by Michael R. Allen
Perhaps it comes as little surprise that St. Louis University has now demolished the vacant building at 3227 Locust Street that it owned at the northeast corner of Locust and Leonard streets on Automobile Row in Midtown. After all, the hole in the roof of the one-story corner building had grown so large that Google’s satellite images made the damage clear. Residents of the loft units across the street had an ever closer, and more graphic, view.
The hole in the roof is now a hole in the street wall at a corner intersection. Contrast the appearance of the corner in July 2010 with the appearance today:
While undistinguished architecturally, the building defined a cross-street intersection and provided continuity between the more developed blocks of Locust east of Compton and the emerging development around the Moto Museum to the west. The visual gap between these two areas has grown, at a time when even the university had embraced rehabilitation of other buildings it owns on the block to the west. This lost building had a solid masonry body and needed only a new roof. It was a sturdy shell that could have been a turnkey retail or restaurant project. Now the corner development entails new construction, ratcheting the cost of making something happen there higher than the reach of post-bubble developers.
A look at the map makes the impact of what otherwise might seem to be an insignificant building clear.
To the west of the building already was a parking lot, which could have provided interim parking for any user of the corner building. How likely is infill of this block within the next five years? How much more likely was reuse of the building at 3227 Locust Street?
Amid the ebbs and flows of Locust Street’s emerging new life, there have been some amazing successes — the Automobile Row historic district designation, the new SLU-backed hotel project — as well as avoidable mistakes — the livery stable fiasco, the closure of Josephine Baker Avenue. This small demolition suggests that the area would benefit from demolition review, which it currently lacks. Most of the Locust Street business district is in the 19th ward, which is one of a handful of city wards whose aldermen opted not to have demolition review when the city passed its latest preservation ordinance in 1999. With so much vacant land whose fate is key to maintaining the urban character, a zoning overlay and local historic district ordinances could also be appropriate.