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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

Crown Square poised to showcase restoration progress in Old North St. Louis

Kaid Benfield

Posted May 17, 2010 in Green Enterprise, Living Sustainably

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  Restoration Group Board President Tino Ochoa and 5th Ward Alderwoman April Ford Griffin at Crown Square (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group) 

  Crown Square in the other direction (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

The aptly-named Crown Square redevelopment is the central jewel in the remarkable comeback of its once-downtrodden city neighborhood, and it is now nearing completion, much to the delight of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, which has been a guiding partner in the project.

Frequent readers know that I love revitalization stories most of all, because restoring distressed neighborhoods in our cities is the ultimate anti-sprawl.  It is a way to capture development and growth without expanding the footprint of our suburbs and consuming farmland, creating longer driving distances, spreading pavement across previously undeveloped watersheds, and more.  In addition, revitalization conserves resources that would otherwise go for new infrastructure and buildings.  It can and also should be done in a way that avoids displacement and lifts up distressed city populations with reinvestment.  All these things are happening in Old North, whose story I have been following for two years now.  (The story of Old North is strikingly similar in some respects to that of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine, which I revisited here last week.)

Check out some dramatic before-and-after comparisons:

  2601 N. 14th St in 2006 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)  2601 N. 14th St in 2010 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

  2712 N 14th St in 2008 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)  2712 N 14th St in 2010 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

  2605 N 14th St in 2004 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)  2605 N 14th St in 2010 (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

I see these "before" photos and wonder how in the hell we allowed this to happen to our cities.  What does this say about us as a society? 

Crown Square is a 27-building project stretching over some eight blocks in an area that once served as the heart of Old North’s commercial district, and is poised to do so again.  As the neighborhood around it was declining due to the flight from and disinvestment of our cities in the late 20th century, St. Louis undertook a well-intentioned but ill-fated attempt to help the area by turning its main drag, 14th Street, into a pedestrian mall.  There were similar attempts across the country, as downtowns desperately tried to compete with suburban shopping malls.  (Now, of course, it is the suburban malls that are frequently desperate, and suburban commercial developers are building “lifestyle centers” that mimic traditional Main Streets.  Go figure.)  It didn't work.  St. Louis wasn’t the only municipality to learn the hard way that few US cities have the same ingredients to support thriving pedestrian-only shopping streets as does, say, Copenhagen, and the effort only hurt the businesses and likely put the final nails in the coffin of the 14th Street district.

But things are looking up now, as Archie Cole surveys the changes from his barber shop, and new sidewalks are installed:

  Archie Cole (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

  sidewalk installation (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)  in front of the Restoration Group's new quarters (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

Thanks to a terrific location, historic (if neglected) architecture, a resilient remaining population, and a lot of talented and thoughtful people, Old North’s comeback is, if dampened slightly by the recession, nevertheless spectacular.  The new Crown Square will be mixed-use and walkable, containing apartments as well as commercial spaces, some sensitive new additions to the historic building fabric, creative spaces and, not insignificantly, the offices of the Restoration Group itself.  The project was named a development of the year in 2009 by the St. Louis Development Corporation and a “most enhanced place” of 2010 by the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.  (So far, four Old North properties have won “most enhanced” awards.)

  planting trees in the Hebert St garden (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)

  student volunteers help with the Hebert garden (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group)  neighbors work on the 13th St community garden (courtesy of ONSL Restoration Group) 

The excitement of Crown Square is not the only good thing happening in Old North, of course.  The 13th Street and Hebert community gardens have been planted, there’s a grocery co-op in the works, and residential rehabs are popping up all over.  The Restoration Group’s web site contains a real estate section, which lists properties available for homebuying, renting, rehabbing, or commercial development, including abandoned, delinquent or donated properties that have been held by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.  This story is only going to get better with time.

(By the way, I can't help but note that both the larger city of St. Louis and Old North suffered the same issues of serious decline and abandoned properties - the neighborhood's population reportedly dropped to around a tenth of its peak - that are now leading well-intended civic leaders and officials to undertake large-scale demolition of entire neighborhoods in other cities.  Everyone who cares about cities should be thankful that didn't happen here.)

  glass in the window in Old North (by: Claire Nowak-Boyd)  the ice cream truck (by: Claire Nowak-Boyd) 

  Old North houses (by: Claire Nowak-Boyd)

Enjoy the photos, most of which are courtesy of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, with the last three by the very talented photographer and former neighborhood resident Claire Nowak-Boyd.   Congratulations to everyone involved.

As an extra, thanks to Claire Nowak-Boyd’s photo site (“Postcards from North St. Louis”), I also found this music video, which shows the pre-restoration 14th Street pedestrian mall.  They have come a long, long way:

 

Move your cursor over the images for credit information.

Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page. 

 

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Comments

Tino OchoaMay 24 2010 01:00 AM

Kaid, thank you again for the kind remarks and recognition.

We, like you, are very excited as to what is going on here: revitalize in a respectful manner for all. As you point out, our revitalization is based on sustainability. Structures have been rehabbed (within Crown Square and around Crown Square), which in turn, create housing for tenants from across the economic spectrum. In addition, Crown Square acts as a “town center” for the neighborhood and near north side. This specific development endorses a walkable community as to its central location in the neighborhood, wide sidewalks to endorse a pedestrian friendly environment, while reopening the street.

Crown Square is a catalytic project that, with all the other efforts you mentioned, is there to serve the community at large. These other efforts like the 13th Street community garden and our soon to be opened grocery co-op, are conveniently located right next door to Crown Square. This only helps to create a true sustainable and functional community for residents and my neighbors.

Thanks again,

Tino Ochoa
Resident of Old North St. Louis for 8 years
Board President, Old North St. Louis Restoration Group

Kaid @ NRDCMay 24 2010 11:33 AM

Tino, thanks so much for stopping by! Readers: That's Tino on the left in the top photo.

Comments are closed for this post.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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