land use North St. Louis Northside Regeneration Old North Urbanism

The South End of Old North

by Michael R. Allen

The southern end of Old North St. Louis — which includes the National-Register-listed Mullanphy and Sts. Cyril and Methodius historic districts — has been recently cut off from the more vibrant part of the neighborhood by two unfortunate grid-busting, suburban-style housing projects and cut off from downtown by vacant lots, fast food restaurants and automobile and truck yards. Demolition has been rampant, and truck-related businesses own many buildings here. Speculators have seized some of the area, including an impressive half-block owned by Blairmont Associates LC. There is one city block — bounded by Tyler on the south, 13th on the west, Chambers on the north and Hadley on the east — where not a single building stands.

Yet the last few weeks have seen signs of life no one could have predicted: a side-gabled, two-and-a half-story house at 2111 N. 13th Street that is the last building on its block is undergoing renovation; someone purchased an LRA-owned building at 1723 N. 13th Street in March and has already made progress on rehab; the owner of a corner tavern at the southeast corner of Howard and 14th streets has taken down part of a brick wall for relaying. These rehabs are by no means historic, and in the case of 2111 N. 13th, maddening for a preservationist to observe. Yet given the economy of that end of Old North, even these projects are somehow comforting — rather than crumbling shells, we have two bad rehabs to critique. (We will need to go a long way before even contemplating local district standards on acceptable alterations.)

The strangest event lately had to be the revival that took place over the weekend on the south end of that totally-vacant city block. A church group threw up a tent, put out folding chairs and a port-a-potty, and brought in preachers and bands. The scene was almost surreal, especially amid the stormy weather of the last few days.

Hopefully, someone will make a more long-term investment in that block, which would make a great location for modern infill housing. In fact, I would love to see both the 1970s-era Murphy-Blair Apartments and the Bristol Place Townhouses developments fall to the wrecking ball for a large-scale infill project. With vacant land to the north of both projects along Monroe Street, a new project with restored street grid would meet the North Market Place redevelopment project. With rehab of the remaining historic buildings in this area, reclamation of the Blairmont land for responsible use, and the stabilization of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, this end of Old North would blossom.

It’s comforting that a few good things are happening despite the barriers of the two housing projects. Yet there’s no way much else will happen until the barriers are removed.

Downtown Green Space land use

Dead Zone

by Michael R. Allen

The empty land in downtown St. Louis fronting Locust Street between 8th and 9th streets covers over one-half of a city block. This land is surrounded by numerous historic buildings: the Board of Education Building, the Orpheum (later American) Theater, the Mayfair Hotel, the Mercantile Bank Building and the rear end of the Old Post Office. The site is prominent, but the space is dead.

Currently, this entire space is covered by three parking lots. One of these lots is crudely paved with gravel ringed by the top of a remaining foundation walls of a now-gone building. The sidewalk along Locust is in horrible disrepair. This area is a visual and functional dead zone in a downtown rapidly gaining pedestrian movement.

Civic bigwigs want to keep it that way, except they would replace the asphalt and gravel covering the lot with grass. They have released proposed renderings of a sterile and ill-designed “plaza” that is too large to be a good urban space and too devoid of uses to remedy the blight of the location.

The one use the planners have allowed to intrude upon the site is an ugly glass-walled addition to the Mayfair Hotel, proposed by the Roberts Companies. This addition would sit in from the sidewalk lines, and not even come close to fronting Locust or Eighth streets. Yet it would be large enough to make building a building at the corner feasible. The design is based upon the site’s always being dead space.

Could we please bring this site back to life? The last thing downtown needs is more open space. One block to the east of this site is the more modestly-sized “plaza” built by Mercantile Bank on the site of the Ambassador Building, wrecked in 1996 and 1997. This open space consists of a big driveway and some landscaping, so it’s pretty unattractive. But its size is not wholly inappropriate to a big city and, if a building were built across Locust on a parking lot, the site would be framed tightly. If Mercantile would turn the site over to civic use (there is not even a place to sit on the site at present), this could be a fairly urban downtown plaza.

Let’s be sensible.