Local Hero

While mayors and planning departments may be enamored with megaprojects—sports stadiums, office towers, glitzy cultural institutions—the real work of urban regeneration is often a grassroots phenomenon. No place better exemplifies this think-small approach than St. Louis, a city beset by problems but attempting to pull itself up by its collective bootstraps, one neighborhood at a time.

Unfortunately the City of St. Louis is not immune to the lure of the large project. “They’ve poured billions into downtown with little or no effect,” one close observer says. “But on the neighborhood level really exciting things are happening.” St. Louis is now home to a growing class of young professionals dedicated to its rebirth. One of the leaders is John Burse, a 34-year-old architect at Mackey Mitchell Associates. In addition to his work at the firm, Burse serves as president of the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, along with a host of other community activities that earned him the AIA’s Young Architects Award last year. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen spoke to him about his neighborhood work, the future of St. Louis, and the unique opportunities the city provides for young design professionals.

What’s the background of the organization?
The Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is about twenty-five years old. It was started in the early 1980s by a group of residents who were concerned about protecting the neighborhood’s historic assets. It was geared around preservation, and for most of its existence it was primarily volunteer-based.

How did you get involved?
I came to the city eight years ago. I’m originally from a small town in Connecticut. When I graduated from Syracuse University in 1994, it was difficult to find work on the East Coast, so I started out in Dallas. But I had no idea what Dallas was all about. Growing up in the Northeast, you’ve never seen sprawl until you go to a city like Dallas. Then I came to St. Louis and thought, My God, there’s urbanism here. And after I’d been on the guided tour and seen the great areas, I looked around further and found a lot of opportunities. St. Louis was a city in ruins, but there was something romantic about what its next chapter could be.

Romantic in what sense?
The chance to have a bit of influence in making something positive happen really spoke to me. That’s how I got involved. About seven years ago I organized a charette for the neighborhood through the St. Louis chapter of the AIA. We invited residents, young architects, landscape people, folks that I’d known from the offices I’d worked in. There was a lot of youthful energy but not a lot of knowledge about how to get things done. Then a couple of years later I bought a house and rehabbed it. And along the way I’ve worked to help define a vision for Old St. Louis’s future.

What was your next step?
Our local alderwoman secured a grant allowing us to hire a full-time director. Will Winter, our first executive director, got us thinking about things that we could do to revitalize the neighborhood beyond helping one another fix up our homes. The forces of disinvestment were so strong that we knew it would require outside help. There were blocks where you would have only one building left standing. Some blocks were totally pastoral. Indeed many areas were declining faster than we could keep up with. But there was an instant spark between Will and myself. We really got the ball rolling and started building partnerships with other community stakeholders.

Who did you reach out to?
The main stakeholder was a group called the Grace Hill Settlement House, a 102-year-old organization with deep roots in the community. They helped us build relationships with the city and folks in the lending community. Together we decided to chart a shared vision for the future. So we had board members from both organizations meet on Saturday mornings to talk about urbanism and the historic role of neighborhoods like this one. How do we protect social and economic diversity? How does the design of the streetscape reinforce safety and security? There was a real consensus that if the neighborhood was to turn around it should do so with the old and new in harmony. We produced a sort of constitution on urban design that would be used to guide development efforts. After that we thought it was important to create a plan using these principles for an area of the neighborhood. We picked one of the most blighted ones.

Was it one of those hollowed-out Detroit-like scenes?
Absolutely. But it was a powerful site. You stand on these vacant lots, and in the distance you see the St. Louis Arch. At night the towers downtown glitter and sparkle. So we created a plan for this fifteen-acre area that included about a hundred sites for construction, along with recommendations for the renovation of approximately 50,000 square feet of remaining historic buildings.

When was this plan enacted?
We made it about five years ago. After completing it we went looking for a developer. We shopped the plan around to a number of them in town, and they all had the same response: “Oh, we’d love to help you, but you’ve got to get your alderwoman to give us two million dollars in gap financing.” We knew that wasn’t going to happen, but at the same time an extraordinary opportunity presented itself. Will was able to secure an annual $100,000 state grant for two years to buy old buildings in the neighborhood and hire residents and a construction supervisor to help stabilize them. About a dozen homes were renovated this way. And during the past few years we’ve done several more.

Downtown St. Louis has been experiencing a bit of a revival. What’s behind that?
The state of Missouri now has a historic tax credit that has been responsible for a lot of revitalization. That helped developers feel a little bit more comfortable about taking the plunge in terms of risk. I also think there’s an enormous value in cities like St. Louis, where real estate is still quite affordable. At some point that gets people’s attention. In fact, more building permits were issued last year than any other year in St. Louis’s history.

How do you balance your Mackey Mitchell work and the neighborhood projects? Is there any overlap?
No. The work I’ve done in Old North St. Louis has generated a lot of work for other design professionals, which is exciting. I think it makes me a better architect. To experience what it’s like to be a codeveloper—to have a budget and make decisions with your architect that move a project forward and still accomplish your broader social goals—is kind of cool.

Do you think there are more opportunities for young architects in a city like St. Louis?
In terms of cultural opportunities, a city like New York is in a class of its own. But as far as opportunities to make an impact in the world, places like St. Louis are out there. There’s a lot to do here. When I talk to friends in other cities and tell them what I’ve bought a house for, they’re flabbergasted: seven thousand bucks for a 3,500-square-foot Victorian town house. You put in another hundred thousand and a lot of sweat equity, and you have a palace with a view of the river and the St. Louis Arch.

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