A Failed Public-Housing Project Could Be a Key to St. Louis' Future

The Pruitt-Igoe projects were razed in 1972, but their influence on Ferguson's social and financial divides echo today as redevelopment is planned. 

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The Pruitt-Igoe projects being razed in 1972. (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Policy Development and Research/Wikimedia Commons)

I am standing at the corner of North Jefferson and Cass in St. Louis, Missouri, in the 98-degree heat, peering into a forest that looks like it was intentionally designed as a park, some kind of urban wild. In fact it’s the overgrown ruins of the Priutt-Igoe public housing project, left untouched for 40 years. The site remains highly symbolic as the region reflects on the economic disparities and housing policies that are underneath the tensions in Ferguson, 11 miles north.

Pruitt-Igoe, a set of 33 massive 11-story apartment buildings set on 57 acres of open space, was a classic urban renewal solution: razing an old neighborhood and starting over. Completed in 1956 and designed by Minoru Yamasaki, author of the World Trade Center in New York City, Pruitt-Igoe was a bad version of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and his Unite d’Habitation apartment complex in Marseille. The superblock structures had no amenities and soon turned into warehouses of fear and crime and despair; the project was famously blown up in 1972, a symbol of bad planning.

The African-American families fleeing Pruitt-Igoe sought housing in St. Louis County to the north, in unincorporated towns like Spanish Lake—and Ferguson. Other predominantly white suburbs blocked the construction of multifamily housing. So the ring of suburbs outside the city of St. Louis all followed their own paths, making up the famously fragmented metropolitan region. The city itself struggled with post-industrial decline and a population-loss spiral of well over a half-million people, and racial divisions were etched into the physical landscape.

Today the Pruitt-Igoe site is once again in the spotlight, but this time because of a new bid to “get the economic flywheel going in the right direction again,” in the words of private developer Paul McKee, the force behind the proposed NorthSide Regeneration project. The rubble-strewn forest is almost exactly at the center of 1,500 acres set for residential, commercial, and office space, plus a school and 50 acres of parks and trails. The lynchpin of it all would be to get the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency—the high-tech eyes and ears of the Defense Department—to relocate to where the towers of Pruitt-Igoe once stood.

In classic fashion, there is intense competition for the agency’s planned move from its current site next to the Anheuser-Busch brewery on the Mississippi River, with bidders not only in the St. Louis suburbs but across the river, in Illinois. The super-secure facility wouldn’t in itself be great urbanism, but there is little question the agency and its 3,200 jobs would be a catalyst for the regeneration of the rest of the area. St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is pushing hard for the re-use of the site, convinced that a continued economic rebound will be the balm for many of the region’s problems.

“I think it does send a message,” Mayor Slay says, referring to the current approaches in planning and community development, embodied by the Pruitt-Igoe redevelopment and NorthSide. “These are hard issues and they take a long time to address.”

Backers of NorthSide point out that St. Louis was named to be part of HUD’s Strong Cities, Strong Communities program, where federal agencies offer technical support but let local and regional governments take the lead in what to do with the funding. This is in contrast to the top-down approach of Model Cities, which led to Pruitt-Igoe.

NorthSide, however, is squarely in the “make no little plans” category of redevelopment. Another, more incremental approach can be found several blocks south of the Pruitt-Igoe site, in the renovated turn-of-the-century garment buildings of Washington Avenue. There, Brian Matthews helped closed a deal using historic tax credits to turn the Lammert furniture building into a software business incubator called T-Rex. What Matthews calls an “entrepreneurship ecosystem” includes start-ups like Tunespeak and Less Annoying CRM. The re-use of the building is the essence of reinvention, with its ideation spaces, satellite offices for area universities, and the inevitable game room.

St. Louis as a Midwest tech mecca alternative to the coasts? Demand for housing downtown is soaring, though the quality and quantity of this rebirth is finite. Walking through the building, one sees primarily young white males. Matthews said T-Rex launched a special effort to bring in more women job applicants. “I’m not sure we’re solving that problem,” he said as we glanced to the latest CNN update on Ferguson on the flat-screen TV at the end of our table at Over and Under Bar & Grill, on the ground floor.

Washington Avenue represents another kind of hope for post-industrial cities, a bit more Jane Jacobs-like—more organic, adaptively re-using a SoHo-like neighborhood, and in no need of a master plan. It is an example of what my colleague Alan Mallach, co-author of Regenerating America’s Legacy Cities, published by my employer, the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, calls “strategic incrementalism.” The obvious downside, Mallach says, is that St. Louis hasn’t solved the problem of being more inclusive in its regeneration.

How much can land-use planning really make things better anyway, given the roiling and deep-seated tensions, mistrust, and unemployment seen in Ferguson? The only thing the civic leadership can do is soldier on, faced with an array of thread-the-needle challenges: promoting new jobs, but not just jobs for educated white men; big plans and little plans; homeownership and rental opportunities for a range of incomes; and density worthy of good citybuilding, but not too much—somewhere between Hope VI and towers in the park.

All the while, another brick drops from a crumbling building on a vacant lot, and the region simmers, in every sense, in the waning days of summer. Those trying to calibrate the physical planning and the policy are not unlike an NFL quarterback in the pocket, looking to complete a pass with linebackers charging at them. And with the biggest fumble of all time—Pruitt-Igoe—in the back of their minds.

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