Land Grab

 In Culture, Feature

Five vacant lot projects are transforming STLs urban landscape.


With 20,000 vacant lots dotting St. Louis’ urban landscape (half of them city-owned), Washington University and the city of St. Louis have joined forces in an effort to address the problem. Phil Valko, director of sustainability at Wash U, says the ideal solution addresses a triple bottom line: sustainability, economic prosperity and benefits to citizens. Wash U’s new Sustainable Land Lab competition, which awarded its inaugural class of winners this spring, could accomplish just that. The five teams, each armed with a two-year land lease and $5,000 of seed money, already have their demonstration projects underway in Old North to explore new ways of transforming vacant space. Valko says the Land Lab can have “a really exciting impact on our city and beyond.” Two of the projects—Bistro Box and RRFarm—will occupy the same lot in a symbiotic relationship that is poised to set the standard on how cities deal with the vacant lot conundrum.

Bistro Box With plans to open next spring in a two-story structure built out of five repurposed shipping containers, Bistro Box is a restaurant incubator that will feature a rotating roster of chefs and local ingredients, including produce grown by RRFarm. The project resurrects vacant land, injects vitality into the neighborhood, creates jobs and addresses an international problem. “Shipping containers litter the world,” says co-founder John Burse. “They’re like plastic bottles—they’re everywhere.”

The unique eatery will feature high-efficiency systems from top to bottom. Guests enter from a porch with a covered entryway into the first-level dining area featur- ing a small bar, an open kitchen (allowing for chef interaction) and a glass garage door that opens onto a small patio. Three cross-hatched containers make up the second-level dining room. “It will be cool and hip to go here,” Burse says. Follow Bistro Box’s progress at

The remaining projects are a testament to the wide range of creativity spurred by the Land Lab competition.

  • Chess Pocket Park is a permanent outdoor chess venue that aims to engage the people of the community by bringing together older and younger generations. The site includes native plantings for rainwater retention, concrete chess tabletops and a metal art fence, with plans to host chess classes as well as impromptu match-ups.
  • Mighty Mississippians is a modern agricultural and sustainable living mod- el that’s rooted in the regional history of the Mississippians and their ancestors. Utilizing modern permaculture practices, the site includes a self-maintained agri- cultural system modeled on natural ecosystems. The project aims to demonstrate the same interdependent relationships that worked efficiently and sustainably in nature for previous civilizations.


4034_1365.jpgBistro Box rendering courtesy of Bistro Box, LLC


4116_1365.jpgBistro Box rendering courtesy of Bistro Box, LLC


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