It's been maybe ten years since the Avalon Theater on South Kingshighway showed its last movie. Since that time, the building has gone through a slow decline until its demolition which started yesterday. In the meantime, the building and its ownership have played out a long struggle in the court system, the building division, the newspaper, and in plain sight, with many negative impacts visited upon its South St. Louis neighbors.
The building's ultimate demise points to one challenge we face with our decentralized system of community planning and development in St. Louis - that by maintaining local control over the planning and development process, the public loses leverage it would otherwise have through a more centralized system. The challenge gets at a classic St. Louis question: which is better - local control over development decisions or city-wide, centralized planning and redevelopment?
It may seem odd that by maintaining local control over development, all the way down to the neighborhood and ward level, that the public loses leverage, but that is exactly what happened in the case of the Avalon. Communities in the St. Louis region are set up with very divided leadership. Within this framework, it is difficult to maintain sustainable redevelopment strategies. The loss of the Avalon is an outcome of this fragmented system.
Left to rely on the resources of a single neighborhood or ward, the tools available to save one blighted building from loss are few. Outside of Southampton and perhaps the South Kingshighway Business Association, the dilapidated building did not represent much of a concern. And after about a decade of decay, local residents and businesses are mostly happy to see the building come down, regardless of whatever potential it might have once had.
In most cases, STL Rising supports the long-standing St. Louis tradition of local control over planning and development. Neighborhood residents are the people with the greatest stake in the future of their communities so they should have a powerful voice in the process. However, in cases like the Avalon, we see the downside of what happens when neighborhoods are left with little leverage to influence outcomes of problem situations.
Looking to the future, we should consider alternatives that increase opportunities for sustainable redevelopment initiatives while protecting the role of local residents and community organizations in the process.