Architecture Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis Urbanism Wells-Goodfellow

Hope on Martin Luther King Drive

by Michael R. Allen

I spent some of my morning talking with a building owner in the Wellston Loop area. He has big plans for his big building, the former J.C. Penney store at 5930 Martin Luther King Drive. (This is the International style gem designed by William P. McMahon and built in 1948.) He envisions the building as catalyst for rejuvenating the area, and seems optimistic despite acknowledging forty years of neglect of the area and of Martin Luther King Drive in general.

The neglect is formidable. On the drive out to his building from downtown, I passed the sites of a dozen buildings that were demolished within my lifetime and whose details I clearly recall. I passed even more buildings that sit empty, or in use, or in some derelict state between. I passed two buildings with significant recent collapses. I passed one row of flats and a corner commercial building under demolition despite being in good condition. I was overcome with melancholy as I considered that many of these buildings won’t survive my lifetime, or even the next decade, and the fifty-odd blocks of a street that supposedly honors to good work of Dr. King will be virtually unrecognizable to me by middle age, and already is unrecognizable to people old enough to recall its heyday.

Even at the time that Franklin and Easton avenues were renamed for Dr. King in 1972, the conditions of the buildings on the street were not great. At the time, some critics felt that the legacy of Dr. King was diminished by placing his name on a street with a sad future. The sad future is now, and the street name certainly seems cynical.

Hopefully, the J.C. Penney building and others on the street will survive, and find good owners, and provide momentum for development along here. Aldermen O.L. Shelon (4th Ward) and Jeffrey Boyd (22nd Ward, including the Wellston Loop), whose wards include most of the street in the city, are pushing for redevelopment that is architecturally sensitive. They can only do what is politically possible, though, before it is up to the market to generate the capital needed to revive sections of the street. May that time come before all is lost on the great street with a great name.

Central West End Green Space Infrastructure Streets Urbanism

Park Space Isn’t All That BJC Threatens

by Michael R. Allen

If BJC gets to lease part of Forest Park, can the city not require them to reopen Euclid Avenue to through traffic? I am very disturbed that the city would contemplate leasing part of a public park to a private entity for new construction, but I am even more upset that the city has already granted BJC de facto ownership of public thoroughfares through their “campus.”

The park space issue raises a huge red flag with the voters, who overwhelmingly seem to oppose it. I suppose park space is obvious community space that people generally value. Street space, much more fundamental to building good neighborhoods, is also public space and worthy of defense. Yet few people defend streets against closures, culde-sacs and such. In fact, some vocal Forest Park Southeast residents oppose the proposed new BJC lease as vocally as they call for making some culvert-pipe barriers permanent closures with gates or walls.

BJC’s rampant expansion is creating a problem far worse than, although reflected in, the proposed lease: the creation of a virtual citadel that will sever connections between the Central West End and Forest Park Southeast (or “The Grove”). This is a terrible thing for FPSE, which is showing miraculous signs of recovery and the resurgence of the Manchester Avenue commercial district. That rebound will suffer if people cannot find FPSE or get to it quickly from other neighborhoods.

If Mayor Francis Slay wants to continue his public-defying embrace of the lease, he ought to demand that BJC provide some thing other than money in return. He needs to make sure that BJC stops closing streets and stops building parking garages that have no street-level retail or office space. Taylor Avenue in particular is a major connector between the CWE and FPSE, yet BJC treats it like their service alley and rush-hour freeway. The worst buildings, garages and lots face Taylor — yet Metro is relocating the Central West End MetroLink station entrance to Taylor from Euclid.

Save our park, and restore our streets!

Downtown Urbanism

Sixth and Locust

by Michael R. Allen

A few days ago while walking downtown in the afternoon, I had one of those moments that are somewhat unnerving. The weather conditions were already bleak, with a slight drizzle and a stone-gray sky overhead. I came upon the intersection of Sixth and Locust and stood at the corner, amazed at what I saw: no movement, amplified by somewhat-dismal surroundings. I looked north up Sixth Street and saw neither a person nor a vehicle. I looked behind me, west on locust, and saw no one. I looked ahead east on Locust, and the street and sidewalks were also empty. Finally, I looked south down Seventh and saw a person standing at the intersection of Seventh and Olive. Still, I had not had such a moment downtown around the middle of a weekday in a few years.

Then again, at this intersection, such an experience is not too strange. At the northwest corner is the dingy hulk of St. Louis Centre; at the southwest is the huge Railway Exchange Building with many of its lower level windows tinted and internally covered for the Famous-Barr store (I hear that Macy’s will reopen these windows); at the southeast corner is the group of buildings that once housed the Mercantile Library, built in the 1880s, clad in cast concrete in the 1950s and abandoned in the 2000s; and, at the northeast corner is the most lifeless structure at the intersection: a parking garage that once had a first-floor Woolworth’s but now as first-floor parking. The parking garage is made more ugly by the way in which its owners converted the store space to parking. They simply removed the plate glass windows of the store, leaving the metal encasements to frame open views of parked cars inside a dark, deep space.

At any rate, this intersection is one of the remaining spots where downtown’s renaissance looks doubtful even on a workday. However, all of the problems here are the buildings that compose the intersection and their conditions, and some of this will change soon: St. Louis Centre will close in June, with skybridge demolition in January and February next year before rehabilitation begins; Macy’s parent company Federated will be making some improvements to the lower floors of the Railway Exchange Building, even as they stamp out a store name that was the last bedrock of local retail (something that Federated is doing to Chicago, too); and the Pyramid Companies own the Mercantile Library buildings and have banners tacked on them advertising available office space. The one question is what will become of the parking garage, built for and joined to St. Louis Centre.

Why not tear it down? Like St. Louis Centre, it was built over the sidewalk, limiting the possibility for re-introducing retail on the first floor. Extending sidewalks and enclosing the ground-floor’s dark arcades is nearly impossible with Locust and Sixth very narrow here anyway. I suppose the garage could be cut back on its perimeter, but that seems too complicated to be economically viable. After St. Louis Centre is reworked, perhaps the garage site will be an attractive location for a new downtown high-rise.

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.

People Urbanism

RIP Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs has died at the age of 89. Has anyone had a greater impact on theories of urbanism and, most important, on the shape of cities in the last fifty years?

Art Downtown Urbanism

Brunettin’s Legacy

by Michael R. Allen

Local artist Lyndsey Scott has of late been painting in a certain gallery window on 10th Street downtown. I am glad to see that local legacy of Alan Brunettin lives on, at least for a little while longer. (Brunettin himself can be found in some Illinois city on Lake Michigan, albeit without storefront exposure.) If only some wealthy urbanist would bankroll anyone who wanted to stand in a downtown window and make art to delight the occasional observant passer-by…

South St. Louis Urbanism

Pyramid’s Scheme Protested

by Michael R. Allen

About 40 people showed up today at 12:30 p.m. for a protest against the relocation of the McDonald’s franchise on South Grand to fulfill a bizarre development plan concocted by The Pyramid Companies that involves their need to use state affordable housing tax credits and their push to “complete” the Keystone Place project that they started ten years ago. The unpopular plan manages to retain the support of Alderwoman Jennifer Florida (D-15th) despite the lack of measurable support for the plan among her constituents.

Downtown Streets Urbanism

Belmont and Johnson

by Michael R. Allen

The intersection of Belmont and Johnson in downtown St. Louis is long gone. Belmont Street ran east-west from 14th Street to 16th Street, between Clark and Spruce. Johnson Street ran north-south between Clark and Poplar, between 14th and 15th streets. The two streets were narrower than the primary arteries around them, and served the warehouses and other businesses that existed in this pocket of dowtown St. Louis near the railyards.

These streets disappeared over the years first as businesses expanded and then as surface parking took over the area. New railroad tracks into Union Station were built in the 1950s and obliterated the streets completely. The tracks ran below grade and created a wall that was compounded by the already-existing wall-like railyards to the south and Union Station train shed to the west. Today, this pocket of downtown is mostly parking lots, with the Drug Enforcement Agency and Veterans’ Administration occupying buildings in the area built in the last 12 years. For years, this area was the preferred site for any number of plans for a new train station and other transportation portals. Now, the new multimodal transportation center will rise just south of the elevated section of I-64/40 that runs through here. This pocket will serve as a gateway and will sport a raised walkway between the MetroLink station on 14th Street and the multimodal center.

Back to the story: If you are standing at the site of the intersection today, you are probably on the MetroLink tracks. Stand clear!

cine16 Events Urbanism

"In the City" this Thursday

The Academic Film Archive of St. Louis and The Missouri Historical Society present:

The CINE16 program
“In the City”


The Challenge of Urban Renewal (1966), directed by Ted Yates

Heritage Homes of St. Louis (1967), directed by Pat Williamson

Detached Americans (1958), directed by Don Matticks

Thursday, March 16 at 7:00 p.m.
Missouri History Museum, Lindell at DeBalivere (lower level)

FREE admission.

The snack bar on the museum’s second level will be open before the show and during intermission.

Illinois Metro East Planning Southern Illinois Urbanism

Re-Centering Downtown or Doubling Sprawl?

by Michael R. Allen

A new house rises amid hay bales on Red Brick Lane outside of Columbia, Illinois (July 24, 2005). I grew up across the road from this field. Is this development somehow any different or more desirable than what has been built in St. Charles County?