Green Space Planning St. Charles County

St. Charles County Preserving Open Space

by Michael R. Allen

A story from Saturday’s St. Charles County Journal, “Green acres: Couple donate land for park,” by Kalen Ponche, caught my eye. St. Charles County residents Dave and Mary Jane Wolk did not want their 67-acre property to be subdivided, so they are donating it to the St. Charles County Parks Department for eventual park space. According the article, the Wolks’ land is not the only park acquisition in the immediate future:

The county plans to spend $3.34 million for a 60-acre property owned by Robert J. and Patricia Day Barnard and a contiguous, 115-acre property owned by New Melle Lakes Development Co. and Apted-Hulling Inc.

(Anyone else surprised to see Apted-Hulling still around?) Besides these sizable acquisitions, the parks system in the county has received other donations from concerned families:

The Wolks are the fourth family to donate land to the county park system. Two of those donations are parks in reserve – 91 acres northwest of O’Fallon donated by Dolores Freymuth, and 100 acres south of Highway 364 (Page Avenue extension) and west of the Missouri River donated by Bill and Nancy Knowles. Officials hope to open the Old Boyd Plantation and Towne Park, donated by Betty Towne, next year.

The St. Charles County Parks Department now owns 2,855 acres and hopes to own 4,000 acres by 2015. These numbers are encouraging. If the past 25 years were years where St. Charles County leaders aggressively pursued development of rich farm land, maybe the next 25 will be years of sensible land conservation. As growth declines in that county, the time is right to safeguard land.

Historic Preservation Mid-Century Modern St. Charles County

St. Charles City Council Grants Landmark Status to Structure Built in 1969

by Michael R. Allen

On Tuesday, the St. Charles City Council voted 9-0 to declare the Lt. Robert E. Lee “boat” an official city landmark. While I am often in favor of preservation protection for structures built in the 1960s, this is one case where I have to side against landmark designation. The “boat” is actually an ersatz old-time riverboat whose wooden superstructure dates to 1969. The hull dates to the 1930s. The Lee opened as a moored restaurant on the St. Louis riverfront in 1970, but closed in 2006. The current owners wish to relocate the boat to St. Charles, where there is an ordinance barring wood multi-story construction on structures brought into the city. The landmark status trumps that ordinance.

However, the use of the landmark status here is an abuse. The council subordinated reasonable interpretation of city landmark law as well as the formal recommendation of the city planning staff against designation. Economic development should not shape preservation law. If the council needed to exempt the boat from the ordinance forbidding the Lee’s relocation to the city riverfront, its members should have used different legislation.

I wonder how many St. Charles buildings built in the 1960s have ever received landmark status.

Infrastructure St. Charles County St. Louis County Streets

St. Louis Area Makes a List for Obama Administration

by Michael R. Allen

An article in the December 26 edition of the St. Louis Business Journal reported that the City of St. Louis has created a 400-page report on its federal infrastructure funding priorities, while St. Louis County has created a 200-page document of the same. The governments will deliver these reports to the incoming presidential administration of Barack Obama in response to his promise to channel federal dollars into public works programs across the nation.

The city’s report outlines some big-ticket priorities: $900 million for the North/South MetroLink line, $219.5 million in streetscape improvements, $160 million in public school building improvements, $80 million in airport improvements and $59 million to implement the Gateway Mall Master Plan. According to Deputy Mayor Barbara Geisman, all of these projects are ready to start as soon as they are funded, but full funding is unlikely immediately. Still, the city’s placement of MetroLink expansion at the top of its list is smart, since that is a crucial component of building a strong city economy and connecting citizens to jobs. The city’s list carries some basic but crucial needs: street and transportation improvements and school renovation. (The Gateway Mall project is another story, but something does need to happen to the mall area.) These are important to stabilizing our neighborhoods, and Geisman should be commended for placing a high priority on these things.

Moving beyond the ready-to-go ideas, perhaps the city would consider a future request for an urban homesteading program. The program could find funding to stabilize and market the Land Reutiliation Authority’s thousands of vacant homes across the city, generating hundreds of construction jobs and getting tax-free property back on city tax rolls where it can generate money to fund roads and schools.

St. Louis County’s list starts with a $200 million, 3.3-mile expansion on Highway 141 at the top followed by the $105 million needed to retain existing Metro public transportation in the outer county. A significant and less costly item on the St. Louis County list is $24 million to fund a Midwest China Trade and Commercialization Center at NorthPark. While the China cargo hub prospect is not a done deal, it has the potential to bring more jobs to the St. Louis area in the next decade than any other prospect.

Other requests headed to the Obama administration are a predictable $510 million highway spending request from the Missouri Department of Transportation and a $66 million request to extend Page Avenue farther into St. Charles County, so that one may have a straight drive from downtown St. Louis to Mid Rivers Mall Drive. These requests are the usual pave-it-and-they-will-come junk.

Obviously, the disparate requests show the problem of regional political fragmentation. Inevitably, there will be partial funding of many requests rather than full funding of something big and transformational. Imagine what might happen if the regional governments pulled together with one request for the North/South MetroLink line this year, and further extensions in the future, rather than place the burden solely on the City of St. Louis. Imagine if the Missouri Department of Transportation put some of the needed Metro funding in its request.

Remember when we imagined that Obama could become president? Now that the dream is real, it’s time to imagine other changes closer to home. Or, we can all fight over the pie for the next eight years, but it doesn’t take much imagination to guess where that will get the St. Louis area.

Historic Preservation Salvage St. Charles County

"Historical Building for Removal"

On CraigsList. The ad shows a photo of a small front-gabled frame building with shed-roofed addition. The location is New Melle, Missouri. The cost seems to be $1: “Good 100 year old lumber including wide plank floors for the cost of removal plus $1.”

Demolition St. Charles County

The End of Noah’s Ark

by Michael R. Allen

Today I passed by the site of the Noah’s Ark Restaurant in St. Charles, Missouri. The ersatz ark fell to wreckers on August 29. The restaurant had to be one of the most prominent and best-loved pieces of Googie architecture in the St. Louis region. The Biblical premise behind the off-the-interstate restaurant charmed and delighted as many as it baffled. Built in 1967 by an airline pilot with a dream, the ark once marked the outer limits of St. Louis suburbia. My one childhood trip from the east side to the ark seemed like a journey to the edge of the world that I knew as St. Louis. Nowadays, the site is east of the homes of hundreds of thousands who call themselves St. Louisans. In place of the whimsical restaurant and its attached hotel will come a pool and exercise center.

(Last year Toby Weiss posted her thoughts and photos of Noah’s Ark here.)

Demolition National Historic Landmark St. Charles County

The Demolition of Prince Hall at Washington University

by Michael R. Allen

Built St. Louis has already published demolition photographs from Prince Hall, which is a long way gone.

That the demolition started so quickly raises many questions. How did preservationists fail in this case? There seemed to be considerable delay from the time people started talking about the proposed demolition to the time people acted. And the action came mostly in the form of letter-writing and a few newspaper article quotes. Admittedly, the preservation dynamo Esley Hamilton worked hard to preserve the building. The rest of us were there mostly in spirit and not enough in deed to make a difference.

The potential to have lobbied alumni and donors could have been utilized. Washington University may have changed its mind if its decision was costing money. With large universities, there seems to be no other way outside of legal restriction to keep historic campus buildings standing.

I also think that the building’s secluded location on a private campus located amid wealthy neighborhoods kept it from being a championed cause among the rank-and-file of urbanists and preservationists. Most of us, to be frank, didn’t go to Washington University and live far from the manicured lawns of Clayton. I have to admit that Prince Hall was low on my list given the urgency of the situation of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home and other north side buildings.

Still, the Washington University Tudor Gothic campus core — designed by Cope & Stewardson and built between 1901 and 1905 — is one of the most attractive collegiate groups in the country. The great significance of this group as architecture, that art so public that ownership legal barely restricts its appreciation, outweighs any reservations myself and others had. We should have tried much harder.

One final question the demolition raises is whether or not the Washington University campus district’s listing as a National Historic Landmark District should be de-certified. Is there sufficient context left for it to remain listed? What would de-certification mean for the other buildings? The National Historic Landmark listing again proves to give no special protection to an historic building, even if it gives special recognition. Preservation is the result of human action.

Planning St. Charles County

St. Charles’ Frenchtown Targeted for Redevelopment

by Michael R. Allen

The St. Charles City Council is considering a bill by Councilman and Council President Rory Riddler (D-1st) to create a redevelopment plan for the northern end of the city’s old Frenchtown section. Frenchtown lies north of downtown St. Charles along the Missouri River and was platted in the early 19th century. Its narrow streets form a grid dotted with brick and frame buildings, some dating back to the 1840s and many in side-gabled Federal or Green Revival styles that are prevalent in old parts of St. Louis neighborhoods like Carondelet, Soulard and Old North St. Louis. In the last twenty years, especially after its rail lines and connected businesses went dead, Frenchtown’s economic life has faltered. Empty storefronts and ill-repaired homes stand out. But largely the area is in good shape, and lacks what St. Louisans would call blight.

However, Riddler and developer Griffey Construction of New Melle, Missouri are pushing for a large-scale redevelopment project that would be under the control of Griffey. This project would be empowered to use eminent domain, and early talk indicates that would be used primarily to secure commercial-zones buildings and land along Second Street, a main thoroughfare in Frenchtown. They are talking New Urbanist talk that sounds funny coming from a New Melle-based firm whose specialty is low-density subdivision construction. The things Riddler and company say about Frenchtown make it seem like the area is blighted and will turn into a ghetto if they don’t act.

In reality, the area — and St. Charles city on the whole — needs to regain its job base. This is difficult since so many manufacturing and professional jobs have fled St. Charles for other locations in St. Charles County. Even the city of St. Charles located its new convention center and hotel not in the old core near the river, but to the southwest on the old county Fairgrounds site which had to be annexed first. The sorts of antique shops that city leaders in St. Charles have pushed on downtown’s Main Street and Frenchtown’s Second Street don’t create many jobs, even if they lure tourists and bring in sales tax revenue. If Riddler and Griffey want to extend the antique store district, they are tying Frenchtown’s future to something that will not help current or future Frenchtown residents.

While increasing density along Second Street would be desirable, I am not sure what new construction the redevelopment entails and whether or not Griffey knows how to build thoughtful urban buildings. The architectural stock of Frenchtown is very important and any new construction must be sensitive in scale, materials, style and such.

But a redevelopment plan may simply remake a proud city district into a subdivision. Without good jobs in the city, redevelopment and rising property values could push out longtime residents and the mundane but useful businesses that line north Second Street. Bistros and boutique shops don’t build neighborhoods — they are luxuries that can add a good element to an already-strong place. Frenchtown faces many of the same problems that St. Charles faces, and the redevelopment scheme is a misguided attempt to force a renewal on the district. One thing that Riddler could do to help is to oppose the subsidized development happening elsewhere in the county, stand up for the rights of small businesses that stay in the city like those threatened in Frenchtown and fight for a MetroLink connection of the city of St. Charles (which has enough density to support a line) to the airport. The perfect scenario for redevelopment is impossible but political courage is not. Before rushing to push a whole section of the city into a superficial redevelopment, city council members need to take a stand for the city on other levels.