In the Wake of Ferguson, Regeneration in St. Louis
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St. Louis was ranked 8 of 18 post-industrial cities studied in our Policy Focus Report Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, and the metropolitan area continued to make progress in planning and economic development. The revitalization along Washington Avenue, where turn-of-the-century garment and warehouse buildings have been renovated for adaptive re-use, was singled out by the report’s co-authors, Lavea Brachman and Alan Mallach, as one success story. The rebirth along the boulevard embodied one of the major recomendations of the report — that cities should take advantage of existing assets and strong urban fabric.
On a recent visit that happened to coincide with the immediate aftermath of the police shooting and racial tensions in Ferguson, we toured a thriving business incubator in the Lammert furniture building called T-Rex. Brian Matthews, co-founder of the St. Louis-based Cultivation Capital, was managing the finishing touches on what he called an “entrepreneurship ecosystem,” including start-ups like Tunespeak and Less Annoying CRM. There are high hopes for St. Louis to become an alternative to the Bay Area, New York and Boston as a mecca for technology innovation. The most obvious edge is lower costs, for the businesses and their employees; a number of other medium-sized cities, such as Louisville, are seeking to take advantage of this strength.
As promising as it is, however, this kind of regeneration has its limits, as Mallach points out — particularly in terms of being inclusive in building the workforce. “Many residents of legacy cities lack the education, job skills, and labor force attachment for them to benefit from economic growth, whether in the city or its surrounding region,” the authors write in the report. “While many legacy cities still contain large numbers of jobs, most of the positions are held by commuters. For example, there are 216,000 jobs inside the borders of St. Louis, yet less than 55,000 are held by city residents. Building the city’s human capital by increasing residents’ education and skills must be intimately linked with the city’s economic growth strategy to maximize the benefits city residents will gain from job growth inside the city.”
The promise of jobs and the creation of new amenities is also at the heart of another project, north of Washington Avenue — beginning at the site of the ruins of the Pruitt-Igoe public housing project, destroyed in 1972 after being deemed a failure. The city hopes to get the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—the high-tech eyes and ears of the Defense Department—to relocate to where the towers of Pruitt-Igoe once stood. The facility, currently at the banks of the Mississippi River near the Anheuser-Busch brewery, would anchor the proposed NorthSide Regeneration project, spread out over 1,500 acres of largely vacant blocks, and including residential, commercial, and office space, plus a school and 50 acres of parks and trails.
There are thorny issues of scale inherent in this project, however. The high-security facility requires a large footprint of as much as 120 acres, leading some to fear another superblock-style development. Proponents believe that good urbanism would sprout up all around, however, an outcome that would clearly be better than existing conditions.
More detail on the story of Washington Avenue and the redevelopment of the Pruitt-Igoe site is available in this post at CityLab.
The challenges of regenerating post-industrial Legacy Cities will be the topic of a session at the Meeting of the Minds in Detroit beginning October 1, with Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Rob van Gijzel, mayor of Eindhoven, the fifth-largest city in The Netherlands. The Lincoln Institute is a partner in the annual convening of some 350 thought leaders from the private, public, and non-profit sectors, focused on reinvention, technology, and “alternative urban futures.”
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Washington City Paper published an article this month exploring the economic impact of the US Coast Guard’s relocation to Ward 8, east of the Anacostia River. The new HQ on the old St. Elizabeths Hospital (yes, no apostrophe) campus in Congress Heights sounds a lot like the proposed GIA relocation to the Pruitt-Igoe site—thousands of well-paid workers housed in a high-security installation walled off from the surrounding neighborhood.
The District and the feds projected that the move would spin off big benefits for Ward 8 neighborhoods: a big boost for local businesses and a spurt of new development in a predominantly African American area long plagued by disinvestment. According to the article, none of that has happened. St. Louis officials appear to have bought this story line; they should take a close look at what has (and hasn’t) happened in DC.