Monday, March 31, 2008

Neighborhood Vignette

This weekend we had guests from southwestern St. Louis County stay for a couple of days. They are young musicians working on a project with us. Since the project started, they've been spending more and more time in our area.

I asked what their impression was comparing our city neighborhood to the suburban area where they are more familiar. These are two high school aged young men. Both of them liked it a lot.

Prior to getting started on this music stuff, neither of them had really spent any time in the city at the neighborhood level in their lives, and these two are lifetime St. Louis area residents.

They liked the style of housing, they liked the way there were lots of neighborhood kids their age to meet and hand around with. And they liked the way it was much more walkable. They liked it alot. What the heck! If it takes putting up with some head banging music once in a while to convert the youth of St. Louis into a better appreciation of city neighborhoods, it's worth it!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Preservationists and urbanists rally to save CWE building

The San Luis Apartments, located just west of the New Cathedral on Lindell, is slated for demolition by its owner, the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Concerned St. Louisans are working to prevent the demolition and preserve the building.

Meanwhile, reports around the blogosphere are that the Archdiocese plans to replace the building with a surface parking lot. The Archdiocese has a major presence in the city's Central West End. The timeframe for the proposed demolition is unclear. Whether the San Luis Apartments has any remaining residents is also unclear.

The story has been well covered in the blogs, however, there has been minimal if any mention of this plan in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. It has been hard to find information presenting the Archdiocese' side of the story.

Ultimately, the building may come down. There will be those in favor of the demolition and those opposed. The built environment, especially in an old city like St. Louis, presents us with many choices, and there are wide differences of opinion on how to do things.

It will be interesting to see how the Archdiocese responds if there is a strong grass roots movement emanating from the community to preserve the building.

Opening Day 2008 Ballpark Village Update

In what promises to be a very interesting season in Cardinal baseball, there are a number of concerns facing Cardinal Nation.

In the latest of a series of troubling developments, Centene has backed out of its commitment to build at Ballpark Village. There is no firm plan for construction of the project.

City leaders have been patient with Ballpark Village proponents, but based on the latest news reports, that patience appears to be running out.

While the ownership group commits to building Ballpark Village, opening day is about a week away, and the site continues to be a visual blight on downtown, sitting right next to the new Busch Stadium. To the casual observer, Ballpark Village appears more like a Superfund site than a prime development opportunity.

STL Rising encourages the Cardinals to begin 2008 by doing some spring cleaning at the Ballpark Village site. The current condition of the Ballpark Village site is not consistent with the Cardinals tradition of operating at the highest level of quality, class, and corporate citizenship.

While development projects are often more difficult and complex than expected, with the general public not aware of the many legal, financial, and marketing challenges ongoing, the public is very aware of the physical state of the site.

The Cardinals are seriously hurting the image of their team by failing to maintain the Ballpark Village site in a presentable fashion. Many are calling for the Cardinals to do something now with the site.

The question is, what should be done? What about bringing the site to grade, removing the Ballpark Village Parking Lot", planting sod, and building one or two small diamonds for amateur games?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

One LRA Building

I remember back in the 80s when we first moved to St. Louis and we lived in West County. I worked in Clayton, and was a loan officer making a lot of FHA loans. I heard stories about "$1 houses" being for sale in the City.

Having come from California, that was hard to believe. Especially for solid brick houses! How could it possibly be true? It turned out it wasn't. Maybe urban legend, maybe truth. However, if there was ever a time in the City of St. Louis where you could buy homes for a $1, I never saw it.

The City has an agency responsible for dealing with the inventory of abandoned real estate, the Land Reutilization Authority, or "LRA". LRA was created as a state chartered redevelopment agency with the purpose of receiving properties acquired through public foreclosures, typically for the failure to pay real estate taxes.

By the time the LRA gets a building, it has truly hit rock bottom. The city regularly holds tax sales, and like mortgage foreclosure sales, these are public auctions. They are advertised in the newspaper.

Anyone can bid at these sales and buy the properties for the back taxes. The ones no one purchases wind up being transferred to the LRA. There they are held in inventory. There are a lot of them. They range from complete buildings to tiny, remnant, unbuildable parcels.

For the most part, there is very little demand for these properties-evidenced by their failure to draw a bid at the tax sale. The demand for LRA properties can be increased when they are packaged together into a group as part of an overall redevelopment program.

The idea of a $1 building? It doesn't mean much when the cost for renovation is substantial, and often, on an LRA building, higher than the after rehab value of the property. Nonetheless, the LRA does work to maximize the sales prices of LRA buildings.

Which gets to the point of this post. What about one LRA building? How can we guage the best use of a single LRA building? The answer depends a lot on who you're talking to.

If you're the neighbor of an abandoned, LRA building, you might want it demolished for public safety purposes. If you're a preservationist, you might want to see it stabilized for historic preservation purposes. If you're a rehabber, you might want to buy it for rehab to either live in, rent, or resell.

If you're a commercial developer, you might want to buy it for a $1 to tear it down as part of a new strip center. If you're a new home builder, you might want to buy it for a $1 to tear it down and build a new "green" home. There are lots of possibilities. How about the city tearing it down to create a new greenspace, park or "bio-swale"?

The truth is, there is no one answer. It all depends. What are the circumstances involved beyond the building itself? They are what really determines the future of that one LRA building.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Neighbors to assist with Islamic community center repairs?

Update: Info corrected thanks to comments provided below. Thanks to the anonymous commenter.

On the Southampton listserve, there is discussion concerning the vandalism which has been visited on an Islamic Community Center located in the 5400 block of Lansdowne in the City's Southampton neighborhood.

The building is located on the "Wherry Wedge", one of the main entry points to the Southampton neighborhood and the area's emerging Macklind Avenue neighborhood commercial district.

The Post covers the story here

At least seven, large plate glass windows have been broken. The cost for repairs will be significant, into the thousands of dollars. It was suggested on the Southampton Neighborhood listserve that local neighborhood associations and churches take up a collection to help offset the cost of damage.

To move this effort forward, it would help to set up an account with a local bank to accept donations. If you or someone you know might interested in helping out, please feel free to comment below or contact me at for more information.

We will update this site as more information becomes available. Thanks.

Hwy 44 through downtown to be extended?

Highway 44, part of the interstate highway system that replaced old Route 66, starts in St. Louis at Interstate 55 and runs southwest through Tulsa and Oklahoma City, where Interstate 40 then takes you the rest of the way to California.

In St. Louis, 44 ends when it meets 55. 55 then continues east and north, across the Mississippi and north to Chicago. For a short distance through our Metro East, 55 and 70 share the same road till they split at Troy, Illinois. The interstate in front of the Arch, including the depressed lanes, is part of Interstate 70.

With the new Mississippi Bridge, this may soon change. If 55 crosses the Mississippi at the Poplar Street Bridge, and 70 crosses to Illinois north of downtown at the new Mississippi Bridge, what will they call section of interstate including the depressed lanes in front of the Arch?

According to a lively discussion at the Urban St. Louis forum, the plan is to designate the stretch Interstate 44. The majority view at Urban St. Louis seems to favor removing the depressed lanes altogether, although there appears to be a lack of direction in how to do so.

According to an inquiry with the Federal Highway Administration, decisions to close sections of interstate highways are deferred to the individual states. So MODOT has the deciding voice in policy affecting the future of the depressed lanes.

If a St. Louis delegation of community leaders were to rally around a plan to vacate the depressed lanes in front of the Arch, the next step would be to seek the cooperation of MODOT.

Monday, March 17, 2008

How to make a good impression, part two

St. Louis has lots of organizations at the community level. There are lots of opportunities to provide input on all sorts of community initiatives. However, if you want to have a positive impact on the results, you need to apply your efforts in the most effective way possible.

With the internet, print newsletters, and countless other means of community organizing and public communication, where would you start if you were trying to influence change or policy in the community?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

League of Women Voters to Host Eminent Domain Forum

Eminent domain can be a powerful tool for revitalizing distressed areas. Its use has also been at the center of controversies concerning the defense of private property rights, definititions of blight, and what constitutes a public purpose.

For many, public purposes are limited to public infrastructure like roads, schools, airports, and other public facilities. However, does the acquisition through eminent domain of a dilapidated, often vacant, privately-owned building, for a private redevelopment, either to return it to the tax roles or simply improve the health and safety of the neighborhood, also constitute a public purpose?

To shed light on the issue, the St. Louis League of Women Voters is sponsoring a forum entitled, "Eminent Domain and Affordable Housing". The forum will be held on Saturday, April 5, 2008, at the Schlafly Branch Library, Euclid and Lindell, from 9:30 to 12:00 AM. Yours truly will be serving as one of the panelists.

There will be no charge for the event, and it is open to the public. For more information, please contact the League of Women Voters of St. Louis, 314-961-6869.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Addition by Subtraction

We are taught in math classes that whenever you remove a negative, the net result is positive. When it comes to thinking about planning options, sometimes considering addition by subtraction opens up a whole new set of choices. The same idea can be applied to the I-70 depressed lanes separating the Arch grounds and riverfront from downtown St. Louis.

The image above is a computer generated perspective of the I-70 depressed lanes and Memorial Drive between the Arch grounds and the Adams Mark Hotel. The image shows that currently there are 12 traffic lanes between the Arch grounds and the Adams Mark.

If the depressed lanes were removed, there would be space for a 6-lane configuration of Memorial Drive, with valuable land reclaimed for redevelopment. With limited funding resources, developing the reclaimed space with a mix of commercial and residential uses would provide a source of revenue to help fund the capital cost of building the new Memorial Drive.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

City Readies Commercial Site at 44/Hampton

The Post Dispatch is reporting that the City of St. Louis has completed the site assemblage at the northeast corner of I-44 and Hampton by purchasing the former MSD headquarters.

The site assembly paves the way for a 26-acre, mixed use development, at a high traffic count/good visibility/strong demographic location. The site was a diamond in the rough, housing City Street Department and MSD facilities for years. The City will offer the site for development proposals later this year.

With the new Drury Inn nearby, and the established Hampton business corridor as anchors, the redevelopment possibilities for this site are significant. Maybe even an IKEA?