Lonza Patrick has lived in the Walnut Park East neighborhood for more than 50 years. He’s seen the area take repeated turns for the worse, as nearby properties became vacant and neglected.
“Oh man, have I had experiences,” Patrick said.
Patrick wants to see the neighborhood improve and it might, with the unrolling of a new initiative to demolish vacant properties to build green spaces. It’s headed by the Green City Coalition, which consists of the Missouri Department of Conservation, the Missouri Botanical Garden and several other St. Louis-based nonprofits.
The Metropolitan St. Louis Sewer District provided funding to the coalition this year to knock down about 1,000 derelict, Land Reutilization Authority-owned buildings in the Walnut Park East, Baden and Wells Goodfellow neighborhoods.
Patrick and neighbor Alwayne Hughes, recently showed St. Louis Public Radio a booklet full of photos that show abandoned, crumbling houses. They also shared documents they’ve received from community workshops hosted by the Green City Coalition. One paper has images of solar panels, community gardens and other possible ideas for how neighbors could use vacant lots.
“I guess the green space might be okay, but I would like to see them come in and rebuild because the green space is not going to bring up the value up on this property,” Patrick said.
Patrick pointed to a map of his neighborhood, which has red lines marking houses that are being knocked down for green space.
“Those are the houses to be demolished,” Patrick said. “They can’t [rebuild].”
“They’re talking about putting in flowers and fish ponds,” Hughes said.
Research has shown that demolishing derelict buildings alone can raise property values. Installing gardens and other types of community green spaces can promote them even further. But as property values increase, residents will likely have to pay more taxes and developers may want to buy up properties.
“We want something that’s going to bring our property values up and we don’t to get pushed out of this neighborhood, the people who’ve been here for 40 or 50 years,” Hughes said.
Involving residents early on in planning green spaces could help avoid gentrification and displacement, said Laura Ginn, project manager at the Green City Coalition.
“We need residents at the table now having that conversation and making sure that when developers come, that there are tools in place to keep residents in their neighborhoods,” Ginn said.
Some of those tools might include tax abatements, so that when property values increase, residents aren’t saddled with tax burdens that cause them to move out, added Ginn.
Also, planners should also be aware of making green spaces too high quality, said Megan Heckert, urban geographer at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. Heckert worked on similar efforts to reduce vacancy in Philadelphia.
“One of the ideas that’s been put forth is the concept of ‘just green enough,’” Heckert said, “which is to say to try and do greening that helps community members and helps mitigate challenges around vacant properties. But not the really big high profile things that really attract investment that might lead to gentrification.”
The High Line in New York City, a public park built on a freight rail line that stretches across many blocks on Manhattan’s West Side, is one such example of a high quality green space. It drew development that led to gentrification and did not serve people that live around it.
The Green City Coalition is not only getting feedback from longtime residents in north St. Louis. It’s also been working with youth-focused groups, such as the Throwing and Growing Foundation, which provides after-school programs at the closed St. Matthew Lutheran School in Walnut Park East.
On a bright day in mid-April, James Forbes led a group of adolescent girls around Good Life Growing, an urban farm he co-founded in north St. Louis. One of them raised her hand.
“What types of foods do you harvest again?” she asked.
“We have 64 types of vegetables that we grow,” Forbes said.
The girls were on a field trip to see examples of green spaces, mainly community gardens, to help come up with ideas for what to do with the vacant lots around the former school, at 5403 Wren Ave.
“I would like a garden because then I don’t have to pay for the food in the store and it would be a fun experience to grow something myself,” said Lennia McComb-Jackson, a sixth grader.
The following week, the girls reconvened to brainstorm the types of produce they wanted to grow. They also walked around the vacant lots around the school and wrote notes on clipboards about what they liked and didn’t like about each property.
“I’m not too sure about the dog,” McComb-Jackson said, as she eyed a barking dog next to one of the lots. “If the dog gets out, then he can mess up our plants.”
Ginn of the Green City Coalition expects the gardening project with the Throwing and Growing Foundation will be completed by the end of May.
Meanwhile, in another part of Walnut Park East, Patrick and Hughes walked down Wren Avenue and pointed out buildings that were knocked down just days before.
“This street here is where they’re talking about putting in the green space,” Patrick said.
The homes on this part of Wren Avenue will not be rebuilt, added Patrick. It’s an area that also experiences frequent flooding. The green spaces could potentially address that problem.
Patrick walked up to a woman sitting on the porch of the house next to a freshly demolished property.
“Do you participate in the green space meetings?” he asked. She shook her head and laughed.
“I think it would pay if you would,” he said.
“Oh really?” she said.
Patrick went on to explain that the houses knocked down would not be rebuilt and would instead be converted into green space. The woman and her husband, who emerged later, seemed bothered by this new knowledge.
“It pays to get involved,” Patrick said.
Patrick participates for his family. Sometimes, he’s anxious that a developer will come to his neighborhood and take away his home.
“I own three houses here and I try to make something beneficial for my kids,” he said, “and if that would be the case, what I have done through my lifetime to make something convenient for them is all in vain.”
Shahla Farzan also contributed to reporting on this story.
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