Alumni Lead Resurgence in Forest Park Southeast Neighborhood
In the mid 1990s, a 10-year-old boy was killed in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood by a gang member using him as a human shield from the gunfire of an opponent gangster. Soon after, Washington University Medical Center issued a statement to their employees to travel around – not through – the neighborhood, adjacent to SLUH, to get to work.
“It was a neighborhood of last resort,” says Brooks Goedeker '98, who is currently Executive Director of Saint Louis University’s Redevelopment Corporation. Goedeker, who grew up in South St. Louis, never went to the neighborhood east of Kingshighway during high school. That changed as he began his Master of Social Work program at Saint Louis University. At that same time, he began interning for McCormack Baron doing urban planning and community development in the neighborhood. “It was like another world,” he says. “I went to high school across the street but had never stepped foot in the neighborhood and probably for good reason.”
At the time, only six storefronts contained businesses out of the 100 available parcels. Most of the structures were dilapidated, run-down and boarded up, with broken windows and building floors that would cave under the weight of a single foot.
In the early 2000s Forest Park Southeast saw annual rates of over 1,000 crimes, many violent and assault-related. Last year, there were fewer than 300, mostly of the petty, nonviolent type.
Improved safety is just the start. Residents and businesses are flocking to the neighborhood. Eighty of the business parcels are now occupied, and “the missing teeth are either being filled or in demand,” says Goedeker. A couple of these new businesses include Sauce on the Side restaurant, owned by Dan Porzel '95, and Cortex, a vibrant 200-acre innovation hub and technology district adjacent to the area.
Forest Park Southeast will be among a handful of city neighborhoods that show growth for the next census, moving from an all-time low of 2,900 residents in 2010 to over 4,000 residents today – with a goal of 5,000 by 2020. Twenty percent of homes will be affordable as defined by the U.S. Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity. Topping it off, the neighborhood is experiencing remarkable economic growth as part of a neighborhood network that comprises eight percent of all urban land area yet accounts for half of all construction and development in the city. What caused this transformation? How did a neighborhood rise to achieve its potential and become a national model?
Charting the Course
Washington University Medical Center, near SLUH, established its own Redevelopment Corporation in 1972 to invest in the Central West End, which at the time was littered with brothels and drug houses. Their effort exceeded expectations and continues to pay dividends with improved safety and flourishing business and residential growth.
In the late 1990s, Washington University turned its attention to Forest Park Southeast, hiring McCormack Baron to conduct a master plan. This resulted in three neighborhood recommendations: reopen Adams Elementary School, which closed in 1988; build a state-of-the-art community center; and replace an uninviting neighborhood entrance with something that welcomed visitors.
By 2001, each of these initiatives had been fulfilled. Anheuser-Busch donated land it owned on the northeast corner of Manchester and Kingshighway to the Saint Louis Science Center, which replaced an abandoned gas station site with sprawling green space. A senior residential living community, McCormack House, was built next to the green space on Manchester. Things were looking up, but the neighborhood still wanted to improve safety and security, economic development, housing, community investment and social services.
“The neighborhood really embraced a holistic approach to community development,” says Goedeker, who, after a stint with McCormack Baron, worked for Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corporation until 2013. At that time, Park Central Development hired him as executive director to improve and redevelop additional areas outside of Forest Park Southeast and the Central West End. “We really saw the value in working collaboratively with other neighborhoods in the area.”
Goedeker assisted in an effort to combine three entities – Botanical Heights Development, Forest Park Southeast Development Corporation and Central West End Midtown Development – into Park Central Development Corporation. Park Central acts as a quasi city manager group for six neighborhoods in the central corridor, including Forest Park Southeast. It is funded by local organizations, taxing districts and special events.
“It’s been so successful because it’s a community-driven approach, not a top-down approach,” says Goedeker. He adds that every five years Park Central Development works with the community to undertake a needs assessment process, which focuses on specific areas of need and drives action plans for the next five years. This model has been replicated in other cities with great success, including Atlanta, Detroit and Cleveland. “Cities need organizations like this to provide vision and support, stabilize neighborhoods and foster economic growth.”
Though Goedeker is no longer at Park Central Development (Saint Louis University hired him last spring to lead their redevelopment effort), others are building on the foundation he helped lay for Forest Park Southeast and its business district on Manchester known as the Grove.
Matt Green '04, Director of Special Taxing Districts and Infrastructure Projects at Park Central, is in the midst of implementing a groundbreaking initiative. In addition to leading projects for five special taxing districts and ensuring compliancy with local and state regulators, he is updating the building code for the Grove – essentially bringing it from the early 1900s to the 21st century. The outcome of this three-year process will result in an area with not only an improved and contemporary aesthetic, but one that better accommodates urban growth for residents and businesses. Green has worked closely with Bill Kuehling '70, Counsel at Thompson Coburn, to establish the new building and design code, which is set for adoption this spring and will set the standard for the future.
Green is also working with his team at Park Central Development to implement a strategic plan for Forest Park Southeast that includes a focus on safety and security; maintaining neighborhood diversity; improving neighborhood access; retaining a strong, unique identity welcoming small businesses; and adding density with more residents.
“SLUH’s focus on being a man for others really made an impact on me,” Green says. “Though I’m a planner by trade, I’m a social worker by heart. I really enjoy working with people to find common ground and solutions that are mutually beneficial.”
Looking ahead, Green – in the Jesuit spirit of the magis – chooses to focus on improvement areas, like the few remaining boarded-up properties on Kingshighway. Yet one cannot overlook Forest Park Southeast’s incredible transformation. It’s one that can perhaps best be summed
up by David Renard '68, who experienced firsthand the area’s blight and rebound. His business, Renard Paper Company, was located in Forest Park Southeast from 1969 to 2011, when he sold his business (in 2013, his former building was sold to Urban Chestnut Brewing Company).
“The early years of the neighborhood were rough,” says Renard. “There was a lot of crime coming from the residential areas and we had to be sure that all the trucks were locked and secured each night.” Today, he says, it’s a different story. “The neighborhood is safer and it now has Grovefest, a major bicycle race and other events taking place in the Grove each year. These events attract people who in the past would have spent their dollars elsewhere.”
DID YOU KNOW?
Since the 1990s, SLUH has been an active member and leader of the Forest Park South Business Association, comprised of nearly 100 local businesses. The association advances the mutual interests of businesses within the area bounded by Hampton Avenue, 39th Street, Forest Park Avenue and Interstate 44.
Among many achievements, the association has:
- Contributed to funding and implementation of the Grove entry marker on Manchester Avenue
- Contributed funding to GroveFest, the neighborhood’s largest eclectic street festival
- Contributed funding to “Opportunity Around the Corner,” a local job fair to connect local residents to local employment opportunities
- Developed Oakland Avenue way-finding and improved public infrastructure
- Earned receipt of $2.2 million in streetscape improvements for Manchester Avenue
- Earned receipt of $1.5 million for pedestrian lighting for Manchester Avenue
- Earned receipt of $45,000 in MoDOT marketing grants
- Earned receipt of $18,000 City of St. Louis commercial facade grant
- Established Prohibitive Use legislation for Forest Park Southeast
“Forest Park South has made remarkable progress in the past decade,” says Ben DuMont '92, SLUH Communications Director, who serves on the Forest Park South Business Association Board. “Thanks to the leadership and vision of people like Brooks Goedeker and Alderman Joseph Roddy, institutional support from Washington University and investment from small businesses, it’s transformed from a sore spot to a destination spot for residents, consumers and businesses.”