A part of downtown East St. Louis will likely be listed on the National Register of Historic Places by the end of September, and city officials hope that designation will spark revitalization.
The Downtown East St. Louis Historic District encompasses two blocks of Collinsville Avenue, a block and a half of Missouri Avenue and the south side of one block of St. Louis Avenue.
"It's truly an early 20th century business district," said Michael Allen, director of the Preservation Research Office, which the city contracted to identify the district. The 35 buildings included in the historic area "embody traits of the Late 19th and 20th century American Movements, Classical Revival, Renaissance Revival, Craftsman and Modern movement styles," according to the Preservation Research Office's website.
Tax credit incentives
City leaders became interested in preserving the buildings when the Illinois legislature created a special historic tax credit for river edge cities of up to 25 percent of redevelopment costs, Allen said. That state tax credit could also be paired with a federal historic tax credit.
Allen said city leaders hoped the tax credits could be used to revitalize East St. Louis. Once the region's second major downtown area, the city was eclipsed by development in other areas, including Clayton.
"Almost all of downtown has been torn down. ... It's surrounded sadly by nothing," Allen said. "But this little area is cohesive, coherent and full of a great sense of history... It has all the bones needed for economic revitalization. It’s really remarkably in tact."
The problem, Allen said, was that the tax credits required that buildings have the historic designation. Other than the 13-story Depression-era Spivey Building and the Majestic Theatre (both of which are included in the district boundaries), not many other buildings in the downtown are individually listed on the National Register.
That's where Allen and his office came in. His team spent months researching the area and drawing boundaries for a walkable area that would include the most number of buildings.
The resulting historic district was nominated to the National Register and is awaiting final status, which Allen said will likely come by the end of September.
Meeting with potential developers
But the city isn't waiting for the final designation to start pitching to developers, Allen said, partly because the state tax credits expire in 2016.
A public meeting was held Thursday to tell potential investors about the opportunities and incentives, as well as the "architectural beauty and the problems and challenges they present," Allen said.
"We really want people to come away with a realistic sense of what’s possible, but also what needs to be done because downtown East St. Louis needs serious effort," Allen said.
Taking a cue from St. Louis
Allen hopes that effort comes in the form of a "building-by-building, slow and careful redevelopment" in the same vein as done in certain St. Louis neighborhoods, such as the Central West End and Grand Center.
"Neighborhoods started out with vacant buildings and one or two key developers taking on key projects, attracting another developer next door," he said. "This approach while incremental is really what's been missing in East St. Louis."
This kind of redevelopment, Allen believes, is inextricably linked to preservation.
"Buildings are our economic assets, so most developers redeveloping these buildings are going to be doing it because it makes financial sense," Allen said. "But for people like me, we will continue to appreciate the history and architecture for years to come."