City’s Preservation Board Greenlights Smart Infill, Denies Needless Demo

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Yesterday, the City of St. Louis Preservation Board had a good day. The decisions of that board, informed by recommendations from the city’s Cultural Resources Office, are generally quite straightforward, mostly unexciting. There are a lot of denials of generic Home Depot doors in Local Historic Districts, and things of that sort.

The board’s role is constrained. It can’t require better urbanism, but absent a city-wide housing and development policy, the Preservation Board takes on part of the city-building role. The board takes public testimony, is presented plans by developers, and adjudicates the future of a building or development, and in this way, our city.

So what did the Preservation Board do yesterday? It gave preliminary approval to the big infill project at the long-vacant Praxair site in Lafayette Square. A first hearing was greeting largely by people in opposition. This time, neighborhood residents in favor of the plan spoke up.

The approval comes with some caveats, that the townhomes be fully wrapped in a brick veneer, that sidewalks be added to LaSalle Street as it extends into the development, and that units facing Chouteau Avenue be re-presented with design changes. Such caveats are quite common in board decisions.

The townhomes by Pulte Homes and Killeen Studio Architects aren’t perfect. Better design is hampered by the Local Historic District, for better or worse. For an industrial site on the edge of the Lafayette Square neighborhood, more should have been allowed by code. The focus should have been better urbanism and less an aesthetic pursuit. Such is the changing nature of urban historic preservation.

Assuming the project moves forward, it represents what more-fancy urban planners call “gentle density” or “density done well”. In St. Louis too many people think of it as scary density. That vacant industrial lot that exploded a decade ago? It didn’t create any traffic, no noise…you get the idea.But townhome development is very significantly more sustainable, produces a much greater return to the city, than single-family homes.

But townhome development is very significantly more sustainable, produces a much greater return to the city, than single-family homes, even the big historic ones in Lafayette Square. It’s a balancing act to be sure, but when and where townhomes can be developed in a thoughtful, urban manner, the city (and residents) should offer support.

Read more: Changes Present Better Urban Design for Lafayette Square Praxair Site

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What else did the board do? It denied a request by the Missouri Foundation for Health. Its mission reads, “to improve the health and well-being of individuals and communities most in need.” It hired architectural behemoth HOK to repurposed the Columbia Iron Works site in Forest Park Southeast.

MFA requested approval to demolish a residential building at 1408-1410 Tower Grove Avenue. The structure is a merit building in a National Register district and found to be in sound condition. The demolition would have made way for a “secure employee courtyard”. It’s unclear how removing a four-unit affordable apartment building in a quickly changing central neighborhood improves the health and well-being of individuals and communities most in need.”

Even with HOK’s inventive euphemistic “flexible community zone” to label a parking lot, the project failed to win the support of the Park Central Development Corporation’s development committee. Despite this, the Cultural Resources Office surprisingly endorsed the demolition, with some creative reasoning: “The proposal by the Missouri Foundation for Health to rehabilitate the Columbia Iron Works Facility exceeds the value of the preservation of the four-family structure, which is incompatible with the proposed development for the Foundation.”

Having read Preservation Board agendas for more than a decade, I’ve never seen such reasoning, which I read as giving the go-ahead for demolition to any developer wanting to develop a different use for a sound merit building in National Register District. Basically, the justification is simply that the developer doesn’t want the building. It’s that silly.

Still, the board could have simply endorsed the CRO recommendation over the objection of the neighborhood development corporation. Often times the ward alderman will weigh in publicly, or quietly on such issues. It’s unclear whether the Roddy campaign sign at 1408-1410 Tower Grove represented an endorsement for demo or a plea for help.

Read more: Missouri Foundation for Health Plans New Home at Columbia Iron Works in The Grove

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Bonus smart decision – the Preservation Board gave preliminary approval to the HOK-designed apartment building for the South Grand Y site:

Read more: Contemporary 116-Unit Apartment Building Planned for South Grand YMCA Site

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  • SnakePlissken

    This City desperately needs single family construction in desirable neighborhoods. That means, near south side, central corridor and along the riverfront. I don’t see any demand for single family construction on the northside at all and probably won’t be for decades. I’d love to cheerlead but I’m a realist. Unless 100k somehow move here or T Rex graduates the next Facebook or Apple it aint gonna happen.

    My next thoughts are – can we redevelop vacant industrial along the riverfront into residential? Massive subsidies will be needed no doubt but I think if done right and affordable it’s an incredibly desirable location. Incorporate trails and parks, innovative design – it could work.

    • Andy

      A lot of the area along the riverfront would need a lot of remediation before being able to be turned into residential if you could even clean the property enough to make it able to be residential. Also a lot of the riverfront is still being used for industry. I would love to see Chouteau’s Landing redeveloped and then build up along Broadway to connect it to Downtown and Soulard – not going to happen but I’d still love to see it.

      The part of the riverfront that would be perfect for residential now was knocked down in the 1930s and recently underwent a $350 million facelift as parkland.

  • brickhugger

    Meanwhile SLU continues with the demolition of the Pevely Dairy Building. 🙁

  • Roger Mexico

    How about subdivide off the green section in the MFA property map and sell it off? It looks like they’ll have a pretty good amount of space even without it. They can probably live without the “secure courtyard”.

  • John

    I’ll celebrate the all-brick wrap on the town home project. A step In the right direction! Nice to see some requirements enforced from the Board…St. Louis deserves the best from developers. Kudos also on the denial of the historic building demo. Smart preservation is appreciated for generations.

  • Imran

    FWIW, Alderman Roddy wrote a letter in opposition to demo of the 4 family building on Tower Grove. Dan Krasnoff (CRO) offered to read it in his presentation but the Board members did not take him up on it.

  • Colocon

    The Grand building looks fantastic and is exactly the sort of modern development the city needs. I’m all for preserving the historical architecture of St Louis, being part of what makes the city unique, but once it’s gone, it’s gone and replicating with cheap looking faux historic architecture is extremely tacky.

    • STLrainbow

      It all depends… you can do quality projects that try to replicate the historic architecture but as you say there is a lot of tacky stuff as well. But that is also true with modern design. As for this particular project, I think it looks pretty good at first blush but it really is hard to say how a lot of these things ultimately turn out… hopefully it isn’t as turdy as some of the stuff that has gone up in the CWE and FPSE the past couple years.

      • Colocon

        Agree and disagree. I think for example, some of the infill right on Lafayette Square is worthy and in such a prominent position, acceptable. As per your comment about some of the recent development in the CWE, yes much of it is hideous, I think partially because most of the developments have tried to incorporate some traditional or post-modern elements and have used crappy materials.

  • Nick

    It will be interesting to see what MFA does now.

  • Frank Absher

    Lots of negative commentary on the South Side about the exterior of the SSY apartment building.

    • Riggle

      The same people that drive to brentwood for everything?

      • guest

        Probably the people who think everything in the area should look like was built in 1900. The progressive south side indeed….

        • Riggle

          Maybe it would look like that if they shopped at local stores instead of driving to the suburbs for everything

          • Nick

            Retail centers follow population centers, not the other way around. Unless you want to shop at boutique stores all day, you HAVE to go to the county to shop.

          • Alex Ihnen

            This is true.

          • Tim E

            Would have to agree on this is true. City and it residents need to worry about getting more people back to the city part. Services, better tax base, more retail and better schools will follow

            For better or worse, Amazon and online is up ending the retail market in its self. IMO, its a super size box warehouse replacing a supersize Walmart/Target. The reality is online retail, along with help from equity firms who put a lot of debt onto the chain retailers, is now causing a lot of those suburban brick and mortar strip malls stores into closure. But online retail also makes it clear that every corner doesn’t need a corner store. Of for that matter, every new city apartment block doesn’t need retail space.

          • STLEnginerd

            So to Riggles point. Three key stores that constitute big box retail are groceries, standard department stores, and home improvement stores. All three have locations in the city. Schnucks and Target at Hampton Village and Home Depot at South Kingshighway) There are other equivalent locations as well. These may not be convenient but they are options for those arbitrarily committed to keeping their sales taxes in the city.

            To Nicks point, if you need to go beyond that to other box retailers or mall type stores, the options in the city are limited.

            SOOO you are both right to a degree but you CAN survive without shopping in the county.

          • JB

            For convenience, most of my shopping is done around where I live. Same is probably true of the bulk of residents in both city and county, subject to supply. That said, what would city residents reaction be if you heard a county resident bash anyone who spent money across the county/city line? The city and the county (specifically the inner ring suburbs) both need each other and to pretend otherwise is ignorant and kind of childish.

          • STLEnginerd

            Actually bashing the idea of going to the city is a common refrain in the county. Usually far West County and a disproportionate number of Post Dispatch comment forum contributors but it is not unheard of. Of course i roll my eyes at them as well but let not pretend it doesn’t happen.

            Obviously MOST people choose to shop based on personal convenience. Its also clear that A LOT of the growth in the urban part of the metro has been near Forest Park which is convenient to Brentwood’s big box mega retail center. So the spill over is to be expected. Still Nick was incorrect in saying you HAVE to go to the county to shop. You don’t there is sufficient retail to shop solely in the city if you are ideologically driven to do that.

            I get the mentality of some of the posters here that essentially choose to vote with their sales tax dollars and keep them in the city whenever possible since that will directly benefit the government services they consume. Maybe it is naive to think this way but in a small way they are helping sustain retail in the city. Kudos to them for making that personal commitment/sacrifice.

            Personally i don’t think they need to bash us all over the head with it at every opportunity, but hey its America so bash away.

            Oh, and whether the county and city “need” each other is a wholly different topic debated ad naseum.

          • Nick

            My primary point is that St. Louis is probably the only major city in the country that doesn’t have a large retail district (with perhaps the exception of Cherokee’s antique row, but that’s extremely specialized). Yes, if you are ideologically inclined you can shop almost exclusively in the city. The problem is most people are more inclined towards convenience, and the city isn’t oriented such that it’s convenient to retail shop here (unlike most cities). And I say this not to bash St. Louis….it’s more like constructive criticism.

          • asqface

            I pose that it is exactly the opposite of Nick’s theory: Its the city’s diverse retail environment that actually makes its more relevant than the county’s. Is chasing convenience really a race to win? Is that was makes cities more intriguing? Is Trader Joes really the driver of economic success (sorry, its the only big chain I could place in the county and not in the city) After all, if we can get most of our ‘mall’ merchandise on-line, its the inconvenient experience and variety of little shops that make cities interesting. A large retail district may not be that critical for a city if we are just talking about strip malls and box stores. If big box store and strip malls make sense then Hampton at Chippewas is a relatively large retail district. Heck, its likely more diverse and by longevity its has been more economically sturdy than its county counterpoints.

          • Nick

            I’m not at all saying we should clear way for big box retail and strip malls within city limits. I’m saying we lack urban shopping districts similar to Country Club Plaza in KC or the Third Ward in Milwaukee, both areas of which are a mix of major retailers and boutiques. Those areas are major draws for their respective cities and StL would do very well if it could figure out how to mimick such a model.

            I also don’t think people seek out an inconvenient experience at a city shop just for the sake of it. The draw is the eclectic-ness of the shops, combined probably with a sense of shopping local. However, I don’t think these draws appeal to most people, including most city residents.

          • JB

            Here’s hoping that the City Foundry might help fill that void with 250,000+ square feet of retail planted in the heart of the city. They haven’t named any of the tenants, but I’m guessing it’s probably not your suburban big box standards like Office Max or Hobby Lobby.

            And combining it with the mass appeal of IKEA and the unique food hall concept might be a successful mix to draw in people…maybe even from the county.

          • Riggle

            And theCity has office max, infact eastern cwe has it already in the schmucks strip mall.

          • jhoff1257

            Careful what you wish for regarding the Country Club Plaza. Been a long time Plaza resident, about 8 years now, and it’s not what it used to be. Yeah, it’s a nice draw for tourists who like to gawk at the buildings or for the rich and inattentive Johnson County types but for those of us that live there it pretty much sucks now. There’s really nothing original anymore, it’s all chains and BS like that. Back in the day you could walk to a pharmacy, a supermarket, you could have your car serviced down there. Now it’s just chain crap. Local places are closing up shop rather frequently now. I put that somewhat on the new owner (Taubman, think Chesterfield Outlet Mall) who’s forced out a few long time tenants it didn’t feel like negotiating new leases with. Add to that the old timers in the neighborhood who have killed about a half a dozen projects that would have added some density because they don’t want anything big and new. NIMBYs rule the land in KC. Outside of fewer local stores and new chain stores nothing has changed in this neighborhood in at least 8 years.

            A beautiful place compared to the rest of KC for sure, though that’s not really saying much, but it could be SO much better then it is today.

          • Riggle

            No it isnt

          • Slevin

            How about some sauce then @Riggle? List out your shops describe that are “n the City, and not at boutiques or online”.

          • Riggle

            No, creep

          • Riggle

            Funny, I manage to shop in the City, and not at boutiques or online, sounds like confirmation bias to me

    • Adam

      As in, a handful of people on the South Side grumbling into the air about how it looks like a prison even though it looks nothing like a prison? Where is this commentary recorded? How many is “lots”?

      • WikiWild

        A prison with balconies and first floor retail. Progressive!