National Register North St. Louis Old North Wells-Goodfellow

Year Ends for the Better in Two North St. Louis Commercial Districts

by Michael R. Allen

St. Louis Public Radio aired my latest commentary this morning. Listen to it here. The extended script follows.

This year ends with positive changes for two of north St. Louis’ most distressed neighborhood commercial districts – the 14th Street district in Old North St. Louis and a section of Martin Luther King Drive in the Wellston Loop area.

In Old North, the $35 million Crown Square redevelopment project has transformed two blocks that once were the commercial center of the neighborhood. In 1977, using federal funds, the city of St. Louis closed the street to create a pedestrian mall. Eventually that mall killed the foot and vehicle traffic necessary to sustain the businesses.

Thankfully and improbably, most of the buildings fronting 14th Street on the two blocks between St. Louis and Warren streets survived abandonment. Now, these buildings have been beautifully rehabilitated into residential and commercial spaces. 14th Street is set to reopen to traffic early next year. Old North will regain a vital center.

The good news in the Martin Luther King Drive in the Wellston Loop area comes from an earlier chapter in the renewal story than the news from Old North. In November, a state review council approved a National Register of Historic Places nomination for 65 buildings on or around the north side thoroughfare from Clara Avenue west to the city limits.

The designation honors the cultural and architectural significance of what was in the late 1940s the city’s busiest shopping district. However, the designation also makes available rehabilitation tax credits long sought by building owners in the area. Such credits were crucial in rebuilding Crown Square.

Commercial districts are barometers of neighborhood health. Once they die, a neighborhood may be gone forever. By all indications, Old North and the Wellston Loop have a lot of life left in them.

Abandonment North St. Louis Schools Wells-Goodfellow

Records Left at Arlington School

by Michael R. Allen

A fascinating report on KTVI news covers the discovery of children psychiatric records found inside of a portable classroom at the abandoned Arlington School at 1617 Burd Avenue in Wells-Goodfellow. I have been all over inside of the historic building for documentation work, but never inside of the classrooms built in 1961. However, I have been inside enough abandoned buildings to know that the abandonment of private employee and medical records is far too common.

The story also hits on the upcoming renovation of Arlington, quoting Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (D-22nd) saying: “For some people, it is an eyesore. I see it as an opportunity.”

Good attitude.

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Northside Regeneration O'Fallon Public Policy The Ville Urban Assets LLC Wells-Goodfellow

Private LRA in the Works Across North St. Louis?

by Michael R. Allen

The house shown here, located at 4448 Athlone Avenue in the O’Fallon neighborhood, is just one of the 225 vacant properties purchased by a holding company named Urban Assets LLC in the last six months. The spending spree has attracted the notice of neighborhood leaders and elected officials across north St. Louis. Urban Assets has purchased across a wide swath of north St. Louis, mostly between Delmar Boulevard on the south and Natural Bridge Avenue on the north — all of the way from Grand Avenue on the east to the city limits on the west.

Here is a crude map of the holdings made by this writer using Geo St. Louis:

The holdings are spread across nine wards and include 120 vacant lots and 85 buildings, mostly historic. The wards and number of properties are as follows: Ward 1 (7), Ward 3 (4), Ward 4 (64), Ward 5 (5), Ward 18 (39), Ward 19 (11), Ward 21 (4), Ward 22 (64) and Ward 26 (27).

There are distinct concentrations in the Ville and Greater Ville neighborhoods as well as the Wells-Goodfellow and Hamilton Heights neighborhoods. There are a handful, like 4448 Athlone, standing alone far from other holdings. Urban Assets began aggressively purchasing properties at Sheriff’s tax sales in September 2008. Most of the holdings come from tax sale purchasing, with prices often less than $2,000 at auctions with no other bidders.

This purchase pattern is reminiscent of the start of purchasing by McEagle holding companies like the infamous Blairmont Associates LC — and the same real estate broker is making the purchases for the parties behind the holding company.

On June 6, 2008, real estate broker Harvey Noble of Eagle Realty incorporated Urban Assets LLC online. The incorporation filing and the registered agent listing on the Secretary of State’s website misspell Noble’s name as “Nobel” and incorrectly state that the zip code for Noble’s office is 63102.

On the record with KWMU and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Paul J. McKee, Jr. denies any involvement with Urban Assets. Examining the acquisition patterns of Urban Assets, one sees that there is no overlap with the McEagle project and a few intense concentrations that suggest efforts to buy out other areas. Whoever is behind Urban Assets could very well soon be in competition with McEagle for the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit Act.

While Urban Assets seems to be buying whatever it can acquire in certain small areas, generally the company seems interested in vacant property in as much of north St. Louis as possible. The acquisitions almost seem like a private land bank like the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

The only apparent incentive to this type of far-flung land banking, however, is the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit. In order to receive that credit, a developer must be appointed redeveloper by the Board of Aldermen. Redevelopment rights don’t necessarily mean that a developer will clear-cut a redevelopment area. Those rights fundamentally mean that a developer acts as gatekeeper for all investment within a redevelopment area — allowing some in and keeping others out.

Is Urban Assets seeking to become a gatekeeper for north St. Louis, or is their acquisition simply a land-banking scheme?

Historic Preservation North St. Louis Wells-Goodfellow

A Corner in Wells-Goodfellow

by Michael R. Allen

This photograph shows the corner building at 1975 Burd Avenue (at Wabada) in April 2005, before its demolition in October 2005. The bakery brick pattern at the cornice and the tiled roof porch over the entrance were fine distinctive features. Like many north side neighborhoods, Wells-Goodfellow, where this building was located, has lost many mix-used corner storefront buildings. These losses erode the bookends that hold blocks together. While walking the streets around here, one turns the corner to find a vacant lot rather than a landmark signifying this location. The impact of such loss on the neighborhood is obvious. Residents complain about the loss, but they also complain about having to live around so many vacant buildings.

Consequently, Alderman Jeffrey Boyd (D-22), whose ward includes Wells-Goodfellow, and residents have been working to leverage federal block grant funds to pursue historic district designation for buildings and sections of the ward. These designations create incentives for rehabilitation and investment. Sure, it is a long road, but the neighborhood has been down a longer road of decline. Things aren’t going to change overnight, but things won’t change at all without laying groundwork for reinvestment.

Architecture Historic Preservation LRA National Register North St. Louis Wells-Goodfellow

Two Craftsman Buildings in Wells-Goodfellow

by Michael R. Allen

While photographing a building across the street for work, I stumbled across this Craftsman gem on Ridge Avenue (just west of Hamilton Avenue) in Wells-Goodfellow. The size of the brackets on the porch end of the roof is incredible. Brackets, half-timbering and wide gable roofs were hallmarks of the Craftsman style, which was part of the revival style craze that dominated American residential architecture between 1890 and 1930. The Craftsman style drew upon the Arts & Crafts movement as well as historic rural European vernacular styles. St. Louis has great examples in north and south city, especially west of O’Fallon Park and in Tower Grove South.

Coincidentally, this home is only a few blocks from one of the city’s most prominent Craftsman landmarks, the Wellston Station at 6111 Martin Luther King Drive.

Photo by Rob Powers for Built St. Louis

I don’t know much about the house on Ridge, but I co-wrote the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Wellston Station. The Station was built in 1911 and designed by Martin Arhelger for the St. Louis Transit Company, the streetcar arm of United Railways. United Railways held the monopoly on mass transit in the city until 1963 when it was subsumed into the Bi-State Development Agency.

Under its wide roof, the Wellston Station provided covered boarding, and a shelter with waiting rooms and toilets, for the first fixed-track streetcars on Easton Avenue (now MLK). Wellston Station was the destination for the last streetcar run in the city’s history: the run of the Hodiamont street car in 1966. For years after that, the building served as a bus shelter, but the grandeur was out of scale with cash-strapped Bi-State. Bi-State aimed to convert the building to a farmers’ market, but in 2006 abruptly turned it over to the Land Reutilization Authority. In May 2007, the National Park Service placed the Wellston Station on the National Register. That designation has not yet led to redevelopment, although a burger joint still rents the front end of the waiting room area. (The waiting room has always had a storefront at the street side.)

Two Craftsman gabled buildings in Wells-Goodfellow — one a domestic building, the other a remnant of a once-robust public sector economy. May they both be part of the city’s future.

Demolition Martin Luther King Drive North St. Louis Wells-Goodfellow

MLK in St. Louis

by Michael R. Allen

Perhaps my experience of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in St. Louis was epitomized by watching a lone wrecker. The man was palletizing bricks and stoking a bright orange barrel fire fed by millwork and door casements of the building he was wrecking. The cold did not deter his determination to get in a day’s work. The building he was wrecking? A commercial building on Martin Luther King Drive.

The scene was a reminder of some harsh realities of this city. North side laborers, even with skills, are far more likely to find work tearing down their own neighborhoods than rebuilding them. Our city is one of many American cities who renamed a downtrodden thoroughfare for one of the greatest Americans to live, and then did nothing to staunch the decay that dishonors the name on the street. Our city’s leaders, black and white, found time on the holiday to pander and squabble while many citizens were busy earning money for food and shelter.

Further west on the street, past Kingshighway, I encountered the relatively vibrant street culture of the Wellston Loop. People were out walking, traveling from store to store. A barbeque restaurant was crowded, with patron’s cars spread out over an adjacent vacant lot. New sidewalks were in the middle of construction, and several buildings were amid major renovation projects. That’s reality on MLK, too.

Architecture Events North St. Louis Wells-Goodfellow

Hewlett Students Present Their Projects Tomorrow

by Michael R. Allen

Each year, freshman students in professor Bob Hansman’s Hewlett City Seminar at the Washington University School of Architecture trek to the Wellston Loop area of north St. Louis. Amid some of the city’s most intense urban decay, the students learn from observing conditions, listening to residents and studying the history of the area’s decline. Then they devise design interventions that could transform the community, channeling residents’ desires into plans for the future. This is one of the best two-way streets in town. The freshman, many from other places where conditions like those of north St. Louis are rare, are exposed to a whole new world. Residents of the community are in turn exposed to an urban design perspective their political leaders often disregard.

This fall’s program is over, and the students will present the models and plans they have created this semester. The presentation is tomorrow, Saturday December 8, at Friendly Temple, 5540 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. The event is open to the public.

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.

Abandonment Demolition Fire Martin Luther King Drive Wells-Goodfellow

5900 Block of Martin Luther King Boulevard

by Michael R. Allen

South face of the 5900 block of Dr. Martin Lutherk King Drive, 1998. Photograph by Don De Vivo.

Don De Vivo took these photographs of this St. Louis block in 1998, capturing conditions that have only worsened in the course of seven years. This block is part of a long commercial corridor on Martin Luther King Boulevard that straddles the cities of St. Louis and Wellston, an industrial suburb experiencing severe economic depression. De Vivo, a developer and real estate broker who owns six properties on this block, has been working to stabilize the physical conditions here and renovate his buildings since 1986, when he made his first purchase in the Wellston Loop area. Recently, De Vivo and others formed a nonprofit development corporation, the Wellston Loop Community Development Corporation, to jump-start redevelopment of the commercial district on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the Wellston Loop.

Note that the large commercial building seen recently burned in February remains partly standing in October. This building is adjacent to a former branch of the J.C. Penney store, built in 1948 as a rare example of a well-defined International Style building in a neighborhood commercial district. The J.C. Penney store building still stands, although it has been ravaged by years of abandonment.

Photographs from February 2, 1998

Photographs from October 8, 1998