by Michael R. Allen
Detail of commercial building at 2712 N. 14th Street.
A land assemblage project has led to large-scale development in the Old North St. Louis neighborhood. Construction is almost fully underway at Crown Square, better known as the “14th Street Mall” redevelopment project. The moribund 14th Street Mall had long been an impediment to redevelopment of the historic neighborhood, with a pernicious spread of abandonment out from its center at the intersection of 14th and Montgomery streets. Since the closure of 14th street in 1975, the commercial district lost viability and eventually almost every commercial and residential tenant.
The abandonment of buildings led to fires and demolition into the late 1990s. Since the “mall” began as a thriving urban commercial district, ownership was never consolidated. In the years of decay, divided ownership and some land speculation proved as big an impediment to revitalizing this area as the abandonment.
Several years ago, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group formed a partnership with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (RHCDA) to acquire properties around the mall for redevelopment. This move was debated within the community and initiated by the neighborhood organization, which sought the strategic partnership with RHCDA.
The assemblage strategy was to overlay the area. Basically, if a property was vacant, the partnership made an attempt to acquire it. If it was occupied, the partnership did not. The partnership expressly avoided the use of eminent domain, rumor-mongering or threats in their assemblage operation. In fact, they did most of the necessary assemblage without a redevelopment agreement that would have granted condemnation rights.
Also noteworthy is that the overlay approach was based upon full respect for the traditional lot sizes of the neighborhood. This restriction would force the partnership to do development on the intimate, urban scale of Old North St. Louis. However, the partnership intended to not only respect the scale of the neighborhood but its architecture as well. The plan of the partnership was to rehabilitate each of the nearly 30 buildings acquired, and later build on vacant land.
The goal of historic rehabilitation both honored the community’s pride in its heritage and allowed for utilization of an important financing mechanism: the state historic rehabilitation tax credit. That tax credit was key to ensuring that this project was economically feasible. The uncapped historic rehabilitation tax credit has seeming infinite use in north St. Louis and other areas where large-scale renewal is needed.
In the end, the partnership acquired about ten acres within a 25-acre redevelopment area. The remaining acreage includes streets and alleys — also key components of community renewal — as well as property owned by rehabbers, homeowners and businesses that are now stakeholders in the Crown Square project. As soon as assemblage reached desired levels, the partnership secured a redevelopment agreement with the city of St. Louis and sought financing to make the neighborhood’s dream come true. This is the project that should have been the basis for a smart distressed areas development project.
The result is a $32 million project that will create 78 residential units and 26,000 square feet of commercial space within a 16-block area. In a historic neighborhood with small blocks on a street grid, that’s a large project — and a great model for future endeavors in north St. Louis. Hopefully, the Distressed Areas Land Assemblage Tax Credit and the scale of development that it stipulates does not discourage people from learning lessons from Crown Village.
Follow the fast-paced construction work at Crown Square on the What’s New in Old North blog.