GEORGE KENNEDY: St. Joseph Street symbolizes costs of change

Friday, August 24, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

St. Joseph Street is really one long block, between Ash and Park streets, just west of College Avenue. It contains fewer than 20 modest houses, plus a couple of low-rise apartments.

It’s an old street, with a few homes dating from the 1800s and plenty of big trees. The residents are mainly young, not wealthy and into neighborhood potluck dinners with produce from one of the three community garden plots.

As Columbia grows, St. Joseph has become a kind of symbol of the costs of change. On St. Joseph, you get a pretty good idea of who pays those costs and how hard it is to resist the pressures of development.

I walked the block for the first time Monday afternoon in the company of Nina Wilson-Keenan, who lives there with her husband, Patrick. Theirs is one of the oldest houses, with a huge red oak in the front yard. In the six years they’ve lived there, they have done a lot of fixing up.

When she agreed to a guided tour, Nina told me in an email, “I think that what we have in this area is something that is really old-fashioned. Everyone knows each other, and the garden culture is a big deal here. So I think having this kind of escape in the middle of downtown is something special.”

It’s also something that’s disappearing.

Across the street from her home sits the house that has become the focal point in a one-sided conflict. Boone County Family Resources has bought three lots on the east side of St. Joseph and plans to build apartments for a dozen or more of its developmentally disabled clients.

The one-story, faded blue house at 308 St. Joseph St. is in the middle of those lots. The agency intends to demolish it unless someone steps forward to move it. So far, no one has. The neighbors argue that the house should be left where it is, fixed up and inhabited again. It has historic value, and it fits with the rest of the street, they say. A demolition order is likely at the next BCFR board meeting Sept. 5.

I didn’t know much about the agency, so I visited its website and talked with Bob Bailey, longtime chairman of the board, and Robyn Kaufman, the acting executive director. I learned that the agency, with a budget of close to $11 million and about 130 employees, looks after more than 1,000 Boone County residents who have physical or mental disabilities. It is supported by local tax money and grants from state and federal governments.

What is planned for St. Joseph Street, Ms. Kaufman told me, is “something that blends in with the neighborhood,” probably low-rise townhouses with apartments for clients able to live on their own with some assistance. There won’t be a group home or an office building, she said.

Of course, existing structures and trees will have to go.

If you don’t live on St. Joseph, that’s a difficult plan to oppose, it seems to me. Surely, people with disabilities deserve decent places to live. These apartments will be close to BCFR headquarters on Walnut Street, as well as to bus routes and downtown itself.

But they will change the nature of the neighborhood.

Even before the BCFR plan is implemented, residents of St. Joseph are under siege from another direction. Monday afternoon, both sides of the street were lined with parked cars belonging to the students who live in the new Brookside apartments on College Avenue.

Nina told me she has started for work at MU two mornings only to find her driveway blocked by parked cars. And the weekend parties haven’t started yet.

As we walked down St. Joseph, along Ash and then the one block of Hubbell Drive, the appeal of what she called “a little secret oasis” was clear. We paused to admire the gardens. On Hubbell, we were met by a guy walking down the middle of the street playing a guitar.

Still, I couldn’t help observing that the residents are likely to lose their struggle against change. “Definitely,” she agreed. “They’re going to win, but we’re not going to make it easy.

“It’s sad that people don’t value something like this.” 

She added, “We don’t want to leave.”

George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.

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Mike Martin August 24, 2012 | 7:48 a.m.

Ironically, residents like Nina Wilson-Keenan represent the REAL change in that neighborhood -- not public agencies with bulging tax coffers like BCFR or private developers with bulging loan portfolios like the Odles.

It may be George Kennedy's first time walking around up there, but I've been walking and working in that area for the past 10 years.

The REAL change has been the arrival of homeowners like Nina; entrepreneurs like Mark Timberlake; and organizations like Columbia Urban Agriculture, who have gradually transformed the neighborhood from poorly-maintained slum housing and run-down industrial junk (like the old "diaper factory" that became Orr Street Studios) to the hip, urban oasis it has now become.

This transformation is based primarily on adaptive reuse: of old homes, old buildings, and small plots of vacant land -- a practice symbolized by Chris Teeter's clever doors at Orr Street.

To say that BCFR's plans represent change misses the mark. They've been amassing land around there for the better part of 15 years, and all that time, they've never had a plan to do anything with it. It's been nothing more than a land bank, many believe for local developers like the Odles.

Meanwhile, all the talk about new rental housing for BCFR clients has been just that -- talk, and at a time when that model -- centralized rental housing for developmentally disabled persons -- has been widely rejected in favor of living in the family home or in an owner-occupied home with outside assistance.

I understand one of BCFR's long-time clients just lost his home -- which he owned -- to foreclosure.

A better way to spend that $11 million budget would be to help people like this client stay in their homes, not take over an entire neighborhood where the residents have worked for years to overcome the same kind of deliberate neglect that has nearly destroyed so many other parts of Columbia's wonderful central city.


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