Saturday, September 24, 2016

De Tonty Street - An Historic Transformation South of Interstate 44

There is a sea change underway on one of St. Louis' most visible streets just south of the well-traveled Interstate 44.  I'm talking about De Tonty Street, a one mile, seven block, east-west street that goes from South Grand Boulevard to Vandeventer Avenue in the Shaw and Southwest Garden Neighborhoods.



While De Tonty is a relatively small street that most probably don't recognize by name, the stakes are high due to its visibility from I-44. To many passersby and suburban commuters, traveling down the Interstates that cut through St. Louis are the only views into city life and city neighborhoods.

I've heard many people talk about the "eyesores" along this stretch of I-44 since I moved to St. Louis ~22 years ago. From the 1990's to now, this area has drastically changed first north and now south of the Interstate that butchered this part of the city.

While the focus of this blog post is De Tonty Street, I'll also briefly discuss the north view from the Interstate along Lafayette Avenue in the Botanical Height Neighborhood.

Looking north from this stretch you have the "Botanical Heights" new homes built on the former McRee Town. Now, McRee Town had seen better days by the time I moved to St. Louis in the 1990s and it was well known for crime and dealing. I personally experienced some crazy stuff here. It was out of control.

But don't just take my word for it, the poor state of McRee town in the early 21st Century is well documented in multiple places. Here's an excerpt from a story by Shelley Smithson published in the Riverfront Times in 2003:
The smell of trash hangs as thick as the humidity. The buildings, most of them boarded and burned, are broken-down monuments to a neighborhood that lost hope long ago. Yet behind the shadows of neglect are arched doorways, stately turrets, brick front porches -- simple architectural reminders of a place that once was beautiful and elegant.


McRee Town is still waking up. In a few hours, drug dealers will be waving their arms and yelling at passing motorists, especially those who are white, hoping to make a sale. Cops say most buyers tool down Interstate 44 from the suburbs, take the Vandeventer exit and score some crack in McRee Town, then pop back on the freeway.
Photos of McRee Town's final days can be found on the invaluable Built St. Louis blog.

Sadly, we lost many of those brick buildings right around 2003, and by 2007 it was done, the reset button was pushed and the urban renewal clearance mindset was in full swing...the Garden District Commission formed in 1998, including the Missouri Botanical Garden and neighbors from the area...and this is what they wanted:
The Garden District Commission (GDC) is a non-profit, community-based organization formed in 1998 to promote neighborhood revitalization in Botanical Heights (formerly McRee Town), Shaw, Tiffany, and Southwest Garden. The GDC is governed by a board of directors made up of a diverse cross section of these communities and includes institutional and neighborhood leaders.

As its first order of business the GDC spearheaded an extensive community-based planning process in which residents from all four GDC neighborhoods participated. The major goal that resulted from this process was for the GDC to initiate a redevelopment plan in the McRee Town neighborhood. With the support from the GDC neighborhoods and the alderman and Mayor’s Office, in September 2001 the City of St. Louis adopted the McRee Town Redevelopment Plan. McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation, an affiliate of the Garden District Commission, was granted redevelopment rights to implement the plan. (source)
The mostly detached single family homes with contemporary suburban design and setbacks are in full effect north of I-44. 
To the casual observer, the area probably looks a lot better flying by at 65 mph, especially those who think new is good and always better than old. I'm not one of those, but I accept I'm in the minority. So, the north view from I-44 between Grand and Vandeventer looks quite different today than it did in the late 1980's through the early 2000's.

There are still plenty of places that harken back to the tougher times for McRee Town; hopefully these will see investment soon, the skeletons are strong:
But, the southern view along that same stretch of I-44 is the focus of this post. Sweeping changes and investment are underway...and by my untrained eye, we are starting to witness a better fit for the neighborhood and a better example of modern construction. Whatever your opinion, it's good to see infill, investment, property tax dollars a eventually the most important thing...more people who call St. Louis home.

I'll show a few examples of why I'm optimistic for the future of De Tonty Street, but first a quick look the history of this short east-west street.

Per the St. Louis Public Library Street Name Index, the street was named in honor of Henri de Tonty, the Italian-born lieutenant of Rene Robert Cavelier Sieur de la Salle, the Frenchman who explored the Mississippi Valley in the late-17th century. Among the Indians of the valley, De Tonty was known as "Iron Hand" because his right hand was blown off in battle and replaced with one made of metal. An alternate spelling is Henri de Tonti; but the city went with De Tonty.
Henri De Tonty

The street is a nice blend of mostly two story multi-family and single family homes construction between 1911 and 1922...all brick and stone St. Louis classics. By my estimation, there are only two examples of three story buildings along De Tonty.
Lawrence and De Tonty
3800 block

The other homes are a nice mix of single, two and four family properties.
A walk down the street will show signs of investment and maintenance required for dignified living conditions. From a curb appeal standpoint, this stretch is looking better than it has in my ~22 years here.

Sure there are still a couple properties that are condemned, but there are signs of renewal.
Many of the recent rehabs are taking four families to two and two families to single family homes, effectively right-sizing the housing stock to the much lower St. Louis population in current times vs. the 1910's when these were built to meet the demands of a city of ~687,029 (source).
Empty lots are seeing infill, an example being 4056-4058 De Tonty, just east of Thurman Avenue. This former city-owned LRA lot was vacant for years and per city records, was purchased for back taxes by a suburban St. Louis development firm who is building a single family home. Density. Re-established street wall and a better tax base...optimism all around.
By my estimation, there are only two remaining empty lots flanked by homes. One in the 4100 block and one in the 4300 block, the latter assumed as a private yard to the adjacent property.

Speaking of the 4300 block, the small stretch of De Tonty that is west of Tower Grove Avenue is part of the Southwest Garden Neighborhood and has a completely different feel than the Shaw blocks.

It has a lot of street trees and the property abutting I-44 is planted, providing a more private, quiet setting. There are curb bump-outs that provide traffic calming at Tower Grove Avenue.
While there are only a couple empty lots flanked by homes, there are plenty-o empty lots at the corner properties at Thurman, Lawrence and 39th Street. 
But there is reason for optimism. Per an October, 2015 story by nextSTL,  a food production, nutrition and science education center is planned at Lawrence and De Tonty. The Greenhouse Venture is the team behind this project. Here's their mission:
To create a nationally visible demonstration facility for year-round, sustainable, urban agriculture that instills an appreciation of the cycles and processes of nature and health, that broadens the education experience of elementary school students in the Urban Education Alliance District, that optimizes technology to remotely share its program with other interested elementary schools throughout the region, and that offers nutritious fresh produce to the community's needy. 
The Project is Founded on a collaboration between Saint Louis University and four schools: St. Margaret of Scotland, Mullanphy-Botanical Garden, Tower Grove Christian, and the Saint Louis Language Immersion schools.
Exciting elements of this design are tiered plantings along the Interstate embankments:


Per an October, 2015 story by KMOX, the center is slated to open in 2019. Hopefully another empty lot seeing a higher use.

But the real attention grabber is the massive housing construction project going on in the vast stretch of empty lots from Thurman Avenue to Klemm Street in the 4100 block. Formerly a massive field cleared of homes for years:

Unfortunately, these homes were demolished in the late 1990's and early 2000's as routine maintenance and upkeep was abandoned, the homes fell into disrepair. Instead of opportunities for rehabilitation, the homes were cleared en masse. Eventually the lots were absorbed by the city's LRA and eventually changed hands to a couple developers that were unable to execute construction projects due to economics and/or other factors....until now.

Another long vacant lot in the City of St. Louis will soon see 72 new housing units as urban developer UIC plans a December groundbreaking. The vision, which includes three-story apartment buildings mixed with for-sale townhomes, is the third major proposal in recent years for the site on the 4100 block of Detonty Street facing Interstate 44 in the quickly developing Shaw neighborhood. 
The site totals 84,000sf with more than 600 feet of street frontage. Phase 1 will include the renovation of the existing building at the east end of the site and a 36-unit adjacent building. A model townhome will be built, with additional units construction as sold. Phase 2 will include a 24-unit apartment building and is scheduled to break ground summer 2016.
It's really good to see this level of investment, taking vacant lots and bringing dignified homes and much needed tax dollars back to the people of the city....remember, a large part of the school budgets come from property taxes.

I like the three story design, breaking up the largely two story street.
Click play to view the 4300 block as of publishing

Street trees are drastically needed in the Shaw section of De Tonty. Here's an example:
The north side of De Tonty's embankments leading to I-44 could use some attention. A buffer is clearly needed, the 4300 block is an example of what this can provide.

Back in 2013, I spoke to Shaw resident Monte Abbott, one of the folks behind native plantings flanking the Thurman underpass. These areas are maturing as a wild, native landscape and form a brief respite from the mowed weeds that extend in each direction. Monarchs were onsite on my recent visit...as advertised.
Slay balls blocking access to Botanical Heights

As I discussed in the previous blog linked above, there was once a design competition to enhance the pedestrian experience and look of the Thurman underpass, but that appears stalled or dead.

So lots of action on De Tonty Street to take in, and keep your eyes out for the Greenhouse Venture project and activity on other remaining empty lots. 

Momentum is building and this part of St. Louis is looking better than it has in years.

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