Historic Home Demo’d on 13th Street, NorthSide Sets Suburban Vision

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The NorthSide project is more than a decade old. There’s virtually nothing to show for it. The plan to remake nearly 1,500 acres of the City of St. Louis is failing in big ways and small. To any honest observer, all the vague promises, all the development benchmarks, are dead.

To many, the project has been dead, or at least fatally problematic since uncovered by architectural historian Michael Allen in 2005. Yet, many figured a massive redevelopment project takes time. Land needed to be assembled, plans needed to be finalized, new transit lines would need to be planned. Then the financial crisis hit. So sure, nothing gets done for a couple years. Banks weren’t lending, and certainly not for an ambitious, complex project of this size.

Now, over the last several years cranes have popped up around St. Louis, vacant buildings have become apartments and offices, even the zombie Roberts Tower is now completed. Certainly NorthSide is out of excuses. Rumor of a Dollar General store being built hasn’t turn into bricks and mortar, an historic car dealership now listed on the National Register of Historic Places and eligible for historic tax credits continues to sit empty. And of course both the Clemens Mansion and Carr School continue to deteriorate towards complete loss.

The utter lack of any development interest came into focus when this site reported that the city and developer Paul McKee are pursing a plan to lure National Geospatial Intelligence Agency jobs from the south riverfront to the Pruitt-Igoe site, while adding another 22 blocks of the city to the site. The 34-acre Pruitt-Igoe site has repeatedly been described and depicted by McKee as a mixed-use development.

Now not only Pruitt-Igoe, but an additional 80 acres of the central city is being offered for a monolithic, high security complex. The idea that this represents the highest and best land use, shows just how bankrupt visions by developer and city have become for St. Louis urban development.

The city has long not known what to do with the thousands of vacant lots and buildings on the near north side. Going along with a developer who sells a big vision and is willing to do the work of engineering tax credits probably seemed a better bet than the alternatives, of which exceedingly few have been presented.

It’s a complicated and long thread of events that leads us to this point, but supporting more highway construction supports more of the type of demolition shown below. And the thing is, no one in a position of authority wants to talk about it. No one wants to shed a light on the city’s condition.

The city’s mayor has endorsed Amendment 7, a measure to increase the Missouri state sales tax by 0.75% to fund nearly $6B in transportation infrastructure via MoDOT. Each county in the St. Louis metro area produced its own list of projects, and the city’s list prioritizes pedestrian and public transit investment. However, the list for the other 89% of the metro area is virtually all highway spending that will continue to decrease property values in the city, and pull residents and jobs away from the city and NorthSide. (read why you should vote “NO” on 7)

It’s jarring to see the city’s mayor endorse hundreds of millions of dollars in highway spending, and offer 122 acres in the central city to a single user. The city supports suburban sprawl and then presents a suburban vision for itself. This has been happening for decades.

The result isn’t sudden, and often not highlighted by dramatic events. Over time there is an erosion of the city’s fabric, a building by building dismantling of a once great urban landscape. Yet the point isn’t what the city once was, as much as it is what it can be today. Withour intact urban fabric, or markers, moments guiding human scale development, we’re led to complete with the suburbs.

And no one would have noticed the demolition on 13th Street, if not for Paul Sableman. On his blog Exploring St. Louis, Paul made note of the demolition, and happened to have photographed the building a year prior. My take on how we got here, and why we should care is above, his take on the sad demolition is below:

A few weeks ago I noticed a heartbreaking demolition just north of Downtown.  On one of the most active blocks in the vital transition between the heart of Downtown/Washington Avenue Loft District and neighborhoods to the north (part of Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration), a rare reminder of contiguous urban form connecting these areas has been erased.  Built in 1885, the home pictured below was purchased for $135,000.00 just over a year ago, only to be demolished a couple of months ago at a cost of $6,000.00.

{1414 N. 13th Street – June 2013 and July 2014}

This last weekend I found the time to photograph the lot, and speak with the neighbors at Kunkel’s Auto.  Apparently the little shop’s days are numbered as well.

{Kunkel’s Auto – November 2013}

The rumor is that a gas station will be going into this prime lot near the new Stan Span/Downtown interchange, and is part of Northside Regeneration’s plans for the area.

In the image above, the red circle identifies the demolished home, blue circles point out existing gas stations, and the green circle is the only other surviving home on this important stretch. Note that much of the Tucker frontage is devoted to surface parking and inappropriate infill like the straight-out-of-suburbia McDonald’s at 1119 N. Tucker. Single use modern housing developments barricaded from walkable downtown by superblocks and fences dominate areas to the east and west, leaving Tucker as the only feasible way that McKee’s plan can connect livable urban places to the north and south.

By squandering what little is left of this area’s built environment for another gas station/convenience store, Northside Regeneration is proving that it’s unfit for the job of remaking this part of our city, choosing instead to double-down on the failed strategies of the last few decades. I hope that the rumors are wrong, but can’t help but believe them.

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