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Shortly before John McPheeters went before the St. Louis Preservation Board last month to ask permission to demolish a 100-year-old house, a member of the nonprofit Landmarks Association made a courtesy call to tell him the preservation advocacy group would oppose his project. "That's good," McPheeters replied. "That's what I'd expect."
McPheeters owns Bowood Farms, the Central West End nursery that by all accounts has refashioned what was once a rough-and-tumble corner at Olive Street and Walton Avenue into a sparkling archetype of a business that the city is eager to foster: clean, well lighted and green to boot.
The nursery, which sells plants from the McPheeters' family farm in Pike County, has become so popular that it now needs more space. Earlier this year McPheeters drew up plans to construct a greenhouse across the street and expand his retail displays onto a lot directly behind the main building. To do so he needed to demolish a three-story home on Washington Boulevard.
Enter the peeved preservationists.
The day after the preservation board cleared the way for demolition, McPheeters found himself at the center of a cyber-maelstrom, as opponents of the project bombarded a forum on Bowood's website, calling McPheeters "eco-conscious when it's convenient," labeling his demolition plan "abhorrent" and threatening protests, petitions and a boycott of the business.
After Bowood removed several dozen of the Internet messages without responding to any of the commentary, the angry cyber-scribes (many of whom posted anonymously) took the nursery to task for stifling the dialogue.
"It's gotten ugly and personal," says McPheeters, cringing at the mention. "That's all I care to say about that."
"Demolishing one house at a time is what systematically erodes an entire neighborhood," says Matt Mourning, who maintains a blog called "Dotage — St. Louis, Missouri" (http://stldotage.blogspot.com) that first spread word of Bowood's demolition plans. "You see places, especially on the north side, where they've lost a whole neighborhood, house by house," says Mourning, who was born and reared in the city and is now pursuing a graduate degree in urban planning in New Orleans. "We're losing links to the culture and heritage that was so celebrated back when we were the fourth-largest city in the country."
McPheeters does not fit the profile of anti-preservationist villain. A regular contributor to Landmarks Association, he and his family built Bowood by rehabbing an abandoned auto-repair shop using environmentally friendly building principles. They installed a green roof that grows herbs for the kitchen of their neighboring eatery, Café Osage, which serves bison from the family farm and other local foods, including vegetables grown at the nursery.
McPheeters says he and his family financed the project on their own dime, without historic tax credits, tax abatement or other assistance. It won a 2007 Eleven Most Enhanced Places Award from Landmarks.
The Bowood complex occupies several urban realms. Located on the northern fringe of the Central West End, the McPheeters' holdings straddle the border between a predominantly white neighborhood and a historically black one. The properties are also split between two aldermanic districts: Alderman Terry Kennedy's Ward 18, which includes the near north side between Vandeventer Avenue and Union Boulevard; and Alderwoman Lyda Krewson's Ward 28, which contains the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood and the Central West End, not to mention Forest Park.
The real estate on Krewson's side is part of a local historic district and subject to strict building codes. The parcels in Kennedy's ward carry no such restrictions. The expansion plans have pushed those colliding forces to the fore.
"Converging forces," Kennedy corrects.
Kennedy has high praise for McPheeters and Bowood. "They've transformed that corner, aesthetically and on the issue of safety," the alderman asserts. "There used to be trash, debris, vacant cars and tires, and children getting into trouble on one of those lots. It's the edge of the old Gaslight Square area, and at one point we had issues of prostitution there."
But Kennedy and McPheeters disagreed about extending the Central West End historic district into the 18th Ward. McPheeters pushed for the change, which would have qualified him for tax credits to rehab the property that's now in dispute. But Kennedy didn't take him up on the suggestion, and McPheeters says he had no choice but to bring in the wrecking ball.
Kennedy explains that his constituents already live among plenty of old, abandoned buildings — none of which they're dying to see saved for preservation's sake. "When [my constituents] see their children walking down a street by a bunch of vacant buildings, they're wondering if their kids are going to make it home safely.
"There is also a major portion of this city that has been disenfranchised," Kennedy goes on. "And some of the buildings that our preservationists feel are so noteworthy are some of the same buildings that portions of this community were historically unable to go into because of disenfranchisement, segregation and straight racism. We really need to have a dialogue about human relations to precede the [preservation] conversation, because there is a historic attempt to lock out people of African descent from the Central West End."
The argument against so-called "gentrification" is one preservationists sympathize with — to an extent. James Roseberry, an architect at Trivers Associates who opposes the demolition, says that by rejecting development tools like historic districts, "You're really doing more to foster any racial issues that still exist by letting this north side continue to deteriorate and creating an even stronger barrier between the Central West End and basically the north side of Delmar."
Adds Michael Allen, the assistant director of Landmarks Association and a prolific urbanist blogger (http://ecoabsence.blogspot.com/): "Olive Street will now get a lot of money and investment because of its historic-district status. Washington Boulevard won't get any. This piecemeal approach to preservation is upsetting."
Preservationists wish St. Louis would adopt a policy of wholesale demolition review, under which any property owner who wanted to demolish a building would have to seek permission from the city. As it stands, aldermen can "opt in" or "opt out" of "preservation review," the set of processes by which city employees and a board of appointed officials deem whether a building can be altered or demolished.
St. Louis' system is not unlike those of New Orleans, Baltimore, Cincinnati and other similar-size municipalities, though preservation experts say there is a new and growing trend toward wholesale demolition review.
Currently in St. Louis, nineteen city wards "opt in"; Kennedy's ward is one of the nine — most of which are located on the north side — that "opt out." (For a map, visit http://stlcin.missouri.org/citydata/newdesign/map.cfm and click on the option to display with "Preservation Review.")
Demolition of 4608 Washington Boulevard commenced a week after the preservation board determined it had no jurisdiction over the house.
Built between 1890 and 1910, with a brick façade and a steep, dormered roof, the house — like many on its block — was an intermingling of architectural styles, from Renaissance Revival to Georgian. McPheeters says he purchased it from a woman whose extended family had lived there for several decades.
"There was water damage, mold, most of the windows were rotten and the interior doors had multiple locks on them which were beyond repair — you name it," McPheeters enumerates, noting that he and the wrecking company have plans to recycle much of the lumber and bricks for use in other projects.
"I'm a strong supporter of saving worthy historic buildings," the nursery owner adds. "But you have to look at the local circumstances of each one."