Historic Preservation Housing North St. Louis Old North

National Trust Honors Old North

by Michael R. Allen

In 1977, high of Model Cities euphoria, the City of St. Louis celebrated the new two-block 14th Street Mall in Old North St. Louis. Within two decades, the mall was bust and the twenty-odd buildings facing it were includes on Landmarks Association’s Most Endangered list. In 1998, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group hosted a charrette to imagine the future of the old pedestrian mall. Some people thought the group was crazy to envision the two blocks returned to urban vitality, but they were proven wrong — over a decade later.

This Friday, the National Trust for Historic Preservation will present its National Trust/Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation to Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and the Regional Housing & Community Development Alliance for the reborn 14th Street area, called Crown Square Development . The project is one of 23 award winners to be honored by the National Trust next week during its 2010 National Preservation Conference in Austin, Texas.

Ah, the difference that 33 years has made is immeasurable. (The $35 million cost of physically reversing the mall’s impact on the built environment is a misleading figure that does not compensate hours of community brainstorming, vigilance and sweat equity.) The path of two blocks of a fragile near north neighborhood shows the pitfalls of urban planning trends and the power of collective action to turn around supposedly hopeless causes.

The west side of 14th Street between Montgomery and Benton Streets, December 2004 (top) and July 2010 (bottom).

The view down 14th Street south from St. Louis Avenue in December 2004 (top) and July 2010 (bottom).

The view south down 14th Street from Montgomery Street in December 2004 (top) and July 2010 (bottom).

Some would say that bricks and mortar (and tax credits) alone don’t transform communities. In fact, I say that. The achievement with Crown Square to date is a miraculous preservation effort that safeguards historic buildings, reopens key streets, enhances the safety and appearance of Old North’s commercial center and provides new rental housing and commercial storefronts. Introducing 78 new housing units in a neighborhood can force a huge change, but toward a previous housing density that many current residents never knew. The social changes wrought by these physical transformations will be ongoing, and the outcome uncertain — but the pains mean that the neighborhood is growing once again.  For a neighborhood that had some 13,200 people sixty years ago and around 1,500 in 2000, growth is good.

For now, we can celebrate the effort of many long-time neighborhood residents who have never given up hope that two blocks of 14th Street would again be the center of neighborhood life.  This journey to restore the neighborhood commercial district began 33 years ago with a much different plan.  As impressive as the undoing of that plan is to see, even more impressive are the people who did not let the intervening years of abandonment deter their dreams and deeds.