Smart Growth Leaders Champion Main Street

Award-winning Community Revitalization in North St. Louis

On December 5, 2011, a tremendous example of how preservation can drive sustainable, smart growth to benefit all residents received another strong vote of approval: the Old North St. Louis Revitalization Initiative received EPA’s 2011 Smart Growth Achievement Award for Overall Excellence. The award is for the dramatic revitalization of the Old North neighborhood in St. Louis, Missouri—the city’s original “Main Street.” Old North St. Louis was also honored with a National Preservation Award in 2010, specifically for its Crown Square Redevelopment project, a two-block mixed-use development that gets its name from the venerable Crown Candy Kitchen located just adjacent to the project. The widespread recognition brought by these prestigious awards is quite a turn of events for a neighborhood that was for decades perceived as one to avoid. How did such a transformation happen?

"Old North St. Louis has all the ingredients needed for a stunning comeback: a solid base of distinctive commercial buildings with good bones, a committed group of citizens willing to work hard for change and strong organizations to guide the movement. Old North St. Louis Restoration Group Executive Director, Sean Thomas tells the story through his eyes in the following excerpt from a recent PreservationNation blog post:

"When the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group and the Regional Housing & Community Development Alliance decided to take on the dead zone known as the 14th Street Pedestrian Mall, in the heart of the Old North St. Louis neighborhood, we knew we had our work cut out for us. What we didn’t know, however, was just how big the project would become, how long it would take, or how much it would transform the community.

By the time we signed the first contract to purchase property in February of 2005, we were well on our way toward planning what eventually would become a $35 million, 27-building mixed-use redevelopment called Crown Square. [NOTE: Funding included federal new markets, low-income housing, and historic tax credits; state historic and housing tax credits; tax-exempt financing; and other sources.] Reaching the finish line took quite a bit longer. Although most of the historic rehabilitation of the buildings had finished by the end of 2009, it wasn’t until October 29, 2010 that cars could drive down the street again, just as we were walking across the stage to receive the National Trust/HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation at the National Preservation Conference."

The award and the national recognition it has generated reflect a dramatic turnaround for a neighborhood that had been abandoned and given up on by many. The transformation of what had been a symbol of urban decay into a showpiece for revitalization through historic preservation also changed attitudes among the diverse community of current and former residents. Not too long ago, when former residents would return to their old neighborhood for visits, they usually went back home with heavy hearts as they reflected on how much had been lost. Now, these former residents stick around for a while longer to walk up and down N. 14th Street to marvel at the beauty of the restored buildings dating from the 1860s to the 1930s.

Some of these individuals drop in to view the history exhibit in the offices of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, which now occupies a building that had been a Kroger grocery store 75 years ago. As these former residents recount stories of shopping down the street at the first J.C. Penney in the city (which opened in 1928) or at the Woolworth store across the street, both of which are long gone, they cross paths with current residents who now live in apartments in those buildings.

One of the new residents at Crown Square, a 12-year-old boy named Tiger, helps distribute fliers along the street for the next movie night at the Old North Gallery, while an older woman who lived on the block in the 1930s stops in to view the new fashion boutique, which occupies a space that had housed a dress shop 50 years ago. These interactions reflect the vibrancy of a community with deep roots and a bright future. All of this was made possible because of a determined community and strong partners that recognized the value of its past and the importance of decent, affordable, and attractive housing for its current and future residents."

Update: The Crown Square development is now complete, resulting in 80 new households in an area that had been largely abandoned, and the opening of a growing number of new locally owned businesses.