By David Doyle
Since early 2014, I’ve been the point person for EPA’s involvement in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative (SC2) in St. Louis. SC2 is a presidential initiative that brings federal agencies together as a team to address economic issues in communities that have undergone economic upheaval, and the social and environmental upheaval that accompanies it.
The effort in St. Louis is led by EPA. We have a staff person at City Hall who works very closely with the mayor’s staff on identifying issues important to local stakeholders.
On one of our first visits, the city planning director and two of the mayor’s top aides gave us a tour of St. Louis. One of the aides, Eddie Roth, carried along a poster board with a city map taped to it with a bullseye drawn around a site on the city’s north side. He identified it as the former Pruitt Igoe housing complex.
History of Pruitt Igoe
I’d heard a little bit about Pruitt Igoe, which I knew was a failed public housing complex, and I remembered seeing pictures of it being demolished, but little more. As Eddie explained, and I learned through additional research, it opened in 1954 and was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, the architect who later designed the World Trade Center in New York City. The tenants who moved from slum housing to the new complex initially considered it to be a vast improvement.
Within a couple years, however, flaws in the modernist design, coupled with underfunded maintenance by the city housing authorities, left the complex uninhabitable. It became a scene of crime and other social unrest until it was eventually vacated and demolished in 1976.
Used as a demolition landfill in the 1990s, the former Pruitt Igoe site is still laden with the foundation and other remnants of the complex. It remains to this day as a constant reminder to city residents of a failed experiment in providing safe, affordable housing to underserved citizens.
Focusing SC2 Efforts
Eddie’s pitch to us during the tour was that the focus of our SC2 efforts should be on this site. As the largest undeveloped contiguous piece of property in St. Louis, and also well located near downtown, major transportation corridors and civic assets, the rehabilitation of this property in his mind would have a major impact on the city, not only physically but also psychologically.
I decided to spend some time looking more closely into how the 35-acre site could be reused.
Several environmental assessments had been conducted on the site over the years, which indicated some environmental issues existed on the property from pre-Pruitt Igoe uses, but these issues weren’t a major problem. The city drafted a risk assessment but never completed it.
Working with city and state staff, EPA completed the risk assessment and an accompanying soil management plan that we submitted to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and led to a “no further action” determination being officially issued. This determination meant that no further environmental remediation is necessary at the site, as long as it is used for non-residential purposes. Such a determination allows private developers to reassess the financial risk associated with investing in the redevelopment of such properties.
EPA is currently gearing up to develop plans for addressing the large amounts of demolition debris piled on the site, along with the foundation and other remnants of the former housing complex.
Hopefully, by the time EPA’s efforts at the site end sometime in 2017, we’ll be able to leave the city a plan they can use to move forward, and change the perception of this property from one of hopelessness to one of hopefulness.
About the Author: David Doyle serves as the Sustainable Communities Coordinator at EPA Region 7. David has a Bachelor of Science in environmental engineering from Syracuse University, and a Master of Science in environmental health engineering from the University of Kansas.