Abandonment Demolition LRA North St. Louis The Ville

Losing More Buildings on Martin Luther King Drive

by Michael R. Allen

4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive during demolition in fall 2007.

In September and October 2007, the Land Reutilization Authority wrecked the three two-part commercial buildings at 4220, 4222 and 4224 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the Ville. The demolitions hardly were startling. Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th), then in his first year of service, requested the demolition as part of his efforts to deal with abandoned properties. Then, the center building collapsed. The Preservation Board unanimously approved demolition at its September 2007 meeting, based on a report by then-Cultural Resources Office Director Kate Shea that recommended approval.

Next up: 4234 and 4236 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive.
Brick Theft Demolition LRA North St. Louis The Ville

Lost: David Carter’s Saloon and Grocery

by Michael R. Allen

4159 Ashland Avenue.

A distinctive building in the northern reaches of The Ville is no more. In late August, the city wrecked the two-story, mansard-atop-brick mass at 4159 Ashland Avenue. This strange specimen sat on the sidewalk line on a block where remaining buildings — fewer in number than ever — maintain a general setback of ten feet, and are residential. This building had traces of a storefront opening (see the painted, nearly-concealed I-beam above a new entrance at left) suggesting a commercial past.

College Hill Fire LRA North St. Louis

Fire Strikes College Hill Building

Yesterday evening, a fire raced through the vacant, Land Reutilization Authority-owned four-family building at 4411 N. 20th Street in College Hill. The building’s timber elements quickly gave way to the flames, and within an hour the building was reduced to its still-solid brick walls and smoldering wood inside.  Alas, the building is not an isolated one but part of a row of historic buildings, some of which are occupied.

Abandonment Demolition Fairground LRA North St. Louis

How Easy Death, How Easy Life

by Michael R. Allen

The house at 3839 Lee Avenue as it looked this afternoon.

This unusual cross-gabled house with striking dormers, located at 3839 Lee Avenue in the Fairground neighborhood, is about to be demolished. Once it is gone, an irreplaceable building — seriously, what else looks like this in the entire city? — will be lost and a predictable death pattern will conclude. Fairground and the Third Ward will lose yet another building that could house people, maintain surrounding property values and generate city revenues.

This particular house was first noted as vacant by the Building Division in 1989. The house returned to that status in 1998, and never was occupied again. The downward spiral is evident in the collapsed gable end and mess of bricks below, but also in the ownership. In 2001, after owner Albert Martin defaulted on real property taxes, the house was auctioned by the Sheriff. No one bid. The house reverted to the city’s Land Reutilization Authority (LRA), which did little except keep the plywood boards on. LRA’s lack of enterprise is somewhat understandable given the house’s condition at acceptance. On February 24, 2000, the Building Commissioner condemned the house for demolition. (Even a preservationist is baffled at how long it has taken to get this one down.)

The odd little house on Lee Avenue’s tale is not exceptional, although it should be. A negligent owner let the building fall into disrepair, stops paying taxes, lets it get condemned and then lets it lapse to city ownership. The city lacked the means to reverse long-term decay, and did no marketing of the house. By the time the wrecker put his sign in the front lawn, the story was written and only needed the detail of when demolition would start.

However, this easy and certain death could just as well have been an easy and certain rebirth. The Assessor’s Office shows that the assessed value of land and improvements at 3839 Lee Avenue were a mere $670 in 2000. Again, this is not exceptional. Many houses like this one across the city — but especially in north St. Louis — go to tax sale with low assessments and low tax liens. The economics of preservation of many of these buildings are pretty favorable to a buyer.

Where are the buyers? There are few smart people starting to use the tax auctions for preservation. For instance, artist Theaster Gates’ Rebuild Foundation has purchased at least one Hyde Park building at tax auction for rehabilitation projects. With a plentiful supply of great buildings, many of which could be eligible for historic tax credits, and few competing bidders, there seems to be a hidden buyers’ market in this city. Hidden for long, however, and we could lose quite a bit of St. Louis.

Abandonment LRA Midtown Theaters

Bright Days Ahead for the Sun Theater?

by Michael R. Allen

The front elevation of the Sun Theater. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

There seems to be some confusion as to the fate of the elegant, vacant Sun Theater at 3627 Grandel Square in midtown. The sumptuously-ornamented theater has been owned by the Land Reutilization Authority since 2009, when long-time owner Grand Center, Inc. conveyed the theater to the city. Before and after that transaction, news about the theater has ranged from an absurd plan to dismantle the front elevation and rebuild it on Grand Avenue adjacent to Powell Hall to a promising but unsuccessful effort by KDHX to convert the building to its studios. The Sun was on Landmarks Association’s 2007 Most Endangered Places list.

The western wall. Photograph by Michaela Burwell-Taylor.

Currently, according to Grand Center, Inc., the nearly-completed rehab of the Pythian Building to the east for the Grand Center Arts Academy will be followed by rehabilitation of the Sun Theater into the school’s auditorium and performance space. Yet after a storm in late February caused masonry damage to the western wall of the Sun, the LRA issued a request for proposals (RFP) to demolition contractors for demolishing the venerable theater. One demolition contractor reports that LRA would not allow interior access to prospective bidders.

LRA North St. Louis St. Louis Place

Picnic on an LRA Lot

by Michael R. Allen

This Monday, the Chautauqua Art Lab started its second day with a Public Reclamation Picnic organized by Kara Clark Holland, who has a series of these events. The idea is simple and amazing: transforming an underutilized space into part of the public realm through joyful activity.

Monday’s location was the vacant lot at the northwest corner of North 14th Street and Cass Avenues in St. Louis Place. The parcel is owned by the Land Reutilization Authority and adjacent to a building owned by Northside Regeneration LLC.

Perhaps LRA should consider picnic fees as a revenue stream, as with its garden lease program. In some neighborhoods, vacant lots are closer than parks and offer large grassy areas for spreading out. With permanent uses likely years out, these lots can be utilized by the community today through picnics, gardening, sports and other short-term uses.

Benton Park West Demolition LRA South St. Louis

Iowa Avenue House’s Days Are Numbered

by Michael R. Allen

Last year, the Community Development Administration issued a “last chance” call for a proposal to rehabilitate the vacant house at 3244 Iowa Avenue in Benton Park West, owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority. (See “Last Chance for 3244 Iowa Street” from May 9, 2010.) A few weeks later, Landmarks Association of St. Louis placed the beleaguered building in its annual Most Endangered Places list.

The house at 3244 Iowa Avenue as it was in early May 2010.

Yet no one took the last chance, and January 12 the city applied for a demolition permit for the small house. Since the house is a contributing resource to the Gravois-Jefferson Historic Streetcar Suburb District, the permit will require approval from the Cultural Resources Office.

LRA North St. Louis Severe Weather The Ville Urban Assets LLC

Ville Area Still Recovering from New Year’s Eve Storm

by Michael R. Allen

Severe storms that hit the city on December 31st have left lasting destruction in parts of north St. Louis. In the Ville and Greater Ville area, winds of over 70 miles per hour struck after noon and left blocks of houses with damage ranging from missing fascia cladding to entire collapses. Nearly two weeks later, building owners struggle to get damage repaired amid snowfall, cold weather and — in a few tragic cases — lack of insurance. And some of the buildings hit hard are owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

The storms on December 31 tracked just east of the path of the devastating tornado that hit St. Louis on September 29, 1927 — a disaster that struck coincidentally at 1:00 p.m. during the week. Over 75 people perished then. Luckily, no one died in the city on New Year’s Eve. However the face of neighborhoods may be changed socially and physically as families are forced to leave their homes and neighborhood landmarks are demolished.

In the last decade, Ville has been hard hit by waves of demolition, arson, brick theft and disinvestment. The storm’s path sadly cuts through the heart of a fragile neighborhood. Some solace can be taken in the fact that not only did the storm just barely avoid Dick Gregory Place — where a $9.5 million redevelopment is taking place — but also did not disrupt work. Workers worked through the storm inside of the 15 historic and two new buildings that comprise the project.

Here are some images of the damage that struck the Ville.

This multi-family building in the 1800 block of North Taylor Avenue at lost most of its roof.
A tree fell on this house in the 4500 block of Cote Brilliante Avenue.
This vacant LRA-owned residential building at 4596 Garfield Avenue suffered some masonry damage.
Damage was concentrated in the east end 4500 block of Garfield Avenue. The building at left had been hit by brick thieves before the storm but suffered a collapse during the storm. The occupied house next door suffered severe damage to the front parapet, showing that the wind blew at both north and south facing elevations.
The north elevation of a vacant apartment building at the southwest corner of Aldine and Deer avenues collapsed. The building is owned by shadowy speculator Urban Assets LLC.

Towards an Ecology of Innovation: Reimagining the Land Reutilization Authority

by RJ Koscielniak

They were discarded like lepers, and then collected for bureaucratic internment. They make up an archipelago of crumbling concrete, contaminated plain, and overgrown fields; many have been forgotten, while some have passed on from a famine of purpose. As the city population leaned at the edge, abandoned buildings became grave markers — lots devolved into cemetery stillness. In this unfortunate tale of urban decline, the St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority emerged to play the role of Charon — carrying those lost souls of the built environment away from the world of the living. St. Louis vacancy — then and now – rivals Detroit; total population decline has found easy parallel with Cleveland. As a city, we have escaped very little of the Rust Belt strife – factories scheduled fewer and fewer shifts, schools graduated less students, and work became history. Yet, while the pulse of the city slowed, many lepers lived silently on.

The LRA-owned house at 3244 Iowa Street in Benton Park West.

In its current iteration, no one wants to manage the Land Reutilization Authority, it functions as a symptom of inconsolable civic grief – the mark of a city consigned to an unenviable fate, a place wholly dumped to its own disastrous designs. Decisions spanning the spectrum of society contributed to the collapse, pervasive prejudice and fear, an orthodox us vs. them worldview that was exhibited in every wasted opportunity to recognize similarity between residents. LRA is, therefore, an agent of memory, a parcel-by-parcel chronicle of unwanted and undesired people and property. Until now, LRA has been purgatory while we wait out doubts of urban investment, a social balm until creeping economic development can mete out salvation for eroded husks of industrial, commercial, and residential space. Yet, with the right guts and guile, LRA can be a generator of community change. It has the potential to be an activator of expansive urban progress.

Housing Hyde Park LRA North St. Louis

Slow, Steady Progress in Hyde Park

by Michael R. Allen

Amid ongoing recession, development is continuing in the city’s Hyde Park neighborhood. Irving School LP, owned in part by Duffe Nuernberger, has started work on renovation of fifteen historic buildings scattered across the western side of the neighborhood between North Florissant Avenue, Natural Bridge Road and Glasgow Avenue. The projects utilize state and federal historic rehabilitation and low income housing tax credits.

The elegant house at 3933 N. 25th Street is one block north of Irving School, rehabilitated by the same developers last year.  Long vacant, the house retains a wooden porch with intact fretwork.  The house is adjacent to an  owner-occupied house.

Here is the building at 3906 N. 23rd Street, two blocks east. The venerable two-flat is also a long-vacant building on a block that has lost much of its building stock. Eliot School LP purchased the house from the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

The affiliated company, Irving School LP, recently completed six new houses on Farrar and 25th streets around Irving School. Above is a new house on N. 25th Street adjacent to existing buildings. While most of these new homes were built on vacant LRA-owned lots, one occupies the site of a historic building demolished by the developers.

The single-family homes offer a rent-to-own option, so the project is not exclusively creating tax-credit affordable rentals. Time will tell if a mix of ownership and rental is created here, but it is important that home ownership is included in the scattered-site development so that past affordable housing mistakes are avoided. Over-concentration of tax-credit rentals can lead to instability. (I do not take similar issue with rental housing in general, because existing market-rate rentals at all price points do not have the potential to unbalance a neighborhood housing economy.)

While I disagreed with last year’s demolition on Farrar Street, I am pleased that it took place in order to make way for a replacement building. That is not often the case in Hyde Park, and speaks to the sensitivity of the approach. The Irving School and Eliot School partnerships have worked with preservation architect Jeff Brambila, whose counsel is evident. Equally important is the fact that the developers are not using eminent domain or aggressively trying to buy out entire blocks. The approach here is slow and steady, and tackles vacant property without creating more of the same.

Potential Additional National Register Designations

Due to this development, Alderman Freeman Bosley (D-3rd) has appropriated funding to survey parts of the Hyde Park neighborhood excluded from the original certified local historic district‘s boundaries. In March, the Riverview-West Florissant Development Corporation issued a request for proposals for survey and any possible National Register of Historic Places nominations. Landmarks Association of St. Louis submitted the winning bid and will be conducting the work.

The areas to be surveyed are:

Area bounded by I-70 on the east, Angelrodt Street on the north, Branch Street on the west and Buchanan Street on the south.

Area bounded by Glasgow Avenue on the west/north, alley east of Vest Street on the east and Natural Bridge Avenue on the south.

Area bounded by Angelica Street on the south, Florissant Avenue on the east and Glasgow Avenue on the west/north.

The creation of such districts will allow developers to leverage tax credits programs for rehabilitation. Additionally, the designations could protect against demolition. While the Third Ward is a preservation review district, one of the arguments employed in favor of demolishing the house on Farrar Street was that it fell across the alley from the historic district boundaries.