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")

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