The History of Parkview Gardens

by Mike Giger, President, Parkview Gardens Association

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The Parkview Gardens Association is a nonprofit 501c3 community improvement organization founded in 1980 by concerned residents and property owners of the Parkview Gardens neighborhood in University City, Missouri. For the past 33 years, the Association has been actively involved in a wide variety of neighborhood improvement programs that have made the Parkview Gardens neighborhood one of “America’s Great Neighborhoods.”

Parkview Gardens is a classic high density multifamily streetcar community. The neighborhood was built in the 1920s as a subdivision of University City. University City is a first-ring suburb that adjoins the City of St. Louis. Most of the neighborhood is located in the eastern part of University City with a small portion in the City of St. Louis. The boundaries are from Delmar north to Olive and from Skinker west to Kingsland. The area is generally known as the “North Delmar Loop.”

Prior to World War I, the area known as the Parkview Gardens neighborhood was converted from farm land to a horse racing track. In 1917 the state of Missouri banned horse racing and the area was developed into housing to take advantage of the tremendous St. Louis population growth after the 1904 World’s Fair. The old east entrance to the race track became Eastgate Ave. and the old west entrance became Westgate Ave. Newly extended street car lines from downtown St. Louis provided transportation for new residents working downtown. During the 1920s some 300 two and three story garden-style brick multifamily buildings were constructed containing some 2000 rental units. In addition, some 26 single family homes were built. Between 1920 and 1960, except for periods during the Depression and World War II, the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood prospered as did University City and the western areas of the City of St. Louis.

It is interesting to note that during the 1950s the interstate highway system was developed and the streetcar system of urban mass transit was abandoned. These two events had a long term negative impact on urban America. In St. Louis the last streetcar line closed in 1960. This was the line that served University City.

During the 1960s, the Parkview Gardens neighborhood and other parts of University City began suffering from an increase in crime, neighborhood deterioration and blight typical of urban areas throughout the rest of America. To help combat neighborhood/housing deterioration University City developed the occupancy permit system which was later copied throughout the United States. This occupancy permit system became a key housing preservation tool. The occupancy permit system was directed to both single family and multifamily hosing and required the City to make a building/unit code inspection and the building owner to take corrective action as necessary prior to re- occupancy. In addition, the new resident was required to obtain an occupancy permit prior to moving in. The inspection and corrective action insured that the unit was maintained and the occupancy permit limited the number of residents thus discouraging overcrowding. The occupancy inspection system has been more effective with single family owner occupied units than with the multifamily units as found in the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood. Unfortunately, many owners of multifamily units in Parkview Gardens neighborhood did not have the financial resources and skills necessary to maintain their buildings in difficult economic times and sometimes the result of intensive code enforcement was vacant buildings.

In addition to the occupancy permit system, University City was one of the first municipalities to take advantage of federal programs available to assist in what became know as Urban Renewal. It was during this time that Parkview Gardens Urban Renewal Plan was developed and implemented to revitalize the Parkview Gardens Area and the business district along Delmar. A new street circulation pattern including street closures and one-way streets was developed and implemented. A number of apartment buildings were renovated, and many deteriorated buildings were torn down, making way for new development and a decrease in density. Five new multifamily complexes were built in the neighborhood as were a number of commercial buildings along Olive in areas that once held apartment buildings. Additional parking north of Delmar for the commercial buildings on Delmar was developed on Kingsland on land that once held apartment buildings with first floor commercial space. These programs implemented as part of the Urban Renewal Plan were effective in extending the life of the neighborhood for some 20 years.

In the early 1980’s, continuing urban sprawl, the changing economy, increasing crime and drug activity and modifications to the federal income tax laws made investing in urban neighborhoods such as Parkview Gardens uneconomical. Private and public resources were no longer available to maintain the neighborhood, and the area began a steep decline typical of other urban areas in America.

Realizing that no one else was willing or able to combat the decline of the Parkview Gardens neighborhood, the property owners and residents organized the Parkview Gardens Association and began a comprehensive strategy to reverse this deterioration. The Association worked closely with University City to have the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood declared a National Historic District, recognizing the unique character and concentration of the two and three story brick multifamily brick buildings constructed in the 1920s. Buildings located in the Historic District were eligible for special tax credits, helping to make their renovation and preservation financially feasible.

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Key to implementing this comprehensive strategy was developing an independent source of money to fund improvement programs. Between 1989 and 1996 the Association held weekly bingo games and raised more than $350,000 to fund some 40 mostly “soft” neighborhood services and improvement programs. The Association funded after school and summer youth recreation and tutorial programs as well as employment programs for neighborhood youth. In order to draw attention to problem buildings a “dump of the month” program was established to embarrass landlords to maintain their buildings. A neighborhood property management company was set up to provide professional management services. A list of reliable maintenance suppliers and contractors was developed to encourage building maintenance. Anti-graffiti efforts as well as improved security lighting and fencing programs were implemented. Every street and alley light was upgraded and over 80 security light were installed on private buildings. A police substation was established and many crime fighting programs were developed and implemented. For a time Eastgate Ave. was closed at Vernon and a 6 ft ‘historic’ fence topped with razor wire was constructed behind the buildings on Eastgate Ave. from Delmar north to Vernon to restrict access to the neighborhood from the east and north.

Three community vegetable gardens and 12 neighborhood flowerbeds and signs were established to help beautify the neighborhood and encourage neighborhood activities. In cooperation with the University City Residential Service, the Association funded a number of promotional programs encouraging people to move into “America’s Greatest Neighborhood”.

By 1992 the Association realized that these soft programs were not working and the Association began buying “problem buildings” in order to consolidate property ownership and to gain control of both the vacant and occupied problem buildings. Problem buildings were for the most part occupied buildings where the tenants and sometimes the landlord were the source of drugs, crime and behavior that was disruptive to the neighborhood. These problem buildings comprised approximately 35% of the neighborhood housing stock.

In order to take advantage of newly available federal, state and local funding programs, the Association targeted 21 vacant deteriorated building for acquisition and rehabilitation. This project was complicated and required technical assistance and layered financing from more than 12 different federal, state, regional and local governments and organizations. Completed and fully occupied by the end of 1997, this affordable housing development was known as Parkview Gardens Rehabilitation I and II was at that time the largest scattered-site rehabilitation housing development in the St. Louis area. Affordable housing is housing that limits the maximum income of the residents and restricts the amount of rent that can be charged. The end result was a development that jump-started the revitalization of the neighborhood while creating 114 units of rehabilitated affordable rental housing with a total development cost of over $11 million.

Occupied problem buildings were by far the greatest source of disruption to the neighborhood. However, because of Federal and State relocation requirements, the acquisition and rehabilitation of occupied buildings using federal funds was extremely expensive. When federal funds were used to rehabilitate occupied buildings the existing tenants were entitled to receive relocation benefits the cost of which plus the building purchase price and constructions costs makes these occupied buildings too expensive to rehabilitate. Nevertheless, between 1992 and 2000 the Association leveraged its own funds with conventional bank financing to acquire and improve some additional 95 units in 21occupied buildings. These units were for market rate tenants without income restrictions. Attracting market rate tenants was critical in maintaining a viable income diverse community. The Association’s efforts to deal with both the occupied and vacant problem buildings created the critical mass so necessary to stabilize and revitalize the neighborhood.

In 1996, the Association was able to secure voter approval to create two neighborhood Special Business Taxing Districts. One District was in the U. City portion of the neighborhood and the other District was in the St. Louis City portion of the neighborhood. Utilizing this dedicated neighborhood real estate property tax revenue, these Special Business Taxing Districts generated approximately $65,000 per year that was used to insure the continued funding of the soft neighborhood improvement programs begun by the association in the early 1990’s. Because of the creation of these Special Taxing Districts, the Association was able to exit the bingo business. All Saints Catholic Church, the neighborhood Catholic Church, took over the bingo operation which continues to this day to generate funds that help All Saint’s Church and the Neighborhood.

By 1998, as the neighborhood was improving, it became clear that the Association no longer needed to be the property owners of last resort, but still needed to be involved in continuing the neighborhood improvement process. In order to increase communication among property owners, city officials and residents, a monthly neighborhood newsletter called the Pacer was begun and continues to be mailed to all residents, property owners and elected officials. In addition, a web site was developed to take advantage of the popularity of the internet as a means of communication. The association developed a post high school scholarship program for neighborhood youth interested in college and technical education. This program awards $5000 per year renewable scholarships to neighborhood high school graduates. As of 2012, 19 scholarships had been awarded and 8 students have graduated from college.

The strategy to encourage the consolidation of property ownership continued. A renewed effort was made to find a reliable organization to partner with the association to continue the development of the Neighborhood. This organization needed the resources and the commitment to maintain and improve the housing stock and the quality of the residents.

In 2000, after considerable discussion and a nationwide search for investors, the Association and Washington University agreed to make a major commitment in the neighborhood to provide housing primarily for graduate students. Since about one-half of the residents were associated with Washington University in various capacities, Washington University’s acquisition of a substantial number of buildings minimized the displacement of existing tenants and was a “win/win” solution for the neighborhood. The Association continued to own the 114 units of affordable housings units that it had rehabilitated. These 114 units plus the 133 units at University Commons Complex and the 95 units at the Seltzer building insured that the diversity of affordable housing would be maintained at a sustainable level of approximately 20 percent of the neighborhood housing stock. In addition, the Association continued to provide the leadership necessary to manage a wide variety of neighborhood programs designed to maintain the delicate balance of economic diversity and to continue the neighborhood revitalization process.

Between 2000 and 2007 the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood continued to thrive. Condomimun development introduced new home ownership opportunities into the mix of housing available in the neighborhood. By 2006 several existing multifamily buildings were renovated and sold as separate condomimun units. The construction of 4 new building totaling 40 condominiums brought new construction back to the neighborhood. Working closely with the Association, Washington U. continued to purchase additional buildings for student housing and became one of the largest property owners in the neighborhood, owning about one-third of the housing stock in the neighborhood. Washington U. began an extensive program of building renovation and began providing security, transportation and other services to the neighborhood. As necessary, Washington U. began demolishing those buildings they owned that were not feasible to rehabilitate.

In 2003 the East Loop Parkview Gardens Special Business District located in the St. Louis City portion of the Parkview Gardens neighborhood was expanded east along both sides of Delmar to DeBaliveire. The Parkview Gardens Assn. worked closely with the Delmar Loop Special Business District, the City of St. Louis, area residents, businesses and property owners to secure voter approval of this expansion. This expansion created an increase in the dedicated source of real estate tax revenue that funded programs to help improve the business along Delmar east of Skinker. The creation of the ELPGSBD in 1996 and its expansion in 203 was another example of the ripple effect caused by the Parkview Gardens Assn. efforts, resulting in the improvement of the surrounding neighborhoods and business to the east of the Parkview Gardens neighborhood.

Starting in 2008 the national and local economy began to deteriorate. However, in contrast to previous recessions the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood continued as a stabilization influence for the eastern end of U. City. The success of the Association’s strategy to consolidate property ownership became clear. In the 1980’s there were some 145 owners with limited property management skills and financial resources. By 2008 there were 6 major property owners controlling over 90% of the housing units. These major property owners have the management skills and financial resources necessary to maintain multifamily rental property during difficult economic times. Although there were problems with the economic viability of some of the recent condominium developments, the neighborhood maintained its stability and viability, unlike in previous recessions.

In 2009 Washington U and the Association provided a total of $50,000 to support University City’s review of the 3 underutilized neighborhood parks in the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood. This planning effort resulted in extensive plan to renovate two of the parks and relocate the third park. In 2010, taking advantage of a $310,000 Sustainable Community Challenge Grant from HUD and DOT, an additional $317,000 in cash and in-kind contributions from 9 different public and private organizations, the Parkview Gardens Association, Washington U., and University City were able to leverage this parks plan into the first 20 year comprehensive plan for the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood since the Urban Renewal Plan of the 1960’s. This plan known as “A vision for Parkview Gardens – Connecting People Places & Parks” looked at transportation, housing, parks and the financial feasibility aspect of developing and maintaining a sustainable and accessible neighborhood. Largely completed in 2012, this plan provided a guideline for the future development of the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood and can be reviewed on the web site parkviewgardensvision.org.

It is interesting to note that one of the goals of the Parkview Gardens Urban Renewal Plan of the late 1960s was to reduce the building density and create more open space in the age of the automobile and suburbia. In order to improve security and provide development opportunities, auto access to the neighborhood was reduced by closing a number of streets opening to Delmar and Olive. In contrast, 50 years later in the age of Metro Link, high gas prices and connectivity, one of the objectives of the 2012 vision for Parkview Gardens was to increase the building density and take advantage of the neighborhood central location, access to mass transit, bicycle paths and surrounding amenities. With this in mind, the 2012 plan recommends increasing auto access to Olive and Skinker by re-opening many of the streets that were closed in the 1960s. The construction of the Delmar Loop fixed rail trolley line scheduled to start in 2014 will only enhance the livability of the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood. It should be remembered that the Parkview Gardens Neighborhood was originally developed in the 1920s around the street car transit system which was abandoned in the 1960s.

Washington U. continued to make significant investments in the neighborhood and in the spring of 2012 announced an $80 million plan to replace the University Terrace Apartments on Enright and several apt. buildings it owned along Delmar. The plan was to create a combination of 22,000 ft sq first floor commercial on Delmar and 265 units of medium rise student residential housing for 600 students along Delmar and Enright. In addition, Washington U. continued to invest approximately $20 million in the renovation of the buildings they owned throughout the neighborhood.

In the fall of 2012, University City began construction of a new $3.2 million federally funded fire station located on Westgate between Olive and Vernon. This new fire station replaces the 1920s fire station at City Hall and is being built on land leased from Washington U. This new fire station will have a continuing stabilizing effect on the neighborhood. In addition, Washington University purchased and demolished the old Pete’s Shur Sav strip commercial buildings on Vernon. This site will become available for development as part of the implementation of the 2012 Vision for Parkview Gardens Plan.

In June, 2000, the Parkview Gardens Association was selected as a 2000 HUD Best Practice Award winner by the St. Louis Office of the U. S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In May, 2002 the Parkview Gardens Association received the “What’s Right with the Region” Award from Focus St. Louis for its work in “ promoting stronger communities by addressing problems, developing initiative and making lasting improvements that resulted in a stronger, more stable community.”

The Association does not maintain an office or staff but rather depends on volunteer members and paid consultants to develop and implement the various programs provided by the Association. The decision to direct all of the Association resources into programs rather than staff has been effective but depends on competent volunteer leadership committed to improving the neighborhood.

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