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Environmental coalition plans to salvage materials from vacant north St. Louis buildings

Refab, a salvage yard in south St. Louis
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
An environmental collaborative aims to remove vacant properties, plans to salvage materials from 30 buildings in north St. Louis in 2019. Refab, a salvage yard in south St. Louis, is identifying buildings that qualify for deconstruction.

As more vacant buildings come down in north St. Louis next year, workers will be taking some of them apart to salvage and resell valuable architectural materials.

The Green City Coalition, a collaboration of government and nonprofit groups that aims to build green spaces in north St. Louis, plans to deconstruct 30 houses owned by the city’s Land Reutilization Authority.

The coalition recently received $40,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Missouri Environmental Improvement and Energy Resources Authority. Some of the money will be used to determine how much the coalition can sell the salvaged materials for, what buildings are suitable for deconstruction and how many jobs the effort could create.

Deconstruction requires more labor and time than demolition, but it can create more jobs and is more environmentally friendly, said Laura Ginn, program manager for the Green City Coalition and the St. Louis Development Corporation.

“When you strategically disassemble a structure, there’s more opportunities to find and remediate environmental hazards,” Ginn said. “It would allow us to reduce the amount of waste we’re sending to landfills and you don’t have as much dust spreading through neighborhoods.”

Many buildings in north St. Louis contain distinct fixtures and materials that aren’t found in other cities, added Ginn.

“We have really fantastic building stock in the city,” she said. “There are floor joists, doorways and tin roofs and other kinds of things that can be salvaged as well. We’re not really maximizing our salvage.”

The city will choose contractors based, in part, on how many people the firms employ who are from areas that have a high concentration of vacant buildings. In some north St. Louis neighborhoods, like Walnut Park East, as much as 40 percent of the buildings are abandoned. The coalition also is seeking funds to train people in deconstruction and working with St. Louis Community College’s College Workforce Solutions to develop a job training program.

Refab St. Louis, a salvage yard in south St. Louis, is working with the coalition and the Delta Institute, a Chicago-based environmental nonprofit, to identify buildings in north St. Louis that are eligible for deconstruction. If the pilot program to deconstruct 30 houses is successful, the coalition could expand the work to hundreds of properties, said Eric Schwarz, Refab’s founder and executive director. Schwarz also wants to win the contract to do the deconstruction work.

“We see this as a great opportunity working in north city because we would hire folks from the neighborhoods we’re doing this work in,” Schwarz said. “[Residents] are going to see their neighborhoods transform with all these deconstructions and we would like the neighbors to be a part of the process and reap some of the economic benefit.”

Follow Eli Chen on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.