by Michael R. Allen
City Block 599 is bounded by North Fourteenth Street on the west, Cass Avenue on the south and North Florissant Avenue on the east and north. Starting with the construction of Florissant Avenue in 1935, the block was slowly cleared across the 20th and early 21st centuries. Once a dense near north residential and commercial mixed-us block, by the 1980s the block only held two buildings. By October 2005, when I took the photograph above, the block was fully clear of buildings.
Since November, the block has risen with construction again. This time, the building that will occupy City Block 599 will be a strip mall and gas station known as Crown Mart Plaza. While a strip mall is better than an empty block, and the area desperately needs stores, the site deserves something better. The photograph above shows the Mullanphy Emigrant Home (before the April 2006 storm struck) and buildings in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood in the background. This site is a visual gateway to Old North and St. Louis Place. While Tucker Boulevard and North 13th Street are currently closed, that combined major thoroughfare will open again. When it reopens, the new Mississippi River Bridge will be completed, with its ramps dropping cars on Cass Avenue just one block east. Thousands of people will pass by this block on their way to the historic neighborhoods of the near north side.
The Crown Mart Plaza is a missed opportunity to build something on the site that is an appropriate architectural entrance to great north city neighborhoods. The first impression of north city made on many people will be another gas station rather than a building that is distinct and proclaims community support for high design standards. Some day, the Emigrant home will be rehabilitated, and Old North and St. Louis Place will begin seeing infill construction. MetroLink will pass by City Block 599 on Florissant Avenue. The Crown Mart Plaza does not anticipate the changes to come, or encourage them.
Of course, many of us anticipated such a future for the block when the former Crunden Branch Library, owned by the city’s Land Reutilization, abruptly disappeared in August 2005. Students at Washington University recently had submitted a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places of the landmark building when the city’s Building Division wrecked the Crunden Library building. Built in 1909 and designed by Eames and Young, the Crunden Branch Library served the educational needs of area residents until 1954, when the branch moved west and the building was remodeled for use by Pulaski Bank. This building signaled the greatness of its surrounding neighborhoods, and its loss was a huge blow to the Cass Avenue street scape.
Just north of the Crunden Branch Library on Fourteenth Street stood a bus maintenance garage that dated to the 1930s. This building was a utilitarian building, and not an outstanding work of architecture, but a building that could have been adapted to many uses — including a retail strip. Since the land between this building and North Florissant was vacant, its footprint is remarkably similar to that proposed for Crown Mart Plaza.
The bus garage was destroyed in a large fire on September 15, 2005, so soon after the Crunden Library demolition that bits of terra cotta from the old library still littered the straw-covered earth. Since that fire and the garage’s subsequent demolition, City Block 599 has stood vacant as rumors of retail development have swirled. If only the planned retail use could have aligned with an effort to improve the architectural character of Cass and North Florissant avenues, the tone for great development on these streets could have been set.