Please Save St. Louis from its Leaders
The prolific controversy over the San Luis apartments in the Central West End symbolizes a far more fundamental problem in our city than merely land use. Of course, our urban sensibilities tell us that renovating and reusing a viable building is obviously preferable to tearing it down for a gigantic surface parking lot. Nevermind the obvious benefits that would result from a quality rehab of the San Luis, such as adding an attractive, revenue-producing structure to the city’s tax base, saving our environment from the pollution created by demolition, preservation of the aesthetic continuity, walkability and architectural diversity of Lindell Boulevard, or economic vitality and new job creation. None of that matters because the power brokers in this town have other plans… for a parking lot.
It’s not surprising, either, because common sense hasn’t prevailed in this city in half a century. Politics and backroom deals always win. Maybe this dangerous pattern of getting things done isn’t unique to St. Louis, but for some reason other cities seem to accomplish better things than parking lots and dead space in their most sought-after neighborhoods. Vibrant, desirable cities stopped tearing down buildings for parking lots twenty years ago, but for some reason St. Louis has been plagued by backwards approaches to “revitalization.” And what makes it all the more tragic is that St. Louis deserves so much better. This is a proud old city with a legacy of greatness and a built environment most cities would kill for, yet many of our elected and appointed leaders seem hellbent on paving it into a future of mediocrity.
At Monday night’s Preservation Board review, when more than forty supporters turned out and waited four hours to support the preservation of the San Luis, it seemed like a victory was inevitable for the building and for St. Louis. More than twenty passionate neighbors, architects, professors, historians, researchers and concerned citizens stood up to make a well-rounded case for the building’s significance. Some spoke about how the San Luis is a remarkable example of mid-century modern architecture, and how the structure is an integral part of the urban fabric in one of the city’s most vibrant and decidedly urban neighborhoods. Others cited specific provisions in the Central West End Historic District guidelines that expressly prohibit a parking lot at this location. The National Trust for Historic Preservation and the New Orleans chapter of the American Institute of Architects also submitted formal letters pleading for the preservation of the San Luis. Only four people testified in favor of the parking lot, and all of them were directly affiliated with the building’s owner, the Archdiocese of Saint Louis. The climax of the evening came when an accomplished Chicago-based developer, who has carried out numerous successful urban projects across the Midwest (including St. Louis), stood up to express his enthusiastic interest in opening a dialogue with the Archdiocese. He voiced his desire to explore the potential of a partnership that would save and rehabilitate the San Luis, while also meeting the suggested parking requirements set forth by the Archdiocese. It seemed like a win-win for all involved. But that would be too easy, too logical.
Instead of heeding the valid concerns, opinions and evidence presented by the overwhelmingly pro-preservation speakers and letter writers, the Preservation Board narrowly approved a plan that promises to help keep St. Louis the second-rate city it has sadly become in the past several decades. Apparently all it takes to sway far-reaching decisions in this town is to take the flawed, misguided and unpopular arguments of the respective ward’s alderman as gospel. Who wins when this happens? Nobody, because the continued suburbanization of our urban core is a detriment to the entire St. Louis metropolitan area. It’s about time we start electing people who understand that. Common sense isn’t rocket science.