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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Ivanhoe Business District should not be struggling

In the most recent issue of St. Louis Magazine, the editors whittled the innumerable restaurant pool in St. Louis down to the best 35. But the issue contained a farewell to departed restaurants as of late: of course, Balaban’s was featured. Can’t forget Busch’s Grove, either. KoKo, formerly of 3257 Ivanhoe, was on the list as well. The editors noted (I don’t have the magazine in front of me right now, and it’s not online) that a new restaurant would be filling the space, but that the site was perhaps “cursed”, having turned over multiple times in the span of a couple years. It turns out that this new restaurant is Bistro Toi, an Asian and Pan-European restaurant, to use its own descriptors on its web site.

(Take a tour of the Ivanhoe Business District below, from Google Streetview):

View Larger Map

Some wonder if an upscale or even mid-priced restaurant can make it in the Ivanhoe Business District after KoKo failed. But I say: why not? The Ivanhoe district has all the ingredients for success as an urban business district.

The district, located on Ivanhoe between Arsenal and Fyler, is very walkable. It is also very drivable, since Interstate 44 is right around the corner. There’s also a bus line that serves the area, and a fairly nearby Metrolink station in Shrewsbury.

Crime is not a major issue in the neighborhood.

Parking, while not as easy as pulling into one of a couple thousand spaces in front of a big box shopping center, is still relatively easy and plentiful.

The surrounding population is, for the most part, middle class.

Here are some stats from the city’s website about the area around Ivanhoe (specifically, from the corner of Scanlan and Ivanhoe). The numbers are derived from the 2000 Census.

½ Mile Radius:

Population: 3,751
Average Household Income (1999 dollars): $51,282
Pct. of households earning over $60,000: 37.7%
Pct. of households earning over $100,000: 9.2%
Pct. of residents with at least “Some College” education: 45.1%

1 Mile Radius:
Population: 17,881
Average Household Income (1999 dollars): $43,169
Pct. of households earning over $60,000: 24.3%
Pct. of households earning over $100,000: 4.9%
Pct. of residents with at least “Some College” education: 44.2%

While this is totally unempirical, let’s look at a control area: one with a lot of successful businesses, restaurants or retail: South Grand (at Connecticut).

½ Mile Radius:
Population: 8,567
Average Household Income (1999 dollars): $37,876
Pct. of households earning over $60,000: 17.7%
Pct. of households earning over $100,000: 5.3%
Pct. of residents with at least “Some College” education: 33.5%

1 Mile Radius:
Population: 38,706
Average Household Income (1999 dollars): $35,397
Pct. of households earning over $60,000: 15.7%
Pct. of households earning over $100,000: 4.7%
Pct. of residents with at least “Some College” education: 32.5%

Now, you might argue that South Grand draws from a much larger area than Ivanhoe, and so it is less reliant on its nearby demographics. But that’s the whole reason I’m astounded at Ivanhoe not being one of the city’s most occupied business districts. It is in perhaps the most stable neighborhood of any district. Sure, it’s not a hotbed of pedestrian activity, and it’s not all that dense, but clearly there is a concentration of middle class residents that do their shopping/dining somewhere. Why did they not support KoKo? Why is Ivanhoe off most St. Louis residents’ radars?

Is St. Louis simply lacking in local entrepreneurs? Or is it that loyalty to malls and other more autocentric shopping/dining ventures convinces a potential small business owner not to even try it out? With the failure of the St. Louis Marketplace on Manchester (though reasons for that may not be entirely its own doing), I would hope that residents would demand more small-scale, local shopping and dining options. But time and time again, we opt to build Loughborough Commons and Southtown Centers at our prominent intersections. Ultimately, no matter how occupied these shopping centers remain, no matter how well they’re maintained, no matter what desired corporate tenants they attract, they’re ultimately damaging to a walkable, human scale business district like Ivanhoe.

For no reason other than that these corporate stores are familiar and convenient, the shopping centers win out over the small business districts. And yet, it’s the South Grand, the Morganford, the Macklind, the Manchester, the Ivory Triangle, the Euclid that truly defines the character of our city.

Why should a restaurant on Ivanhoe fail? It can’t be about the money. There’s enough aggregate income in the area for an upscale restaurant. It simply has to be that those with the money drive to more car-friendly and visible and well-known areas. Ivanhoe isn’t cursed, as St. Louis Magazine says. It’s just one of the many blacklisted old school business districts that are struggling to compete with stale, inferior, less interesting chain stores and restaurants. These types of placeless places have an edge because we allow them to. Not enough St. Louisans “go out of their way” to support local businesses. Not enough of them realize that investing dollars into your local economy—as opposed to sending them to the corporate headquarters of, say, Qdoba, wherever that may be—means investing in the place you live. Even if you spend more dollars at a local place than you might at a chain, more of your money is going to local employees and is funding local services. The “local multiplier” is huge and is not advertised enough. It's funny that Republicans and Democrats alike don't want to rely on foreign oil, and want to create energy locally, but they can't make the same connection with their retail/restaurant dollars. Invest in the place you live!

For these reasons, Ivanhoe shouldn’t be struggling.


maire said...

This is my neighborhood. I lived on Scanlan all my life and now own a house on Hancock. I stopped by Bistro Toi last week and spoke with one of the business partners who is a native South City guy (Dogtown/Clifton Heights). He was really excited about the prospect of moving in and getting the word out. The reason I went down there was because 2 weeks ago they had a guy going door-to-door dropping off menus with an option for take-out and even delivery.

I think a lot of neighborhood folks forget there's more than just Babe's and Jody T's down there. There isn't a lot of pedestrian traffic aside from people walking to Epiphany.

And I might argue that the median HHI is misleading as far as discretionary dollars a family has. These are not families who can easily drop big dollars for a family dinner let alone a fancy dinner. My parents while on the upwards end of things, still could not afford to take all of us to eat at KoKo even though we're all young adults. In the same vein, I'd be curious to find out what percentage of patrons at Stellina's are from the immediate neighborhood. Just my $.02.

Matt M. said...

I should have clarified a couple things.

The listing of statistics was not meant to serve as evidence itself, but just to bolster a point: that the statistics are better on Ivanhoe than on Grand, but Grand is more popular. Why? Well, it's larger. It's easier to find--more central to more of the city. There are many reasons. But I know many of these so-called "off the beaten" path business districts languish because the money, the drivers, and the attention goes to shopping centers, not Main Street.

Also, "Average" household income is a bit misleading (potentially). If there are even a couple very rich households, it will skew the numbers considerably. Still, I think it was worth including.

Thanks for your comments. I am happy to hear Bistro Toi was going door-to-door. That's so necessary for a business that doesn't have a brand name to back it up.

Brian said...

I think a few factors play a role in Ivanhoe's lack of popularity.

First, the district doesn't have much of an identity. There are some great little shops and restaurants there, but there doesn't appear to be any joint marketing done by the establishments there - to my knowledge, at least. Maybe closing Ivanhoe for a street fair would be a good idea. Is there an Ivanhoe business association?

Second, it's relatively secluded. I think most people haven't heard of it or know where it is. I remember the first time I found Ivanhoe and what a pleasant surprise it was. The sad thing is that even though it's kind of tucked away, it's really easy to get to, especially from 44.

Third, if my memory serves me, there are lots of small businesses that really don't contribute much to the district - heating and cooling companies and things of that nature that are great businesses, but aren't open to the public and don't draw people to the area. It seems like many of the businesses turn their back on the street, with covered windows and uninviting facades. If they could be moved to more suitable locations in the city, with retailers moving in their place, it would help matters quite a bit. Morganford used to have the same problem but that's becoming less and less so.

Matt M. said...

I fully agree with you Brian.

"Off the beaten path" and "out of the way" are usually terms applied by drivers. If a street doesn't have a high ADT count, then that street is minor. But part of my point is that pedestrians and local traffic should, in part, lift Ivanhoe up. The challenge in St. Louis is convincing people that their neighborhood stores truly benefit their neighborhood and their city, and that, even if it's just a couple days a week, they need to drop the dollars to reward local businesses that are creative and speak to the soul of St. Louis.

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