Monday, January 18, 2010

If You Build It...

A couple months ago, I was riding my bike south on Spring, through Tower Grove South and into Dutchtown, when I came across a mostly abandoned apartment complex near Spring and Itaska. Adjacent to neighborhoods of fairly old frame and brick houses, it was of obviously more recent vintage, and in its uninspiring architecture felt like public housing. It reminded me a bit of the "low-rises" in The Wire. I didn't have my camera with me that day, but today I was out for a ride and decided to swing by there again (though this time I arrived by a slightly different route, taking Morganford to Bates).

Here's a view of part of the complex, from the west:

The complex comprises eight, maybe ten buildings, most of which are boarded up. The buildings are on both sides of Spring, and extend a block east on Itaska.

Despite the rather alarming condition of so many of the buildings, others in the complex are still occupied. I saw a thirty-something woman enter this building, and a kid in one of the upper windows, as well as a few kids running out to a car in the parking lot behind. Judging by the sign out front, you can still rent an apartment at this place.

Further down Spring are some other apartments, also largely if not entirely abandoned.

The other noticeable construction in the vicinity is a baseball field, which a wind-battered sign on a chain-link fence indicates is the future "Field of Dreams" of St. Mary's High School. I rode up the hill on Itaska to get a better vantage point.

When I got home, I checked around online to see if I could find out any more about this area. I found this very interesting thread on the Urban St. Louis forum.

According to the thread, the ball field used to be the site of more apartment buildings, ones fairly similar to the ones pictured above, which are in actuality the remnants of a much larger and, according to some comments in the thread, rather rough neighborhood. St. Mary's purchased the buildings and demolished them. Included in the thread is an interesting series of photos of the demolition.

The thread offers a variety of viewpoints on these apartments. One commenter, who claims to have lived in the complex in the 1980s, remembers it as a nice place to live, and regrets that poor tenant screening caused it to decline so quickly. Several St. Mary's alums remember the area as scary and crime-ridden. One commenter blames the apartments, which he thinks were public housing, for introducing crime to a formerly stable area. Others find it troubling that urban-style density is giving way to suburban-style campus development. A comparison is drawn to athletic facilities built at St. Louis U. High on the site of a former neighborhood. Though this post at the Dutchtown West site indicates that the apartments on Spring will be refurbished, a commenter on the thread asserts that those plans are now on hold because the developer ran out of money. Even among those who find troubling the buildings' demolition, no one feels that they were much of an architectural or historical loss.

I still have some questions about the history of this area, which is so subtly tucked away from general view: What was on the site before all these relatively new (and indeed rather suburban style) apartment buildings? Were the complexes used solely for subsidized housing, or were they intended to cater to a mixed-income clientele? Does their fate have any implications for the various mixed-income areas that have recently been constructed in St. Louis? Where do all those who used to live here live now?


RP Dannan said...

As much as I am a fan of density, it is nearly unanimous within the Dutchtown community to see these apartments go. For me it really gets to the issue I have had for a long time with the city, why don't they hold property owners accountable. The reason that many thought that this was public housing was likely due to the fact that many of the residents were section 8 and this concentration of poverty is always destabilizing.

Most of the residents likely stayed in Dutchtown area albeit to smaller complexes.

I don't think that the remaining apartments will be refurbished anytime soon as the developer has been seeking funding for this project for over 5 years and has limited capital of his own.

I would like to see a general do over of this area that along with the strip mall at the corner of Spring and Delor see some mixed use in future here, along with a re-invigoration of the industrial area along Gustine to Meramec. Those tracks are still occasionally operated, south county metrolink extension perhaps?

framiko said...

Thanks for the comment, RP. It is a shame that the city doesn't or can't do more to make property owners manage their properties well. I always think this when I drive 70 toward downtown and see the Powell Square building. You bring up a good point about the concentration of poverty in subsidized housing.

One of my Facebook friends used to live in this area when she was a young child. Her parents were in college and received a housing subsidy to live there. It used to be a nice place to live, according to her (and according to a comment in the forum thread). It's a reminder, I suppose, that subsidized housing has to be done with care.

The size of the complex itself seems like a problem to me. If one imagines the entire St. Mary's athletic expansion covered with these types of apartments, it seems clear that this was once a pretty massive housing project. So the consequences of mismanagement and economic or racial segregation would be magnified.

I'm still curious about what used to be on this site. Were there buildings, contemporaneous with the other residential buildings in the area, that were demolished? If so, that's a shame. The housing stock in this area is not entirely lovely, but it seems solid—as good if not better than much of the housing stock in the Hill, for instance.

As for what's next, a Metrolink extension wouid be cool. I'm always struck by how isolated this area is—pretty distant from highways and major retail. Unfortunately, I get the sense that there's a fair amount of racist sentiment in South County against Metrolink. Just one more sad example of how racism hurts the St. Louis area.