Its worth revisiting Pruitt-Igoe


Ignoring protocol, council adopted the Foothills plan, in spite of a sinking economy. With high vacancy rates plaguing two other local transit-oriented developments, a re-telling of a condensed version of the infamous Pruitt-Igoe story is in order.

The Pruitt-Igoe was a large urban housing project composed of 33 11-story buildings on a 570 acre site on the lower north side of St. Louis, Mo. It was designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, who later designed New York's World Trade Center. Occupancy began in 1954, but soon thereafter, living conditions began to deteriorate. By late 1976, the last of the 33 towers had been demolished. The project became internationally famous for high vacancy rates and crime.

The project began in l947 with a goal of saving the central business district properties from decay.

It was assumed that the new project would benefit the city through increased revenues, new parks, playgrounds and shopping space. The proposal was to replace a blighted area with new two- and three-story residential blocks and a public park. That plan did not materialize, however. Democrat Mayor Joseph Darst, elected in 1949, favored clearing the area and replacing existing structures with high-rise, high-density public housing.

Voters rejected the proposal for a municipal loan to finance the change in l948, but the Housing Act of l949 and other newly enacted laws enabled co-financing for public housing projects.

This new approach was labeled, 'urban renewal.' The St. Louis Land Clearance and Redevelopment Authority was authorized to acquire and demolish the blighted structures, and then sell the land at reduced prices to private developers, fostering middle-class return and business growth.

Another agency, the St. Louis Housing Authority, was charged with clearing land so public housing for people lower and middle-class incomes could be constructed.

The project moved forward under the supervision and constraints imposed by the Federal Public Housing Authority. The initial proposal provided a mix of high-rise, mid-rise and walk-up buildings and was acceptable to St. Louis authorities, but it exceeded the federal cost limits imposed by the PHA, which intervened and imposed a uniform building height at 11 floors. When finished, the complex totaled 2,870 apartments and, despite federal cost-cutting measures, the Pruitt-Igoe cost $36 million, 60 percent above national average for public housing.

Nevertheless, the Pruitt-Igoe, was initially seen as a breakthrough in urban renewal.

Occupancy never rose above 60 percent. Crime and vandalism, inside and outside of the buildings, as well as in the open spaces, was attributed to gang violence. Inhabitants of Pruitt-Igoe organized an active tenant association in an attempt to provide some community intervention, but by 1968, the Federal Department of Housing began encouraging the remaining residents to leave. The hope was that a gradual reduction in population and building density could improve the situation, as the $57 million project in affordable housing was difficult to abandon all at once.

Explanations for the failure of Pruitt-Igoe are complex and include architectural failure, economic decline, flight to the suburbs, lack of tenants who were employed, and change in segregation law. The project become a frequently used textbook case in architecture, sociology and politics, a truism of the impacts of high-density development on human behavior.

The story of Pruitt-Igoe also stands as testimony to a myth for sustainability.

Carolyne R. Jones is a Lake Oswego resident.