Richard C. Ward, CRE, AICP, CEcD
Early last year, Downtown St. Louis was steeling itself for a commercial development boomlet, with Centene poised for the construction launch of a 27-story, 700,000-square-foot office building to anchor Phase I of Ballpark Village and Pyramid Construction set to embark on the re-make of five full city blocks in its $450 million Mercantile Exchange venture. Also in full swing was the loft dweller migration — a movement that was putting a growing legion of socially diverse people back on downtown streets and rendering productive use to antiquated buildings that would have otherwise remained vacant or under-used.
Today we see that Centene is clearing ground — but it is in Clayton. Its plans for Ballpark Village are in the recycle bin. Meanwhile, Pyramid Construction collapsed abruptly, its grand plan to revitalize a handful of former landmark downtown buildings, Mercantile Exchange, flattened beneath the weight of bankruptcy. Just as disheartening, scores of smaller scale developments once set to launch in 2008 will not go vertical this year.
While the natural inclination is to surmise that the re-birth of Downtown St. Louis is in danger of being stillborn, I suggest otherwise. As the old saw goes, “Hindsight is better than foresight” and in that regard we can look back and draw comfort from the lessons of the past.
Remember St. Louis Centre — the ambitious early 1980s initiative of some of the nation’s best and brightest developers to make Downtown St. Louis a regional shopping Mecca? Although it succeeded in smothering what remained of downtown storefront retailing, the mall’s initial success upon launch in 1985 was quickly challenged by expanding competition from the shops at Union Station and then the opening of St. Louis Galleria, leading to its own slow descent into economic oblivion. Who in the late 1980s, knowing that St. Louis Centre would fail, would have been willing to prophesy that downtown would be a more vibrant place two decades later? Downtown proved more resilient then. I believe it will exceed today’s expectations again.
One reason why is that it is indisputable that lasting, meaningful progress has been made transitioning the heart of downtown from a wasteland of vacant buildings and crumbling sidewalks to a more lively 24/7 district with a diverse mix of businesses and shops that is safer, more interesting to experience and more pedestrian friendly. The Old Post Office Plaza and Gateway Mall City Garden projects now underway are important enhancements that will set the stage for the next round of growth. While more needs to be done, downtown has come a long way.
Second, the new Mississippi River Bridge has the potential to be a boon to downtown by reinforcing a key natural advantage: its strategic central location in the region. Additional infrastructure investments will be required to enable downtown to fully capitalize on it when it opens, namely linking I-44, I-55, I-64 and I-70 as they converge there. Elements of such a “downtown loop” system are already in place – between Lafayette Street and Chouteau Avenue and the I-64 interchange at 20th Street west of Union Station. The bridge – up to now the big missing piece – can be the catalyst for the rest.
Third, after decades of indifference, efforts are afoot to revitalize and improve the connection between downtown and the signature monument of the Midwest – the Gateway Arch. While we are early in the process, with the National Park Service currently considering a design competition, momentum is positive. All of the potential objectives that have surfaced– increasing educational opportunities, adding visitor amenities, improving pedestrian access– would boost the contribution the institution and its 91 acres make to the economic vitality of downtown.
So, while a cloud of economic uncertainty looms over downtown as 2009 unfolds and the Missouri legislature ponders the future of the Historic Preservation Tax Credit Program that has been instrumental to its dramatic transformation, it is important to not over-react. Downtown will weather this downturn, like it has others, and emerge stronger for it.