by Michael R. Allen
Yesterday’s Preservation Board meeting yielded some good outcomes for the city. The Board was short a few members: Alderman Terry Kennedy, Mary “One” Johnson and Melanie Fathman. (Of course, the seat that gets filled by a member of the Planning Commission remains vacant.) That left board members John Burse, Richard Callow, Chairman Timothy Mulligan Luis Porrello and Anthony Robinson to deliberate on the full agenda for the evening.
The noteworthy votes included a vote on a sign, a vote on a storefront banking facility and the two demolition applications mentioned in this blog. The sign-related item was the application from Hammerstone’s bar in Soulard to restore the vintage neon Budweiser blade sign on the corner of its building (the restoration will involve major replacement). Staff at the Cultural Resources Office denied the permit because local Historic District standards for Soulard prohibit such a sign type without a variance, despite the fact that the sign pre-dates the historic district ordinance and the lifetimes of many of the people attending last night’s meeting. The sign has been in place on the building at least since the 1950s, and signs of its type date back to the late 1920s. St. Louis was a major manufacturing city for neon signs, and they are an important and lively part of the city’s architectural heritage. Steve Patterson spoke on the subject and passed around a book that included photos of local streetscapes in the 1950s with many similar signs. Currently, the Hammerstone’s sign is covered in Dryvit — somehow that is acceptable under Historic District standards. Thankfully, the Preservation Board unanimously voted to approve the application.
This vote was a great demonstration of what constitutes an appropriate variance. The Historic District standards no doubt intended to prohibit bad new signs, but in doing so removed the protection for existing historic signs that may not date to the “old days” of Soulard but have attained great historic significance in themselves. The standards also prohibit new signs that would be thoughtful. I appreciate the standards and the precautionary principle embodied within, but they are short-sighted on signage (as most local district standards are). Accumulation is the urban condition!
A unanimous vote to allow a walk-up ATM in the Central West End for a new National City Bank branch location was also a good thing that will hopefully encourage banks to use walk-up ATMs instead of drive-through lanes in the city.
I was very surprised that the Board ended up unanimously denying the demolition application for the Lutheran Altenheim Home in Baden. Few architectural historians had paid much attention to this wonderful institutional building, and in light of in-progress interior demolition, Cultural Resources head Kate Shea was resigned to only trying to guarantee salvage of architectural elements. Thankfully, Board member Callow asked one simple but important question: Had the owners, multi-state residential care facility operators Hillside Manor Property LLC, determined the presumably prohibitive cost of reuse? The answer, after staff of the company denounced the building for being too old and for having been built around, was “no.” The Preservation Review ordinance stipulates that there must be demonstration that the cost of reuse is prohibitive before the Preservation Board can approve a demolition permit — no matter how much far the demolition-happy Building Division has let the owners go. Callow moved to deny the application and the other members vote in favor of it.
The best part of the evening was the result of the consideration of Forest West Properties’ application to demolish 30 houses in Forest Park Southeast. I’ve written much about the application before, so I won’t go into great detail. Suffice to say that the climate of hostility toward preservation dissolved at the meeting. Before the meeting, I heard that a reputable developer has a strong interest in acquiring almost all of the 30 buildings, saving those on Chouteau and Swan if my source is correct. While I lack details about the developer and their plans, the potential interest is something that myself and Kate Shea mentioned at the meeting. Kate’s presentation was good, and included more reasons for preservation than for demolition — and, in fact, she reversed her recommendation by the end of the meeting and recommended denial of the permits. Apparently, her only contact with Forest West prior to the meeting were two short phone calls! Forest West sent a representative since director Brian Phillips was out of town. The representative discussed reasons for demolition, mostly involving the abuse of the buildings by people rather than building conditions. I spoke against the demolition, as did Claire Nowak-Boyd and Steve Patterson. We made great points, touching on how wrong the demolition was from the standpoints of urban planning, architectural and social history, neighborhood stabilization and economic development. Everyone worked well with each other, including Kate Shea, and by the end of the testimony a clear and multi-faceted case for preservation was made. (This is the sort of meeting that Jane Jacobs would have loved.) Oddly, due to Forest West’s affiliation with Washington University, Board members Burse and Porello recused themselves; Callow also recused himself due to a potential conflict of interest with a client. Mulligan and Robinson seemed very swayed by the testimony — Mulligan brought up Botanical Heights and called it a failure — but ended up deferring the matter due to concern over the lack of a voting quorum. Shea promised to deny the permit the next morning; hopefully, Forest West will take heed and look into selling the buildings rather than try some end-run through the Board of Alderman or Planning Commission (possibly difficult without a development plan, and Forest West’s representative said that the company has no plans to develop the sites itself).
What a great outcome! Hopefully, it opens the door for reconsideration of the demolition plans and our mystery developer will emerge with a solid plan.
The final agenda item was an appeal of a Preservation Board decision against very inappropriate modifications to a house at 3524 Victor. Apparently, upon being told that the law — and that is what the preservation ordinances are — prohibited his “choices,” the owner complained to his alderman, Stephen Conway, who made a fuss. Both should know better.