24 October 2016

Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 1

The City of St. Louis and the East-West Gateway Coordinating Council of Governments recently sponsored a “Great Streets Initiative” for Dr. Martin Luther King Drive from Union Boulevard west to the City Limits. The attention being paid to this part of our city is commendable and needs to be followed up by actual improvements on the ground. Deterioration in the Wellston Loop area has reached a critical point: without substantial efforts to shore up historic structures very soon, an important part of our city’s history and culture will be erased and the opportunity to revitalize a vibrant, diverse community will have been lost.

My comments below are based on a series of events which took place the week of Monday, April 11, 2016, over four days. The meetings took place at 5736 Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, a historic building being renovated by Ward 22 Alderman Jeffrey Boyd. Consultants met with business owners and residents with the goal of developing meaningful plans to spur the area’s revitalization.

Figure 1, Title Slide.  The introductory slide for the “Public Wrap Up & Next Steps” session held on Thursday, April 14, 2016.

It’s important that attention is paid to this neighborhood which has been in dire need of reinvestment and support to counteract decades of disinvestment and flight. I applaud the cooperation of Don Roe, the city’s Planning and Urban Design Agency, East-West Gateway Council of Governments and Ward 22 Alderman Jeffrey Boyd for co-sponsoring this public design process.

The consultants conducting the focus sessions and design charrette were CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners, RDg Planning & Design, PDS Environmental, and Development Strategies. See Figure 1 for the title slide from their final presentation from the evening of Thursday, April 14. (Images bounded by thick black frames are taken from the consultant presentation.)

My criticisms are intended to be constructive and are based on my understanding of the neighborhood, its history, and its capacity for becoming once again a vital center of commerce and culture. Continuing the planning process in regular consultation with the community is essential to developing a plan the neighborhood accepts and supports. Imposing “top down” developments can alienate current residents and dampen their positive impact.

Figure 2, Base Map.  This slide of the “Wellston Loop Area” by RDg Planning & Design was presented as part of the proposed master plan for Dr. Martin Luther King Drive. My annotations include the blue text (top) beginning with “Base map by RDg”, the RDg logo, north arrow, and remarks in orange (lower right hand corner).

The overall study covers Dr. Martin Luther King Drive from Union Boulevard west to the City Limits (almost to Kienlen Avenue). The planning team divided the study area into a series of smaller sections. My focus here is on the section called the “Wellston Loop Area” as depicted in Figure 2. This particular section extends from Laurel Avenue on east (at right side) west to the City Limits on the west (left side). Figure 3 includes the street names and indicates the border between the city and county.

From a logical perspective, the study area should extend at least to Kienlen Avenue rather than stopping at the City Limits. The bureaucratic reasons behind stopping the study at this essentially arbitrary dividing line reflects the kinds of disconnect and lack of coordination between the City of St. Louis, the City of Wellston, and St. Louis County. The East-West Gateway Council should help bridge these kinds of gaps in supporting the plans implementation.

My remarks are largely based on the "Wellston Loop Area” slide in Figure 2. The two subsequent figures replicate this plan with the addition of street names and the city/county border in Figure 3 and a numbered key indicating specific locations in Figure 4.

Figure 3, Street Names.  This diagram replicates Figure 2 with the addition of street names (in orange) and the city/county boundary line (in green).

There was a good deal of discussion between the presenters (consultants) and the audience (stakeholders) about various aspects of the plan. Public comments ranged from complimentary to quite critical. My comments here are based on my experiences working in the community. I’ve had the opportunity to know the people and the place over the past five years while co-teaching the course "Community Building, Building Community" in the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.

Many people in this community have expressed their frustration with being the subject of academic studies and planning recommendations. They long for desperately needed investments which generally fail to materialize.

In any redevelopment project of a struggling neighborhood, there’s a danger that too much emphasis will be placed on economic development without adequate attention paid to the real needs the existing residents. Gentrification displaces people and relocates problems from one area to another without addressing the underlying issues. To some extent such effects are inevitable, but if considered properly, they should be minimized. People who have committed themselves to the community over the long term deserve particular attention when improvements are being made.

Figure 4, Key Map.  This illustration uses the same base as Figure 3 with the addition of a numbered key (in yellow) highlighting specific locations (both proposed and existing).

My remarks begin with the community’s symbolic center––the historic 1909 Wellston Station (Figure 4, Key #1)––and proceed counterclockwise around the drawing. Securing and restoring Wellston Station is absolutely critical to the revitalization of this part of Dr. MLK. The plan reflects this necessity, making it the centerpiece of a "town square / marketplace" development featuring storefront businesses, open green space and limited parking. Reestablishing a takeaway type restaurant at Wellston Station is crucial to the viability of this concept. Until recently Bus Loop Burgers was located here (see Figure 5). Similar food service businesses, like The White Mill, operated there throughout the 20th Century. The tradition of such food service businesses in this location goes back decades and to critical to establishing even the potential for revitalization.

Presently, the structure is vacant. Presumably, the tenant was asked to leave in order to allow for rehabilitation work to proceed. If this building remains shuttered and no takeaway restaurant is reestablished, then the viability of sustainably reviving Dr. MLK in the Wellston Loop will be threatened.

The plan suggests symbolically representing the position of the former Hodiamont rail lines through the use of pavers, a potentially fruitful idea. Locating a reconditioned PCC street car and positioning it under the building's canopy could be a wonderful opportunity to visually reestablish a vibrant aspect of the neighborhood's history as a transit hub. Currently, the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis County has an actual Hodiamont streetcar in its collection.

Carrying out such a plan would require a significant investment. However, such a renovation would substantially improve the public's perception of the immediate surroundings. It’s important that the building not become an empty monument to history. It needs to remain a center of daily activity.

Wellston Station’s revitalization should be accomplished so as to reinforce the positive nature of existing social interactions while discouraging negative behaviors. This is a delicate balance to strike. The restored building should NOT be an immaculate cleaned up, sanitized relic of the past, but instead, should retain its function as a well-known gathering place.

Plans for the surrounding area should encourage people to sit and gather, expanding on the building’s role as a transit hub. Improvements should not discriminate amongst people with regard to race, class, home or other factors. It should NOT be policed in such a way as to drive out the “undesirable homeless people" who presently use the shelter. It should be clean, well-lit and made safe and secure to the greatest extent possible. It needs to remain an authentic hang-out spot and not become a sanitized memorial. The building needs to continue operating as an authentic social collector.

Figure 5, Wellston Station.  A recent photograph of Wellston Station (#1) when Bus Loop Burgers was still operating and a rendering depicting the proposed improvements to the structure which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photograph © Andrew Raimist 2015; drawing by Jeffrey A. Brambila, AIA Architects & Planners with edits and colors by Raimist.)

Programming public events to take place here will be critical to reestablishing the perception of the area as one that’s agreeable and desirable. How this is handled will be critical for the success of any redevelopment effort. Simply fixing up the building and the immediate surroundings from a physical standpoint will not be sufficient.

The proposed mechanism for Wellston Station’s revitalization relies on encouraging a wider community of interested people to invest in it based on positive collective memories of its significance. This notion is a creative approach to the difficulties relating to financing its restoration. It's unlikely to be restored by private developers due to the high cost involved to preserve its craftsmanship and details. Its tiny footprint together with the area’s economic challenges makes it generally unattractive for commercial redevelopment. Relying solely on public funding seems similarly unrealistic.

Making this project a reality will require establishing a nonprofit organization with the mission of restoring and revitalizing the building and its surroundings. The overall goal would extend beyond the structure and its immediate surroundings to make it an integral part of a functioning commercial district. The project would be a philanthropic effort founded on gaining the support of people with positive collective memories. Grants are available to support such a project. Citizens and businesses would need to come together to invest in bringing it back to life after being stabilized by the City of St. Louis, which owns it through the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA).

This effort will rely on people who once lived, worked or shopped here in years past and have fond recollections of the area’s position as the city's "second downtown." It will be no small undertaking but will nevertheless be essential to the revitalization of this part of Dr. MLK. Stabilizing the building needs to be commenced immediately, as portions of the building are presently in danger of collapse. Not only is it in a fragile state, it’s potentially dangerous to the public.

Building stabilization should include ensuring its structural integrity, including its columns, beams, and roof structure. All of the existing roofing should be removed, new plywood and roofing felt installed and the roofing slates completely reinstalled after being properly flashed using copper. New copper gutters and downspouts should be provided. Rotted wood should be replaced. Exterior wood surfaces that are sound should be cleaned, primed and painted. Ideally, the first floor should be sufficiently updated so another small restaurant could operate in that space with minimal investment infrastructure required. That is, the utility service connections should be brought up to code (electric, plumbing, gas, telephone) so they’re prepared for a new tenant to move in.

Although its enclosed footprint is small, the significance of the social interactions taking place at this structure is vital to the area. Leaving the building without a tenant would be disastrous for the structure and surrounding area. The social, economic and symbolic implications of this tiny restaurant cannot be overstated. Whenever I speak with people about the neighborhood who knew it from the past, they invariably ask me whether Wellston Station is still standing. There is a persistent rumor in some circles that the building has been condemned and is slated for imminent demolition.

The master plan suggests creating a new series of small structures (#2), highlighted in red, across the north side of the Wellston Station property where it backs up to Hope House (#3). The plan proposes extending Theodosia Avenue west for one block past Hodiamont Avenue to Irving Avenue. The necessity of formally extending this street is questionable. Creating an access drive or alleyway here may be sufficient to provide service entries for the proposed new structures as well as allowing vehicular access to Hope House. Extending the street would necessarily be a part of the planning for the construction of these new buildings.

The purpose of this series of new buildings (#2) is providing small-scale, pedestrian-oriented retail space. Potentially, they could offer outdoor dining in a protected area. This kind of business located around Wellston Station would help to reinforce the welcoming nature of this public square. Having accessible, engaging storefronts here would help animate the space where the side of Hope House (#3) overlooks mostly unused deteriorated pavement. The existing restroom facility constructed by Metro should either be demolished as part of the redevelopment or redesigned to work as a public facility.

(continued in next post, "Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 2")

Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 2

(continued from prior post, "Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 1")

On the south side of Dr. MLK, the proposal relies on speculation about a future that's unlikely to materialize without substantial investment from outside parties. The red toned blocks (see Figure 4, Key Map, #5) indicate rehabs and new construction that seem desirable but relatively unlikely given present deteriorated circumstances. This approach relies on a revitalization of the Kresge Building (#4) as a nucleus for new surrounding businesses with a new small parking area off Hodiamont Avenue to its south.

In isolation this idea for reviving the south side of the Wellston Loop seems reasonable: however, without a comprehensive redevelopment of the blocks between by Hodiamont Avenue (on the east), Kienlen Avenue (on the west) and Dr. MLK (on the north) and Page (on the south), anything of this sort is unlikely to materialize due to vacancy, vagrancy and other issues with problem properties in this area. The conditions of the vacant buildings here are certainly a concern.

The Kresge Building (Figure 6) has a multipart facade reflecting the changing architectural styles from the area’s heyday (modernism at the corner and Renaissance next to the Hodiamont streetcar right-of-way). For deteriorated structures with facades worth preserving for their urban and visual contributions, it might be more cost-effective to retain its fa├žade while completely reconstructing the building enclosure behind it.

Figure 6, Kresge Building.  Recent photographs of the Kresge Building (#4) on the south side of Dr. MLK Drive facing Wellston Station. The overhangs protecting the sidewalk and bus stop offer a meeting spot for folks to congregate especially in inclement weather. (Photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

The master plan suggests the addition of one multifamily housing building (#6) just south of this new commercial nucleus. This part of Hodiamont Avenue is, unfortunately, rife with streetwalkers and drug dealers. It’s sometimes referred to locally as “Prostitute Row.” The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department’s “hot spot” policing practices certainly help to displace these kinds of activities, however, the problems seem to simply reappear in another neighborhood. Addressing the root causes of the social ills plaguing these individuals (such as the lack of job opportunities, education, healthcare, and other social services) is the only practical, sustainable solution.

East of Hodiamont Avenue, either community gardens or agricultural crops are indicated (#7). This kind of urban agriculture has the potential to be a positive source of income, jobs, and environmental improvement. However, it’s questionable whether bringing such agricultural land use all the way up to Dr. MLK makes sense unless it were part of an overall strategy to market and sell fresh produce at the new "town center.”

Figure 7, Hodiamont Avenue.  Views of properties along Hodiamont Avenue south of Dr. MLK, from left to right: a vacant home, a community garden where buildings had been demolished, a storefront child care center and a vacant building facade. (Photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

One approach to dealing with vacant land that should be considered is creating opportunities for home ownership on larger plots of ground than typically available in an urban context. Combining agricultural land with adjacent homes would be a way to reoccupy some of the vacant land in the community around Wells Avenue. This approach to removing vacant land from LRA rolls and placing it in the hands of motivated families who would cultivate the land, or simply enjoy a larger yard, should be part of a comprehensive redevelopment strategy, particularly north of MLK where the existence of multiple vacant sections of residential blocks is an impediment to new investment. 

Offering this kind of "homesteading" opportunity on currently vacant land could help to increase the area’s population, address problems of land and building vacancy, and improve safety and security. Similarly, there are currently calls to create new policies which would make it easier for someone to acquire vacant land adjacent to their full-time residence by mowing and caring for the land for a specified period of time. This approach would give residents an incentive to improve the condition of the properties on their street and would likely result in more cooperation amongst neighbors. It could address many of the concerns relating to safety, overgrown weeds and other nuisances associated with vacant lots.

Reducing the funds required to maintain empty parcels––by mowing, applying weed killer and correcting safety issues––would free up resources for more productive projects. Giving adjacent residents the potential to expand their homes, build garages, create gardens, and enlarge their yards, and places for would offer vitality and return control of this unproductive land to the people with the greatest interest in improving it. Giving residents the chance to further invest in their communities––rather than give up and move out––would be the best thing the city could do to activate untapped resources.

Presently, neighbors can improve empty lots by leasing the land from the LRA for community gardens. There are many examples of such gardens in the Hamilton Heights and Wells/Goodfellow neighborhoods. Recently the city has begun requiring these citizens––who are volunteering their time and energy to improve their community––to pay for liability insurance. For some people struggling to stay afloat, even $100 per year can be sufficient discouragement for them to abandon their efforts to beautify their street. A program addressing the financial hardships faced by the elderly citizens on fixed incomes who maintain these gardens should be enacted to provide relief for this added expense. Even better would be finding a way to put this land permanently into the hands of people who care about their neighborhoods and want to improve it. This is the right way to empower grassroots neighborhood improvement.

The city’s practice of land banking for hypothetical future redevelopments, unfortunately, contributes to further deterioration in our neighborhoods. The LRA program may be useful in certain instances where it is difficult to assemble large parcels of land for redevelopment projects, however, the policy of simply holding onto thousands of parcels with little hope of them ever becoming part of a large-scale redevelopment is bad public policy. Essentially, this practice results in the de facto enactment of the worst aspects of the so-called “Team Four Plan” from the 1970s which was never formally enacted (although many believe it has been the de facto plan for the north side).. North St. Louis has suffered from sustained disinvestment for decades. Let’s give communities control over their own destiny and empower them to improve them one lot at a time in places where it makes sense to do so.

Figure 8, Wells Avenue.  Views of properties along Wells Avenue from left to right: a vacant decaying home, vacant buildings next to the parking lot of the former J.C. Penney Department Store, well-kept homes surrounded by decay and a beautifully restored Craftsman style home. (Photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

On the south side of Dr. MLK between Hodiamont and Hamilton Avenues, there's a patchwork quilt of proposed uses including residences, agriculture, green space, fruit stand, memorial plaza, commercial structures, and parking. This part of the plan is unrealistic, fragmented and not well considered. Why would a series of homes (#8) be located in the midst of agricultural land along Wells Avenue (aside from the fact that the open lots already exist)?

A more realistic scenario might be creating enlarged lots associated with new single family homes. In this way, homeowners would be responsible for keeping their land secure rather than exacerbating the sense of a dangerous "no man's land" which presently exists. For those looking to own a home on a larger lot than typically available in the city, this could be an incentive encouraging new investment. 

The former J.C. Penney parking lot on Wells Avenue (#9) is proposed to be converted for agricultural use. Larger plots of land set aside for agricultural production could be problematic from a safety and security standpoint, not unlike the existing open grassy areas, potentially even worse. Depending on the crops under cultivation, such agricultural plots potentially offer increased cover for unscrupulous people, thus reducing the perception of safety along the street. In general terms, private, well-defined fenced gardens would be preferable to larger agricultural expanses.

Figure 9, Panorama from J.C. Penney Rooftop.  Panoramic photograph from the rooftop of the J.C. Penney Department Store Building (#12) looking west toward the concrete frame building at the center which holds Club ‘E’/The Venue (#10). The open green space (#11) between the two building occupies the center foreground of the image. Dr. Martin Luther King Drive is at right. Houses visible in the distance at right are located on Hodiamont Avenue. The J.C. Penney parking lot (#13) is visible at left with nearby homes surrounded by trees located on Wells Avenue. (Photograph © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

Several well-maintained homes with established adjacent gardens already exist on Wells. Reinforcing and enhancing the residential character of this street would be preferable to continuing open, common land uses. Multifamily housing could help anchor the exposed areas at each end of the block while emphasizing the area's fundamentally residential character.

Right now the existing parking lot (#13) behind the historic International Style J.C. Penney Building (#12) creates a large unused void at the center of the block, destabilizing its viability as a safe residential street. This largely unused parking area is visible at far left in rooftop panorama in Figure 9. Converting the rear section of that parking lot to productive green space (#9) makes more sense environmentally as compared to the present cracked asphalt lot which generates increased runoff and heat island effects. Replacing this barren landscape with new homes on lots up to a half acre in size would reinforce the street's existing residential character and beautiful community gardens.

Figure 10, Dr. MLK Drive at J.C. Penney Building.  North-facing facade of the J.C. Penney Department Store Building (#12) at left. The center image is an annotated aerial photograph from Google Earth with labels corresponding to the keyed map in Figure 4. The north-facing facade of Club ‘E’ (#10) at right. (Left and right photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

An orchard and fruit stand fronting on Dr. MLK (#11) is proposed for the open lot between the J.C. Penney Building (#12) and “Club E" aka "The Venue” (#10). This notion seems romantic and unrealistic despite the existence of a handful of fruit trees. It poses several potential problems with respect to maintenance and upkeep, dealing with falling, rotting fruit, associated odors, and related environmental concerns. The construction of a fruit stand at MLK, surrounded by a fruit orchard, might offer a wonderfully pastoral ambiance; however, it’s based more on fantasy than reality.

An open green space would be more practical than the orchard, but having appropriate, supportive adjacent uses would be critical for such a park’s success. For example, if job and vocational training, co-working facilities, a maker's center and childcare services were offered at the J.C. Penney Building, and the building could be opened up with windows and doors facing onto such a park, it could substantially benefit the neighborhood. Providing vehicular access at this location to the rear parking areas behind the J.C. Penney Building might be important to such a project's success. Safety, ongoing activity and clear orientation for drivers would play a critical role.

If fresh fruits and vegetables are to be offered for sale to the public in this area, it would preferable to do so using the storefront of the adjacent J.C. Penney Building or another nearby structure. Presently, there’s an excess of vacant buildings the 5900 block of Dr. MLK including some historic structures worth saving. We need to encourage and support new uses to the greatest extent possible. New structures should be built in this area only where truly needed and when adapting existing structures is impractical.

(continued in final post, "Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 3")

Wellston Loop Design Charrette –– Remarks, Part 3

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.

Figure 11, Dr. Martin Luther King Drive and Hamilton Avenue.  At left, view from the rooftop J.C. Penney Department Store Building (#12) looking northeast toward the intersection of MLK and Hamilton Avenue. The center image is an annotated aerial photograph from Bing Maps with labels corresponding to those in Figure 4. At right is a detail of the 1906 era building by Nicholas Pelligreen (#15) at southeast corner of intersection. Note initials and date in shield. (Left and right photographs © Andrew Raimist 2015.)

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.

Figure 12, Traffic Control.  Slide presented as part of the Great Streets Initiative presentation by CBB Transportation Engineers & Planners. The diagram shows the locations of present signals to be improved through interconnecting their control systems, stop signs and a new pedestrian crosswalk proposed mid-block between Hodiamont and Hamilton.

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).

“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.

03 August 2016

Wellston Loop Family Reunion

This past school year, we held an event in the Wellston Loop neighborhood that we called the Wellston Loop Family Reunion. The idea was to highlight the area's strengths, its history, its people and its potential. We had a variety of speakers, food, music, videos and an exhibition of photographs.

Since the event itself is ephemeral and was held on the coldest November day in recent history (Saturday, November 21, 2015), I've compiled a book of essays, photographs and other materials offering a more in-depth view of what people attending the event experienced. The book is available for viewing here online and may be downloaded to keep for yourself and/or print out to share with others.

The book may be downloaded in its entirety as a PDF here.