by Michael R. Allen
With the attention turned toward the St. Louis Public Schools’ proposal to demolish historic Hodgen School in the Gate District, several people have asked me about whether the demolition will be reviewed by the Cultural Resources Office or the Preservation Board. The answer, unfortunately, is “no.” The only review of any demolition permit for Hodgen — or any other historic city school — will take place at the Building Division, and it won’t involve any cultural considerations.
The city’s preservation ordinance states: “The provisions of this ordinance shall not apply to any Improvement or property owned or controlled by the Board of Directors of the St. Louis Public Library, the Board of Education, the state or the United States government, or formerly owned or controlled by the former Art Museum Board of Control.”
This provision was part of the version of the ordinance that the current ordinance superseded in 1999. Most local design or preservation review ordinances expressly state lack of authority over the property of higher levels of government. Many — but not all — do exclude the property of other districts or boards funded by special levies, so St. Louis’ ordinance is not particularly deficient in its lack of protection. The guiding principle in our ordinance is that review of the St. Louis Public Schools’ property could constitute an “unfunded mandate.” That theory seems reasonable when it comes to window and door regulations in local historic districts, and not as much when it comes to demolishing buildings that are neighborhood landmarks.
Of course, not all taxing districts and boards are exempt under the ordinance — the Zoo has had to have projects reviewed by the Cultural Resources Office in recent years, as has the Great Rivers Greenway District, Metro, Tower Grove Park and the Metropolitan Sewer District. At least one aldermanic candidate, Bradford Kessler running this year in the sixth ward, has proposed removing the Board of Education’s exemption from preservation review. Whether the Board of Education would consent to voluntary review or removal of its exemption as it pertains to demolition permits is uncertain, but either move would definitely benefit the city.