A Changing South City: Development Renaissance Headed to More Neighborhoods

South St. Louis is seeing a host of development and infill, leading with neighborhoods like The Grove and Benton Park which are practically in a renaissance. With new, sometimes controversial luxury apartments in The Grove and home sales in Benton Park seeing sky high prices and bidding wars, these neighborhoods are showing a resilience and desirability factor reversing a half-century long real estate trend. And yet, other communities have yet, until now, to experience the same waterfall of investment despite their incredible architectural assets, diversity, and density.

St. Louis’ long history of population decline, led primarily by “white flight” in the second half of the 20th century, has turned dense neighborhoods upside down and left homes in abandon. Forest Park Southeast, oddly enough, saw the greatest population loss in South City from 1950-2017, according to Downtown Dutchtown. Yet, despite those losses, Forest Park Southeast is also seeing some of the most rapid growth amidst its recent rebound, likely due to its proximity to the Manchester retail corridor, the Cortex, and the Central West End.

Then there is Dutchtown, which experienced a severe population loss, but nothing like some of the more stable and popular neighborhoods we see today like Shaw and Forest Park Southeast. It goes against conventional wisdom to see that it is struggling more than its peers despite of its relative historical population stability.

However much neighborhoods like Dutchtown and Gravois Park have struggled to grow in the way other communities have been able to, the efforts of community groups and residents to stabilize homes and businesses has begun to pay off. A CID – Community Improvement District, a Neighborhood Innovation Center, and the relentless work of community building has begun to turn the tide on population loss in Dutchtown. Similarly, the strength of the Cherokee Street retail corridor and Benton Park housing market has added stability to Gravois Park, which has also benefited from rich architectural assets and population decline not as severe as some other neighborhoods.

With their newfound stability and proximity to neighborhoods experiencing rapid growth, development is beginning to spill over toward Dutchtown and Gravois Park. With that said, change is not always positive. It is fairly common for luxury housing stock to replace low-income housing, both replacing residents and the historical architectural character of a community. Even though the most recent studies on gentrification suggest that there was no sign of “large-scale departure of elderly or long-term homeowners” in their Philadelphia experiment, they recognize a higher risk of tax delinquency for those long-term residents. Studies that have now been around a few years show that gentrifying neighborhoods lose their affordable units at five times the rate as non-gentrifying neighborhoods. There are also benefits noted by both studies, including better quality of life and services like education, safety, higher property values, access to groceries, etc.

While the academic consensus is somewhat mixed on gentrification, it is still a process that should be considered thoughtfully by developers and urban enthusiasts in this context. Those cheering the introduction of predominantly luxury units in Gravois Park would have to acknowledge that the most tangible benefits would largely exclude current residents, with the service and quality of life benefits coming into play in the long-term. A better solution would be affordable units with attractive amenities, perhaps even utilizing the already existent housing stock. This is a tough pill to swallow for some developers – as profit margins are necessarily smaller and returns are less guaranteed, but that does not mean it is impossible.

3600 Texas pre-rehab – St. Louis Post Dispatch

Just ask Blackline Investments or Garcia Properties, and they’ll point to a path forward in these communities. In Gravois Park, developer Blackline Investments accomplished a restoration on 3600 Texas Ave (shown above), a former publishing building. Blackline converted the vacant historic structure into 15 updated apartments with higher quality features, with rents ranging from $765 to $1,195. These are far cry from the rents seen elsewhere like in the Central Corridor neighborhoods, remaining within the market range for Gravois Park, only with updates that provide more and better residential options.

The Restored 3600 Texas Ave – Blackline

Blackline Investments seems to now be moving toward the first new infill in Gravois Park in several years as well. Capitalizing off of the vacant land next-door to their original rehab, Blackline is planning a 12-unit, two-story building that with a decidedly modern aesthetic. First reported by Chris Strizel and his CitySceneSTL website, this development manages to introduce new residential units without demolishing historic brick homes. Each unit will be a one bedroom in a shotgun style, with a small parking lot behind the structure.

There is a zoning request to reclassify the land for multi-family usage, in addition to a 10-year, 95% tax abatement. The current assessed value of the land is $4,330 and the construction costs are anticipated to be $950,000. The low cost is likely attributed to the attractive costs of acquiring and maintaining property in Dutchtown.

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There are bound to be reasonable questions about the request for a tax abatement. In fact, developer requests and subsequent approvals of TIFs (Tax Incremented Financing) were recently subject to an audit by State Auditor and candidate for Missouri Governor, Nicole Galloway. Her report found that St. Louis lacks a standardized policy for awarding TIFs and often grants them to developers proposing projects in the wealthiest parts of the city. The audit grants legitimacy to arguments of advocates within the city who have long criticized the city for its method of granting awards to developers.

With that being said, a tax abatement in a neighborhood like Gravois Park seems as though it might accomplish what advocates have long hoped for. In a decidedly developing neighborhood that has seen little previous investment, a tax abatement is perhaps necessary for a developer to break even or make a profit. In a project like this one, the units would seem to also benefit members of the community by not pricing nearby residents out of the new units or by demolishing nearby structures.

These two projects alone would be enough to turn some heads about where development is shifting in South City, but a third major renovation is poised to revitalize the edge of Gravois Park at the intersection of Grand and Gravois. This is a notoriously busy intersection with large streets, but the built environment is full of potential.

The South Side National Bank Tower, depicted in the photo to the right of the map below, was nearly demolished in favor of a Walgreens at the turn of the 20th century. Preservationists balked at the plan, and the Lawrence Group and West End Realty began a rehabilitation project to convert the upper units into condominiums and restore the commercial spaces at street level. Although the project was a huge victory for urbanism and historic preservation, the intersection still struggles today. However, just across the street sits the Grandview Arcade Building, a former theater with a gorgeous façade.

Grandview Arcade Building – Google Street View

In 2018, Garcia Properties acquired the building pictured above after plans to rehabilitate it under The Lawrence Group did not come to fruition. Garcia properties hoped to break ground on a renovation in 2019, but the project had gone silent until just this month. The delay sparked fears that this project would end up going nowhere, but finally the plan resurfaced with a solid path forward.

It turned out that the holdup had occurred in the State of Missouri’s Historic Tax Credit office, although the credits were finally granted. The office had seen major cuts under former Missouri Governor Eric Greitens, and projects like these are the victims. Garcia Properties wrote on Instagram that the project is not “out of the woods yet”, suggesting there is much difficult work ahead given the rough shape of the building.

The Grandview Arcade is no small project. Combined with Blackline’s residential developments on the East side of Gravois Park, these developments represent a turning point offering both residential and commercial additions that add to rather than subtract from the neighborhood. With historical preservation, renovation, and infill on vacant lots, they offer up a type of neighborhood revitalization that avoids some of the more negative methods like demolition and a sole focus on luxury housing and little for current residents.

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A similar process is beginning to play out in Dutchtown, with renovations capitalizing off of its current historical and structural assets. In fact, Blackline Investments is about to undertake a rehabilitation of a school at 4021 Iowa Ave. The former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School will likely become 25 market-rate apartments, part of a $4.9 million renovation.

School-to-apartment conversions are all the rage across the city, made possible by the St. Louis Public School system having experienced a large decline in the number of students over the past several decades. As a result, a number of schools have become up vacant and abandoned, with many in poor condition and in need of major work.

Dutchtown is home to two of these vacant schools. The former St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School (pictured on the left) is the more readily useable, and the former Cleveland High School (right) in a more dire state. The latter has suffered fires, innumerable break ins, and is boarded up, covered in ivy, and showcasing windows upon windows of broken glass.

Although the former Cleveland High School is in rough shape, things appear to be headed in the right direction. Dutchtown is seeking proposals for the site, and rehabs are picking up steam of smaller residential properties within the neighborhood. An active proposal for one of two abandoned schools speaks volumes about the demand present in the community, and also lays the groundwork for a future redevelopment of the former Cleveland High School should it be successful.

Coupled with the restoration of “Downtown Dutchtown” along Meramec St., with businesses offering innovative concepts like the Urban Eats food hall or cute clothing boutiques, Dutchtown is building its own unique character and picking up steam. With its very own retail corridor, residential conversions, and affordable housing stock renovations coming from Rise, the stabilization is already well underway. The Dutchtown CID is providing infrastructural support to retail along the street, and the Neighborhood Innovation Center is setting up its own plans to invigorate and support the business community.

Meramec St. – Downtown Dutchtown – Google Street View

That Dutchtown and Gravois Park are seeing positive developments that support current residents, maintain and restore historic architecture, infill vacant lots, and increase density is something of a wonder for the city. With development having catered to predominantly wealthier individuals and staying primarily within the central corridor neighborhoods, many St. Louis communities saw very little outside investment and contributed to tax subsidies for projects that did not benefit their residents directly.

Hopefully these projects are the beginning a more inclusive style of restoration that more communities can be a part of. They demonstrate the intrinsic value of St. Louis’ historic housing stock, which when cared for, can become the building block for a community’s revival. They also showcase a very positive usage of tools available like Historic Tax Credits and tax abatements, bolstering neighborhoods that need the help and filling a market gap for developers where a gap actually exists. Developments in Clayton, for example, are far less likely to be in need of tax assistance when the community is majority high-income and demand is strong.

St. Louis communities have so much to offer, even those outside the central corridor. Density, diversity, and historical character are valuable and it seems that truth is set to finally revitalize South City in a more equitable manner.

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