by Michael R. Allen
Historic preservation has led to St. Louis winning a World Leadership Award in the category of housing. The award specifically recognizes the heroic efforts of St. Louisans in revitalizing vacant historic buildings. While Mayor Francis Slay and Planning Director Rollin Stanley went to the award ceremony in London to claim the award, it really belongs to everyone working to revitalize the city — residents, rehabbers, developers, preservationists, architects and, I suppose, politicians.
While there are definite reasons to be skeptical about the organization that grants the awards (Steve Patterson has those reasons covered), there is no doubt that the accomplishment is very real. According to Mayor Francis Slay, more than 20,000 housing units have been rehabbed in the city since 2000. The turnaround is dramatic, and the visible results in the city rewarding to generations (including mine) who lived through darker days. While the losses continue, and politicians and urban planners sometimes seem to be the last people to get the news that historic preservation and unique character are fueling our renewal, things haven’t been this good for old buildings in decades. We are making a lot of progress.
The roots of this resurgence go back to 1996 when a group of St. Louisans, with attorney Jerry Schlichter at the forefront, pushed to make historic preservation economically sensible. These folks successfully lobbied the Missouri General Assembly to enact the country’s most progressive state historic rehabilitation tax credit. This credit was a boon to St. Louis and the entire state. Preservation used to be the lonely battle of historians and neighborhood activists. Now it’s the common parlance of developers, realtors and bankers — the people who control the historic buildings. For over a decade, heartbreaks have been healed. Preservationists have gladly seen many of their gloomy predictions proven wrong.
The battles continue, of course. The playing field is different in many ways. Demolition is still a problem, and historic landmark status has become a double-edged sword that cuts historic buildings that won’t ever get it. North city likely will bleed buildings for the next two decades. But a preservationist now has some pretty impressive case examples of the viability of preservation. We don’t need an award to reap the benefits of changed political and economic circumstances, but it sure doesn’t hurt.