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Demolition, development and airport privatization

A bulldozer is used to knock down a house in the 1900 block of Burd Avenue in St. Louis in June.

Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

This fall, the Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation named the city’s north side one of its historic Places in Peril. The Places in Peril Program promotes a list of historic resources statewide that are nominated by Missouri citizens and are in danger of being lost. Current plans call for the demolition of thousands of potentially historic buildings in St. Louis in the near future.

A July 21 Post-Dispatch editorial praised steps by businessmen Jack Dorsey and Bill Pulte to assist the city in demolishing some of its thousands of vacant buildings. The editorial also cautioned that demolition is only half a solution. Pulte made the assertion (without elaboration) that most of the city’s estimated 7,000 vacant buildings are beyond repair.

The city’s Land Reutilization Authority, which owns many of these buildings, has no method for tracking the condition of these buildings. Their announcement followed news last year that the Metropolitan Sewer District, which is responsible for managing storm water run-off, offered to demolish some 1,000 buildings.

Condemnation doesn’t mean a building is past repair. A number of condemned buildings in our city have been rehabilitated and returned to useful life using state and federal historic tax credits. Demolition forecloses the possibility of building reuse, wasting an asset. Vacant lots yield little to no real estate tax revenue — money the city desperately needs. Moreover, redevelopment would likely require tax abatement and other incentives, further delaying returns to the tax base. The problems of vacancy and abandonment aren’t new. How did we get here? The Post-Dispatch noted demolition efforts in Detroit as a model for St. Louis, but its problems are far greater than population loss.

Demolition without a long-term plan evinces a lack of vision and leadership. After systematically disinvesting in north St. Louis for decades, city leaders further abdicated responsibility by decimating large swaths of this area. Where were city officials when real estate investor Paul McKee bought and abandoned 1,500 properties on the north side? In December 2018, the Post-Dispatch referred to this debacle as “a missed opportunity.”

While we lament the loss of landmark buildings like the Clemens Mansion, destroyed by fire after years of neglect, we collectively shrug at the potential loss of hundreds of historic buildings. These cumulative losses contribute to the fraying of neighborhood identity. Architectural assets make St. Louis unique and provide a sense of permanence. History is illustrated in our built environment — the story of what makes St. Louis a great city.

The city’s most vibrant historic neighborhoods — Soulard, Lafayette Square, the Central West End — were once targeted for mass demolition. Visitors to St. Louis frequently extol its beautiful architecture. If strangers appreciate it, why don’t we?

Mill Creek Valley, home to some 20,000 African Americans, was our poster child for urban renewal in 1959. A 1958 editorial claimed 54 blocks of Mill Creek Valley were beyond repair and boasted new development would be the “finest neighborhood in St. Louis.” Instead, we got “Hiroshima Flats” after displacing residents and razing 6,000 historic buildings. The Utopian Laclede Town occupied a small portion of the total cleared acreage — it too was torn down.

We have an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, but we seem determined to repeat them.

In a world increasingly confronted with environmental challenges, where recycling has become second nature and sustainability is the new buzzword, it is imperative that we address the damage done by thoughtless demolition. In addition to the waste created, building demolition releases pollutants directly into the environment. The truth remains that “the greenest building is the one already built.” Rehabbing buildings is the highest form of recycling. Consider these staggering statistics:

• New homes last 30 to 40 years; older construction lasts for generations.

• 31.5 million tons of U.S. construction waste enters landfills annually, roughly 25% in municipal waste streams.

• Construction of a 2,000-square-foot home generates 6,000 pounds of debris. Less than 30% of that waste is recycled.

• Energy required to construct a 50,000-square-foot building could power a car 20,000 miles annually for 730 years.

• The U.S. produces 22% of greenhouse gas emissions; we comprise 5% of the world’s population.

• Utility costs for historic buildings are on average 27% lower than for newer buildings.

Saving our historic resources makes sense — both environmentally and economically. Saving our historic buildings contributes to a unique sense of place that can’t be replicated anywhere else on earth.

Bill Hart is the executive director of the statewide nonprofit, Missouri Alliance for Historic Preservation. Ruth Keenoy and Maureen McMillan also contributed to this op-ed.