These are some of the possibilites suggested for repurposing abandoned real estate in St. Louis at the Open/Closed Conference held this past weekend at Holy Trinity Church in Hyde Park.
Other ideas included the rebuilding of depleted neighborhoods one parcel at a time. If you look at things this way, the vacant areas of some neighborhoods resemble the St. Louis of 1876 as depicted in Compton Dry's Pictorial St. Louis when the city was first being constructed.
The most likely result will include some combination of all of the above. Indeed there are distressed neighborhoods being rebuilt a parcel at a time and artists are finding their way into abandoned buildings. Such was the start of the revitalization of Washington Avenue's loft district long before the arrival of major tax incentives for the area.
Another opportunity is to begin the unglamorous slog of remediating abandoned properties one lot at a time. Often when you see a vacant lot in a distressed neighborhood, what you don't see are the remains of the former building, now buried under one or two feet of soil.
For years, demolition practices involved simply collapsing unwanted buildings into their basements. At the time, it was the cheapest way to deal with the vacant, abandoned building. Unfortunately, the expedient practice of yesterday leaves us with a legacy of difficult to reuse sites today.
The remains of old buildings under the ground leave behind unbuildable sites today. To build on these usually requires that the old building be excavated and hauled away. As you can imagine, depending on the subsurface conditions, this is a high cost endeavor and from a practical standpoint, renders many redevelopments financially infeasible. With massive buried remains, the land currently has a negative value, especially in weaker market areas.
A dramatic example of this situation is the Pruitt-Igoe site in north St. Louis, whose epic failure and subsequent implosion of dozens of public housing highrise buildings leaves us a vast hole of vacancy on the near north side. Much the same situation exists, albeit on a much smaller scale, for many of the vacant lots in St. Louis.
If the money could be found, especially in the form of a charitable or patient equity investment, the opportunity exists to remediate these sites today. It's a laborious, unglamorous chore, but if we were to create a program to systematically remediate these properties now, we would be creating usable development sites for the future.
How to do it? It's not that complicated. It requires a team of workers (brings jobs), with heavy excavating equipment (brings more jobs), working in concert with neighborhood groups, civic organizations, and planners (yes, more jobs), to phase a mass remediation initiative as the leading edge of a sustainable effort to revitalize currently abandoned properties.
A crew of 6-12 workers, with two or three large excavating tractors and dump trucks, could make major progress at reasonable cost. The more workers and equipment, the faster the process happens. The end result is clean, developable land in the heart of the region. That means more jobs.
To do this, we need to build a list of supporters and seek out those investors of charitable dollars or patient equity. This is doable. Yes, a lot of work, but it's definitely doable.