Board Bill 2, Historic Preservation, Reading Between the Lines and the Fate of 10th and Locust

Noonan-Kocian Art Gallery - St. Louis
{northeast corner of 10th and Locust – 1955}

BB2: Blighting Study and Plan for the 901-23 Locust St., 416 N. 9th St. and 421N. 8th St. Redevelopment Area. That doesn’t sound particularly exciting. However, it’s the document now at the center of the preservation issue in St. Louis. By “preservation”, what is meant is economic development, maximizing the city’s tax revenue and creating a place people want to live – but that’s an issue for another article. Here, we try to understand what BB2 says, what it doesn’t, and what that says about the state of the city’s “preservation” effort.

On its face, BB2 declares the buildings in question “blighted” by legal definition and offers 10-year tax abatement to the developer. It does this without a development plan in place. A plan is required to be submitted prior to requesting demolition. The bill states that the proposed redevelopment will be “commercial/residential use”. BB2 then adds “Urban Design Regulations”, criteria against which any eventual development plan will be considered by the city’s Cultural Resources Office. While the 7th Ward does not have demolition review, the city’s Central Business District (bounded by 12th Street, Washington, I-64 and the riverfront) is a city Preservation Review Area. BB2 also blights the Orpheum Theatre and Mayfair Hotel, though there's zero expectation that demolition for either will be sought.

Confusion about BB2 and the fate of 919-923 Locust is at least in part the result of loose reporting on the bill. From one local story, “A pair of downtown buildings on Locust Street could be in danger of demolition after Mayor Francis Slay signed a bill allowing for their removal.” From another publication, “Mayor Francis Slay has signed a redevelopment bill that opens the door to the possible destruction of two buildings at 10th and Locust Streets.” In fact, the buildings are “allowed”, and the doors are open for them, to be demolished with or without BB2. Tax abatement (enabled by “blight” designation) may make demolition more likely, but it could also help underwrite preservation.

Why should we care? The corner building at 10th and Locust is the location of an incredible piece of St. Louis cultural history. From the nextSTL story When the Art World Came to St. Louis: The Noonan-Kocian Art Company at Tenth & Locust: It was an evening in March 1930, and a crowd had gathered at a prestigious gallery in the United States. On one wall were works by Paul Cezanne and on another works by Seurat, Segonzac and Derain. On that evening, this was the center of the art trade in a world thrust into economic depression. And the world’s modern masterpieces were on display. And they were for sale. All of them. This is also one of just five intersections in downtown St. Louis that does not have a parking garage, park, plaza or surface parking lot.

917-921 Locust Street - St. Louis, MO
{the Tudor facade is tacked on and restoration to the top image should be feasible}

BB2 comes in the aftermath of a failed effort to prevent the demolition of the Cupples 7 warehouse. In that case, the city denied a demolition permit for the building and kept it standing for a couple years in an effort to indentify a developer. In the end, a contract signed by the city’s Treasurer’s Office under past leadership played a significant role in the building’s demise. The city, via the mayor or treasurer, stopped short of agreeing to any potential liability in that building’s development. It is currently being demolished.

With the Cupples 7 demo permit issued, the mayor announced that he would convened city leaders to consider how more historic city buildings could be spared the wrecking ball. There has been no public statement or other outcome from that meeting, but the added criteria of BB2 may give some insight into how City Hall plans to influence future development and attempt to weigh in on the side of preservation.

Back in 2008, the fate of 919-923 Locust appeared sealed. The city’s Preservation Board voted to allowed the two buildings nearest 10th St. to be demolished and for the third building to be redeveloped. The footpring of the two demolished buildings would have served as a hotel drop-off and lobby. That project never happened, but new owners Urban Street are said to be considering a similar plan. That plan, the absence of a definitive champion within city government, and the words of 7th Ward Alderwoman Phyllis Young, produce warranted skepticism. “Do you possibly give up one or two buildings so you can get the rest of them done?” Young recently told the Post-Dispatch. In this case “the rest of them” is just one building, literally one building forward, two buildings back.

Roberts_Hotel Indigo-Locust
{previous plan – the city voted for demolition and redevelopment in 2008}

To someone who wants to see the buildings be redeveloped, the bill reads as an invitation to demolition, albeit with what appear to be a few more hurdles to jump than would otherwise be required (demo is OK, just do this and this and this and this). Clearly this is far short of the city, or mayor, declaring that the buildings have economic, cultural and urban value and should remain. It is possible that the end result could be preservation and redevelopment, but requirements such as “the plan shall complement the Locust St. streetscape”, yes, the one demolition would destroy, are rather meaningless.

To someone looking to add weight to the preservation side of the scale, the bill reads as ammo for the city to prevent demolition and/or to ensure new development meet a higher standard of urban design than would otherwise have been required. It’s an incremental and reasonable step toward retaining more urban buildings and building a more urban environment when that doesn’t happen. The CRO is required to weigh the language of BB2 first if asked to consider demolition, and then apply any additional parameters.

The problem is that one struggles to cite examples of downtown demolition in recent decades that resulted in something better, something of more character and sense of place. “They don’t build ‘em like the used to,” isn’t just an idiom in St. Louis, it’s a glaring fact, and a painful one remembered with every demolition. History is lost, bricks made of clay, most likely pulled from the ground of this city, are shipped to the Sun Belt for a patio or to accent the facade of a McMansion. In their place is too often a parking lot, perhaps a driveway, or if we’re lucky, a tortured effort intended to mimic how “they used to build ‘em”.

So does the mayor want to see 923-919 demolished? It’s not explicit, but I’d guess that he doesn’t, but that requires some reading between the lines. How hard he’s willing to work to see that the economic development potential of these buildings is realized, is another matter. Those who know Slay will reassure you that he’s working hard behind the scenes, accomplishing what can be accomplished while not creating entrenched enemies. Maybe, but how is anyone to know? The mayor has begun his fourth term and while perhaps improving, his record on preservation is severly lacking.

It’s also difficult to get through a “blighting report” without being stunned by the archaic nature of the language this tool relies upon: “The subject property is a menace to the public health, safety, morals or welfare in its present condition and use.” “The subject property has conditions which endanger life or property by fire or other cause.” “The subject property has a combination of factors that are conducive to ill health, transmission of disease, infant mortality, and juvenile delinquency.” These are all answered in the affirmative simply due to the buildings being vacant. Forgotten is “Does the building have the potential for reuse?” “Have similar buildings be redeveloped with success?” and on and on.

Whether or not these buildings stand depends on the CRO and Preservation Board. The mayor has significant influence here and perhaps has provided enough of a hook to deny demolition for virtually any redevelopment plan. Perhaps the developer will find the hurdles too onerous and market the properties for sale, with potential buyers having 10-year tax abatement in hand. Or perhaps, BB2 will prove to only offer the veneer of a preservation effort while futher endorsing the dismantling of our downtown's built environment and the potential it holds.

“Urban Design Regulations” of BB2:

i. To define the corner of 10th and Locust, the plan must contain along the Locust St. frontage and at the corner with 10th St. an architectural element constructed of traditional masonry materials found on the blockface, such as a colonnade, pavilion, pergola, or similar structure which will define the corner of 10th and Locust. This structure shall be of appropriate scale and constructed of materials harmonious to the surrounding structures.
ii. A minimum of 40% of the surface area resulting from the demolition of all or a portion of 923 and/or 919-921 Locust St. shall be site development, with the focus of the landscape, plaza space, drop-off and other pedestrian amenities area being along the outer perimeter of the area along Locust St. and 10th St.
iii. An item of public art may be incorporated into the architectural element.
iv. The plan shall complement the Locust St. streetscape.
v. A driveway may be provided across the surface area, entering off of Locust St. and exiting to the alley to the north of Locust St.
vi. Drop-off may be provided with no more than eight drop-off spaces, including handicapped spaces. No parking is to be allowed beyond fifteen minutes.
vii. The focus shall be the retail space along the west side of 917 Locust St.

BB2: Blighting Study and Plan for the 901-23 Locust St., 416 N. 9th St. and 421N. 8th St. Redevelopment Are… by nextSTL.com