by Michael R. Allen
The St. Charles City Council is considering a bill by Councilman and Council President Rory Riddler (D-1st) to create a redevelopment plan for the northern end of the city’s old Frenchtown section. Frenchtown lies north of downtown St. Charles along the Missouri River and was platted in the early 19th century. Its narrow streets form a grid dotted with brick and frame buildings, some dating back to the 1840s and many in side-gabled Federal or Green Revival styles that are prevalent in old parts of St. Louis neighborhoods like Carondelet, Soulard and Old North St. Louis. In the last twenty years, especially after its rail lines and connected businesses went dead, Frenchtown’s economic life has faltered. Empty storefronts and ill-repaired homes stand out. But largely the area is in good shape, and lacks what St. Louisans would call blight.
However, Riddler and developer Griffey Construction of New Melle, Missouri are pushing for a large-scale redevelopment project that would be under the control of Griffey. This project would be empowered to use eminent domain, and early talk indicates that would be used primarily to secure commercial-zones buildings and land along Second Street, a main thoroughfare in Frenchtown. They are talking New Urbanist talk that sounds funny coming from a New Melle-based firm whose specialty is low-density subdivision construction. The things Riddler and company say about Frenchtown make it seem like the area is blighted and will turn into a ghetto if they don’t act.
In reality, the area — and St. Charles city on the whole — needs to regain its job base. This is difficult since so many manufacturing and professional jobs have fled St. Charles for other locations in St. Charles County. Even the city of St. Charles located its new convention center and hotel not in the old core near the river, but to the southwest on the old county Fairgrounds site which had to be annexed first. The sorts of antique shops that city leaders in St. Charles have pushed on downtown’s Main Street and Frenchtown’s Second Street don’t create many jobs, even if they lure tourists and bring in sales tax revenue. If Riddler and Griffey want to extend the antique store district, they are tying Frenchtown’s future to something that will not help current or future Frenchtown residents.
While increasing density along Second Street would be desirable, I am not sure what new construction the redevelopment entails and whether or not Griffey knows how to build thoughtful urban buildings. The architectural stock of Frenchtown is very important and any new construction must be sensitive in scale, materials, style and such.
But a redevelopment plan may simply remake a proud city district into a subdivision. Without good jobs in the city, redevelopment and rising property values could push out longtime residents and the mundane but useful businesses that line north Second Street. Bistros and boutique shops don’t build neighborhoods — they are luxuries that can add a good element to an already-strong place. Frenchtown faces many of the same problems that St. Charles faces, and the redevelopment scheme is a misguided attempt to force a renewal on the district. One thing that Riddler could do to help is to oppose the subsidized development happening elsewhere in the county, stand up for the rights of small businesses that stay in the city like those threatened in Frenchtown and fight for a MetroLink connection of the city of St. Charles (which has enough density to support a line) to the airport. The perfect scenario for redevelopment is impossible but political courage is not. Before rushing to push a whole section of the city into a superficial redevelopment, city council members need to take a stand for the city on other levels.