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Crown Square marks Old North's rebirth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 30, 2010 - Odessa Willis had been hearing about the redevelopment of a two-block section of North 14th Street where she once shopped on Saturday evenings, during a heyday that had become a memory, in a place that had become a symbol of failed urban renewal. She came to the party for the new Crown Square development Thursday afternoon to see for herself these historic buildings that have been reclaimed, rebuilt and reborn -- once again.

Willis, 74, of University City, arrived early for the ribbon-cutting ceremony and watched the goings-on from a thin slice of shade cast by the storefront of a new women's clothing shop.

Willis recalled shopping along this strip that was converted into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s, a trendy idea that didn't stand the test of time and was eventually abandoned by business owners and residents.

The streets have been reopened, and the historic though dilapidated structures have been made whole once more, their storefronts now as perfect as a movie set.

"I think it's beautiful,'' Willis said, scanning the 2600 and 2700 blocks of North 14th.

"This is my old neighborhood,'' she said, with a wistful smile. "I lived in this area in the '60s and '70s. We would come down on Saturday evenings and just browse around. The street was open, and we would shop at the dime store. There was a hardware store and a J.C. Penney's. There were two optometrists and a jewelry store. This was one of our special places for Saturday evening.''

Inside the store, owner Ebony Wilson, 28, held court, greeting visitors and displaying samples of the smart pretty dresses and other designer fashions and jewelry that she plans to sell when she opens for business in a month, or so. Wilson, who was the first retail tenant to sign a lease in Crown Square, said she wants to bring glamour back to St. Louis, so don't look for jeans here.

"Today is a good day,'' Wilson said. "I've been waiting two years for people to come down and see my shop. And I'm very excited about my own grand opening.''

Wilson said the project offers affordable commercial space and the developers are willing to work with tenants on interior building design.

"It's a good development. You can't beat the rent,'' said Wilson who pays about $500 to rent her store space.

'A major milestone'

Several hundred people turned out for the speeches that celebrated the historical rehab of 27 buildings that had fallen into such disrepair that many thought they were too far gone to be saved. The oldest were constructed in the Civil War era; the youngest in the 1930s. The developers of the $35 million mixed-used project -- Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (RHCDA) -- earned a "Most Enhanced" award in May from Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

"This is a major milestone for the Old North neighborhood,'' said Mayor Francis Slay before the ceremonies. "What it really demonstrates is that the gambles and the risks that the rehabbers and people who believe in this neighborhood have taken over the years will pay off. This shows a community commitment, a commitment from the state and the city to help revitalize this neighborhood. This is a real demonstration of what can happen when everybody works together and really believes."

The project takes its name from the Crown Candy Kitchen, the landmark dispensary of indulgent ice cream desserts, handcrafted chocolate Easter bunnies and thick stacked sandwiches that has stood at the corner of St. Louis Avenue and North 14th since 1913. Crown Candy, owned and operated for nearly a century by the Karandzieff family, has served as a neighborhood anchor even through the roughest of times, a fact duly noted by Thursday's speakers.

The rehabbed buildings were open, with visitors welcome to tour the interiors and see for themselves the remarkable transformations of once suffering structures that now boast modern amenities along with yesteryear charm. The developers say that most of the 80 mixed-income apartments are already occupied and tenants of the 34,000 square feet of available commercial space include, so far, Wilson's fashion boutique, an attorney's office and the offices of Old North Restoration.

Tino Ochoa, president of Old North St. Louis Restoration, told the gathering that the project came together through the financial and political support of a host of partners, coupled with the grass-roots work by residents of the neighborhood.

Speakers called the occasion an example of St. Louis can-do and called attention to the mix of historic preservation and neighborhood revitalization.

April Ford Griffin, 5th Ward alderman, acknowledged that the project had taken years from inception to completion, and she commended RHCDA for helping the neighborhood restoration group in "turning every stone'' to find the necessary funding from private sources, as well as federal and state tax credits.

"Whether people thought it could happen in north St. Louis or not I don't think anything is impossible in north St. Louis and I think that north St. Louis deserves everything that we can get. Every resource that is out here. Every incentive that is out here we deserve,'' Griffin said. "Because we spent years of having disinvestment in our community. We've spent years of experiencing flight in our community and businesses leaving, and it's going to take everybody and everything that's available to us to bring north St. Louis and Old North St. Louis neighborhood back to where we can stabilize our communities and we can be productive and have places to shop and places to live.''

Slay told the audience that his mother had grown up in the area, and he brought her to Crown Square a few weeks ago to see the progress being made.

"She was in awe,'' Slay said. "It was really moving to her and for me to see an old-time neighborhood resident coming back and seeing what this neighborhood is today, knowing where we were 10, 20 years ago.''

Slay said that a new community garden and grocery coop were also contributing to the appeal of the neighborhood.

"I think you're going to see the line for Crown Candy getting longer and I think you're going to see more and more people coming into this neighborhood, choosing to live here, shop here, work here and build it up even further,'' Slay said.

State Treasurer Clint Zweifel said the project was an example of what investment in the urban core means throughout the state, whether it's in St. Louis or smaller communities, such as Louisiana, Hannibal or Cape Girardeau.

"These investments all have something in common -- first of all, an extraordinary sense of history as we have here today, and a group of people dedicated not only to preserving that history and that sense of place but bringing that into the future.''

He also noted that the project had provided 120 jobs and would continue to provide jobs in the future.

"That is a good thing for the state of Missouri and a great thing for the city of St. Louis,'' Zweifel said.

Stephen Acree, president of RHCDA, noted that the project was an example of the return on investment provided by programs like the state historic tax credit and the state low-income housing tax credit that serve as incentives to investors.

"We've heard a lot in the news about those programs being under attack because of their effect on the state budget,'' Acree said. "But we believe very strongly it's through those kinds of programs that allow the investment that you see here that people keep working, that create jobs, that create investment, that create businesses, that pay taxes that go back into the coffers of state and local government.''

High hopes and opportunity

As grownups listened to the speakers, children were drawn to a snow cone stand down the street handing out free icy treats. The only price: The children were asked to draw pictures that were hung up for display.

Marion Williams, 50, who lives in the neighborhood, brought her own chair and shade -- a two-seater with an attached umbrella -- and was clearly enjoying the day. She bought a newly built home four years ago, taking advantage of a city grant that helped with the financing.

"This is really great,'' Williams said. "When I first came, there was nothing here. This strip mall was desolate.''

Williams said she watched the Crown Square construction daily during morning walks through the neighborhood and was pleased to see it completed.

"It means that we've arrived," Williams said. "It means there's a lot of opportunity for people who have moved out of the city. Now they can see that the city is being revitalized and can come down and join in the festivities. It will bring jobs to the community and for families. And hopefully some of the families who live around here can get employment here. They can work and live in their own neighborhood.''

Even as officials and residents celebrated the completion of Crown Square, they noted that much work needs to be done.

Wilson said that her parents used to shop at the old pedestrian mall and are pleased that she is opening a business in the renovated district.

"Now they're coming back and seeing this and me as a part of it, and they're very excited for me as well,'' she said.

Wilson noted that city police are watchful and maintain a presence in the neighborhood.

"The neighborhood is getting there,'' she said.

A smiling Janie Burse, and her daughter Jenna, 3, strolled the newly poured sidewalks, taking in the festivities.

"This has been on everyone's radar for quite a while, and it's finally happening. We're just really excited,'' Burse said. "Crown Candy Kitchen has always been the anchor here, and it's exciting to see new businesses come.''

Burse said her husband, an architect, purchased an abandoned home in the neighborhood for $7,000 before they met, and they have painstakingly restored it.

"He fell in love with the quality of the neighborhood, the people in the neighborhood,'' she said.

Burse said the house is for sale now, though, primarily because they feel that the city schools aren't a good match for their family.

"It's somewhat bittersweet for us because this has always been a dream of ours,'' she said.

As the officials said, there is still work to be done, but on Thursday, there were smiles and street music, barbecue sold in front of still-empty but welcoming storefronts, free snow cones for young artists -- and, as the mayor predicted, an extra-long line of folks waiting to get ice cream at Crown Candy Kitchen.

Mary Delach Leonard is a veteran journalist who joined the St. Louis Beacon staff in April 2008 after a 17-year career at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where she was a reporter and an editor in the features section. Her work has been cited for awards by the Missouri Associated Press Managing Editors, the Missouri Press Association and the Illinois Press Association. In 2010, the Bar Association of Metropolitan St. Louis honored her with a Spirit of Justice Award in recognition of her work on the housing crisis. Leonard began her newspaper career at the Belleville News-Democrat after earning a degree in mass communications from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, where she now serves as an adjunct faculty member. She is partial to pomeranians and Cardinals.

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