The section of Columbia that lies just east of Columbia College, north of Rogers Street and west of College Avenue, has to be one of the least appealing parts of town. On Fay Street alone, you have an abandoned business next to a couple of car repair places, across the street from a storage yard for fuel tanks and down the way from an adult entertainment center.
Next door to the tank yard, though, there's a hopeful example of urban pioneering. I went to visit during an open house.
The pioneers are Brian and Joy Pape. They're putting their money, and themselves, where Brian's architectural vision is. That's the old Wright Brothers Mule Barn, 501 Fay St. Those of us who weren't around in the 1920s, when the mules were in residence, remember it as the home of the Diggs Packing Company.
Dale and Audrey Diggs were wandering around the afternoon I was there. They'd come to see what the new owners had done with the place. They pronounced themselves, in Audrey's word, "thrilled." No wonder.
Audrey Diggs reminisced about a time when cattle would be shipped in on the railroad, unloaded down where the Boone County Lumberyard is today and driven up the street to be disassembled into rump roasts and hamburger. Neither steers nor butchers would feel at home now.
Now what you see is a beautifully stripped down and cleaned up 18,000 square feet of what the Papes are calling, and hoping will become, "upscale commercial space." During my visit, it was still an impressive open expanse of acid-stained concrete floor with exposed support posts and original ceiling beams. The commerce had yet to appear.
Next door, and part of the same complex, are eight new apartments, one occupied by the Papes and all but one of the others rented. Joy Pape led a tour that included her compact new home and a starkly modern two-level flat that was still empty.
Above the commercial space is a roof terrace that offers a view of the lumberyard and lets you admire a section of the roof that's planted in something that looks to the untrained eye like tundra. Down below, what that eye would have mistaken for a standard asphalt parking lot is actually permeable surface, through which rainwater can soak in instead of running off. The whole thing is not only on the National Historic Register but also certified by the U.S. Green Building Council.
Pioneering on any frontier is a risky undertaking. It struck me as still an open question whether the "Historic Meatpacking District" will rise to meet the standards — and the hopes — of the Papes and the Diggses. They're betting that it will.
For that bet to be won, they're going to need some new neighbors as well as tenants. Maybe the artists and musicians they're targeting will be lured by flexible space, reasonable rent and even tax credits. Maybe the coffee shop Joy Pape envisions in the corner of the old barn will appear. Maybe they need a sign out front:
"Wanted: more urban pioneers. No mules, please."