Aug. 13, 2021 Ι Architect’s Newspaper 

Audrey Ellermann has lived in St. Louis’s Covenant Blu Grand Center neighborhood for two decades and seen the area’s fortunes wax and wane. With a history of abandonment and decay, Grand Center is now part of a growing arts district backed by the city’s wealthiest. As president of the local neighborhood association, Ellermann welcomes investment, but on her community’s own terms. She wants to see “homes on all the vacant lots,” as well as businesses that “beautify the environment and take ownership in the community.”

Nearby, on once-vacant land, rises a beachhead of high design that ticks some of those boxes.  There local firm Owen Development is building what it calls a “unique urban community” made up of infill housing designed by internationally acclaimed architects. At the level of branding alone, the complex is unprecedented in St. Louis’s history, said Owen president Steve Trampe. “There’s nothing else like this.”

On Olive, so named for its siting along Olive Street, between Spring and Vandeventer, began as a passion project of the philanthropist Emily Rauh Pulitzer, founder of the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, whose Tadao Ando–designed headquarters is a block away. The 27 houses and additional condos are designed by MOS, PRODUCTORA, Estudio Macías Peredo, Michael Maltzan Architecture, and Höweler + Yoon, while Tatiana Bilbao Estudio is responsible for the site’s master plan. Additionally, the developer held a design competition for a local architect and a Black architect (the neighborhood is predominantly African American)—roles that Constance Vale and Cory Henry, respectively, were selected to fill.

But there is reason to believe the development will contribute to Grand Center’s patchy, uneven character. In the span of a few blocks, large vacant residential lots abruptly give way to galleries and amenities, from the Pulitzer and the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis to the historic Fox Theatre. To the west is the much more affluent Central West End, which Trampe calls his “comparable market.”

He expects to spend $50 million on the entire endeavor, with condos priced near $300,000 and houses ranging from $450,000 to more than $1 million. But Trampe doesn’t expect to make any money, and pitches On Olive largely as an act of urban stewardship. “This is not a for-profit project,” he said. “When the Broadway lights are out in the theaters, you don’t want this district [to be] dark with no activity. To support the restaurants and small businesses, you need more than Fox Theatre patrons.”

Pulitzer and Trampe tried developing this block of Olive Street over a decade ago to capitalize on the former’s institutional investments, but their efforts were undone by the Great Recession. “She’s always wanted to see this realized, partially to support other institutions she’s a part of, but also just to support the district and the community,” Trampe said.

There’s a problem, however: the new homes aren’t being marketed to the current residents of Covenant Blu Grand Center, where the average home price is $104,000 and nearly a third of residents live in poverty. Trampe says buyers will come from across the St. Louis region and beyond, and Bilbao’s website beckons “new arrivals” like “millennials and empty-nesters.”

This focus on newcomers might explain why Trampe didn’t ask neighborhood advocates like Ellermann what they thought the impact of On Olive might be. She’s never heard from him or his architects. “Should we have been in the conversation? It would have been nice,” she said. Asked if he reached out to local neighborhood associations and leaders, Trampe responded: “I’m not sure why we would have done that.”

A missed opportunity, perhaps, but the time for debating the wisdom of air-dropping market-rate homes into an area with 26 percent of its land lying vacant is past. Construction is well underway, with several houses already sold and nearly complete; the first residents arrive in August. Each of the designs will be first built as a model home, and an existing historic library (which will contain a neighborhood clubhouse, a gym, and two condos all designed by Axi:Ome) is already complete.

Bilbao’s master-plan guidelines call for stolid, boxy volumes clad in St. Louis brick. (The architect, who is based in Mexico City, is also contributing a two-story house with a second-floor cantilever.) Though minimal, the architecture surprises in places. PRODUCTORA’s entry, for instance, is a low-slung brick house inspired by the “leftover brick volumes” of small factories and auto-repair shops that stand out amid the neighborhood’s vacancy, said partner Wonne Ickx. A clerestory window volume on top of the one-story house lights up a free-flowing interior.

The most experimental element of On Olive will be the spaces in between houses, as conceived by Bilbao with the assistance of local landscape architects Loomis Associates. Tightly programmed landscapes will offer passive and active amenities: a meditation garden, an edible garden, a pocket park, a conversation pit, a boccie court, a pool, and a BBQ area. “They’re not houses on a block with a little fence around [them],” said Ickx. “They really invade each other’s spaces.” As a result of this blurring, Bilbao hopes this cohesive family of homes can “create an identity that could be communitarian, but still accept the possibility of everyone’s ideas.”

The project is part of a search for a “more socially sustainable way of living than what we’re doing now,” said Bilbao, who is excited over the development’s future prospects. “I would love to see more grades in the scale. I would love to see more reintegrated units, shared spaces, that are even more focused on sharing domestic labor, communal areas that serve for creating a community of care.” As Bilbao sees it, these outdoor amenities are for the entire neighborhood, but Owen Development would prefer to keep them more private to the block itself.

Constance Vale, the local architect who was selected by Owen Development to join its high-profile team of architects, believes the outcome will resonate in urban communities throughout the country. She notes the enlarged role design has played on Olive Street, even drawing a comparison with the Los Angeles Case Study Houses, commissioned by Arts & Architecture magazine in the 1950s. “This operates as a great case study in that the problems—and opportunities—we see in St. Louis are shared with so much of America,” she said.

But the city’s relatively low economic barriers to entry and median middle American context sit alongside a legacy of widespread disinvestment and vacancy. (There were 25,000 abandoned buildings and lots in St. Louis as of 2018.) Gentrification and displacement remain persistent concerns, particularly in Grand Center. According to Zillow, home values have increased nearly 20 percent in the past year, and Ellermann said that she has seen houses swept up for as little as $50,000 skyrocket in value by a factor of six after renovations. “It’s crucial that we have a seat at the table to talk to the developers, to let them know we want affordable housing, we want mixed-income housing. We are not looking to displace people from their homes,” she said. “If people want to leave, it has to be on their terms.”

Bilbao herself concedes that the Olive Street project participates in accelerating gentrification in the area. “[It] is in place, and, yes, this project is a part of it, to be honest,” she said. “What can I say?”

For all its idealism and ambition, On Olive’s influence will likely be limited. Or so hope civic leaders and their constituents. Ellermann is a co-chair of the steering committee for the North Central Plan, a neighborhood revitalization strategy for Covenant Blu Grand Center and the neighboring enclave of Vandeventer. The plan places a strong emphasis on maintaining affordable housing through developing a variety of types to counter gentrification trends. It includes a section on how denser dwelling typologies can aid affordability.

With this plan, which gained Mayor Tishaura Jones’s support in May, “I don’t feel threatened by what’s going on on Olive [Street],” said Ellermann. “I don’t see it as taking away from the North Central Plan and our goals and aspirations. Olive is just one block.” What is important is her and her neighbors’ ability to organize and use this plan in guiding development to their own ends. “I don’t see another Olive happening,” she said, “without Covenant Blu having discussions.”

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