05/19/2010 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Village Green: How to Do Redevelopment Right



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.

My environmental and urbanist colleagues 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 St. Louis, 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 last week on my NRDC blog.)

Check out some dramatic before-and-after comparisons:




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:



Thanks to a terrific central 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.)



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.)



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 occasional "Village Green" commentary on Huffington Post and (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment on NRDC's Switchboard.  For daily posts, see his Switchboard blog's home page.