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Economy & Business

Old North honored for smart growth

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 26, 2011 - Old North St. Louis Restoration Group continues to make strides toward turning a once-declining neighborhood into a sustainable community. That effort won Old North recognition this month from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA honored the north side community as one of five nationwide for using "smart growth to become dynamic places to live, work, and play."

Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North, says honors like the one from the EPA validate the organization's approach of "growing at a pace that doesn't uproot what's already there and supplementing positive things about the neighborhood with new things. It's not something that you do overnight. It takes some time."

One big fan of Old North is Kaid Benfield, director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. He penned an essay on The Atlantic magazine website this month in response to the EPA award. He said that while the community "was all-too-recently considered by many to be a place to avoid, there is nowhere in the region that this writer would now rather be." He added that, "We are lucky to have other great revitalization stories in America, but I don't know a better one."

Sean Thomas, executive director of Old North, www.ONSL.org, says "it's incredible exciting" to hear outside evaluators look at neighborhood conditions and conclude "that this is one of the best example in the country" of a neighborhood "being revitalized in a way that's sustainable."on

Old North has revitalized its business strip along 14th Street near St. Louis Avenue and has responded to the food desert on the north side by opening a co-op, offering residents fresh fruits and vegetables and other goods. The group also operates a farmers market from June to October. Thomas said the population increase was one indicator that the community was headed in the right direction.

The Census listed Old North as one of a handful of neighborhoods where the city's population increased during the past decade. Old North grew by 28 percent, to nearly 2,000 residents inside the boundaries of North Florissant, Interstate 70, Branch and Cass. One of the neighborhood landmark's is Crown Candy Kitchen restaurant.

Thomas says the population rise and the grocery co-op were two changes that worked in Old North's favor for winning the EPA award. Another factor, he said, was the organization's focus not only on new housing construction but on developing units that preserve and revive historic buildings.

"We're excited that this is getting attention and support outside the community," Thomas said, adding that some outsiders might still think it's futile to try to revitalize some older, declining neighborhoods.

"We know we'll never convince 100 percent of the people," Thomas says. "There are different tastes and different perspectives out there. That's OK. But the fact that the neighborhood has shown growth is proof that we are convincing more people that it has a future. This award is new evidence that we are not alone in thinking this."

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