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Economy & Business

Land Lab competition generates innovative ideas for area's vacant lots

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A shipping container may not seem the ideal place for a fine dining establishment, but Phil Valko knows that sometimes it’s good to think outside the box.

Even if that box happens to be a repurposed cargo storage unit housing a restaurant on a vacant lot.

“Their idea is so insane, it just might work,” Washington University’s director of sustainability told a chuckling standing-room-only audience in the dimly lit basement of Bridge, a fashionable Locust Avenue wine bar.

The unusual proposal is one of five concepts recognized at last night’s event, which announced winners of the Sustainable Land Lab Competition, a unique initiative created by Wash U in partnership with St. Louis and the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. Victorious teams received $5,000 and a two-year lease on a chunk of abandoned property just north of downtown.

“We hope this spurs a conversation about vacant land, that it broadens that conversation and deepens it so that more people can view vacant land as an asset, not just a challenge for the city,” said Valko. “These projects are modest in scale in the context of 20,000 vacant parcels but they are starting to build a library of ideas and innovations that can be replicated.”

The exact number of unused tracts in St. Louis is unknown since many are in the hands of private owners. But the city alone possesses over 10,000 such lots through the Land Reutilization Authority, including one of the four lots in the Land Lab. The project’s other parcels are owned partially or completely by the Old North organization.

“I think one of the things that has happened with this activity, with this competition, is that it has shown the city that there are lots of different ways to engage people,” said Nancy Rodney, an architect at Rosemann & Associates. “It doesn’t just have to be developers buying a lot. There are ways to engage people that actually activate the community.”

As one of Thursday night’s winners, Rodney will be able to implement her own idea for promoting community activation, a chess pocket park that will come to life at 2713 N. 14th Street, a parcel vacant since 2008. The team’s vision for the 3,360-square foot plot of former commercial space, includes a “metal art-junk fence,” concrete chess tabletops and native plantings to help retain rainwater.

“It’s important to the city because really, one of our points was that people move into communities because there are activities for their children and their children are safe,” she said. “Sustainability to us has a really big community component and this kind of activity brings all generations together, both older and younger people.”

Emily Wray, an architect with Christner, was part of another team that won a chance to create a community space – one which will include a solar calendar and a “snack garden” with edible native plants. Themed after the Mississippian culture, the proposal drew heavily on seasonal themes, connections to nature and a close proximity to the former site of a large earthen mound that once stood in St. Louis.

“Right across the river is a great example of a culture that thrived on kinship networks, which is related to the whole community idea of this [project],” she said referring to the mound-building settlements in the area before about 1300 A.D. “Also they used and cultivated native plants. We have a horticultural aspect but also a community aspect.”

Other proposals dealt almost entirely with plantings. A lot in the 1300 block of Warren Street is now set to become a garden in which sunflowers rotate with winter wheat. The choice of flora is no accident. It’s a key part of phytoremediation, the process of using plants to mitigate contaminants. Sunflowers have properties that allow them to purify the soil of lead, a common problem on empty urban tracts.

“It’s really important to think about how this can make these lots easier for developers to come in and use if their cleanup costs are taken care of by this low-impact method that we’re going to do,” said Richard Reilly, a team member and energy programs manager for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s EarthWays Center. “It makes these lots more valuable and safer for kids to be around.”

But the proposal that probably drew the most attention was the impromptu restaurant idea. Known as Bistro Box, the cargo container-based concept would act as a low-cost business incubator for aspiring restaurateurs. It was paired up with the evening’s fifth winner, the Renewing Roots garden, an urban agriculture effort.

Both concepts will share Lot 6, the abandoned Montgomery Street parcel that was profiled by the Beacon in January.

“It means that the city is going to become known even more as a great place to start a business,” said Angie Winschel, a member of the Bistro Box team and owner of a local design and marketing firm. “People can come there with an idea and really turn it into something. I think it brings a lot of hope to people and gives people the idea of the future of this city – that we’re moving forward.”

The project’s coordinators hope to pull in further funding for the enterprise from investors and crowdfunding efforts.

Winschel said the idea connects solid business sense with eco-friendly methodologies.

“I think if you plan from the beginning to be environmentally sustainable then it is definitely doable economically,” she said. “It’s all decisions that you make and priorities that you make. If that’s your priority, you work it into the business plan.”

Josi Nielsen, a member of the Renewing Roots team, said she is glad to be partnering with Bistro Box and hopes to create both jobs and a duplicable idea for others to grow their own harvests.

“Urban farms are an easy solution to a giant problem, not just in St. Louis but around the country,” said Nielsen, a local real estate investor. “We can do a demonstration project that puts together a kit for people to see that it’s not difficult to take a vacant lot and turn it into a farm that can make money on a regular cycle and provide income for people who may have limited options otherwise.”

The winning projects will officially get off the ground at a ribbon cutting on Apr. 27 though Valko said that some of the efforts will move along their own timeline as they work to acquire additional funding and put together their ideas.

“I’ve just been inspired by the passion that the teams poured into the competition,” he said. “They are not just attached to their idea. They’re attached to the idea of improving the city and coming up with a solution or set of solutions that can start to address a really challenging problem. I think we are starting down a new and innovative path for the region.”

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