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Economy & Business

Pruitt-Igoe: Visions for renewal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 13, 2012 - With developer Paul McKee now adding a two-year option on the former Pruitt-Igoe site in north St. Louis to his development portfolio, the Beacon asked people actively interested in urban revitalization what they would like to see there.

Ever since the ill-fated public housing project on the 57-acre site was imploded in 1972, the site bounded by North Jefferson Avenue, Cass Avenue, North 20th Street and Carr Street has sat like a scar, a reminder of a project that began with the best of intentions but before long devolved into a symbol of urban decay — what one person in the recent film “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth” termed a “slow-motion Katrina.”

That documentary by Chad Freidrichs is just one place where the site has begun attracting attention recently. A competition called Pruitt-Igoe Now asked architects, urban planners and others to come up with bold ideas to bring the area back to life. Acknowledging reality, it asked:

“Can this site itself be liberated from a turbulent and mythologized past through re-imagination and community engagement?”

Submissions to the competition are open until March 16. Here are ideas shared with the Beacon about what the site should and could become. They have been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Ihnen, blogger at NextSTL.com:

One of the biggest challenges in a city like St. Louis is assembling land. We’re a city of 25 or 27 by 100-foot lots. It’s hard to build on those. That is not the preferred commercial-size lot, let alone residential lot. So the Pruitt-Igoe site is a great opportunity. It’s a rare place to have that much land together at a major intersection, close to downtown and midtown.

If I’m looking at it as a resident of the area, I want there to be some recognition of the history. But it’s a large site, and it should be put to productive use. The current state of the site is obviously a problem. The idealistic side of me says it should be a place to study public housing and the history surrounding it. If you talk about Pruitt-Igoe, you can find students studying public housing, and almost always they are not from the United States. It would be wonderful if there were a physical site in Pruitt-Igoe that would allow you to study it, to leave the footprint so people can see what was actually there.

More of a concern is that whatever goes in there fits into city development, in terms of being urban and taking advantage of whatever transit investment is made. It needs to be something that doesn’t have a 200-foot setback. If you put large-scale retail in there, like a Walmart, I don’t think it would be the worst thing that could happen, but my hope would be something that looks like the Hampton Avenue Target store. I would hate to have the first 300 feet of Jefferson be a parking lot and have a suburban feel.

The film and the competition are really fascinating and interesting, but I don’t think that nostalgia should drive what happens with that piece of land. Pruitt-Igoe is a symbol for both sides, being a great place immediately and falling down eventually.  The way we can value it is to return it to a use and a form that is sustainable and hopefully helps the economy in that part of our city.

Steve Patterson, blogger at UrbanReviewSTL.com:

The vacant Pruitt-Igoe site needs to be connected to the rest of the city, not just developed as a stand-alone site.

Ideally, the site becomes the center of a new neighborhood and would contain office, commercial, retail and residential components all designed to make it easy for pedestrians to get from home to work to dinner.

Before this area was razed for Pruitt-Igoe, it contained a wealth of businesses, residences, and social centers. To create the most sustainable neighborhood, a diversity of uses is critical.

Some people may see so much history there that there are bad vibes. But if you are going to integrate this land into the adjacent part of the city so that it becomes part of everything else, you lose the distinction of that site being so different from everywhere else. That would be good. One of the downfalls of Pruitt-Igoe was that it was so different and wasn’t integrated into everything else. We have to make that site part of the city again.

Big massive corporate campuses don’t belong in the city. Large businesses don’t have to have huge horizontal areas of green space. If they want that, there are plenty of sites out there. That would destroy the city. The city is about small developments that are walkable.

We have no leadership to guide development in the city. The Board of Aldermen just says that whatever the developer wants, the developer gets. We have no one advocating for creating a really urban city again. That is our failure.

Audrey Spalding, policy analyst for Show-Me Institute:

The Pruitt-Igoe site has been owned by government for decades. It has remained vacant for so long that trees have sprung up. I could say that now is the time to do something productive with Pruitt-Igoe; but, in reality, it has always been time to do something productive with Pruitt-Igoe. A failed government housing project is no reason to hold a site vacant for decades.

My hope is that we avoid past mistakes. If the Pruitt-Igoe site is developed with private financing instead of massive government subsidies, that would be real progress. As vacant store fronts and nearly empty loft buildings have demonstrated, it isn’t enough to sink tax credits, tax-increment financing and other subsides into an overblown dream.

Michael Allen, director, Preservation Research Office:

As the lead in a group about to conclude an international ideas competition for the Pruitt-Igoe site, I wish that the future of the Pruitt-Igoe site is deliberated publicly. The Pruitt-Igoe site is one of the city's most important historic sites. Rarely do we deem the sites of public housing developments as significant to our cultural heritage, but Pruitt-Igoe undeniably is an indelible part of St. Louis' recent past. The site where the buildings stood and where thousands of St. Louisans lived in the nation's largest public housing project deserves to be preserved in cultural memory.

Whether that preservation includes the remaining part of the site itself is an open question. I do think that it would be shameful not to set aside some of the site for commemorating Pruitt-Igoe or to preserve the remaining Pruitt-Igoe-related buildings, like Pruitt School and the former Urban League Neighborhood Station on Cass Avenue. Placing retail on the site of cultural history should not be done lightly, especially with so much vacant land around the site where development perhaps is more necessary.

Sylvester Brown, writer and former Pruitt-Igoe resident:

Say what you will about Paul McKee, Jr., the O’Fallon, Mo.-based developer is a visionary. His $8.1 billion NorthSide Regeneration project is a bold, sweeping transformative plan for a huge swath of land in north St. Louis.

I’m attracted to visionaries. And I, like many other residents in the region, would love to see something economically powerful, positive and sustainable take root in the city’s long-ignored and often-neglected north side neighborhoods.

Yet news of the city’s recent plan to give McKee an exclusive two-year option to buy the massive former 33-acre Pruitt-Igoe site is troubling. It underscores the clandestine, behind-the-scenes maneuverings gifted to the privileged and powerful. It shines a light on legalized bribery — where rich campaign contributors receive special perks, legislative support and exclusive deals backed by taxpayer money. Finally, the Pruitt-Igoe property — now a part of McKee’s holdings — demands historical perspective. It places the Northside Regeneration project side by side with the shortsighted “big idea” for urban revitalization pursued by city officials almost 60 years ago.

With history as backdrop, we see that city planners made a huge, costly miscalculation 60 years ago based on a “big idea” for housing the poor and low-income individuals. The scheme backfired. It never enticed middle-class white people downtown and wound up displacing poor black people. It led to the destruction of whole communities and fueled more than 30 years of neighborhood decline.

I’m not saying McKee’s intentions are nefarious, nor am I saying his project shouldn’t go through. I’m saying this modern-day “big idea” has the same inherent pitfalls as the 1954 plan. Despite claims to the contrary, the city and the developer want to entice a different, more influential demographic to the proposed area. Millions of federal dollars earmarked to raze buildings and clear land in the disadvantaged neighborhoods, including Pruitt-Igoe, don’t necessarily mean that disadvantaged people will still be around when the development is done.

McKee has a vision for a neighborhood long in decline. It’s enhanced with predictions of a new clinic run by Grace Hill Health Centers, a biotech company and various other office, retail, industrial and new housing possibilities that might bloom as the proposed development moves to fruition.

The operative word, however, is “might.” What if current residents are displaced or “blighted” out of the neighborhoods and, as it was decades ago, war, the economy, market forces or re-directed federal funds lead to a watered-down, unfunded vision and a desired demographic that decides to stay put or relocate elsewhere?

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