The husband-and-wife team of Brent Crittenden and Sarah Gibson make a living designing, constructing and renovating buildings in what could be considered iffy neighborhoods.
Their Urban Improvement Construction, founded in 2005 and known as UIC, took on projects in parts of Benton Park and Forest Park Southeast. In 2010, UIC and its companion firm, Central Design Office, began an ambitious $20 million remake of a broad swath of Botanical Heights, formerly known as McRee Town, a long-troubled neighborhood of abandoned houses, drug sales and crime.
Three years later, the effort is paying off. Iffy is becoming spiffy. On Tower Grove Avenue, a popular restaurant occupies a 1930s Standard Oil gas station with a restored glazed-brick exterior. A French pastry shop is across the street.
Work is moving ahead to renovate old homes and build new ones on McRee Avenue and nearby streets.
That particular area, rebranded Botanical Grove, got a major boost in 2012 when City Garden Montessori, a charter school, moved into a 1940s warehouse developed and rehabbed to UIC’s design.
UIC’s latest endeavor in the area is Tower Grove Mews, a $3 million project of offices, restaurants and apartments in a cluster of structures on Tower Grove Avenue.
“It’s really an eclectic mix of buildings,” Crittenden said.
The project’s name is fitting, in that mews is defined as a group of buildings originally containing stables converted to apartments.
One structure, built in 1898, was a carriage house for a pharmacy once housed in an adjacent building. The pharmacy now is the offices for the Central Design Office and the UIC; Crittenden, Gibson and their three daughters also live in the building’s upstairs apartment.
The carriage house will be redone as a taco bar. Nearby storefronts will get a printing company to replace a similar business that closed last year, plus a shop for making and selling children’s clothes.
Gibson and Crittenden, both architects, will move their offices from the one-time pharmacy to the former stables of a coal company built nearby when the mineral was delivered by horse-drawn wagons. Metal rings used to tether horses are still embedded in the walls.
A bakery café called Loafers will move into UIC’s current office. The café owner, Ted Wilson — baker at The Good Pie, a Neopolitan pizza place — will occupy the upstairs apartment, Crittenden said.
“What we want to see is a little food district,” he said.
Ten market-rate apartments are being built in the remainder of the old coal company building. Some of the loft-style units will get patios. And on a vacant lot around the corner on McRee, Crittenden and Gibson will build the couple’s next home of their own contemporary design.
Sarah Coffin, associate professor of urban planning and real estate development at St. Louis University, said Botanical Grove was a textbook case of an “agglomeration economy.” Put another way, businesses cluster and layer in growing neighborhoods.
Establishment of bars leads to better bars, which are followed by restaurants and, finally, stores, which come last because they often carry large inventories, Coffin said.
The Grove entertainment area on Manchester Avenue is another example of a developing agglomeration economy, she said.
Crittenden said he hoped to complete The Mews by the end of the year.
The result will be growth of development between the huge Washington University medical complex to the north and the Missouri Botanical Garden to the south.
Crittenden said more redevelopment was needed but added that he believed enough progress had been made to disprove claims by “the cynics” that the area was a lost cause.
In addition to couples with children at the City Garden school, Botanical Grove is drawing empty nesters and other new residents. The average price for a new home in the area is $300,000, he said.
“People can see it, touch it and are willing to take the leap,” Crittenden said.
Mary Beth Bussen said Thursday that she planned to open by late fall her Union Studio children’s clothing business in a Mews storefront.
Bussen, who lives nearby in the Shaw neighborhood, said the Mews would be “an important connection for a lot of reasons.” The project will help link areas along Tower Grove Avenue and become a gathering spot for the immediate neighborhood, she said.
“Man, it’s really fun to be a part of (this new project),” Bussen added.
Maggie Wheelock, a painter and illustrator, will share Union Studio space, where Bussen will produce her designs in cotton and linen for children’s clothing. Removing boards from the storefront is part of the project.
“There will be as much natural light let into the space as humanly possible, which is my request,” she said.
Crittenden said he was eager to complete the Mews and hoped to do more redevelopment in the immediate vicinity.
“I’ve been looking at it out my living room window for five years,” he said.