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Developer Paul J. McKee, Jr. has generated plenty of controversy with his plan to assemble a large part of the near north side of St. Louis for development. McKee has acquired over 660 parcels in the Old North St.
Louis, St. Louis Place and JeffVanderLou neighborhoods north of downtown and midtown.
McKee’s plans are not the first questionable plans for that area.
In 1947, the city Comprehensive Plan called the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, then known as Murphy-Blair, obsolete and called for total clearance.
In the early 1950s, the city cleared most of the DeSoto-Carr neighborhood south of Cass Avenue and east of Jefferson Avenue for an urban renewal project much more infamous than McKee’s: the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, completed by 1954. Pruitt-Igoe gradually fell into decline and was completely demolished by 1975.
In 1966, the city secured federal funding to undertake the simultaneous demolition of 150 buildings in JeffVanderLou.
In 1973, two south St. Louis aldermen, including Richard Gephardt, introduced an ordinance calling for reducing city services on the north side to minimal levels, allowing infrastructure to decay and eventual demolition of 70,000 buildings. The bill never became law, but its doctrine became highly influential.
Twenty years later, Mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. proposed creating an 18-hole golf course on the former Pruitt-Igoe site, flanked by suburban-style housing and entailing clearance of much of the St. Louis Place neighborhood. The plan died amid fierce opposition.
In 1999, discussions started for a land use plan for the Fifth Ward that encompasses all of Old North St. Louis and St. Louis Place and some of JeffVanderLou. The first draft of the plan inexplicably called for demolition of over 600 historic houses, most of which were occupied.
Thus we see that the idea that the near north side needs large-scale renewal is persistent, with roots far beyond McKee’s recent plans.
(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)
Michael Allen is an architectural historian and historic preservation consultant working in private practice. Most recently he served as the Assistant Director of Landmarks Association of St. Louis, the region's historic preservation advocacy organization. He is also editor of Ecology of Absence, a website with accompanying blog that documents and analyzes changes in the built environments of St. Louis, Chicago and other Midwestern cities. His articles on architecture and policy have appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Beacon, St. Louis American, Arch City Chronicle and Omnitectural Forum. In addition to his professional work, Allen has been rehabilitating a house in the city's Old North St. Louis neighborhood for the past two years.