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Monday, December 10, 2007

World Leadership Award Nice, Progress Made Great

Historic preservation has led to St. Louis winning a World Leadership Award in the category of housing. The award specifically recognizes the heroic efforts of St. Louisans in revitalizing vacant historic buildings. While Mayor Francis Slay and Planning Director Rollin Stanley went to the award ceremony in London to claim the award, it really belongs to everyone working to revitalize the city -- residents, rehabbers, developers, preservationists, architects and, I suppose, politicians.

While there are definite reasons to be skeptical about the organization that grants the awards (Steve Patterson has those reasons covered), there is no doubt that the accomplishment is very real. According to Mayor Francis Slay, more than 20,000 housing units have been rehabbed in the city since 2000. The turnaround is dramatic, and the visible results in the city rewarding to generations (including mine) who lived through darker days. While the losses continue, and politicians and urban planners sometimes seem to be the last people to get the news that historic preservation and unique character are fueling our renewal, things haven't been this good for old buildings in decades. We are making a lot of progress.

The roots of this resurgence go back to 1996 when a group of St. Louisans, with attorney Jerry Schlicter at the forefront, pushed to make historic preservation economically sensible. These folks successfully lobbied the Missouri General Assembly to enact the country's most progressive state historic rehabilitation tax credit. This credit was a boon to St. Louis and the entire state. Preservation used to be the lonely battle of historians and neighborhood activists. Now it's the common parlance of developers, realtors and bankers -- the people who control the historic buildings. For over a decade, heartbreaks have been healed. Preservationists have gladly seen many of their gloomy predictions proven wrong.

The battles continue, of course. The playing field is different in many ways. Demolition is still a problem, and historic landmark status has become a double-edged sword that cuts historic buildings that won't ever get it. North city likely will bleed buildings for the next two decades. But a preservationist now has some pretty impressive case examples of the viability of preservation. We don't need an award to reap the benefits of changed political and economic circumstances, but it sure doesn't hurt.


Doug Duckworth said...

Only a few years ago the Century was demolished, while Grand Center continues their orgy of demolition and Paul McKee still has not faced any fines even though he is illegally blockbusting the North Side.

How has the political environment changed?

Moreover, "according to Mayor Slay?" When did his numbers become the standard? I would love to see this data assuming it exists.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for pointing out the obvious Doug - not every building is being rehabbed in the city. Shocking. I, for one, am living in one home that sat vacant and was a gut rehab in 2001. I'm very grateful for all the hard work the citizens, individual rehabbers and yes, even some of the politicians, have put into reusing much of the building stock in the city. Now I'm looking for a new home in the city and home that the transition can be made in to new "urban" homes in neighborhoods that have seen much rehabbing. I'd like to stay in the city, but life changes and needs change. I hope that a developer will see that there's demand for new housing. I'm not ready to contract the building of a home, but have spoken with several homebuilders and encouraged them to build in the city.

Anonymous said...

This is like the battle over the census numbers--the data exists and those who are disbelievers should put up or shut up. On a more serious note, D.D. makes a good point--what is the relationship between the remarkable successes downtown and the continuing disabandonment and speculative acquisition of property a scant blocks to the north? Rollin Stanley says that the World Leadership Award signifies the emergence of downtown and the desire on the part of city leaders to expand the renaissance to Old North St. Louis.

Methinks that the answer is not preservation and that preservation is really ancillary to the overall trends--although very important in terms of downtown as Michael "the Slayman" Allen points out.

Just kidding, Michael...

Michael R. Allen said...

Ha. Preservation is still a somewhat geographically-restricted idea. Doug and Anonymous are right that north city is not yet automatically part of the "historic preservation" mindset. However, that has a much to do with other prejudice against north St. Louis as it does with a lack of a real commitment to historic preservation on the part of political leaders.

However, it's ultimately only preservationists who will be fully committed to historic preservation everywhere in the city. Politicians will be committed as much as preservationists and developers hold them to account -- and the award suggests that we are doing a decent job. Of course, so are those who oppose our goals. The answer is not cynical resignation to the supposed power of other political lobbies but the continued development of our own.