St. Louis – Fourteenth Street in Old North St. Louis was among the city's many urban planning failures. In the late 1970s, the road was closed to traffic in the hopes a pedestrian mall would revitalize a decaying shopping district. However, bad timing and bad design accelerated the demise.
But now, there's a renaissance afoot. After $35 million and four years of work, dozens of historic buildings have a new life and the road is re-opening to cars. Today community leaders will cut the ribbon on the newly-named Crown Square.
The paint is so fresh and the colors so crisp, you might expect to see a film crew here shooting a scene set in the 1920s. As if on cue, a guy in spattered work clothes walks across 14th Street, a two-by-four slung over his shoulder. But he's not a movie extra, and all the century-old brick buildings here are real.
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This is all a dream come true for Andy Karandzieff. He and his brothers are third-generation owners of the Crown Candy Kitchen. This St. Louis landmark is renowned as a lunch spot, but it's just as famous for its stubborn defiance of urban decay. As he prepares for another out-the-door line of customers, Karandzieff says the view from the front table is much brighter now that the dingy, disco-era pedestrian mall is gone.
"We've seen the good, the bad, the ugly, and the almost good," Karandzieff says. "And now we're finally seeing the light at the end at the tunnel. We've spent a long time staring out that window and wondering when."
The Crown Square project is separate from developer Paul McKee's plan to remake two square miles of the north side. This development covers just two blocks, but its goal is similar: to reverse mistakes of the past.
Steve Patterson blogs about city planning at urbanreviewstl.com. Thumbing through a proposal for the old pedestrian mall, Patterson says designers failed to admit that St. Louis was hemorrhaging residents.
"You see that they talk about how the commercial area will be stable, and that was in '72," Patterson says. "So by '77 when the mall actually opened, it would have more than likely already gone down by that point."
Patterson says closing 14th Street to vehicles worsened the effects of population loss. People who would have driven or taken the bus there did not want to park and walk to an outdoor mall. By the early 1980s, J.C. Penney closed its department store and nearly all the other businesses followed.
But now, three decades later, Patterson says planners got it right. Since tax credits are covering two-thirds of the $35 million cost, buildings had to be restored to exacting standards. And Patterson says opening the street to traffic restores the small-town vibe.
While today's economic malaise is reminiscent of the 70s, the people behind this latest makeover say they still have reason to be optimistic.
"This neighborhood has had an influx of people moving into it," says Sean Thomas of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group.
"This redevelopment is actually capping off a lot of other development, as opposed to 1977, when it was an attempt to stem the deterioration that was going on."
Thomas is also quick to point out that this is not just a retail development like the old 14th Street mall. In fact, it's mostly residential. And because all the homes are rentals, the protracted slump in the housing market is of little concern.
For now, a larger challenge lies in filling two blocks worth of storefronts. Only about a third are leased, but planners hope for a lot of restaurants and other small businesses, as well as professional offices. Lawyer Norah Ryan just hung out her shingle here after two decades in Clayton.
"I wanted to move into the city," Ryan said. "I love the sense of community. There's really a great sense of togetherness."
Besides attracting more tenants like Norah Ryan, developers say there's another challenge: getting people to stop calling this area the 14th Street mall. Today, it's Crown Square, an homage to the Crown Candy Kitchen, whose owners, like so many others, hope this latest effort at renewal will not suffer the same fate as well-intentioned efforts of the past.