Policy St. Louis Building Division

Emergency Demolition Orders Made to Suit?

by Michael R. Allen

Last week I noted the demolition of the three-story commercial building at Page and Kingshighway in Fountain Park (see “Demolition Comes Twofold to Page Boulevard”). A driver struck the corner column on the first floor of the building, leaving the corner unsupported. Owner Roberts Brothers Properties did nothing to stabilize the corner, and eventually the building started collapsing at the corner. On March 21, the city’s Building Division issued and emergency demolition permit for the building — and two other freestanding buildings on the same parcel!

The emergency order includes two two-story commercial buildings that stand east of the condemned building. These buildings are vacant and also owned by Roberts Brothers Properties, but have no structural damage that would warrant emergency condemnation and demolition under the city’s building code.

The inclusion of these buildings in the demolition order brings to mind last year’s demolition of the entire Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings, owned by Paul J. McKee, Jr., despite the fact that only one of the three buildings suffered enough fire damage to warrant emergency condemnation. In that case, the three buildings shared party walls, so the Building Division’s action made a little more sense even if it was premature.

This time, the three buildings share no walls. There is absolutely no connection between the collapsing corner of the large building and the condition of the two neighboring buildings. Should we assume that the Building Division is willing to twist public safety laws to allow owners to clear sites for development? Or perhaps the Building Division has such prejudice for historic buildings that it cannot restrain itself faced with an opportunity to take down three buildings instead of one?

No matter what the intention, the result is that one city agency assigned to uphold public safety is thwarting any attempt to implement real preservation planning. Really, all three of the buildings at Page and Kingshighway could have been preserved. Even after the corner collapsed, the corner building was stable enough to repair. The Building Division could have ordered emergency stabilization. Although the Division can only spend money on emergency demolition, and not stabilization, perhaps it’s time we changed that, A temporary corner support — which one can buy at Home Depot and many homeowners could have installed — would have cost much, much less than demolition and given the neighborhood more time to explore the future of the building.

Our demolition process suffers from a lack of development vision. Without meaningful citywide preservation planning, each demolition decision is made without any legal guidance. The Building Division has discretionary power that prevents careful planning. Yet even if the Division wanted to step in and try to stabilize a building, it lacks enabling authority to do so. These issues need to be resolved. Currently, only an alderman can intervene in this process and force an outcome — and not always. We need to reform our demolition process through enactment of real comprehensive preservation planning legislation.

Brecht Butcher Buildings Demolition North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North St. Louis Building Division

Brecht Butcher Supply Buildings Under Demolition; Permit Altered

by Michael R. Allen

Two weeks ago, the A.G. Mack Contracting Company began wrecking the Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings at the northeast corner of Cass and Florissant avenues in Old North St. Louis. The historic buildings, owned by Blairmont Associates LC (30% owned by developer Paul J. McKee, Jr.), have sat empty since their purchase by the current owner in 2005. On October 6, 2006, a large fire struck the buildings and caused extensive but not insurmountable damage.

On October 31, 2006, the city’s Building Division issued an emergency demolition permit for the eastern two buildings of the three-building group. According to demolition inspectors, the two-story western building was to be spared while the other buildings would be wrecked with city money.

Then, suddenly, salvagers removed the cornice from the two-story section beginning January 8. Demolition started on the two-story section, and a complaint to the city led to information from Demolition Supervisor Sheila Livers stating that all three building would be wrecked.

The city’s Geo St. Louis website shows that the original wrecking permit issued October 31, 2006 was replaced by a new one issued January 12, 1007.

The reason for the change is unknown. Obviously, the loss of the two larger buildings would have diminished the visual impact of the two-story building. Yet leaving some part — a part not at all damaged by the fire — of the historic row would have been better than nothing.

(Photograph from February 8, 2007. Most of the two-story section is demolished now.)