by Michael R. Allen
On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published an article by reporter Tim Logan that raised the issue of the city’s lack of citywide demolition review. The article, which ran on the front page above the fold, took as a starting point the sudden, lonesome death of the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway. Since the Avalon was outside of one of the city’s preservation review districts, it bit the dust — or, rather, became dust bitten by passers-by — without any review.
Logan’s article included a promising set of quotes from two aldermen. The first came from Carol Howard (D-14th), who represents the eastern part of the Southampton neighborhood where the Avalon was located. The demolition experience has spurred Howard to seek demolition review for her ward, one of south city’s only wards that lacks review. Howard also endorses a return to citywide review, which St. Louis had before 1999. “It’s a tool, I think, that makes for better decisions,” she told Logan.
A view that could be read as dissenting came from Alderman Antonio French (D-21st), whose constituents include this writer. French’s first bill upon being elected in 2009 put the 21st Ward into preservation review for the first time since 1999. Yet the alderman wants to remove review for part of the College Hill neighborhood added to his ward in redistricting. French wants to concentrate preservation efforts on the intact largely Penrose and O’Fallon neighborhoods in his ward. “What works for Penrose and O’Fallon may not work for College Hill,” said the alderman.
Am I the only person who sees that both Alderwoman Howard and Alderman French are right? St. Louis does need citywide review, and building conservation strategies for depleted neighborhoods like College Hill — where many blocks are devoid of more than five or six historic buildings — need not entail preserving every remaining historic building.
Yet the crux of these two points’ convergence is that these decisions need to be made by qualified professional planners working in the interest of all city residents. Aldermen who serve geographic areas whose boundaries change every ten years, who lack training in urban planning and historic preservation, and who have to seek re-election are not the best people to make decisions for the long-term interests of the city’s built environment. Yet aldermen create the legislation under which review takes place, establishing guidelines that represent the public interest.
Alderman French might be suggesting that a citywide demolition review ordinance be informed by theories of planned shrinkage. Again, having professionals examining demolition seems like the best way to make that happen. Citywide review does not mean preservation of everything in the city, it means a system in which preservation planning is made under legal criteria interpreted by professionals who are free from political motivations. Applicants for demolition, aldermen, neighbors and preservationists will have a predictable public process with the same rule for every building.
If that sounds familiar, it’s what this city had before the Board of Aldermen passed the current preservation ordinance in 1999.