We've Moved

Ecology of Absence now resides at www.preservationresearch.com. Please change your links and feeds.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Good Idea from Grand Center

While it may seem like a small act, Grand Center's effort to light vacant storefronts windows along Grand Avenue between Olive and Delmar is a good model for dealing with vacant space. Here, the redevelopment corporation used colored lights and paper to give empty spaces a pleasing night-time glow. The effect is helpful in an area known for its dead sidewalk life and plethora of empty storefronts.

Other neighborhoods should consider the big effect that lighting, posters, window displays or other decoration can provide. While waiting for development, there's no reason that vacant spaces have to be lifeless. After all, a small first step toward drawing attention to a space could lead to the end result of a signed lease or completed rehab. Every space from a storefront to an entire house can be decorated, and I encourage readers to urge their neighborhood groups to implement a decoration plan or, better yet, implement one of their own (no spray paint, please).

Now, if Grand Center could get St. Louis University to encourage its students to get off campus for lunch...

"Faith, family, desire to build"

Faith, family, desire to build drive Paul J. McKee, the chief executive officer of McEagle Properties Inc. - Shane Anthony (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 28)

The article doesn't mention McKee's connections to the Blairmont scheme that has destabilized the near northside of the city. Then again, McKee denies any connection, so perhaps there is none.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Preservation Board Meets and Adjourns

Just for the record: The Preservation Board did meet this morning to statisfy the statutory requirement for a monthly meeting. Chairman Richard Callow and member Luis Porrello were the only members in attendance, and they wasted no time in adjourning the meeting.

Your intrepid editors were the only citizen observers present for the brief meeting, proving that either we don't have anything better to do or that we are very vigilant.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

The Flop House

Kudos to Kira and Gordon McKinney, who earlier this month hosted the grand opening at what is probably the first art gallery in Old North St. Louis in this century, if not ever. The Flop House at 13th and Hebert opened on December 8 to a ragtag assembly of young people, many of whom had not ever visited the neighborhood before. On display at the opening -- again, an Old North milestone -- were charcoal-on-paper works, accompanied by the requisite snacks and Stag beer. (Incidentally, Stag Beer was brewed for awhile in the 1950s by the Griesidieck family at the nearby Hyde Park Brewery at Florissant and Salisbury avenues.)

Needless to say, rehab at the Flop House is not yet complete, and it did not have heat for the chilly opening night. Not that such limitations matter to Kira and Gordon or the attendees. In true neighborhood fashion, someone had an idea and didn't let trivialities stand in the way of making it happen. This spirit has helped Old North's older generations overcome great troubles, and in newer residents it's helping generate a vibrant cultural energy that's infectious.

Keep watch for great things at the Flop House in the new year.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Preservation Board Meets Thursday on Rather Short Notice

The following note now appears on the city's Preservation Board website:

The St. Louis Preservation Board will meet on December 28, 2006 at 10:00 A.M. in the Cultural Resources Office of the Planning and Urban Design Agency, 1015 Locust Street, Suite 1100.

NOTE:This internet posting is not the official posting of this notice.The official posting of notice is the physical copy displayed in the main lobby of our building at 1015 Locust Street and also at the Planning and Urban Design Agency offices on the 11th Floor.

The website lists no agenda items.

Earlier this month, the Preservation Board website stated that there would not be a December meeting due to the holidays.

I wonder what will be discussed Thursday. Only one way to find out...

One City Center: The Future of St. Louis?

Backing a tax increment financing loan structure for private benefit with a city's general revenues is risky business. That the city of St. Louis is now obligated for $28 million toward the acquisition of the One City Center office building by the Pyramid Companies is absurd. Here, we have a developer that has just agreed to take on the long-needed redevelopment of St. Louis Centre and claims -- out of the blue, long after announcing that project -- that such redevelopment will be hindered if the company cannot also acquire the One City Center building enveloped by St. Louis Centre. That makes some sense, although claiming necessity is a hearty exaggeration. What's worse is that this big-time development company, with plenty of incomplete projects, made the claim that it could not afford to purchase the ailing office building itself -- and then asked for this almost-unprecedented TIF.

How can anyone trust a company that owns so much downtown real estate yet expects city government to buy it an expensive office building?

Unfortunately, Pyramid isn't the least trustworthy party. All the Slay administration and the aldermen could have done was tell Pyramid "no." Not this deal, not this time, not that amount. After all, the TIF was based on a hyper-inflated appraisal price that values the building at $26 million. Slay should have demanded a new appraisal.

Instead, our mayor jumps in fully supporting the TIF. Never mind that the city's population is far from stable and that the city is struggling to maintain a decent level of city services with current revenues. There is no guarantee that the city's revenue will rise over the next decade. As the mayor of a city with a delicate but potentially bright future, Slay should have opposed the TIF. The last TIF backed by the city's general revenue was for the failed St. Louis Marketplace project on Manchester Road, the tarnished trophy of former Mayor Vince Schoemehl. That TIF is now a drag on the city's budget. Why create a second?

On December 13, the Board of Estimate and Apportionment voted 2-1 in favor of the TIF agreement. Comptroller Darlene Green stood up for fiscal prudence and opposed the TIF, while Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury quietly voted to support a TIF many would-be allies strongly opposed. Of course, Shrewsbury may have caved to the pressure of opposition in the upcoming race for his office. The Board of Aldermen followed with a 26-2 vote for the TIF agreement; only Aldermen Stephen Conway (D-8th) and Fred Heitert (R-12th) opposed the bill.

Thus begins the tenuous tie between a real estate venture and the public good of a metropolitan city. All citizens are indentured to John Steffen and his company's ability to turn this office building around. Perhaps Pyramid's ability is a sure bet, but the revenue of a city government is not betting money. With a diminished and still-recovering population base, continuing hostility from wealthy surburbanites, a relatively low stature among large American cities, decimated public schools and a crime rate that may be rising, St. Louis is not in a position to gamble with its wealth. Conservation, not dissipation, should be the guiding principle of those who lord over the city government.

For those who think the future can't be anything but great, consider why One City Center has become an albatross: Anheuser-Busch recently relocated all of its employees in the building to Sunset Hills. Amid the bully talk of a downtown whose prospects seem limitless, one of the largest regional employers voted against those prospects. That should be cause of worry -- as well as consternation against Anheuser-Busch.

The trouble with tying our city's general revenue to this real estate venture is that we won't know if it's a good or bad thing for decades. Then, if it's bad, there won't be much the city can do except make huge payments into the TIF while cutting city services accordingly. Do Slay, Shrewsbury and the aldermen want to face a future where the city may have to cut services further? I suppose some of them may be banking on a future where city residents are wealthier and need less from their lean, libertarian city government. The rest of us have reason for much worry.

Church Burns on Christmas Eve

Blaze destroys church in St. Louis - David Hunn and Jake Wagman (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 26)

Resurrection Lutheran Church at West Florissant and Fair avenues near O'Fallon Park lies in ruin after Christmas.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Recipe for Your Own Blairmont Company Name

Find two or three street names within the Fifth Ward. Cobble them together in an unexpected way and tack on a "Venturers" or "Partners" or "Associates" label to give the name sobriety. Get CT Corporation System to register the name as an LC or LLC (and make sure there is an accompanying mirror company), and use it to buy property within boundaries of I-70 on the east, Delmar on the south, Grand on the west, and Natural Bridge/Branch on the north. Kudos if your property is adjacent to city-owned land or an RHCDA development project. Double kudos if you buy your land from the Board of Education, the Public Administrator or the Sheriff at a tax sale. Triple kudos if your purchase lowers property values and destabilizes a part of a neighborhood where you want to buy more parcels. If you buy a building and it becomes a crack house, give yourself a gold star. If you actually ever develop the property, get the mayor to give you a gold star and a TIF.

Here are some possible names:

Branch + Knapp = Brapp Venturers LLC.

Stoddard + Leffingwell + Elliott = Stolefiott Associates LC.

Dayton + Gamble = Dayble Investors LLC.

Howard + Knapp + Helen = Hownhel Associates LC.

Dodier + Sullivan + 23rd = Ervan 23 Investment Ventures LC.

And so forth.

Try your hand and leave your names in the comments section.

Friday, December 22, 2006

It Happens Everywhere

Copper thief sets DeSoto building ablaze - Harry Levins (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, December 22)

While the article's subject is noteworthy itself, check out this sentence: "The theft of copper wire, pipes and tubing is common in rundown sections of St. Louis."

This is partially true, but only because metal theft happens in every part of St. Louis, from "rundown" sections with vacant buildings to rehab zones to stable neighborhoods like the Central West End.

The again, the Post-Dispatch has long abandoned any pretense that it's an accurate chronicle of the city of St. Louis.

Our City

Such architectural beauty and refined historic masonry as found in St. Louis is not easy to find in other American cities. We who dwell here in the city are surrounded by wonderful sights free for the intake. On a walk to work, or a drive to the grocery store, we pass hundreds of buildings that uplift our aesthetic sensibilities. Unlike new, glamorous architecture, which unfortunately is segregated in the wealthier parts of St. Louis, the historic architecture abounds everywhere people live.

Such a cultural resource needs to good stewardship, and often we fail to provide that. As we conclude one year and start another, we hould reflect upon what we all can do to steward one of the world's most important architectural collections: the city of St. Louis.

Photo: Brecht Butcher Supply Company Buildings, 1201 Cass Avenue.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Sheridan Place

The Blairmont family is using a new name for acquisitions: Sheridan Place LC, likely named for Sheridan Avenue which runs through the near northside of the city.

Sheridan Place LC was incorporated on March 24, 2006 by the CT Corporation System. Its first deed was filed October 30, 2006, three days after this blog reported on the then-latest Blairmont entity to be used for acquisitions, Dodier Investors LLC.

On the first few deeds filed, Sheridan Place LC listed its address at Eagle Realty Company's old address, 721 Olive Street Suite 920. On the deeds in type is reported the name Roberta Defiore as manager, but her name is crossed out and the name Bridget G. Calcaterra is handwritten. Calcaterra signed the deeds. Later deeds use a Brentwood address for the company's mailing address but show Calcaterra's name in print.

If the name Bridget Calcaterra seems familiar to some of you, it's probably because she recently served as Deputy Director of the Land Reutilization Authority (LRA) of the City of St. Louis. She was also director of Operation Impact, a city program designed to help neighborhoods get privately-owned nuisance properties into the hands of the LRA which then seeks development projects for those properties. Readers can draw their own conclusions.

As an aside, the Blairmont scheme is growing to such epic proportions that I think it's high time that the parties responsible begin to engage the affected communities. If the end goal is a massive development project, they will need allies here -- assuming we all get to stay. If a Blairmont agent is reading, consider the smallest gesture of contact -- a call to the head of a neighborhood group or a meeting with an alderperson. Those of us living in the near northside don't want to stop something good -- but we don't have any reason to believe that what you are proposing is good. Dialogue might resolve the fears and animosity brewing here, and cut my sarcasm in half (maybe).

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Pruitt-Igoe Site the Key to Blairmont's Scheme?

If one studies the map of Blairmont holdings that we posted last month, an interersting picture emerges. Besides other concentrations that I have noted, all of the holdings seem to center on one site: the vacant site of the Pruitt-Igoe housing project.

All of the holdings fan out from that location, a city-owned megaparcel frequently discussed as the nexus of new development on the near northside. Recall that nearly ten years ago the administration of Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. embraced a plan to build an 18-hole golf course surrounded by suburban-style housing, using the Pruitt-Igoe site and much of the St. Louis Place neighborhood.

Jump forward to 1999-2000, and one may remember the Fifth Ward Land Use Plan created by Schweyte Architects and vigorously opposed by architects and preservationists, including the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, Landmarks Association and former St. Louis Place resident Robert Myers. That plan called for the demolition of hundreds of buildings located in the footprint in which Blairmont has been purchasing its holdings. The Pruitt-Igoe site was key to the recommendations of that plan, which seems to be one guide to Blairmont's scope of activities.

Is the Pruitt-Igoe site key to whatever project Blairmont might be concocting? It's hard to say without word from the company's representatives. But it seems that acquisition of that site is essential to any development Blairmont may be planning.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Pub Def's thoughts on the crime stats; my thoughts on Pub Def's thoughts.

Antonio French wrote a very good post on crime statistics, and what it's like to read the machine's spin on our Most Dangerous City title, while one is living in what continues to be a rough neighborhood with insufficient police coverage: Even More "Dangerous" This Year

I have to say, all this crime ranking talk has me feeling conflicted. On one hand, I feel pretty safe where I live, I generally feel okay walking down the street, and I understand that both murder and rape are usually committed by someone the victim knows (i.e., not usually against a random person walking down the street). I also understand that this whole sour discussion has lead to a lot of City-bashing and shallow finger-pointing, to the point that I have actually lost count of how many people have recently told me to my face that it's "just because of the North Side" in a tone that suggested that it was somehow the fault of all of us who live in North City. Um, no. My street ain't perfect but I still love it, and I am still amazed at how great a lot of my CITY neighbors up here on the NORTH SIDE are. In fact, tomorrow morning, me and one of my NORTH SIDE neighbors from the CITY are going out to breakfast at a diner on the NORTH SIDE and I am going to eat a huge waffle--sounds like we're all doing crime 24/7 up here, don't it?

On the other hand, though, there are certain levels on which I don't feel safe. I still think a lot about things that I saw, heard about, and experienced when I lived in Adams Grove, and how disempowering and frustrating it was to try to, you know, actually get something to happen to change it. I remember a lot of different things, but for some reason the thing that's coming back to me as I write this entry is the time that I called the cops because there was a man holding a gun to the head of a woman whom he was dragging down the street directly in front of our apartment building. I said please hurry, he's got a gun to her head. Ten whole minutes later, a police van rolled by the area and didn't even stop to look around. It just kept driving.

To be fair, that was last year. But earlier this year, a similar incident happened. I was out with a group of neighbors one evening, and we heard nine shots. We called the police. A car came by a few minutes later, hastily shined its spotlight down the block where we'd said it happened without even driving down that block, and then drove away. There was a large group of us concerned citizen types assembled under a streetlight in plain view nearby, but the police in that car didn't even come over to ask us if we'd seen anything. It just drove off. I've spent time in a lot of different places in my life and heard gunshots in several of those places, but somehow seeing that police car not even drive down the block that we told them the shots came from was much scarier than almost any shots I've ever heard before.

Also, this year, a woman I know was attacked and nearly raped in her apartment, and as was reported in the Arch City Chronicle, she had a horrendously difficult time getting the officer who responded to her call to take the crime seriously. This came after the Post-Dispatch report about how the SLPD had fudged its rape statistics by using memos instead of real reports, and after Slay blogged his defense of and support for (and spin on) Mokwa's performance in that area. Honestly, I try not to think about this whole thing too much, because it makes me very, very upset. Despite my friend's outstanding survivorship and resilience, part of me is still very sad that this could possibly happen to her, and is very sad for all the people in my city who've gone through the same but who didn't have the strength that she did to get through it. And as a person who wants firmly to live the rest of my life in St. Louis City, and as a person who has survived rape before, I can't help but wonder--if, god forbid, it ever happens again, will the City police take it seriously? I don't know, but this morning that was on my mind when I read Mokwa's comments on the P-D site that he thinks the rape number went up this year because more rapes are being reported now. I can't even begin to tackle that one without using the words "what the hell" and a lot of words much more acidic than that, so I'm not going to even try it. Suffice it to say, reading that made me feel no better about something that's made me feel unsafe. Mind you, I don't think I'm going to have to survive rape again, but it saddens and sickens me to think that the justice system of the City to which I give so much might not give a shit about me if I did.

I don't submit this as a great essay or as thoroughly thought out, scientific truth, but these are just a few things that have been on my mind about crime in this City lately, and Antonio's blog entry got me thinking about them again. While this blog entry is neither rocket science nor brain surgery, the general gut feeling that residents get about the safety of the place where they live is often a big determining factor about whether or not they decide to keep living there, and that's something worth thinking about. One of the things that is most absurd to me about the oft-repeated We Must Build 8,000 Hideous Particleboard And Vinyl Homes Today Or No One From The County Will Move Here argument is that, um, safety and schools make a much bigger difference in quality of life and in where-to-live decisions than the quantity of hideous vinyl homes built in an area.

The aforementioned P-D article that I read this morning bore one particularly interesting quote about the Morgan Quitno crime rating: "Indeed, to avoid a poor finish in the Quitno report, St. Louis would either need to add thousands of residents or dramatically cut crime." My prediction for 2007 is that Mokwa, Slay, and the other powers that be in StL City will juggle the statistics on both of those topics, but make no significant real change in either area.

Stay safe.

Has Paul McKee Read Franzen?

"... Tell me what's going on in North St. Louis."

"Nothing more than what's in the papers every night." Chuck raised his voice, as if many stupid people had been asking him this very question. "Nothing more than business as usual. Now, to my knowledge, there's been no excessive speculation on the North Side. Property values have risen, and the various institutions I serve have seen fit to protect their future and the future of the depositor -- the little man, Martin -- by making some selected and I believe wise purchases in the area. To add to what we already had. And, of course, to replace what we'd sold before we properly assessed the market's strength. There's some very choice property down there, and it's about time the city made something of it. ... I think the time is coming. We're certainly quite satisfied with the crime situation at present."

- Jonathan Franzen, The Twenty-Seventh City (published in 1988)

Granite City May Get Tough on Bad Landlords and Tenants

Granite City considers four-strike plan for unruly tenants - Michael Heil (Granite City Press Record, December 19)

Read about a proposed new law Granite City is considering. This would be a good idea in St. Louis, too. The worst problem in urban areas often isn't the bad tenants, who tend to only stick around a few months, but the bad owners who gladly replace a bad bunch with another.

Only when some people start losing money due to their behavior do they change their ways.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Rehab moment



This concludes our Rehab Moment for the day. Tune in next time, to watch our happy couple survive another Rehab Moment in a charming episode entitled "Oh god, oh god, why can't I find two of the cats?!?" You may think that you've seen that episode before, but I assure that it's brand new--Rehab Life offers endless variations on the "What happened to our pets?!?" theme (as it does the "I can't believe I just ate that!" theme, the "Oops, I haven't returned any phonecalls in a month" theme, and so on!).

And by the way, if you have lent me anything white, absorbent, or delicate lately and I still have it right now, I'm sorry.

Mullanphy Effort Moving Forward

What are some people doing to help raise money for stabilizing the damaged Mullanphy Emigrant Home?

Mayor Francis Slay is lending his support.

Rick Bonasch is selling furniture to raise donation money.

Claire and I have raised donation collections twice -- once at a meeting and again at Claire's birthday party.

Some people are talking about benefit shows, dinners and other fundraiser events.

But all anyone really has to do is send a tax-deductible contribution:

Old North St. Louis Restoration Group
2800 N. 14th Street
St. Louis, MO 63107

For more information, contact the ONSLRG office by phone at 314-241-5031 or via email at: info@onsl.org

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Silent Terrorists

As I just wrapped up hour eleven of working on my house today, a thought hit me that I can't shake.

Old North St. Louis is populated by many people, including an inordinate amount of energetic rehabbers who are sacrificing normal lives, leisure time and money to rescue historic buildings.

The Blairmont syndicate is attracted to buildings in Old North because they know worker bees like us are paving the way for a big pay off for their lazier, more conservative but much wealthier selves.

By not participating in dialogue with us and by continuing to buy historic buildings here and then letting them sit empty as nuisance properties, the owners of the Blairmont companies are inflicting aggression against the residents of my neighborhood. They are using our efforts, and the efforts of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group/Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, to build their vision. At the same time, they are ensuring that no rehabbed house is less than a block away from a vacant building or lot that is untended. That act can keep values down to the point where they can acquire more property here from frustrated property owners.

In some, they inflict doubt. In others, anger. Some people have never heard of them but feel the pressure of a crack house or weedy, rat-infested lot next door. Blairmont's effect is that of psychological terrorism, whether intentional or not.

Thank goodness that most of my neighbors are strong enough to resist the fear that the Blairmont group is pushing on us. The irony is that most of us would welcome a large development project that improves our neighborhood.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Parking at the Municipal Courts

A small nit that I will gladly pick: When will St. Louis city government finally forbid parking on the sidewalk of 14th Street alongside the Muncipal Courts Building? Now that the Muni Courts have been vacant for the last few years -- an embarrassing civic problem for another discussion -- there aren't even employees using that building. The people who park on that sidewalk must work at City Hall, or be visitors. Either way, they should not be allowed to park there.

A sidewalk is a space for pedestrians. That particular sidewalk is two blocks north of a major bus transfer point and a MetroLink Station. People use it to walk north to the Central Library, Washington Avenue or other bus lines. Those on foot can easily walk around the cars parked there, but those using a wheelchair are effectively blocked for using that section of sidewalk. How's that for inclusive city government?

Also, the image of cars parked on the sidewalk in front of a grand civic building certainly doesn't help to convince anyone that anyone at City Hall is serious about moving St. Louis up from the 52nd city rank. I've seen more decorum at out-state county courthouses.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

A Blairmont By Any Other Name

Our good friends at Blairmont Associates LC are slow in unveiling some of their other names. Here are some names that they own but are not yet using for purchasing properties, with dates of incorporation:

NGV Partners LLC (4/14/2003)
Vashon Developers LC (4/14/2003)
BMA Partners LLC (4/14/2003)
NDC Venturers LC (4/14/2003)
1891 Holdings LLC (2/2/2004)
Benton Company LLC (3/4/2004)
Maiden 25 Partners LLC (3/4/2004)

Notice the references to street and landmark names from the near northside: Benton Street, Maiden Lane, 25th Street and Vashon High School. Also note that three of the companies have aconyms that correspond to the name sof other companies in the "family": BMA for BlairMont Associates; NDC for Noble Development Company and NGV for N & G Ventures.

None of these companies own parcels, and the recent purchase pattern includes newer entities MLK 3000 LLC and Dodier Investors LLC. Perhaps these other companies are being used to direct the venture capital being used to fund purchases.

I know, I know -- this is trivia to some of you. But to those on the near northside, we should keep a watch out for these companies.

Monday, December 11, 2006

How Much Excitement?

Does anyone else find it troubling that the website for 600 Washington -- the phoenix-like project rising from St. Louis Centre -- conspicuously does not mention demolition of the skybridge over Locust Street while extolling the views opened by demolishing the skybridge over Washington Avenue?

Does this mean that the skybridge over Locust will remain -- horrible news for the disconnected blocks of that street -- or simply that marketers assume that people don't care about the view down Locust?

The Industrial City

Rob Powers has published his long-awaited Built St. Louis tour, "The Industrial City." The tour is an overview of remaining historic industrial sites around the St. Louis area, covering both abandoned and occupied sites. Included are the National City Stockyards district, the Laclede Gas Company gasometers, the Cahokia power plant, the Carondelet Coke plant, US Steel's Granite City works and many sites along the north riverfront of St. Louis.

Check out the tour here.

Friday, December 8, 2006

Jill Mead's Photographs

Jill Mead has started posting architectural photographs from St. Louis and Kansas City to Flickr. Her photographs show a compelling level of detail, from terra cotta pieces to old enamel neon sign boards.

View the photographs here.

Mullanphy Emigrant Home Effort Needs Your Donations

What have you done to help the effort to preserve the Mullanphy Emigrant Home? The endangered near north side landmark -- follow the link to read a basic history -- suffered a wall collapse in April that prompted the successful effort of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group to acquire the building.

Now, the Restoration Group is seeking funds for an estimated $100,000 stabilization project. With every day of inclement weather, than goal becomes more urgent.

Please send a tax-deductible contribution of any size ($5 isn't too small to help):

Old North St. Louis Restoration Group
2800 N. 14th Street
St. Louis, MO 63107

If you have questions, call the Restoration Group at 314-241-5031 or e-mail info@onsl.org. I can assure you that the Restoration Group is serious about stabilization and your money literally will go straight into bricks and mortar.

The eventual restoration of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home will do more than save one building. This project has the potential to initiate major investment in the southern end of Old North St. Louis and aid in development that will link our renewing downtown to Old North St. Louis.

Thursday, December 7, 2006

Candidates and the Built Environment

There will be many candidates for public office in St. Louis during the spring election cycle. The office of President of the Board of Alderman, aldermanic seats in even-numbered wards and two school board seats are on the ballot. The aldermanic candidates in particular are seeking or defending legislative power. They will make promises to voters about a number of issues.

Voters interested in urban issues need to make sure that candidates get their stances on the record. While a soft promise is better than none at all, the difference can be indiscernible. Aldermen introduce and vote on legislation impacting the built environment. Much of this legislation includes redevelopment ordinances -- most often "blighting" ordinances -- as well as tax abatement and tax increment financing. However, aldermen can do much more than dutifully respond to developers' requests for support. They shape, create and interpret public policies. They are more than the functionaries that they often claim to be.

We should ask candidates for specific promises. If a candidate wants to "preserve old buildings," we need to ask if that means that he would introduce a much-needed ordinance to reinstate city-wide preservation review. If a candidate thinks tax abatement is out of control, she needs to specify what legislative route she will pursue to address that. Talk is cheap, and either the elected candidates will do something to make policy changes their rhetoric endorses or they won't.

Our support for aldermanic candidates in the city should be contingent on receiving specific legislative actions he or she will take. Aldermen act through legislation, and candidates for aldermanic office won't talk in terms of specific bills we should be careful. Our support should hinge on firm promises based on the power that they seek. Even though many incumbents avoid advancing public policy change, aldermen have more power than other elected officials to determine what our built environment policies will be. No changes in LRA practices, preservation review, nuisance property enforcement or the zoning code can come about without an act of the board of aldermen. That's where a lot of power lies under the city charter. We should be wary of candidates for the board who won't tell us how they will use that power -- and those incumbents who claim that they don't have it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Update on 4202 Chouteau

Last week, I posted information from Marti Frumhoff about a condemned house at 4202 Chouteau in Forest Park Southeast. Here's an update.

The Forest Park Southeast Development Corporation and Alderman Joe Roddy (D-17th) decided last year to pursue a nuisance case against the owner of the home, Andrew Yee, who had purchased it in 2003 for rehab only to leave it in a terrible state for over two years. Neighbors have been upset by the condition, so the alderman and the development corporation rightly got involved.

However, apparently somehow the nuisance case led to a condemnation suit seeking demolition, and on November 20 a circuit court judge ordered the building condemned and demolished. Also, the owner claims the alderman is using eminent domain to acquire the building; I have no knowledge of whether or not that's the case but am not necessarily opposed given the property condition.

Residents of FPSE are concerned that the house, which is a contributing resource to the Forest Park Southeast Historic District and eligible for tax credits, may be demolished per the judge's order.

Anyone who wants to step forward to rescue the house should immediately contact Irving Blue, Executiev Director of the Forest Park Southeast Development Corporation, at 314-533-6704 and Alderman Roddy at 314-622-3287. While demolition may seem like a viable solution, I am sure they would not oppose a quality historic rehab. However, if a new owner can't be found soon demolition is inevitable.

Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Mortgage Fraud Hits Rehab Neighborhoods

Case here reflects the national rise in mortgage fraud - Robert Patrick (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 23)

Sorry for the delay in linking to this article. Read through and find just one of many tales of speculators' using easy 'n' quick mortgages on historic homes in south city and straw buyers to make money. The effect inflates neighborhood rehab housing markets beyond recognition, encouraging legitimate rehabbers to list finished homes at prices grossly beyond their value. Perhaps these stories aren't publicized because politicians hungry to take credit for a city housing market boom are avoiding looking at the cold hard facts to the contrary.

Don't get me wrong; I am all for strong housing values. That's why stories of mortgage fraud are disturbing, because in the end they do more to harm stable, high housing values than to help. Hopefully prosecutors will take these cases seriously.

Monday, December 4, 2006

Ghost Sign No More

On his website, Aldermanic President Jim Shrewsbury has an article celebrating the efforts of Bob Corbett and the Dogtown Historical Society to restore a faded Alpen Brau sign in Dogtown.

Another Lost Chicago Diner

I barely had time to appreciate DeMar's Coffee Shop on Chicago Avenue in Chicago during the three months that I lived there, but I enjoyed my handful of visits. Chicago is a great city for diners and greasy spoons, ranging from the stand-by Golden Nugget chain to the excellent, now-shuttered Zorba's on Halsted (which had Greek food in addition to diner mainstays) to the more obscure ones like DeMar's. A city that gets as cold as Chicago had better be able to provide filling food at all hours.

DeMar's seemed to have everything the cinematic imagination desired: cheap food, salty wait staff, no crowds, a big menu, great coffee and one of the coolest neon signs I have seen. The only drawback was the hours, which had been cut from all-night to a fairly early close for a diner. Unfortunately, now there are no hours at all, because DeMar's closed in 2005. I had not managed to swing by on subsequent trips to Chicago, but through Flickr I found not one but two photos of DeMar's windows boarded by Chiacgo's ubiquitous Buzy Bee Board Up.

Alas, the little diners in Chicago seem to be dropping like the flies around the grill. Please tell me that Golden House in Uptown is still open.

Friday, December 1, 2006

Storms in St. Louis, Again, Less Than Six Months Later

Power went out at 12:00 a.m. AmerenUE line busy.

Neighbors burned fire in a barrel using wood from vacant church across the street, 3:00 a.m. AmerenUE line still busy, as was 911.

Fell asleep, 5:00 a.m.

Got up, still no power, 8:00 a.m.

Went to gas station at 14th & Salisbury, 10:00 a.m.

Started using oven for heat, 10:45 a.m.

Drove to bank to get emergency cash, 1:00 p.m.

Made plans to stay with neighbors who have power, 3:00 p.m.

Power back on, 4:00 p.m.

City and AmerenUE get prepared for handling big storms, uh....