Sunday, March 18, 2012

Jefferson Avenue In The Fox Park Neighborhood

Jefferson Avenue is brimming with potential as a commercial corridor.  Just take the stretch that serves as the eastern boundary of the Fox Park neighborhood which goes from I-44 down to Gravois.  I'm going to take some photos and talk up the western side of the street in this post.

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First of all, this is such a critical part of our city. It is the gateway to the south city neighborhoods directly south of the burgeoning Downtown and Downtown West neighborhoods which were two of the few St. Louis neighborhoods that actually saw a gain in population from 2000-2010. The 3 neighborhoods of Fox Park, Benton Park West and McKinley Heights are critical to St. Louis' future wedged between the successful neighborhoods of Compton Heights and Lafayette Square.  A strong, vibrant Jefferson Avenue could serve as the main corridor to the southeastern neighborhoods.  Some of these near south neighborhoods had taken a beating when people started packing it up for the burbs starting after WWII and continuing through the 1990's crack epidemic years when things were completely out of control in this part of St. Louis.

Things have calmed down from a crime perspective and historic tax credits urged rehabbers to come into these neighborhoods and help make a much needed change for the better.  There are lots of residual effects from those bad years, but these neighborhoods are clearly on the rise.  And Jefferson Avenue should be the attention getter and commercial business district that it could and should be to attract more people to choose this part of town as their home.

In its current state, Jefferson is a speedway where cars travel at high speeds mainly getting to I-44 and I-64. I would like to see a road diet here, similar to the changes made on Grand between Arsenal and Utah. Angled on-street parking, median plantings, street trees and wide sidewalks could make a major difference. Actually, just a little clean up and infrastructure improvements would go a long way toward making Jefferson more inviting to a pedestrian/neighbor/visitor.

So let's take a look at what exists today along Jefferson on the east side of Fox Park.

Starting on the north just south of I-44, you have a typical suburban McDonalds complete with 24 hour drive through.  This place is always crowded and must do an amazing business being right off of a major Interstate off ramp.  it is also one of the main nutritional sources for many in Fox Park as evidenced by the excessive amount of littering of McD's trash throughout the entire neighborhood. Whatever you think about these junk food restaurants, this one is probably going nowhere anytime soon judging by the traffic.

Geyer and Allen Avenues dead end with a cul de sac preventing traffic to enter Fox Park from Jefferson.  In fact many if not most of the perpendicular streets are intentionally cut off at Jefferson; Accomac, Ann and Armand all dead ends.  Russell, Shenandoah, Victor and Sidney are the only streets one can use to access Fox Park from Jefferson.  Allen and Geyer pick back up on the eastern side of Jefferson in the McKinley Heights neighborhood only to be butchered again by I-55 and then picking up in Soulard again.

The 2000 block of Jefferson is more attractive between Allen and Russell.  Infill and rehab could transform this block.  I love the old sign on one of the available buildings in this block:
There are gaps between nearly every building between Allen and Russell where buildings once stood. The building just south of the McDonald's is literally falling in on itself and the sidewalk surrounding the building. The back half or so is completely missing and the second story is falling on the sidewalk. In this part of St. Louis, this kind of crap is completely tolerated. This is the ghetto element of the near south side that leaves an impression with passers by. It doesn't have to be this way, but it is. It gets better though as you head south.  Here's what the falling building and adjacent sidewalk looks like:

Again, there are many gaps where buildings once stood.  These are currently empty lots or surface parking, so this block does not appear very contiguous.  Here's are some other buildings between Russell and the McD's:

Just south of Russell, you have the 2100 block of Jefferson which currently has a former suburban fast food drive thru and restaurant.  I believe this used to be a Taco Bell and it now serves as an ATM.  I'm not kidding, it's an ATM.  This vacant eyesore was built in 1994. 

I can only imagine what beautiful buildings were destroyed to make way for the junk food restaurant...and now it stands vacant and shuttered just a few years later.  The point I'm trying to make is that destruction for these fast food joints is a major failure for our historic neighborhoods.  They almost always go out of business in a matter of 15 - 20 years or so, leaving major scars on the landscape and sucking the soul out of St. Louis.  Look no further than the former Burger King across the street in McKinley Heights...same story.
The good news is South Side Day Nursery (SSDN) has purchased the property of the former Taco Bell along with 2 beautiful brick storefronts/ and a large dwellings right at Ann formerly owned by DeSales Community Housing Corp.  The Beacon reported on this back in December, 2011 and the buildings that SSDN are proposing seem like an upgrade over the surface parking and drive through ATM.  It appears to be built to the street with decent looking modern design.

South Side Day Nursery has been around for 125 years as a non-profit to provide kids with a safe and healthy place while their parents are at work.  They currently serve 97 kids between 6 wks and 5 yrs of age.  The new 19,000 sq. ft. building will increase the capacity to 140 kids.  More on SSDN from the Beacon article:
Started in 1886 by 15 Unitarian women, the Nursery's mission was to provide children with education and a hygienic place to stay while their parents worked. The first home was at 10th and Sidney, where they remained until 1954. The move to Iowa Avenue was caused by construction of Interstate 55.
The bad news (in St. Louis nearly all new uses come with a loss of our brick beauties) is that we are losing several classic buildings in the process.  There will be no intricate design or craftsmanship on the new buildings.  There was of course plenty of history and care and charm in the old buildings.

So the historic buildings have been demolished and the brick nicely palleted up for somewhere else. 

The Beacon article says the historic buildings will be taken down before the ATM/Taco Bell is dealt with:
According to South Side Day Nursery's plans, the store fronts and residence would be demolished and work begun before dealing with the American Eagle part of the parcel. 
So if this thing really gets built to the street with the design proposed, and the shuttered ATM is replaced, I'll consider this a net gain even though we lose more of St. Louis' treasure.  I'm sure SSDN will provide a great resource for many in the city and it will bring some life to a dead stretch of Jefferson....but it comes with the cost of losing a piece of our history and charm.  I welcome SSDN to Fox Park and wish them nothing but the best, but I'm disappointed they did not give this historic neighborhood enough consideration when it came to bulldozing the one thing that will draw more people to our neighborhood and our city.

The next block gets better.

Kakao Chocolate, the Warehouse, the Way Out Club, Trader Bob's Tattoo are all spots for quality products and entertainment.  Just imagine if a few more businesses moved into these storefronts?  The potential is huge.  Another quality addition to the Fox Park stretch of Jefferson is Tenth Life Cat Rescue which will be renovating and occupying a currently empty building south of Kakao.

There are other businesses including a tire shop and a sock/resale shop among other things.  Successful neighborhoods need successful and useful businesses.  There are several spaces ready for immediate new life and other ready for future rehab.

I know cities need gas stations and other auto centric businesses, and the Fox Park stretch of Jefferson has several suburban examples:

Jefferson along the Fox Park stretch also has many beautiful homes and churches both old:

And some much needed new in fill to take care of those gaps:

A healthy Jefferson means a healthy near south side.  Jefferson is a major north/south connector.  We need simple beautification like sidewalk repairs and street trees.  We need on-street parking.  We need to attract more business, we need more infill.  We need a commercial corridor not an Interstate feeder.  We need a little TLC for the sidewalks, the trees, the street lights and everything else to spruce this stretch of STL up.  Otherwise we're left with the current state which just isn't good enough.

Here's to attracting more people and proprietors willing to be good stewards of their property and streetfronts.