A Historic Rehab in Old North St. Louis

Mural at Crown Square / image credit: Shawn Balon
Mural at Crown Square / image credit: Shawn Balon

This February, in St. Louis, MO, the New Partners for Smart Growth (NPSG) conference hosted exciting tours of model projects and neighborhoods throughout the greater St. Louis region and surrounding communities. I chose to attend the tour focusing on Challenges and Successes with Implementing a Comprehensive, Community-Driven Revitalization, including Historic Rehab in Old North St. Louis; focusing on a historical neighborhood in North St. Louis that was once vibrant in the early 1900’s, left as a ghost town by the 1980’s, and soon revitalized in the early 2000’s.

In 2011, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recognized the Old North St. Louis Revitalization Initiative as one of five communities to receive a national award for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth Achievement. The award supports communities that use innovation to build stronger local economies. Old North St. Louis exemplified a comprehensive approach to community development and a strong community role in setting the agenda leading to a more robust mix of businesses and organizations since the revitalization.

Map of Old North St. Louis / image credit: Shawn Balon
Map of Old North St. Louis / image credit: Shawn Balon

Founded in the mid-1800s, Old North St. Louis is located directly north of the downtown district. The neighborhood experienced its greatest success in the 1920s and 1930s when a mix of houses and stores covered the 90-block district. In the 1960s, the area began to decline leading to the planning and design of a pedestrian-only mall in the early 1970s to lure shoppers. Unfortunately, the plan led to less traffic on the mall and a decline in visitors to the neighborhood – leading retailers and residents to begin vacating buildings. By the 1980s, the area was desolate with no sign of life.

In 2003, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group (formed by residents, business owners, and community leaders) and the Regional and Community Development Alliance combined forces as the Crown Square development team to develop 100 new single-family homes in the neighborhood. Their focus would soon become the 14th Street Pedestrian Mall (later renamed Crown Square) that would create life and re-create the neighborhood’s identity.

14th Street Streetscape with a view towards downtown / image credit: Shawn Balon
14th Street Streetscape with a view towards downtown / image credit: Shawn Balon

During the 2009-2010 redevelopment, the pedestrian mall soon converted back into an active streetscape for both pedestrians and vehicles. Led by members of the Crown Square development team, the tour centered on North 14th Street (Crown Square) development where a complete-streets approach to the sidewalks and streets was among the first in the city. Along the streetscape, twenty-seven buildings were salvaged and repurposed from crumbling shells to a mixed-use town center. Along the streetscape, you could find mixed-income apartments, businesses, and community-serving nonprofits.

Along with various discussions on challenges faced, the intricacies of a public-private partnerships, and the challenges of transforming old building stock into modern, energy-efficient housing (while adhering to the demands of historic tax credits), we were fortunate to visit a few of the businesses and non-profits that have called Crown Square their home.

Our first stop took us to Zuka Arts Guild 14th Street Gallery. Zuka Arts Guild seeks to promote knowledge of and participation in the visual arts through exhibitions, teaching programs, workshops, seminars, and selected public art projects. The 14th Street Gallery embraces the concept of offering a place where people may operate within their gifts by combining art, community, and spiritual building. During our afternoon stopover, we were able to experience blues and jazz performances taking place in the gallery.

Crown Candy Kitchen / image credit: Shawn Balon
Crown Candy Kitchen / image credit: Shawn Balon

Our next stop was less about learning and more about being gluttonous. Directly in the heart of Crown Square sits Crown Candy Kitchen, known for the oldest soda fountain in St. Louis. Crown Candy Kitchen may be known for its delicious lunch and dinner, but even better known for its world-renowned desserts. Just a few items to make your mouth water including homemade chocolate candies, malted milkshakes (such as butterscotch malt and chocolate phosphate), and deluxe sundaes. It may have been thirty degrees during our walk in Crown Square, but that did not stop most of the group from enjoying a cold treat.

One of our last stops took us to UrbArts, a nonprofit created to promote arts, education, economics, and social services including poetry slams and the spoken word. The initial goals at UrbArts is to provide arts-based entertainment in St. Louis, mobilize arts for community involvement, and seek out financial opportunities on behalf of working artists.

UrbArts gallery / image credit: Shawn Balon
UrbArts gallery / image credit: Shawn Balon

Though it may seem that the neighborhood has become active again, Old North St. Louis still struggles to overcome worries about crime and feelings of vacancy. After $35 million was invested in the construction of the 80 residential units and 34,000 square feet of commercial and retail space, it took many years for Crown Square to lease space (partially from the sluggish economy making leasing a tough task). Since the economic downfall, leasing agreements have increased and almost all storefronts occupied, though most businesses along 14th street lack options for food and groceries, leaving a majority of residents to depend on public transportation.

During planning and design phases, the Crown Square development team planned for eateries and food options in the development. The team even opened a small grocery co-op in an attempt to engage hopeful residents, but has since closed.

Historic home under construction / image credit: Shawn Balon
Historic home under construction / image credit: Shawn Balon

The redevelopment of the pedestrian mall on 14th Street in Old North St. Louis may seem unsuccessful to some, but to the neighborhood and local St. Louisans that frequent Crown Square understand the importance of the transformation. With an increase in the neighborhood’s population over the last decade, residents have become active participants in community events, community gardens flourish with flowers and produce grown for farmer’s markets, local children play on new playground equipment, and commercial and residential buildings are alive with murals created by area youth.

It is evident that the outcome of Old North St. Louis shows the importance for the inclusion of planners and landscape architects long after project construction is complete. In the end, a project may not become what we once drew on paper and we (as both designers and advocates for our communities) should always understand these implications and plan for all potential manifestations.

For additional resources and articles on Old North St. Louis, check out the following links:
•  http://onsl.org/crown-square/
•  http://onsl.org/index.php?title=photos
•  https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-03/documents/old-north-st-louis-report-032416.pdf
•  https://smartgrowthamerica.org/epa-honors-five-communities-with-national-award-for-smart-growth-achievement/
•  http://www.multifamilyexecutive.com/design-development/renovations/crown-square-reinvigorates-old-north-st-louis_o
•  http://www.stltoday.com/business/local/old-north-pushing-for-vitality-in-crown-square/article_2d81126c-ae5f-11e1-a73a-0019bb30f31a.html

by Shawn Balon, ASLA, Career Discovery and Diversity Manager at ASLA

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