In the previous part to this study, I explored the similar population trends of two major Midwestern cities, St. Louis and Detroit. Both cities have endured significant losses since their peak in the 1950 census. Interestingly, Detroit seems to absorb the lion’s share of critical attention for its persistent economic malaise, yet St. Louis has actually suffered a slightly greater loss: 62% within its historic city limits, compared to Detroit’s 61%. How has St. Louis evaded much of the stigma of decline that persistently dogs Detroit?
I offered a few big-picture speculations in the previous post, not the least of which is that, by and large, the St. Louis Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of 15 counties and St. Louis as an excluded city, or 16 counties if one considers the even larger Consolidated Metropolitan Area) has remained stable or grown slightly over the last few decades, while in Detroit, even many of the suburbs are shrinking as well.
In addition, St. Louis does not owe its population explosion to the emergence of a single industry: it began growing into a prominent city decades before Detroit, and for a short time in the mid 19th Century, it was the largest city in the Midwest—bigger even than Chicago. Detroit, meanwhile, was still a humble town in the 1800s; then, after a surge of over 1,000,000 persons from 1910 to 1930 (the fastest growing city in modern history at the time), it enjoyed about 20 more years of unquestioned prosperity.
Most compelling for a person guided by empiricism as I am, St. Louis fundamentally looks better than Detroit. While it clearly manifests its population loss, particularly in the impoverished northern half of the municipal boundaries, the Missouri city doesn’t harbor nearly as many broad swathes of vacancy as its Michigan counterpart—and the southern half of St. Louis boasts a number of perfectly stable or even fashionable, recently gentrified old neighborhoods. I identified one other major influence that gives St. Louis an edge: its housing stock was older and suffered obsolescence to a greater degree than Detroit. While this may seem counterintuitive, it indicates that St. Louis owes its population loss much more to a housing typology that fell out of favor—people abandoned housing in St. Louis less because it depended on a collapsing industry and more because of how easy it was to construct a comfortable modern home outside the city limits.
The housing stock in St. Louis is on average much older; when St. Louis began to decline, people were abandoning 80 to 100-year-old brick rowhomes and duplexes because it was easier to start over than upgrade. Conversely, much of the housing stock in Detroit was only 50 years old when the desertion process began. While both cities suffered, postwar deindustrialization contributed far more to Detroit’s exodus than it did in St. Louis.
I have no doubt I am going out on a limb on this assertion, especially since St. Louis in particular can currently boast some aged brick attached housing that commands a fairly high price, since a few of these older neighborhoods have enjoyed a recent renaissance. And, of course, all the industrial cities of the north suffered the same outmigration concomitant with the decline in industry. But clearly some suffered more than others: in the Northeast, no one would question that Baltimore and Philadelphia’s attached housing stock have proven more prone to complete abandonment than, for example, Boston’s triple-deckers.
The remainder of this article will scrutinize the character of St. Louis’ housing, particularly in light of what I would consider one of the leaders in repopulating disinvested neighborhoods: the firm McCormack Baron Salazar, Inc., a pre-eminent owner and developer of affordable housing. While every major city claims at least a few prominent affordable housing developers, MBS has almost singlehandedly restored some neighborhoods in St. Louis that otherwise would undoubtedly bear the same devastating scars we can witness in Detroit. And it consistently ranks as one of the largest affordable housing developers in the country.
Lest this article come across as a promotional campaign for this specific firm, I attest now that I intend merely to use McCormack Baron Salazar as a method of winnowing a reasonable travelogue through the city’s vast and diverse array of housing stock, by directing attention on a handful of the firm’s developments in the city limits. I intend to evaluate their success at balancing current demands for housing amenities with a respect for St. Louis’ distinctive vernacular architecture—the style that fell so heavily out of favor but now enjoys a palpable if uneven resurgence. Not surprisingly, a preponderance of the major developments rest in the more devastated northern half of St. Louis.
This first, known as Murphy Park, stretches across several blocks centered at the intersection of Cass Avenue and North 19th Street, just a few blocks west of the former site of Pruitt-Igoe, one of America’s most infamous public housing projects—and among the first to face demolition after persistent failure to offer its low-income residents an adequate quality of life. To this day, the neighborhood (formerly known as DeSoto-Carr) is overwhelmingly African-American and low-income, though it holds a fraction of the population from its 1950 peak.
Murphy Park replaces Vaughn Towers, another public housing development that had fallen into serious disrepair by the mid-1980s. Across three phases, MBS built over 400 units of new, low-rise housing, providing individualized entryways and private yard space, along with park facilities, a swimming pool, and a community center.
While it bears the trademarks of relatively new construction through the lack of the patina of “traditional” St. Louis housing expected from this district in the city, it also eschews the suburban multifamily typology, particularly the type one would expect to see in the 1980s. Notice that the front doors all address the street, rather than turning toward the interior of the block with a centralized parking lot, as one might expect in the suburbs. MBS did not alter the original grid, as the high-rise public housing developers did in prior decades. And because different sections of Murphy Park adopt different styles, the community does not look like a development conceived from a uniform source or a single site plan.
Compare the photos above to the neighborhood that surrounds it. Here’s a photo with some older surviving housing nearby:
And some other new construction in the area; which looks every bit like something one might see in suburbia.
There’s nothing wrong with the housing in the above photo, unless you are vigorously anti-suburb. (I’m not, if that weren’t obvious already.) To be frank, such housing may very well align with what these moderate-income families are seeking, more than the conventionally urban townhome style promoted before. However, the more authentically urban Murphy Park development shows evidence of greater staying power: it is in consistently good condition. Meanwhile, some of the suburban stuff has fizzled.
Judging from the grayness of the wood, this conventional house has sat in semi-built limbo for at least a couple years. Since I don’t know the history behind this development, I will withhold further judgment.
Needless to say, however, the adjacent Murphy Park project shows no evidence of aborted construction; the entire initiative bespeaks of a unified vision that loosely conforms to the archetypes of an urban neighborhood will still providing sophisticated modern housing. The fact that it displays some stylistic variance helps mitigate the effect of looking “over-planned” or factitious. The success of Murphy Park ostensibly prompted HUD to conceive of the HOPE VI model for integrating affordable housing into an existing urban neighborhood context, based largely on the design principles applied here.
Approximately the same age as Murphy Park, the Brewery Apartments sit just a few blocks away and apply an entirely different development approach: meticulous historic preservation and adaptive reuse, in order to deliver particularly high-density multifamily housing in a neighborhood that otherwise would be bereft of residents.
The development consisted of the rehabilitation of three buildings that had belonged to the Falstaff Brewing Company, ten rowhomes directly across from 20th Street, and two new infill buildings. The total complex offers 140 units, with 75% of the units open to households earning less than 60% AMI (Area Median Income). Here’s a more comprehensive picture of the brewery complex:
And here are the adjacent rowhomes:
And a more distant view, peering through the trees from an intersecting streetscape:
It would take far more scrutiny than I allowed myself in order to identify the two infill buildings, which the development effectively integrates with the much older building stock. At the time of this publication, leasing rates for the market-rate apartments at the Brewery range from $700 to $940, from one to as many as three bedrooms, though no market-rate three-bedroom units were available. And it is easy to see why the brewery can lease to a market-rate clientele: redeveloped old breweries have flourished as fashionable residential real estate, especially for the urban young professional population that is less concerned with crime or struggling public schools. Based on my phone inquiry, the Brewery Apartments rarely struggle to find market rate tenants, indicating their desirability despite the general impoverishment of the neighborhood.
Most of McCormack Barron Salazar’s other St. Louis developments rest in more economically mixed areas than the aforementioned two. The Westminster Place Apartments sit squarely in Midtown St. Louis, an area that remained fashionable up through the mid-1960s. Just a stone’s through away sat Gaslight Square, a hub of taverns, cabarets, and, eventually, St. Louis’ counterculture movement. But the area declined steadily in the 1970s, and, although never upscale, it fell victim to particularly acute desuetude, to the point that by 1990, the City had demolished virtually all the structures in Gaslight Square. Westminster Place belongs to a series of public and private initiatives aimed at repopulating the 90-acre area. Like Murphy Park, it offers a diverse array of housing to accommodate a variety of demographic groups.
The end result stretches across several blocks in Midtown, with three developmental phases completed from 2007 to 2012, amounting to 392 new apartments and 80 homes.
Note the decorative brick street signs, which distinguish the neighborhood from the more conventional signage in the purlieus. Westminster Place itself—the actual road—features a mix of townhomes and single-family detached housing flanking a landscaped traffic circle.
Some of the apartment buildings adhere to the same archetype used in Murphy Park. Though their appearance may deviate from the structures of the Gaslight Square era, they still provide an above-average population density and a pedestrian orientation directly to the street—two characteristics that would be unheard of if MBS had abided by a more suburban vernacular. Tucked into the heart of the Westminster Place development is McCormack House, an assisted living apartment for low-income seniors, visible in the photo below:
Interestingly, the same block of Olive Street that hosts McCormack House also completely intermingles features more Westminster Place apartments with old commercial/industrial structures that remain largely vacant and decaying. Here’s one of the standard new buildings:
And here’s a relic from days past just a bit further down:
One of these dinosaurs sits directly across from McCormack House.
I would speculate that the above building is a sheath for concealing a menacing electrical sub-station, if it weren’t for the masonry scar to the building’s right, suggesting that a similarly sized building used to sit immediately adjacent to it. Who knows what’s going on here? These aging behemoths could belong to a stubborn landowner refusing to sell until the market it too hot, or it could be part of an eventual adaptive re-use that will attempt to salvage the façades. Regardless, the juxtaposition of old and new provides a needed anomaly. Otherwise, far all the artistry involved in integrating a variety of housing styles and types, Westminster Place still looks like exactly what it is: a new development to replace a completely devastated old neighborhood.
In order to avoid this article extending to uncomfortable length, I’m going to push the pause button. Part III will conclude the essay with an exploration of a few more McCormack Baron Salazar projects, along with a final analysis on the implications for intensive housing provision as a means of inducing repopulation.
*this piece is reposted with permission from American Dirt: Observations of Contemporary Landscapes – a site based in Indianapolis, but which ventures off to everywhere from New Jersey to Memphis to Philadelphia with regularity – click on the link above and check it out. First image by Mark Groth, all others by American Dirt.