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One of the lessons we can learn from the controversial NorthSide plan offered by McEagle Properties is that historic neighborhoods greatly benefit when their historic houses stay standing. McEagle and its supporters often point out how much vacant land there is in the nearly 1,000-acre near north side area targeted for their project. That land is sitting underutilized, they say, and it makes old city neighborhoods look like distressing urban prairies.
Yes, the high level of vacant land in Old North, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou ought to be reclaimed through dense urban development, and its presence discourages investment. The accumulation of this vacant land, however, did not happen overnight. Neither will its solution.
The vacant land that attracted McEagle came about through demolition. As property values lowered and buildings aged, owners opted to wreck or abandon their buildings rather than invest in needed maintenance. Expedience took the place of real planning, and building loss added up to shocking levels. There are whole blocks in the NorthSide project area devoid of any buildings at all.
As distressing as the architectural loss has been, the more pressing problem on the north side remains the human loss. Loss of houses and shops meant loss of residents and shopkeepers – and loss of critical mass for organizing against large-scale development. Every demolished building has made life incrementally harder for residents who stayed.
Of course, the NorthSide area encompasses many blocks that have retained both historic buildings and long-term residents. And north city’s neighborhoods by and large are much more populated than the area targeted by McEagle. The key for future success is safeguarding the physical fabric to ensure that the social fabric remains in place, and that the tumult of the NorthSide project does not spread to other neighborhoods.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Michael Allen is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant working in private practice. Most recently he served as the Assistant Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the region's historic preservation advocacy organization. He is also editor of Ecology of Absence, a website with accompanying blog that documents and analyzes changes in the built environments of St. Louis, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. His articles on architecture and policy have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Beacon, St. Louis American, Arch City Chronicle and Omnitectural Forum. In addition to his professional work, Allen has been rehabilitating a house in the city's Old North St. Louis neighborhood for the past two years.