A really big hole. A fairly astonishing scene from the high vantage of eastbound I-44, to be sure, and it’s a wonder that an expectedly intact neighborhood like Shaw would be home to such a sizable gash in the otherwise dense fabric. A sole two-family home, at the southwest corner of De Tonty Street and Thurman Avenue, is left to bookend the 600 foot-long absence between the far eastern end of the barren half-block, and what remains of the 1920s era historic street wall at the western end of De Tonty. The five houses anchoring the southeastern corner of De Tonty and Klemm Streets offer clues as to what was recently lost on the 4100 block of De Tonty between Klemm Street and Thurman Avenue but the decrepit stature of the rather young ruin, standing alone at the southwest corner of De Tonty and Thurman, reminds us of what could become of some great St. Louis neighborhoods and has already become of so many others. Though any presumption that this really big hole signals sustained and reckless trends in attempted speculative real estate projects is misplaced, the removal of structures to make way only for options or promises is of questionable wisdom.
Whatever stillborn real estate venture had the reportedly abandoned row of houses on De Tonty demolished, leaving the vacant expanse we now see, this is what has happened. We can now look at this De Tonty block and see infill opportunity, as did others in recent, unbuilt efforts. Another developer is currently attempting rehabilitation and new construction for the 4100 block, but any new proposition for this largely empty half-block site adds to the discussion of what’s there, and what should be.
What should be…
An immediate and full restoration of the De Tonty street wall as it’s expected to appear. The dignity of a street’s visage is not unlike the dignity of a human’s face, and a toothless mouth usually leaves an enduring, negative impression. Full replacement of recognizable, missing pieces is the patch over this hole that returns dignity to the street.
With the strictures of the Shaw Neighborhood Historic Code, pronounced deviations in the resident architectural style are not likely to be made by new infill. Whether opposed or supported, this code ensures guardianship of the rich, historic nature of the buildings and street walls that neighborhoods like Shaw strive to preserve. With the certainty of façade design virtually by prescription, focus is then redirected to the broader makeup of infill that can be proposed. Urban density is as vital to a city core’s survival as it is to its identity, and the continuance of that density is where any infill proposal should begin. Though density itself is not a generator of city or neighborhood form, but rather the result of people’s need to be near things of importance, existing or historic neighborhood density should be maintained. Density is often measured in number of dwelling units per acre, which can mean different things when considering sizes and shapes of both buildings and the lots they sit on, and of course, the network of streets and thoroughfares that connect and restrict the sizes of those buildings and lots. The pictorial book “Visualizing Density (2007, Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, authors Campoli & MacLean)” exhibits a range of different densities, from a sparse one dwelling unit per acre (du/acre) or less, to a hyper compact 150 du/acre from aerial perspective. This excellent collection of photos and brief analysis allows the reader to see many ways in which density can appear when presented in the ratio of du/acre.
Mass transit usually relies on a minimum of 7 du/acre for city buses, and 12 du/acre or more for fixed rail systems to justifiably work at its cost of operation and maintenance. The placement of urban density into the context of viable mass transit is a comparison that most city-dwellers and core supporters can appreciate, for instance, and is just one way to measure the importance of density. This metric, however, does offer a numeric means of understanding the density of a region with civic services like mass transit. An examination of the area in the Shaw Neighborhood, where the 4100 block of De Tonty is located, can be made to estimate its du/acre density. Comparing this estimated density to those usually required to justify mass transit service, we can surmise that the Shaw neighborhood is a strong example of the urban form that can both demand and support transit service. This Shaw neighborhood form should persist through preservation and appropriate infill, and can include modern installations or functions that may not have been a historic part of its existence, but still fit into the pattern.
In addition to the general density of historic neighborhoods like Shaw, there are the proportions of façade area and space between buildings that compose the city street wall, and this is too often eschewed in favor of patterns more becoming of suburban areas rather than urban areas when new residential infill is built in St. Louis. Though the intent is often to provide more opening for daylight to penetrate windows on side walls of buildings, and to provide a distance between buildings that may give a more comfortable sense of privacy to some, the visual effect is disruptive to the extant patterns established long ago. This disruption is both incongruous to the architecture of the historic street walls, and to the very du/acre density that cities rely on to maintain what is essentially urban. While older city homes are considered architecturally desirable to likely most that choose to live in cities, what may often be required to rehabilitate a dilapidated structure or to reconfigure interior spaces to better meet contemporary lifestyles can dissuade potential buyers of homes located in neighborhoods like Shaw. A lack of alternate housing choices may prevent historic neighborhoods from achieving the optimum demographic mix of homeowners, and acceding to both historic codes and an obligation to protect dense fabric and architectural legacy while offering alternatives is rarely attempted in St. Louis. Of course, it is easier to depart from resident architectural vernaculars when restrictive codes are not present, but it is not difficult to accede to restrictions and obligations while also offering an alternative.
Larger, dense multi-family arrangements can be designed to appear harmonious on streets of closely spaced single-family houses or two-family townhomes and apartment houses, which is the predominant housing type in much of the Shaw neighborhood. Rhythmic street wall patterns can appear to continue where no spaces occur between houses in multi-family arrangements, allowing for both the respect of history and du/acre density that is more than adequate to support mass transit service. Systems of off-site fabrication of housing, like modular sections or panelized components make larger, compact developments more cost effective to build because of reduced construction schedule time and the economy of scale in multi-unit projects. The city of St. Louis has seen a small amount of prefabricated housing built in recent years, but this method of project delivery is underutilized considering it’s appropriateness to compact housing units and relative sizes of city residential lots.
The St. Louis market can be well-served by the number of modular manufacturing plants in close range of the metropolitan area, for instance, but skepticism in a region that knows only conventional building methods is most likely dulled by projects of convincing scale.
Though rare outside of the largest U.S. cities, housing cooperatives and other shared equity arrangements like community land trusts and cohousing certainly offer type alternatives of which physical form is very amenable to a neighborhood fabric like that seen in Shaw. These housing types may offer many in the non-professional workforce or young, first time buyers an affordable option of home ownership. Shared commons can foster lasting personal relationships and offer a strong sense of security with watchful eyes and careful attendance. Appurtenances to these housing types like a meeting house or similar amenities can offer flexible use and even opportunity for profit for residents.
Urban agriculture is both ancient and seemingly brand new, with current focus on sustainable land use and more healthful human consumption of foods so prominent in city development issues and design. While efforts are made of late to describe the phenomenon of food deserts, the presence of managed agricultural growth in dense city environs should not be limited only to crisis response or larger-scale commercial operations.
Community gardens are often unifying if not always capable of delivering the volume expected to provide many with nourishment, and urban farms can proliferate at large and small scales throughout city neighborhoods. If integrated into domestic architecture as matter of standard practice, rather than oddity, then that proliferation of urban agriculture would be many multiples of the few community gardens that occur where they’re welcomed.
The cultivation of produce can be profitable and instructive, and encourage good stewardship of land through interested and regular human involvement. The integration of agriculture into domestic architecture can ensure a constant, custodial presence for the needs of a functioning farm. Cities should give serious consideration to more sustainable, permacultural land development practices, and to allow for mixed uses and even producing more than is consumed.
With what’s there, one is compelled to propose what should be, and to fill the really big hole on De Tonty Street with an alternative housing type that meets or exceeds the du/acre density present in the Shaw neighborhood, accedes to historic code and an obligation to protect extant patterns, and provides an illustration of the integration of urban agriculture into domestic architecture is just such a proposal. Through the system of prefabricated modular components delivered to this urban site en masse, the quickness and efficiency of restoring the dignity to the De Tonty street wall in the historic Shaw neighborhood can introduce to the city a new way to build. This great neighborhood expects intactness in stark contrast to the void on this half-block site, and because of the astonishing impact of what’s there, it can be said what should be.