Saving Neighborhoods

In St. Louis, public school officials, administrators, civic groups and developers are testing the premise that a public-private partnership can revitalize a neighborhood, strengthen education, and rebuild a community.

The laboratory for the test: Adams Elementary School and Community Center — a facility dedicated to education and community programming.

The key ingredients in the formula for a successful public-private enterprise? Partners that have a vested interest in the success of the project.

School officials should search for collaborators and involve them in the planning at the beginning stages. Such team building can produce momentum that is crucial.

Finding partners

Where can you find such participants? Begin by seeking out other major institutions in the area. Nearby schools, universities or hospitals are likely to respond. Major corporations or other large employers in the area also are strong candidates. Many large companies have nonprofit offshoots.

Moving forward requires careful coordination among community representatives, architects, engineers, construction managers, general contractors, subcontractors and other diverse entities. Without firm central leadership, a plan with so many components easily could be sidetracked.

At Adams, Washington University Medical Center (WUMC) took the lead. It identified Firstar Bank as another party with a stake in the rejuvenation of the area. Together the two organizations sponsored a community-driven master planning process.

WUMC also committed $4 million, enough of an incentive to get the attention of the St. Louis Board of Education, another obvious partner. When this re-investment effort began, the old Adams had been vacant for eight years.

Ultimately, the school board pledged another $8 million to the project, making possible an ambitious plan with two renovated school buildings connected by a new community center. The preK-5 school opened on schedule this fall.

Ultimately, the plan will include new parks, housing and more.

The St. Louis Cardinals baseball team, through one of its charitable entities, Cardinal Care, helped improve recreational facilities.

They championed the renovation of the wornout, city-owned Adams Park to the west of the school and provided a little-league baseball field with new sod, fencing, dugouts, stands, in-ground irrigation and a scoreboard. The field was named for outfielder Jim Edmonds.

Washington University Medical Center and Mercantile Bank sponsored a continuation of the master plan to revitalize the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood.

Reaching out

A successful public-private partnership needs to have all interested parties take part throughout the planning stage.

Participation by neighborhood residents, leaders and community stakeholders is crucial to ensuring that the design philosophy and initiatives reflect the needs, concerns and priorities of the community.

The value of extensive input was demonstrated clearly in the Adams project. Information was gathered over many months through interviews, focus groups and five public meetings.

As a result of these dialogues, an expanded set of objectives for the Forest Park Southeast master plan emerged:

  • Rehabilitate the Adams School and construct a new community center.

  • On one of the nearby major thoroughfares, Kingshighway, develop a multiuse building that can become a hub of cross-generational activities.

  • Restore Manchester Avenue, a commercial artery, as a location for business and artisan “live-work” space.

  • Create new parks and other community green spaces.

Building consensus

The principle of using the “architect as arbitrator” is an important strategy that can be essential to keeping a project focused. One role of an architect in these situations is to create a consensus of what is possible. Flexibility and inventiveness are essential to keep parties satisfied and the project on schedule. An architect gives form to the vision held collectively by so many.

An architect also helps guide this consensus. For example, until people know what a renovation might look like and how much it would cost compared with starting over, they cannot decide such matters as whether to renovate or build from scratch.

At Adams, the consensus was to restore the school building, dating back to 1878, and include a new gym, cafeteria and athletic fields shared with the community center. Similar decisions had to be made regarding choices for the nearby park; uses for the community center; whether certain areas would be developed as commercial or residential spaces; the type and location of new housing; and other issues.

On this project opinions differed on whether students and community members would use facilities simultaneously during school hours. The design overcame the problem through the use of parallel circulation, so students could pass through hallways without entering the community center.

The gym was designed to be larger than what is found in a typical preK-5 school, so that it could better accommodate community use. It was decided that sharing the kitchen with the community center would cause too many conflicts, so a food-preparation area for the community center was placed adjacent to a shared cafeteria.

Will it last?

A final factor to consider when assessing the feasibility of a project is its potential for long-term success.

  • Does the area have architectural character on which to build?

  • Does the area have significant cultural and recreational attractions?

  • Does the area have educational assets?

  • Do good employment opportunities exist nearby?

The answers were clear in the Adams project. Although Forest Park Southeast had suffered from years of neglect and disinvestment, this traditional neighborhood in the middle of St. Louis showed all the characteristics of a neighborhood that could recover its appeal.

Alverson, AIA, of Trivers Associates Architects St. Louis, was project manager for the Adams School and Community Center.

Square footage:

Total: 95,000
School: 62,000
Community Center: 33,000

Student capacity:

400 to 450 students

Construction cost

$13 million

The participants:

  • St. Louis Public Schools

  • Washington University School of Medicine

  • BJC Health System

  • Barnes Jewish Hospital Foundation

  • Forest Park Southeast Community Council

  • McCormack Baron & Associates

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