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Economy & Business

Residents await opening of new housing in Sarah-Finney neighborhood on north side

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 15, 2012 - Clifton Gates' last home was a mansion on Lindell Boulevard. But when he wanted to prove his street smarts, he'd remind people he'd grown up near Sarah and Finney on the north side. The boast was a reminder not to mess with a guy toughened by life in a part of town known for street fights and street walkers.

If Gates, an entrepreneur and civic leader, were alive today -- he died in 2007 -- he might not recognize the old Sarah-Finney neighborhood. It's slowly  experiencing a rebirth, being transformed from a distressed neighborhood into one of mixed-income housing, pedestrian-friendly streets and what developers hope will be a welcoming site even to suburban residents who hadn't thought of moving there. The project is similar to the Murphy Park project, north of downtown, and the Blumeyer redevelopment project northeast of Powell Hall.

On Monday, the development began a rigorous process of taking applications and screening applicants. The development is expected to be ready for occupancy in about two months.

"That's what we do across the country," says Ron Roberts, vice president of McCormack Baron Salazar, says of the company's strategy for reviving declining urban neighborhoods. So far, the site includes 120 townhouses and garden-style one-to-three bedrooms units. Market rate units rent from $700-$900. The long-term plans include market-rate housing for sale.

"Our desire when we develop predominantly urban area is to make an impact, not just go in and build high quality housing. We want to stimulate other development that leads to revitalizing the community."

Even the design sends a message of safety and convenience in a community that hasn't enjoyed much of either. The fronts of ground floor units facing Sarah Street are made of glass and are built close to the street.

Some units offer a combination of living and business space, called work to live units. These combination units have floor-to-ceiling sliding walls that move to separate the office space from the rest of the unit. The idea is that some tenants will want to live and work in the same location -- an accountant or a beautician, for example, who wants to work out of the home without having to pay extra for business space elsewhere. These 825-square foot units consist of one bedroom and one bathroom and rent for $725 a month.

The development itself includes rooms for community meetings; a courtyard and common space in the rear are available for outdoor activities. Roberts says the entire development includes roughly 8,000 square feet of commercial retail space. That includes a small market providing access to fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a health-foods initiative. But the location isn't exactly a food desert. A full-service supermarket is a few blocks to the south in the Marketplace shopping center at Sarah and Lindell.

In addition to McCormack, participants include the St. Louis Housing Authority and TAALKE, a firm that focuses on minority inclusion in development projects. Other players include St. Louis development officials and Alderman Terry Kennedy, D-18th Ward. The development is in his ward.

Directly across the street from the development is Turner Park. Ordinarily it would be ideal for family activities and fitness, but the park is rarely used, partly out of fear of crime, says Cheryl Lovell, executive director of the St. Louis Housing Authority. She thinks the development will help make the park a safe place for outings and exercise for adults and children.

"The park is underutilized and under maintained, but I think you'll see that change with improvements to the park and when families and children move into the neighborhood," she says.

The St. Louis American once called the first phase of the multi-million dollar development a "game changer." The reference, says businessman Ken Hutchinson, is to the fact that the development has enjoyed more than 40 percent minority participation in the workforce and contracts, the highest level ever in St. Louis.

"We've caused a paradigm shift," says Hutchinson, a principal in TAALKE, which had a contract for boosting minority inclusion for the project. The high level of minority participation, he says, was made easier by encouragement from McCormack Baron Salazar.

He says the developer "showed leadership to make sure it was going to be in the forefront of a movement when it came to inclusion."

Kennedy says the development already is bringing an infusion of new people and new capital to the neighborhood. Area residents are reaping some benefits through jobs linked to the development. In addition, the alderman says the development will provide some managerial jobs.

"All of this is a result of what we did about 10 years ago," he says. "We did a neighborhood plan through well-attended community meetings and grass-roots participation. It took us about two years to come up with the plan."

In the back of a lot of minds, he said, was a memory of the old Sarah-Finney neighborhood.

"The area used to be a black entertainment district that included the Comet theater and the Comet restaurant," Kennedy says. "It used to be a vibrant area, with lots of businesses. The vision now is to recapture some of that. It's part of a community-driven effort to raise the quality of life in north St. Louis."

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