Category Archives: housing

Hill and Ville

NOTE: The following post was created in Fall 2011 during Community Building. Some of the text refers to specific things that occurred in class at that time, however the overall point remains apropos.


Reflecting on the music and discussion we had in yesterday’s class. The drawings the students’ worked on were representations of The Ville and The Hill. It almost seems too cute in the way they rhyme but there’s certainly a logic involved in making the comparison.

One of the things about the two tours that strikes me is that I felt our visit to The Hill tended to preference the built fabric and the vernacular sense of continuity that makes for a very compelling and cohesive neighborhood. The insistent repetition of the overall house forms had an almost numbing effect in some areas despite the individuality of each home not just architecturally, but also in the way each family ornamented and presented their homes to the public.

My suspicion is that it would have been possible to visit The Ville and take a tour with a similar sense of architectural continuity. Our tour tended to favor the larger institutional buildings and organizations over the urban fabric of the residential community. When we did look at homes, they tended to be unique for historical reasons and due to the residents who grew up there rather than for their architectural or urban content.

There’s nothing wrong with this difference between the tours, but it does lead to a varied perception. Clearly much of the difference that was noted related to the general comfort and ease with which we generally felt in visiting The Hill. Part of that has to do with the “branding” of the neighborhood as a source for Italian culture and food that is widely known and appreciated in Saint Louis. Also, the neighborhood itself has made a particular point of reminding visitors (and residents) that they are in the “Italian” section of the city.

Bob’s explanations have made it clear that while Italians were among the original residents of the area, it wasn’t a monolithic culture that dominated the area in the way that I think is suggested by the constant reminders (flags, banners, fire hydrants, etc.). In fact, the branding has so successful as a strategy for attracting restaurants and bakeries, that there seems to be a much higher concentration of such businesses in the area than could be supported by the local economy. The great number and variety (and expense) of many of the restaurants clearly seem to be in business because they attract customers from a relatively wide area.

It seems that this dominance of branding neighborhoods has been so successful in certain respects that it tends to suppress many other features of the community that are beneficial, but not publicly understood to be connected with The Hill. It would be interesting to take photographs of less typical sections of The Hill that might be suggestive of other cultures, practices and locations and to present them to a group and ask them to identify the neighborhood in which they were taken.

I suspect that it would be possible to find buildings and sites and locations just within The Hill that could be suggestive of the industrial riverfront areas, Soulard, Wellston, The Ville, Clayton and West County. In a similar way, I suspect one could take photographs of various locations around the city to could be considered to fit into the image that is commonly accepted for The Hill and have people identify them as having been taken there, when in fact they represent restaurants, homes, churches, parks and businesses in other parts of the city.

So what does this mean? Does it mean that the representations of The Hill that we have ingrained in our minds is false? I don’t think that’s the case, however it does suggest that we’re somewhat brainwashed in the way we understand segments of the city. I wonder to what extent our preconceptions determine our reactions?

Another thought experiment might be to take students on a drive blindfolded and then arrive somewhere without knowing where they are going in advance. Then they would be forced to really “read” the city they find themselves in for clues and information about its condition, history, demographics, prosperity, density, etc.

Our conversation about the drawings was instructive, but also revealed some things about our own ideas and how we project them onto situations. Someone commented that, “Well of course we feel more comfortable going to The Hill, since we all have a European background.” I felt this statement was, at a minimum, insensitive.

My sense is that part of the intentions behind the class has to do with overcoming stereotypes and preconceptions that we have about people and places that cause us to distort reality and block us from really seeing things as they are.


After writing this post, I decided to go ahead with my thought experiment and take still frames from the video I shot during our visits to the Hill and the Ville. Can you identify which are which?

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Please test yourself and put down whether you think each photograph was taken in The Hill or The Ville.

Bartholomew’s City Plan (1947)

City Planner Harland Bartholomew developed a detailed, comprehensive plan for St. Louis which documents the existing conditions at the time and projected future development based upon increasing population density and totals. In actuality, the city’s population peaked shortly thereafter and then following a steady decline as St. Louis County became increasingly suburbanized.

This chart presents four primary demographics. The top line represents the population of the United States (dashed lines at right indicate projected figures). The second pair of lines represent the populations of the states of Illinois and Missouri. The third line represents the City of St. Louis. The shorter line at the bottom represents St. Louis County.

Population growth (historical and projected)

This analysis of the population of the region formed the basis for the comprehensive plan. The caption for this illustration (Plate Number Two) reads, “St. Louis cannot expect sizeable population increases in the future.”

This pair of maps compares the population density within the boundaries of the City of St. Louis as of 1940 (top) and the projected/desired density as of 1970 (bottom):

Population density (historical and projected)

As illustrated, Bartholomew suggests that the density of the city’s core would increase and that the westward expansion would not only stop, but actually be reversed. The same desire for increasing the density in the center of the city has been suggested as desirable and ideal by many urban planners since, but the reality has been exactly the opposite.

The multicolored plan below represents Bartholomew’s ideal Land Use Plan. The reality is much more complex and heterogeneous. Achieving such clarity in function and use was a dream for planners of the modern American city was an ideal never to be attained in practice.

Desirable Ultimate Land Use Plan

The mismatch between the actual and zoned uses are indicated in this diagram of the Lafayette Neighborhood District. These drawings compare the existing land uses with the existing zoning. Clearly the actual facts on the ground were much more heterogeneous, mixed and complex than the simplistic organization suggested by the area’s zoning.

Lafayette Neighborhood District (present land use and present zoning)

The serious nature of reconfiguring the city to correspond to the desired land uses is suggested by the sample rezoning of a neighborhood in this series of plans for the Macklind Neighborhood District. From left to right the drawings depict: Present Land Use, Present Zoning and Proposed Zoning. Clearly to achieve the purity of the desired zoning would require major alterations to the city fabric.

Macklind Neighborhood District (present and proposed uses)

Achieving the clarity of vision suggested by the “Desirable Ultimate Land Use Plan” (above) would require massive rebuilding of the city as suggested by the following plan which highlights in red areas of Substandard Housing (“a measure of obsolescence and blight”).

Substandard Housing

The plan indicates two areas of city which would require massive reconstruction. The red hatched areas indicate “blighted areas” and the black hatched areas indicate “obsolete districts”.
Obsolete and Blighted Districts

A key method for determining whether districts were obsolete and/or blighted involved determining how many residences in the area relied on outside toilets. This map documents the absolute numbers (red figures) and the density of such conditions in the city. In general, the closer to the riverfront and the older the age of the structure, the more likely that they did not include indoor plumbing.

Percentage of Dwelling Units with Outside Toilets

The necessity for rebuilding the city along different lines altogether is made bluntly clear by this suburbanized images of a redesigned Soulard. To Bartholomew’s way of thinking, this district was entirely obsolete and needed wholesale replacement.

Soulard Neighborhood District

The following map delineates neighborhoods (outlined in red) and industrial districts (highlighted in yellow). In general, the greatest density of industrial districts were located along the Mississippi River or along the Mill Creek Valley area. Both of these areas were served by extensive rail networks. These areas remain largely industrial in nature with greatly reduced railroad activity, however many of these tracks remain in place.

Neighborhood and Industrial Districts

The plan features two maps indicating the massive investments in upgrading infrastructure the city was undertaking. The first indicates the many improvements that were a part of the 1923 Bond Issue. The largest projects included major upgrades to the system supplying potable drinking water for the city ($11,000,000) and construction of the River Des Peres drainage system beginning in Forest Park, extending through the south city before draining into the Mississippi River.

Other significant improvements included the following new structures in the downtown area: Civil Courts Building, Municipal Opera House, Municipal Power Plant and the Soldiers Memorial. Other amenities included a series of public hospitals, fire houses, parks, playgrounds, sewer upgrades and a major street lighting program. Public spaces to be improved included Union Station Plaza and Memorial Plaza. The total cost of the 1923 Bond Issue exceeded $67,000,000).

1923 Bond Issue

Further investments in the city were made as part of the “Post War Bond Issue” of 1944 which totaled more than $63,000,000 and included improvements to streets, water systems, sewer systems, parks, fire stations, telephone networks, hospitals, airport, art museum and zoo.

Post War Bond Issue of 1944

Of course, the actual development of the City of St. Louis in the second half of the 20th century followed an altogether different design which was occurred through the combined action of major highway construction, massive new suburb development in the surrounding communities and the demographic shifts associated with “white flight”.

If Bartholomew had considered the evidence of population shift away from the city center toward the perifery, he might have been able to more accurately visualize and create a realistic city plan that could possibly have been implemented in a more coordinated way. Clearly, such a plan would have to deal with (at a minimum, St. Louis City and St. Louis County). My suspicion is that he was only authorized to prepare a plan for the city itself.

Population Change (1930–1940)

McKee lines up five homebuilders

By Tim Logan      tlogan@post-dispatch.com      314-340-8291

ST. LOUIS  •  In what may be the closest thing to progress yet in his decades-long bid to rebuild much of the city’s near north side, developer Paul McKee said this week that he has reached agreements with five home builders to construct housing for his NorthSide Regeneration project.
 
Paul McKee
Paul J. McKee, Jr., of McEagle Properties, LLC, interviews with St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporters near the intersection of Pine St. and N. 23rd St. in downtown St. louis late Tuesday, December 6, 2011. Photo by Erik M. Lunsford elunsford@post-dispatch.com

 

McKee and the quintet of builders have plans for 79 homes – mostly new construction – on a few rebuilt blocks along St. Louis Avenue, just west of North Florissant Avenue, in the city’s St. Louis Place neighborhood. It’s intended to be the first phase of residential construction that will grow as – and if – McKee’s vast vision becomes reality.

The progress is fragile. Previous plans to launch NorthSide – like one to rehab the Clemens House mansion on Cass Avenue – have become false starts. At roughly $200 million, the five blocks of housing would be the largest development McKee has yet announced in the 1,500-acre footprint north of downtown since he started buying land there eight years ago.

But all McKee’s plans hinge on the fate of NorthSide’s $390 million in public subsidies, in the form of a tax increment financing package that will go before the Missouri Supreme Court next month.

McKee selected the builders – Fischer & Frichtel, Rolwes Co., Rubicon-Bruno Homes, X3 Design Build and Gateway Development – in a competitive process earlier this year. They are a mix of companies with experience in new and rehabbed homes in both suburban and city neighborhoods. But they say they are planning on building “urban-style” homes on what are now mostly vacant blocks between 20th Street and North Florissant Avenue – land McKee bought quietly over several years, then combined with a massive purchase of city-owned land earlier this year. Some existing, occupied homes will remain there.

Several of the developers said they were attracted by the chance to be part of starting something new in the battered neighborhood, and by the prospect of a large-scale redevelopment. McKee’s plan ultimately proposes thousands of new homes and vast swaths of new office, industrial and retail space across the area.

“I’ve seen so many plans come and go in the city of St. Louis,” said Jerry Meyer, director of development at Rubicon-Bruno. “This is the first one I’ve seen that addresses education, infrastructure, jobs and housing. We can create another real option for people here.”

“This area needs life,” said X3’s Kevin Logan. “It’s a great opportunity for us to participate in that.”

Pricing is still being worked out, but it’s likely these homes will cost far less than the $400,000 average price estimated in McKee’s 2009 TIF application. Greg Sommerhof, a Wentzville builder who is working on market analysis, says he sees a strong target market in teachers and city police and firefighters. He held focus groups with all three groups, and found a lot of interest in quality new construction in the city.

“Overwhelmingly, people found it attractive,” he said. “Security concerns were holding them back. If we can provide that, we’ll have a great start.”

The developers also have got a lead on financing. St. Louis Community Credit Union has agreed to lend to buyers in the project, said credit union spokesman Michael O’Brien.

McKee-1.jpgMcKee-2.jpgMcKee-McEagle.jpg

“Hopefully the opportunity will come to fruition,” he said. “We’re a locally owned credit union. Our focus is primarily the city. So it’s a natural for us.”

McKee said he could start construction in the spring. But of course, all of this depends on NorthSide’s giant subsidy, which has been in legal limbo since a circuit court judge ruled in July 2010 that it was vague and overbroad.

The TIF would generate about $390 million for streets and new sewers and other infrastructure across the two-square-mile area, money McKee says he needs to get his project done. Upgrading infrastructure for this patch of housing alone would cost $2 million, he said.

McKee has been trying to access that money for two years now, first proposing more specifics to allay Judge Robert Dierker’s concerns, then bringing the case to state Appeals Court, which in June passed it up to the Missouri Supreme Court. Oral arguments there are scheduled for Nov. 28, with a ruling likely several weeks after.

“If that doesn’t go our way,” McKee said, “We’re dead.”

 

[click here for link to original article and photograph]

Buckminster Fuller’s Old Man River

R. Buckminster Fuller worked with Washington University Professor of Architecture James Fitzgibbon. Here is a portion of text by Fuller discussing the project:

Having undertaken the solution by artifacts of the world’s great housing crisis, I came to regard the history of cities. Cities developed entirely before the thought of electricity or automobiles or before any of the millions of inventions registered in the United States Patent Office. For eminently mobile man, cities have become obsolete in terms of yesterday’s functions-warehousing both new and formerly manufactured goods and housing immigrant factory workers. Rebuilding them to accommodate the new needs of world man requires demolition of the old buildings and their replacement of the new and now obsolete real estate, streets, water and sewer lines, and yesterday’s no longer logical overall planning geometries. I sought to take on this challenge and developed plans for an entirely feasible and practical new way for humans to live together economically. Old Man River’s City is one such design.

Old Man River’s City, undertaken for East St. Louis, Illinois, takes its name from the song first sung by Paul Robeson fifty years ago, which dramatized the life of Afro-American blacks who lived along the south-of-St. Louis banks of the Mississippi River in the days of heavy north-south river traffic in cotton. Cessation of the traffic occurred when the east-west railway network outperformed the north-south Mississippi, Mexican Gulf, and Atlantic water routes, which left many of its riverbank communities, such as East St. Louis, marooned in economic dead spots. East St. Louis is an American city overwhelmed by poverty. Its population of 70,000 is 70 percent black.

I originally came to East St. Louis to discuss the design and possible realization of the Old Man River’s City, having been asked to do so by East St. Louis community leaders themselves, being first approached by my friend Katherine Dunham, the famous black dancer. At the community leaders’ request I presented a design that would help solve their problem. It is moon-crater-shaped: the crater’s truncated cone top opening is a halfmile in diameter, rim-to-rim, while the truncated mountain itself is a mile in diameter at its base ring.

You can read the entire piece A Community Dwelling Machine by clicking here.