Saturday, February 6, 2016
A Message from Sean Thomas, Executive Director
Old North St. Louis Restoration Group
I can’t think of any other way to start this message other than to say thank you to so many of you who have been a part of my work at Old North St. Louis Restoration Group over the past 12 years. Those years have been thrilling, nerve-wracking, awe-inspiring, a lot of fun, occasionally frustrating, and so much more - and sometimes all of that in the course of one day. However, this roller coaster ride has to end sometime. That end is now on the horizon, although the exact date of my last day as ONSLRG’s Executive Director is still to be determined. I want to finish up some commitments and be here to celebrate some of the big events on our calendar, such as the Old North House & Community Tour on Sat., May 7
, so, I’ll be around for a little while. Even after I’m off the payroll, I look forward to continuing my support for the work of ONSLRG in whatever way is helpful. At the very least, I can assure you that you’ll see me periodically at Crown Candy, La Mancha, North City Farmers’ Market or Old North’s First Friday Art Walks.
As I begin the process of winding down my duties, cleaning out my desk, and passing along my responsibilities, I want to pause to acknowledge some of the people who helped bring about so many of the incredible things that have taken place in Old North.
The highlight reel of all that I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of at ONSLRG could go on for hours, so I’ll have to settle for the following:
I. A baker’s dozen of memorable moments, events, and developments (& the people behind them) from the past dozen years;
II. A brief summary of the reasons to be excited about Old North’s future; and
III. A few suggestions for how YOU can help support the ongoing revitalization of Old North.
12 (+1 more for good measure) Highlights of Developments, Neighborhood Changes, & Groups of People that I Am Thankful to Have Been a Part of…
1. North Market Place Homes
The list has to start with the North Market Place new homes, for two reasons: (1) that development represented, at the time, the single biggest and most visible sign of new investment in Old North in many years, and consequently served as a catalyst for a lot of the other positive developments that followed; and (2) because by the time I started with ONSLRG in 2003, the community had already been working on the plan for several years - and residents of the community were adamant that this new development would reflect and respect their values and vision for the community. Many pieces had to come together to make it happen, including finding the right partners with capacity, but it all started with a vision and a plan crafted by the community, facilitated by members of ONSLRG’s Board and staff, including John Burse, Will Winter, and Tom Tschetter.
That project was made possible by more people and organizations than can be listed here, but key players from outside Old North included staff who were at Regional Housing & Community Development Alliance at that time, notably David Dodson, Aaron Burnett, and Lloyd Simms, who spent a good chunk of the next several years working with us on North Market Place and two subsequent projects. All of those deals were complicated, but David, Aaron, and LLoyd were always respectful and collaborative in working with their community-based partners.
2. North Market Apartments
The next game-changer in Old North was the North Market Apartments, which involved rescuing multiple historic buildings that were well on their way to complete collapse. The transformation of those 9 eyesores into 32 decent, attractive, and affordable rental apartments sent a powerful message to residents and visitors alike that something big was going on in Old North. That development also provided a good case study of how affordable and attractive rental housing not only can be compatible with market-rate, for sale housing, it can also boost the sales of new homes.
Because of the success with attracting investment and people to new houses and rehabbed apartments in the North Market area, and the track record of a good partnership between ONSLRG and RHCDA, combined with the talent and skill of general contractor, E.M. Harris Construction Co., the next big thing to follow was probably the largest and most complicated development deal any of us will ever be a part of…
3. Redevelopment of the Former 14th Street Pedestrian Mall into Crown Square.
I can’t say enough about that project, but it will forever be a highlight of my career, not just because of the scale of the $35 million, 27-building development but because of the phenomenal team of people who were part of that endeavor, from our development partners, architects, contractors and sub-contractors, and the very patient neighbors and nearby businesses who thought the project would never end.
4. Rescuing & Securing the Mullanphy Emigrant Home
Some of the same parties who helped make Crown Square possible, especially E.M. Harris and Rosemann Architects, also pitched in to support ONSLRG’s efforts to rescue the Mullanphy Emigrant Home from a demolition order issued by the City of St. Louis after a devastating storm blew out much of the south walls in 2006.
Until some passionate preservationist neighbors encouraged ONSLRG to lead the efforts to save the building, the end was almost certain for the architecturally, culturally, and historically significant Mullanphy Emigrant Home, which had been built in 1867 and anchored the southern end of Old North. The cause was even closer to being declared hopeless almost exactly a year later when another storm blew through the building and knocked out much of the north wall.
The Mullanphy building is still around today because of the generous and determined support from neighbors and hundreds of others from throughout St. Louis who rallied to support the cause with contributions of money, time, and other resources. That list also is too long for this space (but you can click on Mullanphy Emigrant Home in the Categories section
in the right column to see the dozens of blog posts, which provide a lot more detail of the project and the people who made it possible).
5. Partnerships with University of Missouri- St. Louis & MU Extension
The importance of physical and visible transformations cannot be overstated in the process of changing the trajectory of a neighborhood, but sustainable revitalization requires so many other pieces to fall into place.
As with everything I’ve noted so far, there have been multiple key partners who worked closely with ONSLRG to advance a very ambitious, comprehensive, neighborhood-wide revitalization strategy. On several different occasions, a few individuals at University of Missouri - St. Louis, and their colleagues at University of Missouri Extension, stepped up to play key roles. Kay Gasen, Andrew Hurley, and John McClusky (and others) were already involved with ONSLRG as part of a 3-year community-university partnership when both Kay and John encouraged me to pursue the position of Executive Director. So, for that alone, I extend my tremendous appreciation to both of them.
Those university connections produced so many important elements of how the story of Old North is told (from the history book, DVD, and brochure for the history trail) - and resources that helped shape the way ONSLRG has operated (including strategic planning assistance from John McClusky on 3 separate occasions). Andrew has captured the history of Old North in more than one book and has worked with us to develop tools for using that rich history to guide plans for new, in-fill construction
6. Old North Grocery Co-op
Kay and her colleague, Kara Lubischer, from the Extension side of the university system, brought tremendous insights, research, resources, and connections to ONSLRG’s work to launch the Old North Grocery Co-op in 2010 - and practically worked out of the ONSLRG office for several months.
The whole experience of the community-driven planning process and the massive amount of work put in by residents and friends of Old North served as yet another demonstration of the do-it-yourself approach and community-entrepreneurial spirit of Old North. And, even though not everything will turn out in the ways we want, that shouldn’t hold us back from experimenting and trying new and ambitious approaches to seemingly intractable challenges, especially when no one else is doing anything about it. The very fact that the Old North Grocery Co-op made it to a successful launch was nothing short of a miracle, with the right people, resources, funding, and a vision coming together at just the right time – thanks to Missouri Foundation for Health and the Empowerment Zone, property owner Ken Kranzberg, university support from Kay and Kara, and so many residents and friends of the community.
7. North City Farmers’ Market
The co-op wouldn’t have happened at all had it had not been for our experience with the North City Farmers’ Market, which had its very modest start in 2007, with funding from Missouri Foundation for Health and an initial vision created by our friends at New Roots Urban Farm.
The primary focus of the market has been to bring fresh, healthy, and affordable foods to the heart of the neighborhood, but we have always seen the market as more than just a place to buy stuff. For 20 Saturdays in a row over the past 9 years, the market has been a great gathering place where residents and visitors of diverse backgrounds can come together to celebrate community, enjoy live music, children’s activities, exercise and fitness, cooking demonstrations, and much more. All of that requires a dedicated team of volunteers who come out week after week after week. Thank you to all who have given of their time and labor to make the market happen!
8. Community Gardens
With the distance of a short block from the 13th Street Garden to the North City Farmers’ Market, we really have the “shortest distance from harvest to market” here in Old North.
The 13th Street Garden - and Old North’s 8 other community gardens, have been cultivated and maintained by a dedicated team of garden volunteers, with years of support from Gateway Greening, and free use offered by land owners, Ken Kranzberg (for 13th Street) and the City of St. Louis Land Reutilization Authority (for most of the other gardens).
9. Strong & Enduring Anchor Businesses
One of the most encouraging developments in recent years has been the arrival of new businesses and nonprofit service providers, but special acknowledgment needs to go to the businesses that have stuck it out during the tough times and are still going strong today, from Marx Hardware to Headhunters Barber Shop, and Crown Candy Kitchen (which provided caloric support for countless meetings with visitors, prospective homebuyers, development partners, funders, and friends over the years, not to mention many years of ice cream for our house tour attendees).
10. A Vibrant & Growing Arts-Supporting Community
Further evidence of the vibrancy and creativity of Old North can be seen in the windows of the neighborhood’s galleries, music at the corner plaza, exhibits and events, such as First Friday Art Walk, and special programs, such as last September’s Shakespeare in the Streets (thanks to Shakespeare Festival St. Louis). So much of the art in Old North has benefited from support from Regional Arts Commission, including many years of grants to ONSLRG.
11. Neighbors Working Together To Create a Safe & Supportive Environment
Many visitors remark about the “small town” feel of Old North, largely due to the warmth of the community and the way residents look out for each other. Among the positive byproducts of that attitude has been a steady reduction in crime over the years (down 42% from 2010-2015). That type of progress doesn’t just happen automatically, especially when surrounding areas or citywide numbers have not experienced the same results. Residents and businesses all over Old North deserve credit for that, but among the leaders deserving acknowledgment are Vela Hermann and members of Old North’s Neighborhood Ownership Model team, including ONSLRG staff and current and past 4th district police representatives, such as Officers Lori Wozniak, Rich Schicker, Jamie Partee, and Capt. Kreismann (and several other captains before her), as well as the many neighbors who show up for community meetings, who call their neighbors when they they have reason for concern, and go out of their way to pick up litter.
12. A Wonderful Staff of Dedicated and Caring Individuals
The day-to-day work of running Old North St. Louis Restoration Group has been a team effort from the beginning, and virtually everything ONSLRG has worked on over the years involved full staff participation, regardless of job titles or official responsibilities. I have had the pleasure of working with an amazing group of individuals, including:
- Jane Smith, office manager through 2013…
-and other former staff members Irvetta Williams, Karen Heet, and Claire Wolff;
- as well as the great team we have today: Community Development Specialist Matt Fernandez, VISTA Health Initiatives Coordinator Jessica Payne, VISTA Sustainable Development Coordinator Brendan Ziebarth, and AARP Senior Service Corps Receptionist Charlotte Harris. I can’t thank these individuals enough for their constant above and beyond the call of duty efforts. A more detailed description of that will have to come later.
…and it shouldn’t go without noting that our staff benefited greatly from support provided by a very long list of interns and practicum students over the years. I wish I could name them all here, but that, too, will have to wait until later.
13. Caring, Thoughtful, and Committed Board Members
Finally, my greatest thanks go to the people who have entrusted me with this job. The group of people who set the course for the organization, ONSLRG’s Board of Directors,
come from a variety of backgrounds and life experiences, but they share a common sense of purpose in making Old North the “Best Place to Live
” that it is today.
Special thanks to the two Board members who were around in 2003 and have offered reliable support and encouraging words ever since, Gloria Bratkowski and Dave Eisenbraun.
Three other Board members who, sadly, are no longer with us - Johnnie Owens, Rev. Richard Taylor, and Tom Tschetter - brought different talents and perspectives to the Board but always provided inspiration to keep moving forward, regardless of any hurdle.
Over those years, the Board has enjoyed leadership and direction from 3 different Board Presidents, each bringing his own style and set of priorities. Thank you to John Burse, Tino Ochoa, and Doug Rasmussen for your support of me, personally, and for keeping the organization grounded in the community while regularly pushing to achieve ambitious goals.
So, what’s next for Old North?
Rest assured that my departure does not reflect any diminished confidence in the future of Old North or the viability of Old North St. Louis Restoration Group. In fact, I have more excitement than ever about Old North’s future. Reasons for hope for Old North’s continued revitalization are too many to list here, but the following are just some of the items on that list:
- Construction will be starting very soon on the 1300 block of Monroe for new, for-sale energy-efficient houses, which will mark the return of new construction within the North Market Place development area after several years off…
By the way, if you’d like to get one of these new homes before they’re all snapped up, contact Matt Fernandez at 314-241-5031, ext. 101 or at Matt@ONSL.org.
- a lot of new energy, activity & ideas coming from new neighbors & organizations, such as UrbArts…
- We are currently in the midst of promising conversations about a redevelopment of the Mullanphy Emigrant Home building (more to come on that later)…
- Our STL North LLC partner, Ken Kranzberg, is working with us on plans for redevelopment of the one-time pasta factory building at 1225 St. Louis Avenue into affordable artist loft apartments…
- the soon-to-be-released Sustainable Development Plan for Old North, produced through support from EPA, will provide a good outline for positive, sustainable and community-enriching development…
- …And, most importantly, Old North continues to attract, retain and engage a strong, resilient, determined, passionate, and growing community of residents and stakeholders who are going to keep working hard to make Old North the vibrant, dynamic, friendly, welcoming, safe, and sustainable neighborhood they know it can be.
The work of ONSLRG will continue - BUT your help is needed!
No matter how much progress has been achieved, Old North still has plenty of work to do, and the community needs a neighborhood-based organization to facilitate the process and continue pulling residents, key stakeholders, and supporters together. What makes a community sustainable isn’t the building stock - it’s the people. Real estate development is a key piece of any revitalization strategy for a neighborhood that experienced generations of de-population and disinvestment, but genuine community development needs much more than that. And that’s why Old North St. Louis Restoration Group remains committed to pursuing a comprehensive approach. Unfortunately, many aspects of that comprehensive approach don’t generate any - or enough - revenue to cover their costs. So, we rely on the generosity and support of any and all who believe this work is worthwhile.
If you believe the community-driven approach of Old North St. Louis Restoration Group is worth continuing, I encourage you to help ONSLRG sustain and build upon the great achievements that are evident today.
Please show your support for the mission of revitalizing the physical and social dimensions of Old North in a manner that respects the community’s historic, cultural and urban character
by making a contribution right now. Just click on the button below to make a secure, online donation
Other ways of providing financial support include buying as many tickets as you can for the annual Old North House & Community Tour, scheduled for Saturday, May 7 by clicking HERE
, and/or becoming a house tour sponsor (or referring a business you know) by clicking HERE
. Or, you could always buy a new house when they’re ready or one of ONSLRG’s rehab-ready houses. (Click HERE
for info on the rehab-ready houses.) If you have any other ideas, give us a call at 314-241-5031 or send an email to info@ONSL.org.
Thank you again to all who have been with me on this phenomenal adventure over the past 12 years!
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