Botanical Heights

In its involvement in community redevelopment, the Missouri Botanical Garden consistently has been guided by its focus on improving the adjacent neighborhoods and making them safe and attractive for Garden visitors and staff. In 1997, with the arrival of Deputy Director Jonathan Kleinbard, the Garden decided to see if some degree of concrete action would be appropriate to help accelerate the redevelopment process. Kleinbard, who had prior experience in guiding the revitalization of city areas around the University of Chicago, held many meetings, carefully surveying the views of all our neighbors and with their guidance eventually selected the district northeast of the Garden then known as McRee Town as a top priority for attention.

Long neglected, this district had become a center for illegal drug activity, crime, poor living and health conditions, and blight. In it were a large proportion of multi-family buildings with absentee owners. First developed as a residential area in the early 1900s, the neighborhood thrived until the late 1960s when Interstate 44 was constructed, which bisected the area, dividing McRee Town from the more prosperous Shaw neighborhood to the south. Accelerated by the newly built Interstate Highway System, urban flight among city residents to the suburbs was occurring nationwide during this period and St. Louis was no exception. Over the years the population of the city of St. Louis plummeted from a 1950 peak of 865,000 residents to its current population of just over 300,000, leaving McRee Town and many other city neighborhoods emptied out and heading towards gang violence, arson and despair. By 1997, approximately 56% of McRee Town’s structures were either vacant or in very poor condition.

In 1998, to manage the planned renovation of McRee Town, Jonathan Kleinbard created the Garden District Commission (GDC). The Garden did not want to take on the role of developer directly, choosing to work through the Commission, an independent, not-for-profit organization. The Commission’s board members are residents of the neighborhoods adjacent to the Garden or represent neighborhood businesses and institutions, and it has continued to oversee the development of the area. Working with the Garden, the Commission soon established a new district, “Botanical Heights,” as the central target for redevelopment. Botanical Heights encompasses 14 square blocks, about 90 acres, bounded by Folsom Avenue on the north, Lafayette Avenue on the south, 39th Street on the east and Vandeventer Avenue on the west. 

In 2000, a redevelopment plan for the area was adopted by the City of St. Louis. A wholly owned affiliate of the GDC, McRee Town Redevelopment Corporation (MTRC) became the designated developer of the area under a contract with the city. Under the redevelopment plan, which it designed with the Garden, MTRC acquired and cleared six square blocks – the eastern, and most blighted, end of the area. For this purpose, the Garden raised more than $15 million, mainly in Federal and State funds and contributed an additional $3 million dollars. These funds were used to purchase approximately 300 properties, demolish the dilapidated structures standing on them, provide relocation services to displaced residents and to fund the basic infrastructure, such as sidewalk replacement and the repaving of alleys, so that the builder would have a clean and prepared site on which to work. Beginning in 2004, the designated six square blocks were rebuilt by McBride & Sons, with 143 new, market-rate single-family homes with sale prices ranging from $155,000 to $400,000. All of these homes were sold by the end of 2007, leaving the western eight blocks to be redeveloped parcel by parcel.

Redevelopment came to a halt when the recession hit in 2008. The GDC took advantage of this time to regroup and reposition itself. For example, the GDC’s effort to preserve historic district status for the Botanical Heights neighborhood succeeded when in June 2009, the new Liggett & Myers Historic District was listed on the Nationa l Register of Historic Places. The new district ensures that state and federal historic rehabilitation tax credits will be available to assist the development of existing buildings thereby stabilizing another facet that comprises the neighborhood. Now that the residential market has stabilized, there is renewed enthusiasm for the Botanical Heights project. The GDC designated the 4200 block of McRee Avenue as the next focal area for redevelopment, selecting the UIC+CDO architectural, property development, general contracting, and urban design firm. This developer was recognized by the City of St. Louis in 2012 as Developer of the Year for its work in Botanical Heights.

Phase two combines both rehabilitating historical structures and building new ones where necessary. In this way, it has been possible to reflect the historical character of the neighborhood. In the 4200 block of McRee, all of the 28 new and rehabilitated houses will be LEED (green) certified, appealing to home buyers seeking low operating costs and more e ergy efficiency in a new home. Green technology will include a geothermal system that uses coils buried in alleys to cool and heat homes and “rain gardens” in landscaping to help with storm water removal. Homes will range from $168,000 to $278,000.

Botanical Heights will eventually include more than 400 residential units, more than 200 new single-family homes, and up to 60 rehabilitated homes for rental or ownership, with many of them LEED certified. Progress continues with a $10.8 million project to renovate 76 apartment units and the neighborhood today features a highly-respected charter school, community gardens, a neighborhood playground, new and rehabilitated offices, shops, restaurants and manufacturing and technology-based businesses. Community gardens located on Folsom Avenue are integrated into the revitalization plan and a playground area on the 4100 block of Blaine was completed in September 2012. This solid progress has contributed to a new optimism for the neighborhood and positive media coverage of the success of the development project has raised public awareness.

The highly regarded City Garden Montessori, a charter school, relocated to Botanical Heights on Tower Grove Avenue in August 2012. The school serves as an important anchor in the neighborhood and provides an excellent educational setting for 300 students in K-8. Many families moving into the area are now sending their children to City Garden. Signs of successful neighborhood revitalization include a French pastry shop recently opened next door to the school, a wine bar and restaurant opened in the next block, and a bakery across the street. The Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) has authorized the GDC to offer $105,350 in Neighborhood Assistance Program (NAP) 50% state tax credits. These tax credits are available to qualified businesses and individuals with certain types of income who make contributions to the GDC to support the revitalization of the Botanical Heights neighborhood.

The redevelopment of Botanical Heights is one of the most ambitious neighborhood redevelopment projects yet undertaken in the city of St. Louis. By using energy-efficient, environmentally friendly and healthy design concepts, the revitalization of the area models some of the best practices in sustainable urban redevelopment. This pedestrian- and bike-friendly city neighborhood has once again become a desirable place to live, benefitting from the close proximity of the Washington University Medical Center and campus, Barnes Jewish Hospital, CORTEX, St. Louis University Medical Center and campus, Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital, Tower Grove Park and the Missouri Botanical Garden. Through the Garden and the GDC, the overall redevelopment will have generated more than $110 million of new investment in new homes, public and commercial spaces and a new charter school . Taken together these have significantly improved the safety and vitality of the neighborhood and surrounding area. With a history going back over 160 years, the Missouri Botanical Garden together with Henry Shaw’s twin legacy of Tower Grove Park have worked to remain important anchors for the benefit of the surrounding area and communities; a role both are dedicated to serving in perpetuity.

For more information, contact the Public Relations Department at (314) 577‑0254 or (314) 577‑5141 or check the Garden’s Web site at www.mobot.org. For 24-hour recorded visitor information, call (314) 577‑5100 or 1-800-642‑8842 toll free.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s mission is “to discover and share knowledge about plants and their environment, in order to preserve and enrich life.” Today, 160 years after opening, the Missouri Botanical Garden is a National Historic Landmark and a center for science and conservation, education and horticultural display.