North St. Louis Preservation Board The Ville

Talking Past Each Other?

by Michael R. Allen

Here is the written part of my testimony to the Preservation Board concerning the “Doctor’s Building” at 4635 Martin Luther King Drive in The Ville, a contributing resources to the pending Wagoner Place Historic District. (Read more here.) The board denied a demolition permit for the building on appeal at its meeting on Monday. The pastor of the church that owns the building had earlier involved Elliot Davis’ brash “You Paid For It” show to broadcast his claim that by doing its job, the Cultural Resources Office is a waste of tax dollars. Davis’ report did not matter that the church’s wrecking contractor had started demolition without a permit.

Thankfully, with the offer of Alderman Sam Moore (D-4th) to swap land for the parking the pastor seeks, the demolition denial should cause no ruffled feathers. However, forging such a compromise at the very last minute seems like a difficult way to deal with situations like this. There must be a better way to make sure that city preservation laws are recognized by all citizens. The laws are not designed to be punitive, but to ensure that our shared architectural heritage is handled responsibly by present owners. Ignorance of the laws breeds polarization, not understanding. I can make testimony like this forever, but without the foundation of education on preservation as a cultural good, there will be a gap between me and property owners like the pastor. Rear-guard preservation activism is only designed to spare specific buildings. Hearts and minds should be swayed some other way, and I hope to work with others — including many aldermen and pastors — to make that happen.

My words from Monday:

Staff is correct; the so-called Doctors Building does not meet the criteria for demolition established under ordinance.

Under city law, thankfully, demolition is not an entitlement. This Board is enabled to uphold the physical integrity of this city’s buildings and historic districts at its discretion. We have a process that mostly works. Key to that process is respect for the actual laws at hand.

The applicant illegally began demolition of this building, causing damage that he has broadcast on television as reason why the building is unsound and fit for demolition. However, the Building Commissioner quickly stopped the work and further damage has been avoided. The Building Commissioner notably did not issue an emergency demolition order, meaning that the building’s condition even after demolition began was not so unsound as to require immediate demolition.

The best evidence presented so far by the applicant is damage inflicted through illegal demolition. Surely the Board will take that evidence with one thousand grains of salt.

In the current state, the building retains architectural integrity as well as physically sound condition defined in the Preservation ordinance and interpreted by the Building Division. Once it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places in the Wagoner Place Historic District, rehabilitation tax credits are available to address the building’s actual problems (none of which threaten it structurally).

That makes sense to most readers of this blog. However, the testimony was made in a specific context in which understanding is a scarcity. Somehow, with this issue and the broader Ville issue, we found that understanding at the Preservation Board on Monday. Usually, we aren’t that fortunate.