Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Bee Sanctuary, Greenbelt, or Art Space?

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.


Daron said...

Seems like this idea has been stewing for some time.

Is Open/Closed incorporating at some point? Seems like they'd be a better purse holder than anybody else that I can think of.

Rick Bonasch said...

Personally, I think it would be good to set this up through an existing CDC or LRA.

Anonymous said...

Reasonable costs? Evidently there is no clue here about union wages and bennies for operators and drivers and workmen nor the rental prices on heavy equipment. And that doesn't even include fuel and maintenance.

Where would the dump truck debris be dumped? Who would pay the insurance on the whole project?

It isn't cheap to hire one Bobcat and its driver to do some work. Those heavy equipment operators and their machines are high dollar for sure.

Show the figures here.

Rick Bonasch said...

Usually I don't mix my day job with the blog, but in response to "Anonymous", I do have current experience managing these sorts of projects in the city of St. Louis.

To fully excavate a wrecked building under the ground can cost as much as $25,000, give or take, depending on size. There is the possibility of realizing some cost savings through achieving economy of scale by remediating multiple, contiguous sites.

Where would the funding come from? It would be a challenge to raise it, but the possibilities include finding a "patient investor" or a charity whose mission includes community revitalization, environmental sustainability, or economic development.

Anonymous said...

Why not do it and put the bill on the property owner's tax bill?

Rick Bonasch said...

The city is the owner of a huge number of these properties already (about 8,000 of them).

GMichaud said...

It's been a few years since I've hired a large cat to dig a basement, but $25,000 sounds extremely high even with all debris.

Instead of that, I think the costs would cover themselves if exciting proposals were developed for reassembling these neighborhoods. Transit could be rethought and include public squares and plazas.
Walkability and energy efficient design also makes the urban area more livable and desirable.
The big disadvantage with McKee is the failure to look at new approaches in city building now, today.
I ran across a great quote by Elizabeth Farrelly of Sydney Market Herald (she is a columnist and architect)
"Never mind that sprawl, with its mammoth hidden infrastructure subsidies, is the most expensive form of housing known to man. Never mind that suburbia is not the solution but the problem."

Where is the alternative? McKee's plan should show us that, it doesn't.

In any case I am not sure excavating vacant lots and removing debris should be a high priority. Not only that the cat will have to come back again anyway to dig a basement on any new building finally built.