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Multipurpose St. Louis: A rooftop farm and downtown bicycle station transform city architecture

Alex Ihnen (left) and Mary Ostafi (right) joined host Don Marsh in studio.
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

A couple of initiatives in downtown St. Louis are changing the way that St. Louis’ old buildings are preserved—by transforming them.

St. Louis’ Downtown Bicycle Station, a revamped office space completed in 2011, was the first of its kind, said Doug Woodruff, CEO and President of Downtown STL, Inc. There, urban residents or commuters can shower, get their things from a locker, pump their tires, and ride on. In its four years, it has inspired other buildings to create bicycle-friendly rooms and stations, increasing ridership and sustainability in the city.

More recently—in June—Urban Harvest STL opened St. Louis’ first rooftop garden. The 10,000-square-foot Food Roof Farm is a green space in an unlikely place: the top of an office building at 14th St. and Convention Plaza.

“It’s not a pretty building,” Alex Ihnen of nextSTL.com and SPACE Architects said—rather apologetically—to Mary Ostafi, the executive director of Urban Harvest STL and Food Roof Facilitator.

She didn’t disagree. But part of this movement to re-purpose and multi-purpose older buildings is to appreciate all structures with the potential to be useful. The Food Roof Farm was recently spotlighted by the New York Times in a piece focused on the farm’s potential for revitalization and renewal: how it might ease the ache of the Delmar Divide, and why projects like the farm benefit property owners as well as nearby residents.

The work of Downtown STL, Inc. and Urban Harvest are emblematic of several movements gaining traction in St. Louis and nationwide: the ‘greening’ of urban living, the revitalization and repopulation of old cities, and the practice of transformation as a form of preservation. Though big projects in housing and urban living have ramped up recently in the effort to make downtown more attractive, Woodruff said, success in attracting new workers and residents really lies in creating a ‘neighborhood’ feel.

“At the end of the day, it does come back to things like community gardens—getting the neighbors engaged with each other so they feel like it’s their own community,” Woodruff said. By repurposing the city’s architecture for projects like the Food Roof Farm and bicycle station, St. Louis has saved money and encouraged community growth.

Indeed, the city’s old infrastructure, tight-knit community, and eagerness to revitalize are boons, Ihnen said. “Somebody told me once that this is a permeable city….You become passionate about something, you get meetings at City Hall, and they’re pretty permissible”—especially for projects that utilize existing city resources. Constructing new buildings to house new ideas is often cost-prohibitive, Ihnen noted, but all it takes to transform an existing building is creativity—which St. Louisans have in abundance.

It also takes money. While the Downtown Bicycle Station has been successful for four years, the Food Roof Farm is a pilot project with room to grow; both, however, have found support in multiple facets of the St. Louis community, from City Hall to crowd-funding campaigns to corporate funding. Both, too, found it relatively easy to rehab their buildings in the ways they wanted.

The success of grass-roots projects like the Food Roof Farm and city-backed initiatives like the Downtown Bicycle Station is encouraging, Ihnen said, and there are many other examples of similar projects in and around St. Louis. “People are getting creative about how to make these projects work,” he said. “We’re proving every day in St. Louis that we can create new spaces.”

And the creation of new spaces out of old buildings should not stop here, Ostafi said. “We all have an opportunity to make St. Louis a better place, so I would say that if someone has an idea, pursue it…It might take time, but the amount of support that this community provides is absolutely unbelievable.”  

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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