Salvaging St. Louis, Part III: Biodiversity in repopulation.

In the previous section of this three-part article, I began exploring some of the affordable housing initiatives of St. Louis that have helped it, to some extent, stem its precipitous decline, particularly in comparison to Detroit, its peer city in terms of population loss.  If this survey (you could almost call it “home tour”) seemed a bit facile, well, it is.  To some extent, that’s the point: St. Louis—in contrast with Detroit—has transcended much of its dire population freefall over the years by repopulating its vacant land with sensitively designed affordable and mixed-income housing.  The city is still losing population, but its 8.3% loss from 2000 to 2010 is a pittance compared to the staggering 25% that rocked Detroit during the same time frame.
 
My home show takes on an even more subjective angle because it has exclusively focused on the portfolio of the St. Louis-based developer, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc (MBS).  I confess that I received an information packet guiding through different developments within the city limits through MBS’s public relations coordinator.  But this analysis should rise above the level of a promotional campaign for one of the nation’s largest affordable housing developers.  Looking at a particularly successful developer serves as a bellwether for what might prevent other attempts to restore the city’s housing stock from yielding transformative results.
 
The previous section looked primarily at MBS’s portfolio in the northern half of St. Louis, which has long been the most impoverished part of the city, with some neighborhoods losing over 80% of their population over the years.  The near north side was home to the notorious Pruitt Igoe, 32 high-rise public housing structures whose near immediate failure to accommodate its population safely resulted in its ultimate demolition, a mere 16 years after its completion.  Most of the former site of Pruitt-Igoe remains a vacant, weed-strewn lot.  However, some of McCormack Baron Salazar’s most effective low-income housing efforts sit directly across the street from the old monstrosity, such as the Murphy Park development to the north featured in Part II.
 
For this section, the housing survey will travel southward, into some of the near- Westside neighborhoods of St. Louis—an area framed by downtown to the east, Forest Park to the west, Delmar Boulevard to the north, and I-44 to the south.  Most of the neighborhoods around here are transitional: some are still in decline, but many have stemmed the population loss and are recovering to form a reasonably racially and economically integrated district, with much of the original building stock still intact.  MBS has contributed several creative projects to this area, and, due to the broader array of incomes represented in the neighborhood, these new developments tend to cater to tenants in multiple economic strata.
 
The northernmost of the developments featured in Part III, Renaissance Place at Grand Apartmentsstraddles what most would consider the line between the north side of St. Louis and the west side.  Although just barely north of the common divider Delmar Boulevard, the expansive project still sits directly west of the northern edge of downtown.  My apologies once again for some of the lower quality photos—dusk was setting in, and I often did not have the time to get out of the vehicle to take pictures.
After completion in 1968, the Arthur Blumeyer public housing development housed over 1,100 families across four high-rise and 42 low-rise apartment buildings, with an emphasis on support for the elderly.  Though the development lasted considerably longer than Pruitt-Igoe, it fell under the same scrutiny as most other public housing thanks to the Federal Omnibus Consolidated Reconciliation Act of 1996, which mandates that public housing of 300 or more units with a vacancy rate of 10% or higher must undergo routine viability assessments.  According to these housing audits, if the maintenance of the buildings exceeds the cost of vouchers and a revitalization plan will not confidently return them to long-term viability, local housing authorities must remove the structures from the housing supply within five years.
 
By 1999, most of the housing in Arthur Blumeyer did not pass the test, so St. Louis Housing Authority partnered with MBS to replace the development with Renaissance Place at Grand.  Using $35 million of HUD’s HOPE VI grant funds, the developer created a 512-unit community, which under HOPE VI stipulations must accommodate a mix of income levels while adhering to architectural standards that respect the surroundings.

I’ll confess that I’ve seen HOPE VI developments in other cities that come closer to imitating the existing vernacular; it would be hard for anyone with above-average vision to mistake this for historic St. Louis housing.  (And it doesn’t help that 80% of the trees are barely more than saplings.) Still, the individual buildings orient themselves to the street and recall the brick duplexes still commonplace in other St. Louis neighborhoods.
We’d be hard-pressed to find apartment buildings that look like these in the newer suburbs.  Also noteworthy is the high density of solar panels that line the roofs of many buildings at Renaissance.  The sustainable features and pedestrian scaled design helped the entire project earn a certification from US Green Building Council as a LEED Neighborhood Development (ND) community.
Though only about a mile away from the North St. Louis developments featured in Part II, Renaissance enjoys intrinsic advantages for stretching within walking distance of the Grand Boulevard theater district, a still impoverished but steadily gentrifying area.  Unlike Murphy Park and Brewery Apartments (but comparable to Westminster Place), Renaissance’s proximity to desirable land near Grand Boulevard results in broader appeal for a mixture of incomes and races.  Thus, this development most likely had to dilute some of the distinguishing architecture features to attract a bigger market.
 
Just a few blocks to the south stands the headquarters of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, in the heart of Grand Center, part of the art and theater district that boasts the Fox Theatre and Powell Hall (home of the St. Louis Symphony) as its hub.  Formerly a Woolworth Building, it sat vacant for many years after the store closed in 1993.
Today, it hosts the well-known nonprofits regional headquarters, with additional space for art studios, offices, and other foundations.  The restored 46,000 square foot Art Deco building (Big Brothers Big Sisters uses half the leasable space) was a milestone for McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc: the firm’s first non-residential development, completed in June 2008, taking advantage of a mixture of new market and historic tax credits.  The area itself, thanks to the abundance of surviving pre-World War II architecture, is re-emerging as an arts and restaurant district, thanks in part to its close proximity to St. Louis University (SLU) to the south.  The photo below shows a pocket park (Strauss Park) at the intersection of Washington Boulevard and North Grand Boulevard, just a block away from the Big Brothers Big Sisters building:
Viewing the park from another angle, the majestic Fox Theatre is patently visible.
Here it is, through a streetscape view standing in front of the old Woolworth.
The cluster of older skyscrapers at this prominent point two miles west of downtown St. Louis asserts its importance as a sub-node, a reviving office and entertainment district comparable to many cities’ Midtowns.
 
At the same time, the neighborhood of 11,000 poses formidable challenges.  The defining characteristic of the average household is an unmarried woman with children, and barely 20% of adults have at least a high school diploma.  With a population nearly three-quarters African-American, over one-third of these households make less than $10,000 annually.  The remaining 27% of the population consists of a diverse array of relative newcomers: young professionals, college students, some immigrants, artists—virtually all of which have higher incomes than the median and which inevitably have driven the neighborhood’s escalating reputation as a destination for fashionable (and not necessarily low-cost) urban entertainment.  Keeping in mind the polarizing demographic forces operating in Grand Center, the old Woolworth Building seems like a shrewd location for this type of redevelopment: the tenant mix can directly engage with the neighborhood’s neediest residents while fostering a blend of the (clichéd label) “eclectic” that helps sustain the often fragile balance in areas those host a widely mixed array of incomes.  Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, an office/administrative hub for the St. Louis metro and beyond, tries to emphasize inclusivity through partnerships with other neighborhood businesses.  The near-future prospects for Grand Center suggest further gentrification, but this also expedites the end of the segregation and concentration of poverty that characterized the area for decades prior.
 
Less than a mile from the Big Brothers Big Sisters, and just to the west of SLU’s main campus, sits 6North, a fashionable loft-style building featuring 80 units, with approximately 55% at market rates.
Although the surrounding neighborhood shows clear evidence of gentrification after decades of economic decline over the years, the majority of the building stock remains intact.  At this same intersection of Laclede Avenue and North Sarah Street, only one other corner is vacant.  Here are the structures at the other two corners:
 
Situated on the site of a former farmer’s market (whose original shell remains), the new construction (completed in 2006) demonstrates a conscious effort to blend with the surrounding vernacular as urban infill.   6 North’s proudest accomplishment (earning it multiple development and design awards) is its incorporation into every unit the fundamentals of universal design, which organizes the space so that virtually any individual can maximize his or her usage of the space, including those with any variety of physical challenges (wheelchairs, blindness, severe arthritis).  With the help of disability advocates at the Starkloff Institute http://starkloff.org/s/, MBS’ development team devised wider hallways, more accessible light switches, changing floor textures to serve as tactile cues, full-length mirrors, and open space under sinks.  The building includes several work-live units on the ground floor, giving clients the option of a home office.  It also features a community room and fitness center (again applying universal design principles), and ground-floor retail. 
The demand for developments such as 6 North is only like to increase over the next two decades, as throngs of Baby Boomers become septa- and octogenarians.  No doubt many of them will prefer a home environment that allows “aging in place”—reducing the need to move into assisted living facilities later in life.
 
The final development sits yet further south than its predecessors—the first one south of Interstate 64.  McCormack House at Forest Park Southeast apartments place affordable assisted living all under one roof. 
 
For those who have read Part II, this development might bear more than a passing resemblance to the McCormack House at Westminster Place.  It should.  To the best of my knowledge, it’s more or less identical, thus explaining the shared namesake.  I see no reason to fault standardization—quite naturally it reduces aggregate soft costs in terms of architect’s fees, and it probably cuts on some of the needed civil, mechanical and electrical engineering.  One notable difference between this McCormack House and the one at Westminster is the surrounding environment.  With Westminster Place, the assisted living sat on a primarily residential street, with other McCormack Baron Salazar developments abutting it.  Here, it sits in relative isolation:
The above photo offers a view across the street from Forest Park Southeast.  At the junction of Manchester Avenue and Kingshighway Boulevard, the purlieus are hardly peaceful, and the street widths make them undesirable for pedestrian crossings.  Fortunately a neighborhood of mostly intact housing and improving safety record stretches to the east of this facility.
 
While this concludes the housing tour, it barely scratches the surface of MBS projects in the St. Louis city limits.  Their website reveals dozens more, ranging from adaptive reuse of historic structures, residential neighborhood construction, schools, shopping plazas, and solar retrofitting.  And, of course, McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc. is just one of many developers aiming to repopulate some of the city’s most devastated neighborhoods through amenity-laden developments that cater to a wide variety of socioeconomic levels.  Some are clearly more successful than others, but compare most of the St. Louis projects with these affordable apartments I encountered in a recent trip to Detroit:
Taken through a raindrop-flecked windshield from a speeding bus, the pictures probably don’t do it justice.  At the same time, they get the point across adequately: the buildings are oriented toward an interior parking lot or surrounded by off-street parking, with a perimeter fence.  They intend to sequester the residents from their surroundings rather than integrate them.  And they look completely indistinguishable from what one would expect to see in the suburbs.
 
I’m on the verge of creating a strawman here.  It’s completely unfair for me to compare some of the most carefully thought-out housing in St. Louis with some obviously perfunctory developments in Detroit, when I’m sure Detroit has some superior replacement housing, and St. Louis certainly has other sub-par projects.  But the numbers cannot lie: despite six decades of over 60% losses in either city, the decline shows some indication of flatlining in St. Louis, whereas the last 10 years for Detroit were worse than ever.  No doubt a combination of exogenous and endogenous forces have come to shape why it appears Detroit has suffered so much more than St. Louis, and to delve into those would be worthy of yet another blog post that at this point I’m not well-informed enough to generate.
 
Simply put: empirical evidence supports the numbers.  St. Louis has more effectively fended off the long accumulating stigma of living in the city limits. Even though, as I indicated in my first post in this series, St. Louis had to contend with a housing stock that had fallen more greatly out of favor than Detroit (particularly at the peak of the decline, from 1960 to 1980), it has enjoyed both a greater degree of renovated old housing as well as a replenishment of the supply in nearly depopulated neighborhoods.  More than most major American cities, and certainly more than St. Louis, single-family owner-occupied detached housing dominates Detroit’s supply.  Much of Detroit housing, especially in the northern neighborhoods close to the border at Eight Mile Road, looks like conventional “white picket fence” housing, yet people still abandoned it in droves, more rapidly in the last decade than even the previous lows of the 1970s. Though it may not have reversed the stigma, St. Louis holds greater promise, manifested in part by revitalized neighborhoods on the near south side, as well as the broad array of new construction across much of the previously deserted near north side.
 
I’ve deliberately suppressed the fundamental claim of this lengthy essay up to this point, though I have clearly hinted at it.  This exploration of St. Louis’ evolving housing stock over the years (with tangential comparative references to Detroit) intends to call into question how much—if at all—shifting consumer tastes for housing have influenced the departure from American cities.  While most older, industrialized cities in the country did begin to lose population in the middle of the 20thcentury, some obviously suffered more than others: I have explored two that have endured among the steepest declines.  But not every city has been able to align its housing construction with consumer tastes—tastes that time has proven to be quite persnickety, not just in regards to design/style of housing or the particular neighborhood/district, but the ultra-sensitive interplay between the two.
 
The truth is, the McCormack Baron Salazar developments featured in this article have, by and large, forged a shrewd compromise in capitalizing on a mostly urban housing typology in parts of the city where demand for housing diminished to virtually nothing.  In order to substantiate this, it’s necessary to briefly revisit a project like Murphy Park from Part II of this essay:
Obviously these buildings bear little relation to the turn-of-the-century brick architecture that survives resplendently throughout St. Louis neighborhoods south of Delmar Avenue.  But it also does not look like a conventional suburban apartment complex in terms of the urban form: buildings front the conventional gridded street with minimal setbacks.  Residents of these areas will still navigate their apartment complex in much the same way they would if this were a historic neighborhood: walking along sidewalks that parallel the streets while crossing at intersections, as opposed to walking through sidewalks in grassy yards to reach large parking lots.  It’s a pedestrian scaled typology in a city that flourished in an area before automobile.
 
Compare the Murphy Park housing above to the photo below:
With prominent driveways leading to two-car garages, it’s hard to imagine these houses (not by McCormack Baron Salazar) might sit along century-old streets in a St. Louis neighborhood just a mile from downtown.  They look like 1980s suburbia.  But they do sit squarely in St. Louis, just a few blocks away from MBS’s Murphy Park development.  The juxtaposition of these radically different attempts to redevelop housing in depopulated north St. Louis neighborhoods begs the question: which one do people want more?  Obviously any attempt to gauge demand empirically as I have is based purely on speculation, but it’s relatively easy to substantiate it within a larger context.  Truthfully, most of the low income African American families who left north St. Louis pursued the same American Dream as their white counterparts had thirty years prior: they sought larger, detached, flexible suburban housing with garages and bigger yards.  But when a developer tries to replicate that model in the city of St. Louis, replete with its failing schools, strained public services, and lamentably high crime rates, why should families with any wherewithal choose the exact same housing product in the city that they can find easily in the ‘burbs but with much greater piece of mind?  Much of this newish suburban housing in St. Louis seems to be unraveling already:
Meanwhile, Murphy Park remains in impeccable shape.
 
Again, the comparison here isn’t entirely fair, since I deliberately pinpointed the worst examples of the suburban-style housing (some of it looks fine).  And it is possible that the suburban housing is owner-occupied and heavily subsidized, while Murphy Park is renter-occupied and thus falls under strict property management.  But demand will still drive everything, and it is highly possible that an extremely low-income family may still seek affordable housing with a “traditional” urban form that MBS offers, as long as it provides amenities.  Meanwhile, the market-rate buyers who voluntarily move to the city despite its crime and failing schools will almost definitely seek housing that promotes urbanism and walkability.  Though I don’t see yuppies moving to this side of St. Louis any time soon, they are far more likely to show interest in the market rate portion of an MBS development such as Murphy Park or the meticulously renovated Brewery Apartments—
–than they would for a conventional suburban house like the ones near Murphy Park, which they could easily afford in a suburb with much better schools.
 
Thus, a savvy developer must know not only when it’s the right time to rebuild in the always-risky depopulating central city, but which neighborhoods/districts are right to build, and which architecture or urban design principles are suitable for that particular neighborhood.  St. Louis’s most promising investments for the short-term may sit in a semicircle shape two miles around the downtown to the north, west, and south.  In the north, the best option is new construction using moderately urban standards but with the contemporary amenities (walk-in closets, ample kitchen/cabinet space, single-tap faucets) that virtually everyone expects these days.  To the west and the south, developers can focus more on strategic infill or restoration, since a considerably greater portion of the original housing stock survives, with a newly invigorated demand for both brick and attached duplexes.
 
Elsewhere in the St. Louis city limits—outside of that two-mile “fertile crescent”—it may be hard to stimulate much more demand for housing restoration or replenishment, particularly in the north and west.  Many of those neighborhoods are still losing population.  And the demand for the conventional St. Louis brick house does not extend so broadly that new arrivals are willing to try their luck in neighborhoods that hold no prospect for turning trendy in the next decade.
The conventional St. Louis brick house is still a niche product.  The fate of housing in these outlier districts is cloudy: while the city seeks buyers to claim vacant homes at very low costs, quite a few others will face demolition.  Optimally, the City will forge contracts with developers to purchase and rehab a broad swathe of them, based on the instinct that revitalizing an entire district, while evidently costlier and difficult to implement, is far more likely to result in sustained revitalization than merely renovating a single structure in an area otherwise surrounded by blight.
 
Whatever the Missouri city’s recent successes, neither St. Louis nor Detroit has any room for complacency.  The figureheads behind St. Louis’ revitalization face an uphill battle in the less trendy neighborhoods: what often appear to be solidly built brick homes will nonetheless continue to deteriorate when mothballed, not just due to climatic changes but also negative human intervention.  Many abandoned properties, particularly in the most deserted areas (and, thus, the least supervised), face imminent collapse due to persistent brick theft from scavengers.  Though I have not seen it, the film Brick by Chance and Fortune apparently explores St. Louis’ distinctive brick legacy in greater detail.  Meanwhile, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers incidentally suggest that the metro Detroit economy is faring better than St. Louis for the time being—though a single year’s reports on job growth don’t necessarily indicate much, St. Louis ranked dead last among major metros, according to a recent chart compiled by The Urbanophile.  Metro Detroit fell somewhere more in the middle of the pack.  The essence of urban depopulation (a process decades in the making) is a many-headed hydra, and our learning process is scarcely over, nor, for that matter is the depopulation era over for many, many cities.  Tackling repopulation has proven just as difficult.  The most talented market-rate and affordable developers understand niche sensitivity enough to generate a strong IRR, leaving on the less successful in the housing industry to trot the stale shibboleth “built it and they will come”.  In the wounded American city, it just ain’t that simple.
 
 
 
Again, I would like to thank Heather Milton for her support and input on St. Louis housing.

6 thoughts on “Salvaging St. Louis, Part III: Biodiversity in repopulation.

  1. ardecila

    You are someone who epitomizes thoughtful and nuanced commentary, so I’m surprised that you’re parroting the line that Pruitt-Igoe was a “monstrosity”, especially since Pruitt-Igoe has come in for some serious re-evaluation in recent years. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth”, a recent documentary, attributes the obvious failure of the complex to criminal neglect and racism, not design flaws.

    Otherwise, this is an excellent analysis of affordable housing efforts.

    Reply
  2. AmericanDirt

    Ardecila-
    Thanks for your observations. I’d love to talk with you more about this some time down the road.

    I have actually written extensively on Pruitt-Igoe–much more thoughtfully than I did here–for Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. Feel free to mail me at my e-mail address, and I can see if I can dredge up the report I wrote a few years ago.

    As for the design issues regarding Pruitt-Igoe, I agree that it probably excessively scapegoated. But bear in mind the public housing across the street from P-I was low-rise and offered much more individualized entrances, and it remained in generally good condition while P-I continued to decay, even as its demographics were similar to P-I. So it’s easy to see why, using the St. Louis example, people faulted the Yamasaki design.

    Yet at the same time, management must play a huge factor, since New Orleans almost exclusively depended on low-rise public housing, but most of it suffered the same horrible conditions as P-I. I saw the Peete projects while I was living there, and a few of the old St. Thomas buildings still survive. They were a complete disaster, fueled by some of the factors you mention.

    Meanwhile, my home city of Indianapolis has a single Corbusian tower, run by Indianapolis Housing Authority. It sits in the middle of Chatham Arch, an almost fully gentrified neighborhood filled with yuppies and popular for nightlife. No one even considers the intensive poverty in the Barton Tower. Though the demographics are somewhat different than P-I (racially mixed, overwhelmingly seniors and disabled persons) the management surely comes into play as well. After all, NYC has plenty of towers (though not always towers-in-the-park) and you can walk through NY Public Housing without even knowing you’re in a low-income district. No signs of social incohesion.

    I agree with you that we should be open to compelling defenses of Pruitt-Igoe’s design, because it obviously wasn’t conceived without careful thought. Yet at the same time, I have not heard anyone propose a Corbusian tower solution in the last two decades as part of contemporary low-income housing solutions. The 1960s towers that survive due to good management are rarely if ever being replicated. Perhaps, though, they’d work (as they often do in NYC) if the towers aren’t an anomaly, but are integrated with other towers that are market rate?

    Would love to talk about this further.

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    “But bear in mind the public housing across the street from P-I was low-rise and offered much more individualized entrances, and it remained in generally good condition while P-I continued to decay, even as its demographics were similar to P-I.”

    I haven’t seen this anywhere else but here. The film states that crime rates were higher in neighborhoods surrounding PI than within the housing complex itself. An incredible amount of demolition continued to happen around the site as it was being built, throughout its lifetime and after its destruction. In my opinion, the greatest takeaway from the film is that the fate of PI could not have been separated from that of the city and in fact, when step for step in hand. PI is singled out because it was large and the image of implosion creates a more visceral reaction than that of bulldozing yet another row of 1880s rowhouses.

    Reply
  4. AmericanDirt

    You may be correct, Anonymous. I have not seen that film.

    The safe neighborhood across the street from P-I was Carr Village, referenced by Oscar Newman in his book “Creating Defensible Space”. My guess is that by now it, too, has mostly declined and been demolished. When I did a pretty thorough tour of Pruitt-Igoe’s old site last fall, I don’t remember seeing any other low-rise public housing nearby.

    And, of course, anyone from New Orleans would tell you that low-rise public housing can face the same decay and substandard conditions, if property management is sufficiently derelict in its duties.

    Reply

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