Brick Thieves, MSD and Deconstruction: St. Louis Needs a New Way to Manage 8,000 Vacant Buildings

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Stop the brick thieves! Renovate and rebuild! Save St. Louis brick! These are the oft-heard rallying cries of urbanists and residents across St. Louis. Since before concern arose regarding Paul McKee's ownership of 1,000+ north side buildings and lots, the Land Reutilization Authority of St. Louis was criticized as being ineffective at stabilizing and saving our city's brick heritage. But what can be done?

To be sure, brick has a special place in St. Louis history and hearts. This is why local filmaker Bill Streeter has created a soon-to-be release full length documentary, "Brick by Chance and Fortune." Brick is our history and heritage and in large part will be our future.

Brick thieves are not a new story. North side residents have long been aware of what's happening to many vacant buildings in their neighborhoods. Twenty-first ward alderman Antonio French posted a You-Tube report detailing the thefts more than three years ago. The local news followed with a story. The issue is back in the news. Both Built St. Louis and Preservation Research Office have been following the story for years.

Malcolm Gay, a St. Louis resident and sometimes New York Times freelance writer, has a story in the Times today regarding brick thieves. The Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) and the City of St. Louis have announced they are partnering to demolish derelict buildings (brick or not). Local citizens are considering new efforts to address buildings and vacant lots, including excavating hundreds of limestone foundations that sit a foot below the top soil for salvage.

Several things appear clear: St. Louis brick commands a high price and securing our built history will not be cheap. Providing security to prevent further theft is likely impractical due to even higher expense. Hundreds, if not thousands, of brick buildings in St. Louis sit vacant and have no short to mid-term plan for reuse (there are simply too many targets for thieves). Many buildings are going to be demolished.

There isn't one answer. Buildings able to be reused should be secured by the owner and watched after by residents. Brick thefts need to be prosecuted and penalties increased. Yet these are only reactive. St. Louis needs to be proactive, identifying buildings that for whatever reason are not going to be put to productive use and find a way to manage their demolition.

Instead of another sculpture park or amenity, what would speak to the value of our city's heritage more than a philanthropically funded brick bank? The numbers are big. Simply flattening a home and shipping everything to a land fill can cost about $6,000, while deconstructing it can be twice that amount. Working quickly and salvaging as much wood and brick as possible could make the process better compete by cost.

In Cleveland, where the Urban Lumberjacks have deconstructed dozens of homes, the numbers have only worked by combining purposes and garnering local philanthropic support. The Cleveland Foundation has subsidized demolition as former prisoners and others needing training were put to work. A similar model should be supported and tried here in St. Louis.

Can we, as Alderman Sam Moore has suggested, bank St. Louis bricks for future use in St. Louis? Can St. Louis better protect vacant brick buildings and at what cost? Should we focus on corner buildings and other high-value structures? Do enough people care enough to make this an important local issue? In a city that, I think, fails to celebrate its history, can the physical theft of our history become a rallying cry?

Ultimately, can the theft of our history produce innovative and positive ways to manage the build environment of our city? 

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