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As St. Louis’ historic buildings crumble, city eyes little-used powers some say can help save them

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ST. LOUIS — North of downtown, a large section of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home, built in 1867 to shelter new Americans as they headed west, has fallen down.

In the Central West End, a fire in October engulfed the seven-story bell tower of a 110-year-old church regarded as a “tour de force of brickwork.”

And 17 months ago, part of the Lemp Brewery in south St. Louis collapsed into a pile of rubble.

All three have private owners who have been unable or unwilling to pay for needed repairs to keep their historic properties intact. Preservation advocates can tick off plenty of similar examples of buildings — Cupples 7, the Castle Ballroom, St. Mary’s Infirmary, the Clemens House — that were allowed to fall into disrepair before ultimately being demolished.

These distinctive structures, among the many unique cultural assets that have helped St. Louis stand out among other cities, weren’t lost because local government lacked the power to save them. In fact, the Preservation Board already has an ordinance allowing it to target the owners of historic buildings it believes are engaging in “demolition by neglect.” And other ordinances give the city the power to make emergency repairs and stick the owner with the bill.

But so far, City Hall has never used those powers.

That may be about to change. There’s a new administration in charge and a new head of the city office charged with historic preservation. And with an infusion of federal cash — the Treasury Department last week confirmed that federal stimulus funds could be used to secure or rehab vacant structures — and over $100 million more on the way from the NFL lawsuit settlement, the city has budget flexibility that is unprecedented in modern times.

Discussions are underway to potentially give officials the funding needed to stabilize some of the city’s most significant historic structures until a plan to save them materializes.

Preservationists, meanwhile, have lobbied the Cultural Resources Office to use a power in a 2014 ordinance that allows the director to hold a hearing for buildings it determines are undergoing “demolition by neglect,” a finding that can let the city bill owners for emergency repairs.

“There are certain buildings in our community that should not just be allowed to fall over,” said Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

In 2014, in the wake of high-profile demolitions of Midtown’s Castle Ballroom and downtown’s Cupples 7, the Board of Aldermen passed a “demolition by neglect” ordinance. It allows the head of the Cultural Resources Office to file a petition with the city’s Preservation Board for rare “high merit” buildings officials believe are being left to rot. If approved by the board, the petition is sent to the city building commissioner, whose office, after further hearings, can make emergency repairs and add the bill for those costs to the owner’s property taxes.

To the knowledge of preservation leaders, though, it’s never been used.

“I wonder if people have already forgotten we have this law on the books,” said Michael Allen, senior lecturer on architecture at Washington University who Mayor Tishaura O. Jones recently appointed to the Preservation Board. “This is one of the few tools the city has to actually do anything proactive with a recalcitrant or absent private owner.”

Alderman Heather Navarro said she supports the Landmarks Association’s push for the city’s Cultural Resources Office to use the 2014 “demolition by neglect” ordinance on the Second Baptist Church at 500 North Kingshighway in the Central West End. Owned for nearly a decade by a company affiliated with Dr. Gurpreet Padda, little has been done to stabilize and protect the building. In October, a fire broke out in its 130-foot-tall bell tower. Padda has not returned calls for comment.

“I think the city should use whatever tools and resources it has to save that building,” Navarro said. “It does seem like this building is exactly what (the demolition by neglect ordinance) is designed for. It’s a significant historic landmark in the city. It’s vacant right now. We have an owner who has just been sitting on it, letting it fall further into neglect.”

The push comes just as a new Cultural Resources Office director has come on board. Over the summer, Meg Lousteau, who spent most of her career working for preservation groups in New Orleans, took the helm of the office following the departure of Dan Krasnoff, who was the director for the last five years.

“The Cultural Resources Office, in collaboration with other city agencies, is exploring all available options to address cases of willful blight and neglect of St. Louis’ irreplaceable historic architecture,” Lousteau said in a statement.

Jones’ administration could also take a more assertive stance on the issue by using the laws already on the books. When she was a candidate, Jones was asked by the Landmarks Association what she would do about demolition by neglect.

“Property owners have taken advantage of our passive approaches to the abandonment of buildings and lots throughout our city,” Jones said, according to a transcript published in the Landmarks Association newsletter last year. “As mayor, I will be an active enforcer and problem solver, pushing property owners to maintain and/or develop properties. We cannot accept an approach that does not take action to make our communities safer.”

The 11th hour

But the “demolition by neglect” ordinance lays out a long process, with multiple hearings that would involve lawyers and appeals before the city won the right to make emergency fixes and bill the owner for the cost. For buildings in imminent jeopardy, such as the Mullanphy Emigrant Home in Old North St. Louis, it might be too late. Allen, the Preservation Board member, said that’s why it needs to be used before historic buildings reach crisis.

“It’s not a law that’s going to be very useful in the 11th hour,” he said.

Even if the Cultural Resources Office used the ordinance, while perhaps drawing public attention to the condition of the historic property and shaming the owner, actual repairs under the ordinance would still require the city to front the money.

There are other ordinances on the books giving the city building commissioner’s office the power to step in and repair dangerous properties, billing the owner via a tax lien on the real estate. But the city has always lacked a fund to pay up front for that kind of emergency stabilization.

In the last year, though, the City Hall budget picture has changed drastically.

Allen said countries in Europe and Asia often have much stronger preservation laws than in the United States. He wonders whether there’s still a hesitancy here to go after private property owners that neglect their historic buildings.

“Americans are not used to historic preservation laws that have a lot of teeth,” Allen said. “We have lists of significant buildings, but we then lack the means to do anything proactively to preserve them.”

It would be great if the city set aside some money to make repairs on significant historic buildings when owners won’t, said Weil of the Landmarks Association. The city has codified the importance of such structures. He’s just waiting for action.

“The ordinance acknowledges that the city has a responsibility to protect such buildings because they represent important cultural and economic assets that have the potential to benefit the community as a whole,” Weil said. “Whether the city will accept that responsibility remains to be seen.”

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