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St. Louis, Missouri: Crown Square Historic Rehabilitation in Old North St. Louis

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St. Louis, Missouri: Crown Square Historic
Rehabilitation in Old North St. Louis


Old North St. Louis, Missouri is undergoing a dramatic revitalization as a result of the strong partnership between the city of St. Louis, the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group (Restoration Group), and the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (Community Development Alliance) of St. Louis. The revitalization effort was informed by a community-based planning process that sought to restore the social and physical fabric of the neighborhood through historic preservation. At the heart of the revitalization effort is the transformation of a pedestrian mall into Crown Square — a mixed-use commercial district and the 2010 winner of the HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation. Crown Square includes the rehabilitation of 27 historic buildings located along and adjacent to 14th Street; it demonstrates how linking the goals of historic preservation and urban revitalization can create a model for sustainable community development. In 2011, the Old North St. Louis revitalization won the Environmental Protection Agency’s award for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth.

Project Context and History

Like many U.S. cities, St. Louis has changed significantly over the past 60 years. Declining industry and outward migration from the city center have resulted in substantial population loss. According to U.S. census estimates, the city’s population fell from more than 850,000 residents in 1950 to just over 310,000 residents in 2010. As one of St. Louis’ oldest urban core neighborhoods, Old North St. Louis has been particularly affected by these demographic shifts, as well as by other planning decisions and infrastructure investments made during the latter half of the twentieth century. Population loss in Old North St. Louis has been consistent and substantial for the better part of 50 years; between 1950 and 2000, the neighborhood’s population declined from more than 10,000 residents to approximately 1,500 residents. The construction of Interstate 70 in the1950s bisected the neighborhood, uprooted homes and community institutions, and substantially altered the neighborhood’s social networks and physical structure.1 The decision to transform a two-block portion of 14th Street into a pedestrian mall in the 1970s furthered the area’s decline by separating the northern and southern portions of the neighborhood and restricting the flow of traffic, and it did little to restore the once-vibrant commercial corridor.2

The loss of longtime residents and community institutions contributed to an enduring decline exceeding that experienced in other St. Louis neighborhoods. According to data from the 2000 Census, nearly 50 percent of residents of the census tract that includes Old North St. Louis were living in poverty. Median household income in the census tract was $20,989 in 2011 inflation-adjusted dollars, compared with $36,983 for the city overall. Of the 76 percent of neighborhood residents who were renters, approximately 35 percent paid more than 50 percent of their gross income in rent, and more than 50 percent of the renter population was defined as housing cost burdened. The vacancy rate for homes in the neighborhood neared 40 percent.3

Despite these challenges, the neighborhood has a long history of civic engagement in support of its historic past. In the early 1980s, residents of Old North St. Louis formed the Restoration Group to protect their neighborhood from further deterioration. Although their initial efforts focused primarily on improving individual properties, one of their most significant early successes was listing the Murphy Blair District in the National Register of Historic Places, which made qualifying projects in the district eligible for historic preservation tax credits. Over time, the organization established a board of directors and, with funding from the St. Louis Office of Community Development Administration, hired professional staff to help advance the goals of the Restoration Group and neighborhood residents.4

In the late 1990s, the Restoration Group formed a partnership with the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance (Community Development Alliance) of St. Louis, which was instrumental to the revitalization of the neighborhood. The Community Development Alliance provided the Restoration Group with a capacity-building grant and technical assistance to assist with the development of a community plan. The planning process helped establish a revitalization area within the neighborhood of approximately 60 acres, which became the partnership’s geographic focus. The goals of the community plan were to expand and improve the housing options available to new and existing residents, respect the historic character of the neighborhood, restore vibrancy to the neighborhood’s commercial center, and improve the neighborhood’s physical and social dimensions by restoring connectivity along 14th Street.

In addition to the planning grant and technical assistance, the Community Development Alliance provided development expertise to help implement the plan. Residents identified the revitalization of North Market Street as their first priority, and in response, the partnership successfully financed, restored, and constructed 52 housing units as part of the North Market Place Homes and North Market Place Apartments projects. This area included several vacant lots and abandoned buildings, and the partnership believed that it could make a substantial change in the neighborhood by providing a mix of housing options for both new and existing residents.

Planning and Financing

Following the success of the North Market Street projects, the partnership set its sights on the 14th Street pedestrian mall, with an ambitious plan of rehabilitating 27 historic commercial and residential buildings located along and adjacent to the commercial strip. Restoring this area was seen as critical to the long-term viability of the neighborhood. At that time, 14th Street was closed to automobile traffic and acted as a barrier between the northern and southern portions of the neighborhood; improving connectivity was particularly important to residents, given the new housing created along North Market Street. In addition, revitalizing the 14th Street commercial district would expand business opportunities in an area where many residents lack access to cars. Integrating high-quality, mixed-income housing into the plan would both expand housing options and help establish a market for emerging business.

The project was in an advantageous financing position because it involved commercial and residential redevelopment efforts within a historic neighborhood to benefit low-income households. These factors made the project eligible for various sources of financing, including New Market Tax Credits (NMTC), Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits, city and state HOME funds, Community Development Block Grant program funds, and transportation enhancement funds, among other sources. Because the project included multiple financing sources with various stipulations on how funds could be used , it was broken down into two distinct components: the affordable housing component, composed of 42 units at a cost of $14.9 million and financed primarily through LIHTC and tax-exempt bonds, and the mixed-use component, consisting of 34,000 square feet of commercial space and 38 market-rate apartments at a cost of $21.2 million and financed primarily with NMTCs.

By rehabilitating the existing buildings in a manner that respected the historic character of the neighborhood, the 14th Street project did not require a long, drawn-out approval process from the city. Architecturally, the buildings had to maintain their historic character to comply with the requirements of the state and federal historic preservation tax credit programs. Otherwise, the project stayed within the parameters of the existing zoning, originally intended to allow for neighborhood-scale, mixed-use development.

The nature of the project and its complicated financing structure ultimately determined the phasing of the redevelopment. The first phase of the project began in August 2007 with the rehabilitation of the historic homes adjacent to 14th Street. The second phase began in December 2007, when the commercial buildings along the pedestrian mall began their transformation. The affordable housing component was completed a year later, and the mixed-use component along 14th Street was completed in November 2009. After the developers completed the street improvements, which restored access to vehicles and enhanced pedestrian amenities, Crown Square had its grand opening in July 2010.

Design and Rehabilitation

The age of the buildings, coupled with the level of disinvestment along 14th Street, posed challenges for the partnership as it moved forward with the rehabilitation. In many ways, Crown Square is more of a historic transformation than a historic rehabilitation. Nearly all of the buildings along 14th Street required major renovations to ensure their structural integrity, including, in some instances, replacing walls, roofs, and entire floors.5 Buildings that could not be salvaged were demolished and rebuilt in their historic form.

Despite these challenges, the diversity of the buildings and the extent of the revitalization allowed the architects to include a range of housing options as part of the redevelopment. All of the units offer between one and three bedrooms, and sizes range from 532 square feet for a one-bedroom apartment to 1,797 square feet for a three-bedroom, two-bathroom townhouse. The variety of housing styles and sizes attracts a diverse group of renters. Garden apartments offer ground-level access for the elderly and others with physical limitations, whereas “live/work” units appeal to artists, small business owners, entrepreneurs, and others seeking a more flexible living environment..To promote social equity, affordable and market-rate units are integrated throughout the project.

The project’s architects were challenged to balance commercial space with apartments large enough to appeal to renters. One building’s available commercial space was deemed too large for the types of businesses likely to locate along 14th Street, so the architects partitioned the building into two separate structures. This creative solution allowed commercial and residential uses at the front of the building and two additional housing units in the back half of the building. The design left the roofline intact, preserving the massing of the buildings on the exterior while leaving the architects free to transform the interior physical structure.6 Close collaboration between the architects and the general contractor throughout the design process allowed for creative solutions throughout the rehabilitation.

The Crown Square project has earned several honors, including the 2010 HUD Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Historic Preservation, the 2010 Most Enhanced Award from the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, and the 2011 McReynolds Award from Missouri Preservation.

Location, Location, Location

Crown Square, and the larger Old North St. Louis revitalization efforts, embody the principles of smart growth and transit-oriented, sustainable development by rehabilitating structures, utilizing past investments in infrastructure, and expanding housing and business opportunities within an historic urban core. By focusing infill development within an existing neighborhood near the city center, the mixed-use, mixed-income project promotes a car-free lifestyle. Old North St. Louis is well served by Metrobus, which provides public transportation throughout the city. Furthermore, the restored retail space in Crown Square provides opportunities for businesses in a walkable, pedestrian-scale neighborhood.

The success of Crown Square has had other positive effects. In 2010, the Missouri Foundation for Health provided funding support to a partnership between Restoration Group, the University of Missouri Extension Service, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and a private property owner to help bring a food co-op to the neighborhood.7 For years, residents had to travel outside the neighborhood to access a grocery store, which was particularly challenging for residents with limited mobility. The food co-op is the first of its kind in St. Louis to serve a low-income neighborhood and offers residents access to high quality foods.8 The co-op is located adjacent to a community garden, which is another component of a larger strategy to increase food security in the neighborhood.

Experience Gained

During the early stages of the revitalization efforts in Old North St. Louis, critics of the plan questioned the feasibility of accomplishing the goals — from convincing residents to relocate to the neighborhood to securing millions of dollars in financing for the Crown Square redevelopment. Fortunately, the organization’s leadership and neighborhood residents never listened to detractors, and the Old North St. Louis revitalization effort, with Crown Square as its signature project, has become a model for community-based planning and urban revitalization rooted in sustainability.

This revitalization goes well beyond aesthetic improvements to the built environment. The investments made in affordable and market-rate housing and other amenities in the neighborhood have both benefited existing residents of Old North St. Louis and attracted new residents. From 2000 to 2010, Old North St. Louis reversed a 50-year trend in outward migration with population growth of nearly 30 percent. Much of this growth can be attributed to the work of the Restoration Group and the Community Development Alliance in expanding housing opportunities in the neighborhood; a large percentage of the population increase is the result of the rehabilitation of 14th Street, the emergence of Crown Square, and the housing units on North Market Street.9 The Restoration Group and the Community Development Alliance, with the help of other partners such as Habitat for Humanity, are responsible for the rehabilitation and construction of more than 200 homes in Old North St. Louis.

The Crown Square redevelopment plan was made possible by the strong partnership between the Restoration group, the Community Development Alliance, and the city. In building on a larger neighborhood revitalization strategy, the development partnership was able to secure a unique combination of financing to revitalize a historic neighborhood and improve the lives of low-income residents.


Crown Square Development Team


Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance,
Old North St. Louis Restoration Group


Rosemann & Associates, P.C

General Contractor

E.M. Harris Construction Company


  1. Timothy Baumann, Andrew Hurley, and Lori Allen. 2008. "Economic Stability and Social Identity: Historic Preservation in Old North St. Louis." Historical Archaeology 42(1): 70–87.

  2. United States Department of the Interior. 1983. National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form, Murphy-Blair District, Landmarks Association of St. Louis.

  3. United States Census Bureau. 2000 Decennial Census, Summary File 3.

  4. Interview with Sean Thomas, executive director, Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, 25 October 2011.

  5. Rosemann & Associates, P.C., Building Plans, 14th Street Mall Historic Renovations and Alterations, 18 September 2007. Provided by the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance.

  6. Interview with Stephen Acree, executive director, Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, 25 October 2011.

  7. Interview with Sean Thomas.

  8. National Public Radio. “Expanding Inner City Food Coops,” 12 August 2010.

  9. Interview with Sean Thomas.


The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.