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Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bye-Bye, Corner Commercial

Today I saw that the two-story brick corner commercial building at Page and Walton avenues in Fountain Park was mostly gone, and I snapped this sad scene. The heartbeat of the city always grows a little more faint whenever a corner store gets wrecked. Gone is a point of exchange -- a point for drawing people together, for employment, for tax revenue generation and for provision of goods near people's houses.

St. Louis remains far outside of the relevance of the recently-publicized writings by economist Edward Glaeser. In the New York Times yesterday, Glaeser argued against hard-line preservation: "[i]f a successful city doesn't build, its prices will skyrocket and it can turn into an exclusive, elite enclave."

Perhaps true, but too often in St. Louis we never get to that conundrum. We take down a building and leave its site empty for generations. Not only are we not building, but we are not preserving. Often, physical condition of buildings demands demolition, and I can assent to protecting public safety. Yet the building at Page and Walton was in fine shape. Located in the 18th ward outside of preservation review, however, there was not even a moment's deliberation once the owner applied to take it down. And I don't know the circumstances -- perhaps there is a good reason for demolition.

Yet as I passed the largely intact residential block to the east -- the 4700 block of Page Boulevard -- I thought about how many people would be able to walk to that corner storefront easily. I also thought about how there are no storefronts on the other end of that block. This has been the case for some time, of course, since the corner building was vacant for over 20 years. Yet the past could have been rendered future with rehabilitation. A blocked network of social relations, between residents of Page and that corner store, is now effectively dead.

Preservation here would not have raised prices, but maintained the potential for recreating a beneficial pedestrian experience. The lost building reinforces the high prices in other neighborhood, like the nearby Central West End, that retain their density, walkability and their commercial activity. Also reinforced are prices in other cities where preservation has indeed led to excessively high real estate prices -- but you can read about those in the New York Times.

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