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Downtown West Demolition Plans Spark Pleas For City To Reconsider

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Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio
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A set of six buildings just across the street from St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department headquarters may soon be no more.

Earlier this month, after demolition permits were issued for a group of historic buildings along the 1900 block of Olive Boulevard in St. Louis, Catherine Hamacher expressed concerns.

“I feel like there are a lot of unanswered questions,” Hamacher told St. Louis on the Air. “How much parking do we need for the [Major League Soccer] stadium? Do we have it already? About 20% of downtown is already parking, and so is that the ideal use for the land?”

Hamacher is far from alone in questioning the demolition, which was proposed by the owners of the city’s new MLS franchise. When St. Louis native Mitchell Jorstad heard the news, it struck him as the latest example of a decades-long pattern of “clearing out downtown piecemeal,” without enough consideration of the existing neighborhood and people who live and work there.

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Catherine Hamacher is a St. Louis resident and an urban planner.

It moved Jorstad to take action. A petition he started a week and a half ago — “Save the 1900 Block on Olive Street!” — now has more than 1,300 signatures.

Jorstad is a passionate and active member of the local preservation community, but he’s quick to argue that more is at stake than simply historic value.

“From an economic sense alone, it’s better to just not waste these, especially with an area that’s ripe for redevelopment with this MLS stadium and all it’s going to do for the neighborhood,” Jorstad said.

The buildings along the 1900 block of Olive aren’t the only ones in Downtown West that have been recently slated for demolition. Just this week, St. Louis Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia (D-6th Ward) took to Twitter to express frustration about such plans at another, nearby spot.

“Here we go AGAIN,” Ingrassia wrote. “The City is trying to go behind the public and Aldermen (me this time) to allow for a demo of a mid century building at 201 S. Jefferson to build a suburban Starbucks. Unbelievable. Sounds like we need an update of the Preservation Review District Ordinance.”

To Hamacher, who works as an urban planner, both cases are a reminder that, oftentimes, “people have a hard time seeing the ‘what could be.’” A parking lot or a Starbucks may be easier to imagine — but what’s lost when we scrap existing buildings for yet more parking, or a chain?

On Monday’s St. Louis on the Air, Hamacher joined host Sarah Fenske for a closer look at these developments in Downtown West. She shared her perspective on how planning works in St. Louis and how it could be improved.

Hamacher noted that there is a draft design plan for downtown that’s currently out for public input. It doesn’t include demolition of the buildings along the 1900 block of Olive — or the area to be used as parking.

“The only thing worse than not having a plan is having a plan and not following it,” she said. “So it really can sort of erode the trust of people that you ask to participate in the planning process and of the process generally if you ask people for what they want and then you choose to do something different.”

The broadcast included remarks from Jorstad as well as statements from city officials, who noted that the six buildings slated for demolition along the 1900 block of Olive are privately owned and not protected by any historical designation.

A review by the Cultural Resources Office said the buildings fall under the category of having “little historic and design value” and “little reuse potential.”

A city spokesperson noted that the Board of Aldermen approved an ordinance by a big margin earlier this year that commits the city to cooperate with the ownership group to “identify potential locations for off-site parking that would be beneficial to both fans attending soccer matches and businesses in the Downtown West area.” A second bill, sponsored by Ingrassia and passed unanimously by the full board, also identified 1900 Olive to be included in a new Community Improvement District to raise revenue for “parking improvements throughout the district.”

A spokesperson for St. Louis City SC, the new soccer team, said that a parking lot used by people who work at 1831 Chestnut falls within the stadium’s footprint.

“In order to accommodate those individuals and stadium and related events, the 1900 Olive block, which primarily is an existing surface lot with a few largely vacant buildings, was identified as a location that could be used as temporary surface parking,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.

Asked about whether a downtown that is already about 20% parking really needs more parking, the St. Louis City SC spokesperson wrote that “generally, we agree that there is an abundance of surface parking lots in downtown St. Louis.”

“Our long-term plan is to actually decrease the total number of spaces and surface lots in Downtown West by working with our architectural team to find creative solutions that will contribute to a vibrant and accessible stadium district,” he wrote, adding that while the ownership group is still determining the long-term use of the space, it is “exploring the opportunity to create a mixed-use parking structure with commercial space on the first floor.”

Hamacher sees the demolition plans as indicative of a broader issue: a lack of long-term, comprehensive planning in St. Louis.

“Maybe this is the best spot for parking,” she said, “but I just think there’s a lot of unanswered questions. … It just ties back to the fact that we don’t have a plan for what we think this part of our community should look like, and so it’s just sort of an ad hoc approach.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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