24 October 2016

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 façade 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")

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