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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Roberts Brothers Buy Buildings on Locust Street

Roberts brothers take bigger stake in Old Post Office district - Lisa R. Brown (St. Louis Business Journal, January 13)

The Roberts Brothers have acquired the buildings at 919-21 and 923 Locust Street, just west of the St. Louis Design Center where the offices of Landmarks Association of St. Louis are located. The Roberts Brothers now own the entire north side of the 900 block of Locust, with the Board of Education Building at the other end of the block.

The building at 919-21 Locust is a rather plain, four-story brick commercial building, likely built between 1900 and 1920. The other building, though, is of great historical importance: It may very well be the last remaining Civil-War-era commercial building in the Central Business District (excluding Laclede's Landing). The building consists of two sections, a three-story portion at the corner of Tenth and Locust and a two-story section facing Tenth. Aside from later cast iron columns on the first floor, the building's older features are completely covered by stucco and timber in a kitschy mock-Tudor style. Underneath the stucco, the buildings are probably very simple Federal style buildings with red brick walls adorned with stone windowsills and lintels. Perhaps a dentillated cornice in brick exists. Few buildings like this one are left in the entire city, and no other in the downtown core.

The brothers are contemplating demolition of the newly-acquired buildings, although they have no certain plans. One idea is to build a new condo tower on the site, which would confirm the old rumor that the Century Building Memorial Parking Garage exists not just for the Old Post Office but for a secret new tower project. Who knows? Discussion is underway on the Urban St. Louis forum.

Demolition is ill-advised on one of the few downtown block faces that has not had any demolitions in the 20th or 21st centuries. The 900 block of Locust only recently had intact faces on both fronts, complementing the also-intact 1000 block of Locust and the 800 and 900 blocks of Olive. What a dynamic urban context this was, and still could be. The wise choice would be to renovate the two buildings on Locust, with a full restoration of the old building at 923 Locust. The recovery of the original appearance would add even greater visual complexity to this part of downtown.

Building any new buildings on the north side of the 800 block of Olive seems logical; there is an entire city block front that could host a stunning, modern design that would provide space for a new, taller residential building that would fill in one of downtown's most glaring visual gaps. The proposed downtown plaza and its associated public urination would never come to fruition, but no matter -- there is too much open space downtown as it is, with the old Ambassador Building site already providing a lifeless park one block east. Why not rebuild that space instead, build up the 800 block of Locust and restore the 900 block of Locust? Locust Street needs a boost, and the resources are at the ready.


Joe said...

The article referenced seems to suggest the plaza proposal north of the OPO may not happen anyway:

"The Roberts brothers also plan to build a 25-story residential tower, the Roberts Mayfair Tower on the Plaza, on a parking lot adjacent to the Roberts Mayfair Hotel facing Eighth and Locust."

Also BB#365 introduced recently by Ald. Phyllis Young proposes to vacate that north-south alley behind the Roberts Orpheum "to consolidate property for commercial development."

As for the buildings at the NE corner 10th and Locust: I would love to see them retained. However, if the alternative is a (well-designed!) high-rise structure , it would be hard to generate opposition to that.

Michael Allen said...

"it would be hard to generate opposition to that."

Very hard indeed -- but necessary, if the plan is ultimately tear-down.

Anonymous said...

Is there no old building you'd sacrifice for denser development in its place?

Urbanity is building over and over with time. The resulting cumulative fabric of mixed age tells the story of our cultural history.

These two buildings don't begin to dominate their block like the Century once did. I find it hard to argue that anything old is automatically of value.

Michael Allen said...

Context is key to me. These two buildings are much more worthy of preservation because the Century Building fell for a parking garage (quite a loss in density to destroy a ten-story building that could have housed hundreds of people for a garage). They are more worthy of preservation because Locust Street is full of "holes" ripe for newer, bigger buildings -- the Ambassador site and the old Mercantile Club site across the street (both empty lots); the block-long stretch of empty space in the 800 block of Locust; the old Miss Hullings building site at 10th and Locust (also an empty lot). With such a diminished and de-densified context, the wise choice seems to be preserving the few buildings that have survived the demolition rampage on Locust while building up the empty lots in a way that imprints our current time on the context.

Reducing the argument to the buildings in question and the proposed replacement (which, in this case, is just a rumor) makes for bad city planning. Every decision made in the built environment has great impact on architectural context. In this case, one need not be a preservationist to realize that demolition is unnecessary for buidling a new building on Locust Street, and in fact provides a rather weak site for a new building of bigger mass.

The block north of the Old Post Office offers a big site for a bold modern building surrounded by historic buildings of high merit. What an opportunity to redefine Locust Street!

Anonymous said...

Just in terms of scale, these shorter buildings somewhat look out of place within otherwise mid-rise streetwalls along 900 Locust. But I could see why such variety makes things interesting in an urban streetscape. For not every street should be the perfect urban canyon like Washington. There are subtle differences, such as smaller older buildings that make Olive and Locust stand out from Washington.

And yes, if we had the land demand of NYC or Chicago, we could more easily sacrifice non-landmark buildings for new density. And I agree that many surface parking lots should be ideally targeted first.

But ultimately, site control is a market factor, and the parking lots are unfortunately not for sale. Yet with time, maybe projects like that rumored by the Roberts Brothers could further drive up the land value, making redevelopment of surface parking lots more attractive.