Why Preservation Law Can Make A New Downtown Tower A Better Building

On Monday, the Preservation Board will consider granting preliminary approval of demolishing a historic building owned by the St. Louis Community College at 300 S. Broadway in favor of a new high-rise apartment tower. There’s much that is opaque about the affair, and hopefully the meeting will witness the developer presenting more detail. For now, the Cultural Resources Office (CRO) staff has prepared a recommendation for conditional approval that offers a starting place for adjudication.

CRO admits that the Isaac Taylor-designed building is High Merit, but recommends approval so long as conditions – including an actual construction permit – are met. This is a reasonable calculation, using the city’s preservation ordinance to compel a careful substitution that increases density and prevents another downtown crater (smaller than the Bottle District or Ballpark Village crater, on par with the Cupples 7 crater). The last time the Board favored a new residential building over protected historic buildings, instead of a SkyHouse at 14th and Washington the city got an asphalt parking lot.

Preliminary approval Monday will remove the chance for any future public meeting on the proposed design, so the stake is high. The Board can use the opportunity to make a reasonable idea–a new tall building downtown–into great urban design.

The Preservation Board has no legal authority over new urbanism unless a historic resource must come down to make way. Unfortunately the city has no design review outside of a mechanism poorly equipped to guide the future – a commission with “preservation” in its name. The Downtown St. Louis Partnership stymied a well-developed form-based code for downtown, and there is no architectural design code for the central business district.

So the Preservation Board is the only tool for making sure new downtown buildings are of quality, when the law allows it to weigh in. We have to lean on the tool we have, even if we end up eating soup with a fork.

Here are my questions for the cooks – points that I hope the Preservation Board will consider:

Where is a site plan for the building? The Preservation Board agenda does not include one. The current building maintains a historic street wall and hits the sidewalk line head on. Its base, however, is not transparent or inviting. A building that embraces the sidewalk could be an improvement. With Ballpark Village rising across the street, outside of Preservation Board purview, this building can establish a string corner that draws the urban density of north downtown southward across the revived Kiener Plaza (of course, a certain parking garage needs reconstruction or annihilation to make a walk down Broadway truly pleasant).

What is the base going to look like?  Downtown is full of unitary buildings whose renderings portended connection to the city, but whose execution discourages interactions through walls, benches, setbacks and other tools that weaken pedestrian experience. The drawings suggest transparency, but design is as much relationship as form – how close a glass wall is to the person on the other side, not just a glass wall.

What are the building materials? Can the developer provide samples? On a drawing, everything shaded gray looks like beautiful stone or concrete. Everything shaded blue suggests mirrored glass. In reality, materials are not chosen to match renderings. Builders buy materials from suppliers who have limited options cross-checked against budgets. The parking garage that the Treasurer’s Office built at Clark and Tucker shows the farce of rendering, which can promise a rose garden when the final plan is to build a weed patch.

How much affordable housing will be included in this building? This question is somewhat outside of the Preservation Board legal constituency, but the “cultural” in Cultural Resources Office encourages a preservation of more than just bricks and mortar. Part of the heritage that infuses of built environment are the customs of the residents who have made St. Louis into a metropolitan urban place. Many of the current residents of St. Louis are poor or working class. These people traditionally have been a strong presence in downtown St. Louis. Can this project extend the presence while bringing in new residents? (This question, I hope, is asked by Alderman Jack Coatar before he sponsors any legislation granting public investment in the project.)

If the Preservation Board needs more information, can the developer return in January with more details? Clearly the developer would prefer a clean preliminary approval, even with conditions, to assist in financing. Yet just as the lenders set terms that a borrower must meet, so can (and should) the Preservation Board that represents the people of the city who don’t get to vote Monday. They are representatives, not simply mayoral appointees.

Of course, the whole deal shows that the market rules urban design. The tower developers are making a deal that requires demolition because of a desired location and an available deal. They aren’t buying the Stadium East garage or the giant parking crater to the south, and the Preservation Board cannot compel that. Neither can preservation activists, but that doesn’t mean that there are not good reasons to oppose demolition of the building based on its worth. This essay is addressing how the Preservation Board can use its limited powers more effectively should it choose to accept demolition. The Board remains free to deny the proposal outright.

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  • Ihanaf
    • tztag

      Thanks. Demolition would be a loss.

  • Nick

    Anyone know how the Development Corp meeting went? Per the biz journal it sounded like they were still applying for subsidies despite yesterday’s decision.

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  • tztag

    I think the city made a good decision last night to at least require some facade to remain. That will retain the street level character and warehouse district “feel” vs demolition. IOf course the developer would say it will kill the deal since it will cost more, but that is the give and take when you have a preexisting structure in a prime location. This could be a gift to the developer and a strength for the new building and drive even more demand and higher PSF if done well- plenty of examples in every major city of a combination of old and new in the same structure. I agree with Chris that we need more market rate downtown, but disagree with the “worthless old” comment. Street level “feel” is a major determinant of neighborhood success or failure, hence the unbelievably restrictive protection of street level architecture in cities like SF where they have a high density and also a large tourism draw. (whether SF is too restrictive is a different conversation) No such thing as residents and tourists that just love to hang out on the 30th floor of a building when they go to a city, they want a connection to the “feel” of the city at street level. Hope the developer sees this as a way to make an even better and more successful project.

    • Jakeb

      I’m curious to see where this goes.

      • Nick

        A significant cost was just added….my guess is it’s dead

        • Jakeb

          We’ll see,…..

          • Nick

            Per the PD, since incentives are involved, the BOA may override the Preservation Board’s decision, with demolition currently being supported by downtown’s alderman. Looks like To Be Continued…..

  • Chris

    Stop trying to save worthless old buildings downtown. No one cares or should care about an old pile of bricks. There was probably a building there that was torn down to make the current structure. We need to get over ourselves and the value of these old properties. Also their is an abundance of affordable housing in the region. We need market rate apartments full of people that will spend money so that businesses will move downtown and create an urban core. Those parking lots and garages will all disappear when that use for the property they occupy is no longer the highest and best use, that’s why big cities have parking issues.

    • Adam

      OMG, I know. There’s this place called Europe. So awful. Nothing but well preserved old buildings. Some are, like, a thousand years old. Everybody hates it. Nobody goes there.

      Seriously, though, “No one cares or should care about an old pile of bricks” is very convincing. It’s not at all just your opinion that nobody else cares about.

      • DS1981

        Europe is a bad example for this. We’re talking about a residential building and most of that great well preserved architecture in Europe is not residential. In fact most people in europe live in ugly concrete mid rise apartment blocks.

        • Adam

          Funny how St. Louis is always conveniently SO different from every other place on Earth that we can never draw comparisons or aspire to anything.

          In any case, the building to be demolished clearly isn’t residential. And I think we must be visiting different parts of Europe.

          • Nick

            Europe preserves their buildings better because their cities are far denser than ours and therefore there’s more demand for inner city preservation. Small towns are also more dense, and large cities are also closer together because of density being greater on the continent as a whole, further promoting public transit and urbanity.
            Also obviously Europe’s old buildings are far older and far grander than ours.
            Maybe you think that St. Louisans are just dumb or whatever, but there’s some pretty logical reasons why we (and most midwestern cities) look the way we do today.

          • Adam

            Why does density = demand for preservation? Why doesn’t density = demand for more demo and replacement? No, Europeans just give more shits about their places.

            Yep, lots of reasons why our urban fabric has gone to shit. Mostly racism, cars, highways, government subsidization of suburban development, and deregulation of industries that gutted Midwestern local economies. None of which has anything to do with whether or not we should preserve historic structures when possible.

            And yes, I think many St. Louisans are dumb in a way. They move out to Fenton and then bitch and moan about how shitty the city is while gushing about vacationing in cities where everyone hasn’t moved to the exurbs.

          • Nick

            I mean, there’s some truth to what you say about Europeans’ views of their cities vs ours, but it mostly stems from demographic and economic differences between the European continent and America’s….things that probably aren’t going to change in our lifetimes. I’ll leave it at that because you and I never really seem to get anywhere.

            For what it’s worth, if I thought St. Louis was so terrible and full of stupid people, I’d probably consider moving or at least find something to do other than read and comment on blogs about St. Louis all day, but that’s just me.

          • DS1981

            A country as vast as this one was always gonna have suburbs and sprawl. America is actually still severely underpopulated. If anything, based on the country’s land size the cities should be even less dense than they are. So you can be angry at the reasons you listed, but our urban fabric to some extent was always gonna go to shit. People in this country don’t live on top of each other because they don’t have. In Europe they do.

          • Nick

            I mean, it’s not black and white like you portray. Density means both preservation and demo. There are still plenty of modern buildings going up throughout the middle of cities in Europe. But urban decay definitely means demo pretty much by definition.

            What you are calling ‘dumb’ I would call people acting rationally based on their decisions to the various factors you already named for the de-urbanization of the Midwest. You can call the policies dumb, sure, and I wouldn’t disagree. But people are people, and they act accordingly given costs and incentives. It’s an example of the Tragedy of the Commons when people move to the suburbs en masse for their own good but against the good of the city as a whole. It happens all over the world in a million different ways.

          • DS1981

            If this building is renovated, it’ll obviously by residential.
            The touristy areas of european cities are beautiful, but again the thing is the vast majority of people don’t live there.

          • Adam

            Obviously b/c obviously.

            References?

          • DS1981

            Reference is the 20% office vacancy rate downtown. Like i said, i would only be residential.

    • jhoff1257

      These are not going to be market rate apartments hahahahahaha.

      Also, thank god you’re in no position of power in this city. If people like you were in charge we’d have no Lafayette Square, Soulard, CWE, Benton Park, etc. There wouldn’t be massive redevelopment projects like Railway Exchange, Chemical, and Jefferson Arms either. Do us all a huge favor and stay on the sidelines bud.

  • Imran

    So we are considering :

    – Giving up authentic intact historic architecture,
    – Squandering the chance for more affordable housing/retail space in existing building,
    – Wasting the energy that was used to construct this building and more when we demolish & then haul away to feed a landfill,
    – Potentially jeopardizing the buildings next door.
    – Enabling all this with tax incentives.

    And all for a generic tower that would more appropriately be built on another location where it could truly be additive to downtown. Desperation’s a bi%^h.

    • DS1981

      Well, you said it. St Louis IS desperate, isn’t it? Making developers jump through hoops (rightly so) until you as a city/neighborhood get the kind of project you want is the preserve of wealthy economically booming cities. Developers want to be in those cities so much, they’re willing to make a lot of concessions. St Louis is not one of those places at this point.

      • Rusty

        Why is st louis desperate for more buildings? It’s massively over built already.

        • Tim Ekren

          I would argue otherwise, successful built environments are always in constant flux, adding, changing and yes, even knocking down because the guy next door is asking too much for his parking lot.. You won’t have a competitive office market if you can’t add new Class A over time. You won’t be competitive in residential if you don’t add new housings and high rises. At same time, St Louis desperately needs to have Fed and MO tax credits stay in place for a year or two until some of the bigger projects can get done. In other words, all the above.

          The balance is tough as where do you draw the line on incentives. In some cases, I would say BPV II office is worth doing but agree that some of tax abatements and other incentives need to be dialed back for different neighborhoods.

      • Imran

        Even those wealthy booming cities were not so wealthy at one point. Those that had the foresight to safeguard their historic architecture are reaping the rewards today. The arc of preservation is long.

        • Nick

          If you’re referring to cities such as San Francisco and New York, both have extensive histories of major tear downs to become what they are today. While there is a place for historic preservation, sometimes it’s healthier for a city to make way for the new.

          • Imran

            except in our case there is plenty of room where the new can go. No need to make more ‘way’.

    • Tim E

      I would say for someone whose family made their new new home in the Bay Area that St Louis does not have an affordable housing crises. It might have a public transit crises considering how under served the community is especially for low income earners, but that is a different discussion. Of course, it is relative and every metro and rural area for that matter has someone who needs cheaper housing. I can’t argue against that.

      My argument is with Jeff Arms, Railway exchange, Shell building, Chemical Building the multiple other opportunities to add/repurpose building stock makes the thought that any new residential high rise in the city needs to meet some sort of affordable housing criteria doesn’t make sense for St. Louis. The notion that you squander a chance for affordable housing with this development is nonsense.

      • Imran

        For me affordable housing is a relative term. A building that already stands can be rehabbed into a new purpose with a smaller investment than a new project with from-scratch construction. The higher costs of the new construction are passed on to the consumers and reflected in much higher rents. Affordable housing doesn’t have to just mean welfare, it could also mean less than obnoxious rents.

        As for your last line, I am not asking for this development to include affordable housing, just lamenting that it proposes to displace the built-in opportunities of the current building.

        • DS1981

          And what about people who want to live in a new building and have no problem paying “obnoxious rents”. Building a city only for the poor is just as stupid as building a city strictly for the rich. You know, there was a country where everybody was equal, equally poor that is. It was called Soviet Union. It didn’t have a happy ending.

          • Imran

            Well, those people will be able to live in the new building going up across the street in BP village. And people like me who value history will live in this building if it gets to stay standing.

            And while we’re telling stories, there’s this city I live in that gave in to a shiny automobile culture and sacrificed block after block of history to it. That did not end well either.

          • Nick

            For someone who values history, you should know that the current state of the city was mostly caused by white flight coupled with the de-industrialization of the Midwest. Cars just enabled outcomes that would’ve happened anyway.

          • Imran

            I don’t think you can just attribute it to one factor. Obvi a combination of socio-economic and political. Regardless of what happened, downtown today would have much less highways, parking garages and desolate lots had it been designated a historic district in the 70s like the CWE was. The difference couldn’t be clearer to me.

          • Nick

            I’m sure downtown would look somewhat different if it had long been a designated historic district, but probably much less than you think. For one, all of the highways running downtown are interstates, which are federally designated and likely would’ve ignored any local preservation laws where they saw fit. Also, many vacant lots downtown and throughout the city are the result of buildings that burned to the ground or became so dilapidated they were economically beyond the point of no return. Without a viable demand to keep structures intact, historic preservation codes can’t do much.

            Personally, I think the real culprit is the success of the business district in Clayton.

          • Imran

            This is getting a little exhausting but I want to point out some great examples of buildings torn down not for fire damage or dilapidation.
            Ambassador theater – our answer to Carnegie hall was torn down for a driveway. The Century building -clad in marble- torn down for a garage. The Buder and Tile Guaranty buildings were intact until explosives brought them down for the Mall. The Holland building, the York hotel, the American theater, planters hotel. We lost critical mass to poor planning and lack of protection, not fires.

          • Nick

            I didn’t say that every vanished building burned…just that many did. Yes I agree it’s sad that all of those buildings are gone, but in most cases (except perhaps the mall construction) it wasn’t economically viable for the owner to keep the building in its current form. That’s just the reality of a city that loses 60% of its population…many structures aren’t going to make it. That seems pretty obvious.

          • Nick

            We can agree to disagree. I will say that, yes, obviously a lot of functional buildings have been torn down over the past few decades…and yes I agree in almost every case it is unfortunate. But much of that critical mass was lost to lack of demand due to our declining population. When you have an overbuilt environment such as what StL has/had, it stands to reason we’re going to see some buildings come down simply due to their lack of economic viability.

            My point is historical protection covenants may be helpful in some instances but they aren’t going to do much to save the city…and in some cases, such as last night’s decision, I think they hurt. More so than historic preservation, what St. Louis desperately needs is population gains…and I think a 30-story glass high-rise accomplishes that better than a 6-story office building.

          • Imran

            Yes, agree to disagree.

            So we have all this space in the city because of population contraction right? what effect do you think a super dense 30 story tower is going to have on our current situation? Isn’t it likely to suck up a lot of the housing demand and leave more of the city’s other spaces empty? Unless you are assuming most/all of the people that move into this tower will magically be from outside the City.

            In a sense when folks suggest that instead of a super tall tower packing a punch on a quarter block, they would rather have say 10 X 3-story urban buildings (and they are ridiculed here) filling in the gaps to create more seamless urban districts, that makes more sense to me. Seek to improve the urban experience for the people that already live here. If you are successful in that, success and towers will follow ( in a few decades).

            Silver bullets promise instant gratification but bring disappointment in the long run. And we really need to stop throwing tax incentives at them.

          • Nick

            To some extent, yes, it will inevitably poach from other properties around downtown and StL city in general…but I think a fancy new high-rise with a pool and views into Busch will on net bring more population downtown.

            I don’t think anyone’s expecting instant gratification, or expect this one project to be the be-all end-all of projects for downtown. And don’t get me wrong…I think the existing building is cool. But it physically can’t provide what the proposed new development can in terms of amenities, which is what I think people want and is what will get people moving into downtown.

          • Imran

            I bet Mansion house claimed to be the trendiest thing when it first opened. It was what the people wanted and was going to save downtown. Fast forward 50 years and it didn’t quite do the trick now did it?

            Still I hope you are right. Certainly old and new can coexist. I just don’t believe in gambling with the City’s historic legacy.

          • Chris Meyers

            The same company behind this apartment tower has plans to renovate the Mansion House complex. Check out the renderings on their website. They look way more modern than what they look like now.

          • Rusty

            Population only declined in the City, metro population continues to grow, so the City needs policies to get people to not choose the suburbs. There are more people in the STL area now than in 1950, when the City had 800k. No need to tear anything down if you can get suburbanites into the City.

          • Nick

            Agreed, except sometimes you need to re-invent the environment to get people to come to the City. Luxury apartments are being built all over StL County, as well as St. Charles County. We obviously need the same downtown…and this particular location was selected because of its views into Busch and proximity to BPV which has evolved into the epicenter of downtown.

          • studs

            County pop showed a negligible decline for the first time in 2010. “Growth” is in the exurbs now.

    • jhoff1257

      This is not desperation. Not even close. The developer owns this lot/building. It’s really just that simple. The city is not steering the developer to this lot, the city isn’t pushing this. I agree that building on an empty surface lot is the best option. But this developer doesn’t own any empty surface lots.

      Take your case to the Preservation Board and let them know your objections. Otherwise, you’re just going to have to deal with it. It’s call the free market.

      • Imran

        Desperation is where Cultural Resources concedes that the existing building is sound and high merit and yet should be sacrificed. Its like we rarely have a suitor so one just cannot afford to say no; even where no makes sense.

        And don’t get me started on the illusion of a free market. There are many regulations and barriers in place in real estate and the lending industry that chose winners and losers. Zoning, Historic districts, Form-based codes and Preservation Review are all ways to protect places of significance from shortsighted decisions.

        And I am no stranger to Preservation Board meetings 😉

        • jhoff1257

          Then contact the developer and put together a deal to purchase the lot down the street. Until then, you’re stuck with this.

          • Imran

            I want to buy the house next to you and replace it with a 10 story apt building. Unless you have the money to stop me you’re ‘just going to have to deal with it’ and ‘you’re stuck with it’. Nothing unfair about the sernario, right?

          • jhoff1257

            Have at it. I live in a high-rise in a dense, urban neighborhood. Could always use more!

  • John

    I hope the desperation for a new tall building downtown does not impact the decision-making process. I am not in favor of a welfare handout in the form of tax-increment financing nor a TIF (which doesn’t make sense) for the developer. We all know there will be no cheap, bargain apartments for affordable housing. This is prime real estate by the St. Louis Cardinals’ baseball stadium.

    Let the developer finance this 100% if it is such a good deal to tear down the historic red brick building. Regulate the use of high-quality building materials, and ensure the site plan and overall design are done right….with excellence….cutting NO corners.

    What does Partnership for Downtown St. Louis do if they don’t have a foundation of form-based code for strategic planning purposes? Taking care of lighting, trash pick-up and day-to-day maintenance in the City is admirable, but St. Louis is behind the times and stuck in a rut without proper form-based code. It is time to think strategic, long term and seek growth and improvement. The St. Louis Preservation Board and any other decision makers need to be held accountable. Were lessons learned from other failed downtown projects?

    • Rusty

      No

  • Adam

    How much more expensive would it be for the developer to reuse the facade of the current structure (or, just the north- and west-facing facades, actually) as the skin for the parking podium? I think that, at the very least, should be required before any tax abatement is granted.

  • Presbyterian

    I agree this is St. Louisans’ one chance at leverage on this project.

  • Grove Res

    Thanks Michael for this wise and thoughtful analysis!

  • Frank Absher

    I would welcome (an idealistic situation, I admit) putting this development in the parking lot a block south on Broadway. That way we save our heritage and fully utilize an underdeveloped lot.

    • MRNHS

      Well sure, that would be ideal. And I’m fairly certain the develop would prefer this too. I have to imagine it would be cheaper to buy a parking lot than a six story building (including demo costs). But that lot to the south is not for sale. In fact, it’s already owned by a different developer who would not want to sell for a small profit when they can likely collect parking fees until they develop it, which will translate to a big profit. I’m not disagreeing with you at all, just providing a little perspective.

      • Frank Absher

        Thanks.