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CDBG helps revitalize St. Louis neighborhood.

Old North St. Louis is a historic community encompassing a 90-block region on the north side of Missouri's second-largest city. The neighborhood, home to more than 2,000 residents, dates back to 1816, when it was established as an independent village adjacent to the city of St. Louis. It was annexed by the city in 1841 and soon grew into a bustling, densely populated area.

Over a span of 50 years, however, the once vibrant community experienced a major decline in population and as a result, buildings and homes throughout the area deteriorated and a number of residents fled.

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In 1981, a collective of actively engaged residents, small business owners and other key stakeholders formed a nonprofit, community development organization known as the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group (ONSL). Initially, members of this grassroots venture directed their attention toward restoring each other's homes.

The effort was so successful that in the 1990s the group received funding from the city to hire a staff and plot a development strategy for the entire neighborhood.

Since that time, the group has made remarkable progress restoring and repopulating the community, which has experienced a 28 percent population increase over the past 10 years.

According to Sean Thomas, ONSL's executive director, the organization's efforts represent a multi-pronged approach fulfilling residents' desires for "a viable, sustainable, walkable, bikeable, transit-friendly community to raise their families and enjoy a high quality of life."

He further explained, "We tackle a variety of issues that demonstrate what is possible in urban neighborhoods. This is a pilot that could potentially be adapted by other communities to offer better living standards for all."

Thomas said that the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program helped stimulate the neighborhood's revival and stabilize its growth during a difficult economy.

"The community had bottomed out. There were vacant buildings and homes throughout the area. It took a lot of work, but we slowly began to build new housing and rehab buildings. Now, people are moving to areas where no one was living 10 years ago. We built it and they came, literally," he recalled. "We have greatly appreciated access to the federal block grant, which we've matched with a number of other resources."

Working closely with their district's alderman April Ford-Griffin, the city's community development organization, numerous other city agencies, and a nonprofit known as the Regional Housing and Community Development Alliance, ONSL has leveraged CDBG dollars with state and federal sources and private loans to finance a $35 million development project. This series of renovation efforts to improve Old North St. Louis have included establishing a grocery co-op, a farmer's market and a community-wide garden.

In 2008, ONSL facilitated two major projects. The first was North Market Place, a mixed-income housing community in which nine decaying buildings covering a 10-block area were restored into 32 affordable apartments and 20 houses available for sale at market value. The second was Crown Square, a mixed-use, mixed-income development offering 80 new apartments and 40,000 square feet of commercial space in a two-block corridor once known as a "dead zone" in the center of the neighborhood.

"The redevelopment took more than five years from acquisition to completion," said Thomas. "It started before the economy went sour and we're hoping it is finished as the economy is rebounding and when small businesses are more willing to take the leap. Recently we've had a lot of attention from small business owners."

These businesses have ranged from a successful online retailer interested in creating her first physical store to a local attorney who preferred to work and live in the same community.

Recently the neighborhood attracted the attention of Kaid Benfield of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a national environmental action group, referring to Old North as "one of the country's best revitalization stories."

Thomas and his colleagues recognize the importance of CDBG funding and how it has helped their community.

"The confidence among our residents is how we determine we're doing something right. I would invite members of Congress to visit places where these investments have made positive results and meet the people that have housing, jobs and businesses all made possible by these efforts," he said. "When you look at the impact it is hard to say it's not worth it, especially when it is based on a community-wide vision. This is so much more powerful than waiting for people to pull themselves up by their boot straps."
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Title Annotation:Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) program
Author:Davis, Kalisha
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1U4MO
Date:May 16, 2011
Words:742
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