(continued from prior post: "Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 2")
The proposed realignment of Hamilton Avenue (see Figures 4, 11 and 12) would be beneficial from the standpoint of vehicular and pedestrian safety. It has the benefit of creating more green space and parking. To accomplish this, however, the three existing buildings at the northeast and southeast corners will have to be sacrificed (#15, #22, #23). While these buildings are in poor condition, their facades much to the streetscape (see Figure 11). In addition, the expense involved in this kind of rebuilding of infrastructure, especially in light of the recently upgraded sidewalks and street lights, wouldn’t make sense.
While the reconfigured intersection offers several benefits to the neighborhood, the reality is that it would be highly unlikely that such a reconfiguration would be achieved in the absence of a major new tenant or significant private investment in this block. If a major institution or nonprofit organization were to invest substantially in this area, then such an investment in improving public infrastructure could be justified. Otherwise, it seems that improved signage, upgraded signals, expanded curbs and improved pedestrian safety would be the most likely and realistic improvements which could occur at this important intersection. See Figure 12 for an overall diagram of the proposed neighborhood transportation plan.
To reconfigure this intersection in a way that might be more feasible would be to actually take some land from the proposed Legacy Park by extending Hamilton Avenue directly south through the intersection with Dr. MLK Drive. The street’s realignment can then take place adjacent to Legacy Park (i.e., between #14 and #15). This design would allow for the facades of the buildings on the northeast and southeast corners to be maintained, reinforcing the definition of the urban fabric and making the open space afforded by Legacy Park as something actually notable and unique. If the other corners of the intersection are leveled and/or made into parking and landscaped, it creates a less urban condition, diluting the Park's special character.
In fact, the National Register nomination for the Wellston Loop Commercial Historic District calls for the southwest corner of Hamilton and MLK to remain as open space in that this feature is an important contributing aspect of the neighborhood. Its legibility depends on the other surrounding buildings remaining in place to define it spatially and experientially.
Just east of this intersection is the Ali Market (#16)––which provides some basic services but is lacking when it comes to offering much need healthy, fresh food. The proposal suggests expanding the market itself and providing a larger parking lot for it by eliminating the existing structures at the southeast corner of MLK and Hamilton. At a minimum, the corner building's facade (beautifully articulated with stone Classical Revival ornament) should be retained. See the carved stone detail of the Nicholas Pelligreen building (#15) in Figure 11 at right which includes his initials, “N.P.” and the date, “1906.”
Immediately south of this block paved land is presently available for parking. Arrangements between property owners could help secure its use for the common benefit of all local users eliminating the need for demolition of contributing historic structures with strong character. While these historic structures (#15 and #22) are presently in poor condition, they are worth saving if only for their facades. These would be excellent candidates for shoring up and protecting until renovations come to fruition. Funds for demolition otherwise should be used to protect these structures from further deterioration and damage.
Along Theodosia Avenue, particularly east of Hamilton Avenue, the most lots are vacant. The plan suggests creating a landscaped roundabout (#20) in the center of the block to break up its great length. This is a good suggestion in general, accompanied by other improvements intended to create the atmosphere of a protected, mini-neighborhood. The concept: private developers will build new homes on lots (#21) which are reconfigured wider than were previously existing.
This change offers the potential for people to have relatively spacious lots, including driveways, garages, and yards which would be a unique opportunity for new homes in the city. While the reconfigured layout would offer some of the amenities and characteristics of a suburban community, it would also offer a close-knit, walkable neighborhood that many millennials seek. If combined with effective public transportation, basic services, and amenities families need, it could become an attractive new neighborhood though doing so would require subsidies to kickstart a substantive revitalization effort.
The consultant’s presentation noted there’s a gap between the property values for single-family homes in this part of the city (often under $50,000) and the actual cost of constructing a new home ($150,000 or more). To make such a development feasible, mechanisms for closing the gap would need to be offered to developers and/or homeowners. A good start would be for the LRA (Land Reutilization Authority) to prepare the property for ease of development by re-subdividing the lots to provide larger parcels in addition to creating the roundabout (#20) and new vehicular link to Cote Brilliante one block north (see Figure 4, upper right corner).
To make this scheme marketable, it might be desirable for the two ends of Theodosia to be blocked to vehicular through-traffic as a way to create a sense of increased safety by essentially providing cul-de-sacs east and west of the new roundabout. With this configuration, a kind of "gated district" could be created that might help make the project appealing to private investors by convincing potential new residents it’s a defended enclave.
One concern expressed by residents with regard to traffic was the extent to which drivers will shift a block north or south of Dr. MLK Drive as a way to speed through the neighborhood (while speeding through stop signs, endangering pedestrians in the process). This kind of "gated district" design (with cul-de-sacs breaking up Theodosia) would have the added benefit of reducing the hazards associated with this kind of through traffic.
While I'm not generally in favor of breaking up city blocks with barricades and cul-de-sacs, I recognize the value such features offer by allowing for redevelopment to occur. These kinds of interruptions of street grids may be necessary in cases like this where the length of the block is much greater than the ideal. Introducing a roundabout and creating cul-de-sacs at each end of this block of Theodosia may be the only practical way to meaningfully repopulate this mostly vacant area. Without breaking down the length of the block and giving people a sense of security, the long stretch of vacant residential lots represents a hazardous zone that residents will avoid altogether thereby attracting undesirable activity.
On the south side of Dr. MLK Drive, this same expanse (from Hamilton Avenue east to Goodfellow Boulevard) is divided into three blocks with Rowan Avenue and Laurel Street as intervening (Figure 12). These blocks south of Dr. MLK are more stable and remain dense with residences. This is a preferable structure for a sustainable neighborhood and provides added justification for breaking up the excessively long blocks north of Dr. MLK Drive where vacancy is a significant problem.
In connection with new single family residences north of Dr. MLK Drive, existing mixed-use structures facing MLK (#18) are proposed to be revitalized. New garages for these units are to be added facing the alley. Such reinvestment would help stabilize this area that currently has the feeling of a “no man's land.”
A new landscaped pocket park and associated parking lot (#24) is proposed for the open land between Dorothy's TV on the east and the Premiere Lounge on the west (see Figure 9 far right and Figure 10 center). This area is presently a combination of lawn and pavement. The proposal appears to offer a green space with a vertical element as a marker directing people to the parking available there.
In addition, a proposed pedestrian crosswalk (see Figure 12) is proposed in this area to connect parking and green spaces north and south of MLK. Such a crosswalk would help people feel comfortable when attending events or patronizing businesses in the area.
A revitalized parking area with surface improvements (#25) is proposed for the existing unused parking lot north of this area. An alley separates this larger existing section of pavement fronting onto Theodosia Avenue. Improvements for this paved section are based on ideas of "tactical urbanism" which rely on low-cost, largely temporary improvements without the need for significant infrastructure investments. These upgrades can enliven the space to make it a place where kids and others will enjoy spending time.
Using paint, movable planters, and similar upgrades this pavement can be improved to serve multiple functions. When needed for parking for large events, it can be used for overflow parking from nearby lots. Otherwise, it can be a place where kids can play, ride bikes and engage in other constructive activities. Making these improvements in connection with the proposed new housing to be built along Theodosia Avenue would be particularly important to provide a communal gathering spot. A centrally located, safe, fenced playground will go a long way toward encouraging families to relocate to this largely vacant area.
New residential construction infill north of Dr. MLK Drive is essential for the successful revitalization of this area. Farther to the north and south, residential neighborhoods are generally more stable. If these vacancies remain and continue to spread, they’ll engender further decay, crime while heightening residents’ fears. Attempting to save this open land as parcels for a hoped for large scale mixed redevelopment in the future (like Arlington Grove) would be misguided. Waiting decades for such major investments in this community would result in more decaying buildings to be demolished. This kind of development by attrition erodes the quality of life and viability of the neighborhood creating a cycle which can be very difficult to reverse. The area needs small-scale grassroots level improvements in addition to larger developments which only come when the market is ready for them. Both kinds of redevelopment are needed to rebuild this community.
New attached housing (#26) is proposed to be constructed along Theodosia Avenue where it reaches Hodiamont. The series of attached residential units appear to take the form of townhouses with attached garages. This seems like a reasonable approach to dealing with land that fills in the gaps between sections of existing single family housing and commercial or institutional structures (like nearby Hope House, #3).
The plan calls for new residential construction north of Dr. MLK Drive where there’s the greatest amount of vacant land, however, new homes do not appear to be proposed south of Dr. MLK. The basis for this decision likely relates to higher vacancy rates on wider stretches of land on the north side which some will argue can be developed more economically than infill construction. Larger tracts of open land north of Dr. MLK would be more attractive to home developers who can achieve some economies of scale.
Revitalizing the Wellston Loop area is crucial to the entire corridor. Working solely from the center outward––i.e., growing from the nucleus begun at Arlington Grove and Friendly Temple––will be largely destructive of the existing urban fabric and its residents. Although the rehabilitation of the historic Arlington School ultimately became part of the Arlington Grove project, it was not included in the developer’s initial proposal. Rather it was slated to be demolished and replaced. Too often that is the standard position of developers, especially in economically stressed communities. Typically they prefer greenfield or brownfield sites that can be cleared entirely. There’s no question large scale development projects will be necessary for the Dr. MLK corridor to once again become a Great Street, however, without grassroots, small-scale redevelopment the ultimate victory will be hollow since the community will end up being demolished in order to save it (cf. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency site).
There's no reason why infill housing can't be attempted in the open areas along Hodiamont Avenue and Wells Avenue (#7, #8 and #9) south of Dr. MLK only on a smaller scale. A key distinction may be whether the property is controlled by LRA or by third parties. Contiguous blocks of land controlled by LRA should be marketed to suitable developers who can take advantage of financial incentives, tax credits and other programs bridging the gap between the actual cost of construction and the present day value homes here.
With no program to span this gap and/or no mechanism for putting vacant land into the hands of current residents, no new construction will occur. Deterioration, demolition, and vacancy will continue unabated. This path seems to be what has been occurring in many parts of north St. Louis where property values are depressed, buildings are abandoned and city services are limited. In these areas of de facto implementation of the so-called “Team Four Plan” is being carried out (whether intentionally or due to unintended consequences of the individual actions and collective policies).
If we don't act soon to stabilize, and eventually to restore, historic buildings in this area, they will fall one by one to abandonment, demolition by neglect, fire, brick thieves, and will ultimately disappear from the landscape entirely. The result of such passive land clearance will, unfortunately, result in the lowest common denominator our economy offers: the kind of suburban, automobile-oriented businesses we see at the intersection of Kienlen Avenue and MLK. The result will be the loss of the particular character and history the Wellston Loop still retains and the area will become simply one more street with gas stations, convenience stores, franchise restaurants and strip malls like any other suburban corridor. The urban character of this place as qualitatively unique will be lost.
Figure 13, Facades West of Hamilton Avenue. Building facades on the north side of Dr. MLK Drive west of Hamilton Avenue (from left to right): Dorothy’s TV & Appliance, ACE Furniture and Beloved Streets of America. (Photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)
It's not hard to imagine that in five or ten years, the land along both sides of MLK will be essentially cleared and the area will finally be considered "developable" for new commercial retail projects with a sizable anchor. Will the neighborhood simply wither through attrition and decay until such time as it is considered worthy of reinvestment?
Will North St. Louis City residents be offered compensation for their property like residents of the new NGA West site? The pattern of replacing struggling African American neighborhoods in the St. Louis region is clearly worthy of consideration and is the subject of a book-length study in St. Louis: Disappearing Black Communities by John A. Wright, Sr.
I believe such projects have their place, but when there is a sufficient amount of the historic fabric still in existence, then it is incumbent upon us to encourage grassroots level reinvestment in the community like the work that's been accomplished in Old North St. Louis. Retaining historic structures, businesses and residents rather than displacing them results in a stronger, more equitable, better-integrated neighborhood. Although it may take more time, the investment is worth it to maintain a sense of culture, history, and continuity. Otherwise, what will the Wellston Loop have to offer that another strip mall along St. Charles Rock Road, Page Boulevard, Natural Bridge Boulevard doesn't have? Will there be anything to distinguish the experience of visiting and shopping in the Wellston Loop area from any other middle of the road suburban retail shopping center?
To the greatest extent possible, we need to think beyond the arbitrary boundaries that divide city from city, county from county, neighborhood from neighbor. That line, established in 1876, has come to haunt our region. In recent years this division, along with the multiplicity of municipalities in St. Louis County, has been identified as one of the biggest structural obstacles to progress.
Physical improvements alone cannot solve the entrenched social and economic problems of a neighborhood like the Wellston Loop. To revitalize portions of North St. Louis, investments are needed in programs which address joblessness, homelessness, mental & physical healthcare and quality education to positive social interaction. A holistic approach addressing not just economic development, tax revenue and infrastructure upgrades are necessary to rebuild the deeply damaged social and family structures which are reflected in the outward decay visible.
Are we prepared to leave behind archaic political divisions which pit one community against another? Can we develop a truly progressive, optimistic approach that reimagines North St. Louis drawing upon green strategies that build on the potential that open land and vacant buildings offer for building in our new frontier, abandoned urban core, without bulldozing our way toward repeating the mistakes of past decades of urban renewal which erased Mill Creek Valley, Chestnut Valley, DeSoto-Carr Neighborhood and so many others.
CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners (transportation consultant).
Development Strategies (market analysis consultant).
PDS Planning Design Studio (environmental consultant).
RDg Planning & Design (urban design consultant).
St. Louis Disappearing Black Communities, by John A. Wright, Sr.
“Team Four Plan,” by Antonio French.
“Wellston Loop Commercial Historic District,” National Register of Historic Places.
“Wellston J.C. Penney Building," National Register of Historic Places.
“Wellston Station," National Register of Historic Places.