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The Grove builds a Better Block

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 11, 2011 - For the past decade, if not longer, the stretch of mid- city Manchester known as the Grove has won many small battles, if not the complete war of an urban turnaround. A new restaurant moves in here, a small retail business there. A homeowner, or two, buy shells on neighboring blocks, rehabbing their spaces and providing foot traffic. A seasonal event, or themed street party, brings in hundreds of partygoers. All of it's been happening against an economic backdrop that's been cruel to many rebounding urban neighborhoods.

To date, the Grove has stood as firmly as could be expected against the downturn; and this weekend provides another chance for stakeholders there to show off their area, as a place of both past growth and future opportunity.

This Saturday, May 14, a series of bike races known as the Tour de Grove are set, with the first race, a 5K, starting at 9 a.m. Various races will continue from then until after dark, featuring professional riders from around the world, as well as host of local cyclists.

Complementing all that action will a program called Better Block. A group of folks, led in large part by Matt Green, a community development specialist at Washington University Medical Center Redevelopment Corp., is planning to gussy up six buildings over the next few days, focusing exclusively on the 4200 block of Manchester. They'll be using various approaches to re-imagine what these underused buildings could be.

Green, who serves on Mayor Francis Slay's Vanguard Cabinet on the Planning, Land Use and Zoning (PLUZ) Committee & Health, Environment & Recreation (HER) Committee, freely says that the idea came from a similar program in Dallas.

"With the racers using Manchester completely, these buildings are going to be highly visible," Green says. "We wanted to put the neighborhood's best foot forward. A month ago, we began to organize very quickly around this and we started to gather ideas on how to make these six buildings look better."

He says that many building owners were receptive to the project, which allowed organizers to avoid their biggest, most obvious hurdle. In planning what those spaces would replicate, one building was chosen to be a movie theater. Another was seen as a bakery. And a third as an arcade. Curiously enough, the latter two buildings, the faux-bakery and neo- arcade, were both exactly those things in a former lifetime.

"That was really surprising," Green admits.

While a cynic might claim that an event of this sort is too transitory, too quickly built-up-and-taken-down to make a lasting change, Green says that would be, itself, a shortsighted viewpoint.

"The purpose of a program like this is to take an underutilized stretch of a street and reinvent it," he says, "so that folks will look at it in a different way. If people approach projects thinking about quality urban design and build-outs, that can do wonders. It really will give people a fuller perspective on what the area can be."

Thomas Crone is a freelance writer.