Hyde Park Missouri North St. Louis O'Fallon Penrose Public Policy St. Louis Place The Ville

Capping Neighborhood Revitalization

by Michael R. Allen

In the past few weeks, proponents of the possibly impending economic development deal crafted between leaders in the Missouri House and Senate have made excuses for proposed cuts to the historic rehabilitation tax credit: “it was going to be cut anyway.” This rationale has led many St. Louis political leaders, developers and even usually-opinionated bloggers to concede that the state’s proven revitalization tool will have to be lopped to make way for a brave new future of subsidies for new cargo warehouses.

The corner building at 1530 Salisbury Avenue in the Hyde Park Historic District is now vacant.

We’ve heard that the “big buildings are done,” a statement that one could not safely make at the corner of 8th and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis, or in the railyard industrial areas of Kansas City. We have hard that it’s time for “new money” and new economics, a line that fails to mention that the cargo warehouse credits as written would only go to new construction, and that warehouses are not know for either welcoming pedestrian flanks or for innovative architecture. Worst, we have heard that a $10 million limit on historic tax credit awards of $275,000 or less is somehow protection of neighborhood microdevelopment.

The LRA-owned building at 2037 Adelaide Avenue is within the proposed O'Fallon Historic District.

To be sure, having some nod toward small projects is better than none, but what we have on the table is an annual $90 million issuance of historic tax credits in which small projects will only get $10 million – not a penny more. The $80 million majority of credits will go to the big projects – the ones that some proponents have claimed are “mostly done.” This skewed ratio prevents small developers and property owners from direct competition with large development operations, but it represents a move to cut small projects to over half of activity we saw in Fiscal Year 2011.

The vacant house at 2609 Rauschenbach Avenue in the newly-designated St. Louis Place Historic District.

According to data from the Missouri department of Economic Development (DED), in Fiscal Year 2011, the state issued around $21.5 million in historic rehabilitation tax credits to projects that received $275,000 or less in tax credits. This activity represents 165 of the 385 projects to which DED issued historic tax credits. Of course, the total issuance was $116.2 million, so the small projects were far from the majority. Yet they account for around 43% of all projects that used the historic tax credit.

A formula based on caps of $10 million for small projects and $80 million for large projects will end up slowing the pace at which neighborhood revitalization can take place, in small towns and big cities. In St. Louis, the effects could be most harmful in distressed neighborhoods across north St. Louis where new historic districts are being created or have been created in St. Louis Place, the Ville, Penrose, O’Fallon and the Wellston Loop. Literally thousands of north St. Louis buildings will be eligible for the Missouri historic rehabilitation tax credit by the end of the next year, in addition to buildings in the rest of the city. Will these buildings have fair access to an incentive designed to bring them back to productive use?

The answer to that questions rests with the General Assembly, as well as to backers of the tax credits for the cargo warehouses. Those who advocate for neighborhood revitalization can fight for a mechanism that may bring us more jobs, which the region does need, but they should not let their guard down when it comes to the mechanism that often is what stands between a rehabilitated, human-scaled building and a vacant lot or gas station.

The building at 4210 W. Cote Brilliante Avenue is in the Cote Brilliante Avenue in The Ville Historic District, which goes for state approval in November.

This is no either-or proposition – St. Louis will not be an attractive place for new investment if it neighborhoods aren’t improving. Missouri can’t give us unlimited money, but we can make sure that what we get doesn’t rob resources from neighborhoods that can’t afford lobbyists in the Capitol this week. A $10 million cap is too low. At least the cap should be based on last year’s activity of $21 million, so we don’t lose the momentum that is transforming tough blocks into great places to live.

Housing North St. Louis Penrose

Rebuilding Two Blocks in Penrose

by Michael R. Allen

On Saturday, June 26, two blocks of north St. Louis’ Penrose neighborhood were abuzz with rehabilitation work — 15 homes’ and 300 volunteers’ worth of rehabilitation, to be exact.  The 4000 and 4100 blocks of North Taylor Avenue, scene of the action, are lined by mostly one-story brick homes enjoying the same setback line.  A few gambrel-roofed one-and-a-half story homes are peppered in with one-story shaped-parapet and bungalow houses from the first decades of the twentieth century.  At the south end, the street closes at a robust two-story brick fire station — its boxy, flat-roofed form contrasting with the gentle residential setting around it.

This lovely neighborhood setting, however, has its problems.  Every one hundred year old house that has been continually occupied needs repairs, but often accumulated repairs bring costs beyond the reach of residents on modest incomes.  City home repair money is in short supply.  People want to remain in their houses and in their neighborhood.  What to do?

Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), who represents the Penrose and adjacent O’Fallon neighborhoods, is working on a solution.  This year, he has brought in Rebuilding Together St. Louis to bring home repair to residents.  Saturday’s repair blitz was the second of six planned this year.  The operation is simple: residents identify crucial repairs, including structural problems, and apply to be part of the weekend blitz.  Rebuilding Together assesses the problems and, if needed, brings in professionals to prep work that can be completed by general volunteers.  Rebuilding Together coordinates materials donations and volunteer labor.  Then, on the weekend, volunteers and residents work together to get repairs done with amazing speed.

Here is one crew consisting of volunteers from the Boeing Company and the owners and residents of the house that received extensive interior repairs.

Alderman French is funding architectural survey of Penrose to create a historic district. That designation, which is more than a year away, will bring tax credits to rehabilitation work. However, some buildings needs immediate assistance, like the house at the corner of Taylor and Margaretta avenues. The sturdy bungalow has been vacant and owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority for years. Alderman French put it into Saturday’s blitz program. Volunteers removed loads of trash, removed failed roofing and began gutting the interior. In coming weeks, the house will be fully rehabilitated. French is leveraging Rebuilding Together’s presence to turn around a derelict, city-owned property.

This house on the 4100 block of North Taylor received a new roof Saturday. The old roof was torn off, sheathing and joists replaced as needed, and the new flat roof completed — all in a day.

Not all work was as daunting as entirely new roofs, of course. One of the great things about the program is that it responds to needs big and small. The coordinated work schedule means that residents of a block experience an inspiring day where the block’s condition is uplifted at once.

The Rebuilding Together program in the 21st Ward is an excellent model for neighborhood preservation. For one thing, once homes go vacant, their reuse becomes very, very expensive. Tax credit projects are complicated to put together, and are only meaningful amid other more extensive stabilization efforts. Big projects like Crown Square and Dick Gregory Place involve dozens of buildings, not hundreds. And we have thousands of buildings at risk of going vacant through deferred maintenance and the cost of upkeep.

The Rebuilding Together program won’t save all of them, but it is an excellent way to leverage private donations to stabilize neighborhoods and even tackle city-owned property. We need to expand this program to keep existing buildings in use and residents in their neighborhoods. The 21st ward program really is a holistic historic preservation program. Coupling the home repair program with historic district designation puts the widest number of rehabilitation solutions on the table as is possible.

By the way, Rebuilding Together is always looking for volunteers. Find out more on the organization’s web site.

North St. Louis Penrose Storefront Addition

Stone Church

by Michael R. Allen

The frame one-story commercial building at 4709 Natural Bridge Road went up in 1914, early in the heydey of the thoroughfare. Later, by 1965, a church congregation took over the building and added the projecting, crenellated stone entrance bay. In so doing, the congregation largely masked the modest building behind and created one of Natural Bridge’s smallest architectural landmarks. Today, the building houses the Christian Servant Missionary Baptist Church.

Historic Preservation Parks Penrose Preservation Board

Preservation Board Will Consider Demolition of House in Penrose Park

by Michael R. Allen

The house on June 20, 2005. Photographs by Michael R. Allen.
Built in 1902, the house at 4961 Penrose Avenue is located inside of Penrose Park and is slated for demolition in favor of road and park improvements. The design of this house is an uncommon blend of Queen Anne and Arts and Crafts tendencies; the slate jerkin-head roof and side entrance add variation to what otherwise may have been a common red-brick period house. The demise of the house is predicated on its supposed separation from the surrounding parts of the Penrose neighborhood, but it actually is less than a half-block from the nearest occupied house.

Although the house had been put into use at the residence of the Keeper of Penrose Park as early as 1906, enough of the surrounding neighborhood remains to give it a visual relationship to the neighborhood. Across the street is Scullin School, and to the southeast are mostly intact blocks of brick and frame houses and two-flats. In fact, with widespread demolition in north city, a passer-by would likely assume that the space between this house and the next one to the south are simply vacant lots produced by demolition. This is not far from the truth — houses did stand there, forming a street wall in which this house was located. The cleared lots and this house became part of park, though, which seems to be making the difference in the Board of Public Service’s drive to tear it down.

Road improvements to nearby Kingshighway are in progress and did not entail demolition, although the work is creating a road between this house and others on its side of the street. A planned amphitheater on this site could be re-designed to let the house stand.

Perhaps when the city’s last park-keeper moved out in the 1980s, the city should have returned the house to the neighborhood by selling it. The time is not too late for the city to make the right move now. If the house does not sell, perhaps some park-related function could be found for the house. Park houses are a valued part of south side city parks, and the city does not push to demolish them.

Consideration of the Board of Public Service’s demolition application by the Preservation Board in May 2006 led to a vote in favor of a one-month deferral. Staff from the Cultural Resources Office recommended approval of the demolition on the condition that documentation be made. This position stemmed from the seeming hopelessness of trying to save a building supposedly isolated and in the way of public works projects. However, memebers of the Preservation Board led by Luis Porrello seemed posed to deny the permit until member Richard Callow moved to defer a vote one month, to the June 2006 meeting. Callow wanted staff to photograph the interior so that the board could more thoroughly assess the potential for reuse.


At its June 2006 meeting, the Preservation Board again heard the matter. A staff member from the Board of Public Service attended, waived his right to have a quorum hear the matter, and then proceeded to merely endorse the staff recommendation to approve demolition instead of actually providing testimony. Michael Allen, Steve Patterson and Claire Nowak-Boyd provided testimony on the re-use potential of the building as a cultural centerpiece of Penrose Park. Commissioners John Burse, Richard Callow and Anthony Robinson all voted to deny the permit.

View to the southeast down Penrose Avenue.