by Michael R. Allen
The sturdy 36-unit Florissant Center Apartments are undergoing demolition, to be replaced by new construction. The demolition is representative of a larger planning hostility toward large-scale unsubsidized multi-unit apartment buildings. The city government is discouraging the renovation of apartment buildings for apartment use, favoring either conversion into upscale, larger condominium-style units or outright demolition and replacement with new construction. The only sort of multi-unit apartment building that city planners seem to favor is the federally-subsidized, income-restricted sort. While income-restricted apartment buildings are certainly needed, market-rate apartment housing is equally needed by thousands of people. There are many people who cannot qualify for mortgages, or who would rather not own property, whose presence in the city is beneficial. Students, young couples, elderly people, disabled people and others who may prefer apartment living aren’t the undesirable folks city planners make them out to be nowadays. Renters bring energy to a neighborhood.
The planners’ disdain for rental housing, though, stems less from a hatred of renters than from a tendency to not question the profit-drive desires of developers who can make more money from selling larger living spaces than from rental units — without having to stick around and maintain the buildings they renovate or build. Developing and maintaining quality apartment housing requires patience and commitment, values many developers don’t have — or won’t allow themselves in their rush to make money.
The trend to destroy apartment buildings is short-sighted, of course. Apartment housing usually is more dense than what replaces it, and thus makes for more street life and greater population. A city as desperately in need of increasing its population as St. Louis will kill itself if it does anything but increase the number of new apartment units (along with numbers of other kinds of units, of course). Planners who view apartments as obstacles to big projects and big sales are hurting St. Louis.
The Florissant Center Apartments are better-built than whatever will replace them. Dating from the late 1910’s, the building exemplifies the best tendencies in simple Craftsman stock design, with ample fenestration and restrained ornament. (I am pleased to mention that Larry Giles salvaged nearly all of the ornamental terra cotta from the building.) The interior courtyard affords some privacy for tenants as they enter and exit the building but also encourages interaction among them in what is a transitional space between public and private. The materials used are among the best from that time: birch wood, solid Hydraulic-Press-Brick face-brick and stock terra cotta ornament of local design. Even in the early stage of demolition, the building is sound enough to rescue. The still-level floors that we saw inside indicate that the structure could have stood at least another 100 years. The location across the street from O’Fallon Park is simply lovely.