New Ideas Must Use Old Buildings

Tower Grove South neighborhood - STL

The several blocks that make up the heart of the South Grand neighborhood constitute one of the most immediately likable and definitively urban stretches in St. Louis. The aged beauty of Tower Grove Park to the North, the beautiful architecture of the buildings fronting the street, the eclectic mix of stores and ethnic restaurants, and the consistently diverse crowds walking the sidewalks all contribute to making it a special place. While in the area recently, it dawned on me that South Grand also clearly illustrates a key insight Jane Jacobs had in her classic The Death and Life of Great American Cities: “Old ideas can sometime use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.” Like many of Jacobs’ unpretentious observations, this one has stood the test of time surprisingly well.

The basis for Jacobs’ point is simple economics: It costs a lot of money to build a new building. In order to finance the sticker price of construction, rent in new buildings is correspondingly higher. Thus, the enterprises that occupy new buildings tend to be those with strong financial backing and little risk involved—often chains or cookie-cutter iterations of an idea that has proven successful. The kind of original, local places that give an area its charm are not only less likely to be well-financed; they are a much higher-risk endeavor precisely because of their originality.

When truly trying something different, risk of failure comes with the territory. These operations are therefore unlikely to occupy space in a new building. As Jacobs puts it: “Chain stores, chain restaurants and banks go into new construction. But neighborhood bars, foreign restaurants and pawn shops go into older buildings. Supermarkets and shoe stores often go into new buildings; good bookstores and antique dealers seldom do. Well-subsidized opera and art museums often go into new buildings. But the unformalized feeders of the arts—studios, galleries, stores for musical instruments and art supplies, backrooms where the low earning power of a seat and a table can absorb uneconomic discussions—these go into old buildings. “

These, of course, are sweeping generalizations, but a simple survey of the street (and many other streets throughout the city) strongly confirms them. The contrast is stark on Grand for the blocks from Arsenal to Juniata, where the West side of the street is occupied entirely by older buildings and the East side is made up of relatively new construction.

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{east side of Grand Boulevard at Arsenal}

On the East side of the street you’ll find a Qdoba, an AT&T store, a Fedex store, St. Louis Bread Company, Great Clips, and Commerce Bank. All parts of chains (or franchises). All occupying new buildings. On the West side of the street are five non-chain restaurants, a pawn shop, a bookstore, and an ice cream shop—all in beautiful older buildings. Each of these businesses contributes to the neighborhood in its own way. Some, like the ethnic restaurants, are a big part of what bring outsiders to the neighborhood. Others, like the pawn shop, might be seen as a detriment to the area, but still bring in people and activity. It’s worth noting that the West side of the street also features an Edward Jones office, a pharmacy, and a Domino’s Pizza, which goes to show that “old ideas” can succeed in old buildings. Both sides also feature a couple of vacancies. (On account of the author’s semi-expatriate status, this intensive research was conducted through Google Streetview, so please forgive any outdated information.)

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{west side of Grand Boulevard at Arsenal}

One can observe the same phenomenon, though not quite as obvious, throughout the city and inner-ring suburbs. In the Delmar Loop, many chains occupy the new construction at the west end of the street, while the independent businesses that helped make the area famous mostly occupy older buildings farther east. Schlafly, when it was a fledgling microbrewery, moved into an old building on Locust. Schlafly, the established craft beer icon, had the money and the stability to fund the construction of the Bottleworks in Maplewood. Speaking of icons, can you imagine the City Museum anywhere but an old warehouse? Sure, the building fits in perfectly with the museum’s ethos of creative reuse. It also fits perfectly within the tight budget of a great idea that’s trying to find its feet.

Downtown West neighborhood - STL
{Schlafly Tap Room in Downtown West}

Tower Grove East neighborhood - STL
{Jay International Food Co. market occupies an Art Deco building on South Grand}

This is not to say that new buildings do not play an important role in a neighborhood. Ethnic restaurants and boutique shops might make a neighborhood a nice place to visit, but they are not enough by themselves to make it a convenient or attractive place to live. Returning to South Grand, many of the businesses that occupy newer buildings serve the more mundane, but necessary, needs of the community—like banking, haircuts, and shipping. If older buildings are what make a neighborhood charming, new buildings often make it practical and livable, give it its backbone. It certainly helps that the new construction on South grand is built in such a way—up to the sidewalks, windows and entrances on the street—that it melds with, rather than sets itself apart from, the urban fabric.

{buildings above were home to several uses, but were recently demolished for the development below}

{old ideas: Jimmy John's and Papa Johns occupy a new building on Laclede near St. Louis University}

This insight into the interplay between new and old buildings is worth considering in light of the current conflicts over historic preservation in St. Louis. If a city is to grow, it needs to be building. This can occasionally mean the loss of buildings that some hold dear. Anyone that chains themselves to every old building with a shred of historical significance marginalizes themselves just as much as someone who fights to destroy historic buildings just for the sake of destroying buildings (ahem). Everything has a cost. Creative destruction and all that.

However, framing the argument as being one between head-in-the-clouds nostalgia and cold-hearted capitalism fails to do it justice. One of the many things I love about St. Louis is the tremendous sense of history and past greatness the city conveys. This alone is worth fighting for. Old buildings are beautiful, and give a sense of place. They provide unique spaces and inspire creative minds. However, the value in preserving old buildings is not just a matter of nostalgia, or even aesthetics. They serve a practical and little-recognized role in generating grassroots economic development in the city. It might not be Ikea, but it’s a start.