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Friday, April 3, 2009

Downtown West: Manifest Destiny?

Downtown West, bordered by Cole on the north, Tucker/12th on the east, Chouteau on the south, and Jefferson on the west, is quite simply one of St. Louis's most exciting and potential-laden neighborhoods.

First of all, it's worth noting that a portion of the neighborhood is already rather hot. The focal blocks of the Loft District are the 1200-1400 blocks where the streetscape underwent major surgery a fews years back (Check out some delicious before and after shots at Built St. Louis's Wash Ave blow out.). While some lament the loss of the gritty urban district that existed before the Downtown St. Louis Partnership targeted this area of hulking, empty, early 20th century garment manufacturing buildings, most realize now that the Loft District is a(n increasingly) lively urban neighborhood that any downtown should have.

But it goes beyond a smattering of buildings on one street. The list of amenities and landmarks in the neighborhood is staggering. Moreover, Downtown West is perhaps the best example of civic and planning experimentation in the city, with nearly all trends in planning realized, from the City Beautiful Movement around the turn of the last century to the "SoHo Syndrome" at the turn of the recent century.

First, you have the beginnings of the never-fully-realized St. Louis Civic Complex dreamed up by City Beautiful adherents at the turn of the century. This movement, which Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition's magnificent "White City" is often credited with starting, called for monumental public buildings to be arrayed along large, radial boulevards whose very prominence and order would become an analogy for the city at large. These were meant to be uncontested civic gathering grounds, where a circa-1900 urban monster like St. Louis could find some organization and constancy amidst constant change and chaos.

From Downtown West

This was the Civic League's 1907 Plan to organize the chaotic St. Louis waterfront. I couldn't find the image of their Civic Center proposal between 12th and 14th, Clark and Chestnut.

Therefore, it's not just City Hall. St. Louis's most attractive "skyscraper"--the Civil Courts building, technically in downtown proper--was then built diagonally from City Hall. But in Downtown West itself, you also have the Municipal Courts Building (presently vacant), the Kiel Opera House (also vacant, but with plans to reopen), the Soldier's Memorial, and the Public Library's Cass Gilbert-designed Neoclassical masterpiece.

The buildings therefore came; the huge paved boulevard/public plaza where pedestrians would stagger in admiration for the civic spirit's physical embodiment never did truly arrive. At least not yet.

Earlier in its history, Downtown West was both the entrymarker for hundreds of thousands arriving at the landmark Union Station and, a little farther back, a private place (Lucas Place) for the wealthiest St. Louisans beginning their inexorable westward movement out of the growing city. Luckily, Union Station survives and is as beautiful as ever. It is yet another demonstrator of a bygone planning movement--the festival marketplace craze of the 1980s. After the Rouse Company put Boston's Faneuil Hall back on the map as a place of shops, restaurants, and nightlife, cities turned to their neglected, once-magnificent public spaces and emulated the proven idea that they could be revived as urban "malls" with a dash of culture and a grandiose setting that trumped any enclosed, boxy, 1980s mall.

Lucas Place's low rise, upscale residential setting is not entirely lost either. The Campbell House Museum at 1508 Locust (once Lucas) is not only a nice example of Civil War-era St. Louis architecture but, inside, contains a history of the otherwise destroyed Lucas Place neighborhood.

From Downtown West

Lucas Place from the 1875 Compton and Dry Atlas. Source.

From Downtown West

All that's left of Lucas Place. Image Source.

It was probably the modern era (1945-75) that changed Downtown West the most. Interstate 64 sliced through the Mill Creek Valley, only exacerbating a historic disconnect between downtown and south St. Louis. It took with it dozens of blocks of residential housing dating to before the Civil War, starting at Union Station and extending to Grand, eventually. Soon, someone developed the grand idea of connecting I-64 and I-70 at 22nd Street, creating the never-realized 22nd Street Parkway. MODOT, luckily, seems interested redeveloping the interchange so that this gaping hole can be filled and urbanism can perhaps be reestablished. Urban Renewal was not limited to Mill Creek Valley. A series of blocks between Pine and Chestnut was razed for the Plaza Square development, leaving only a historic church unscathed. Today, the once colorful modernist complex has been recognized as part of the city's history and is listed on the National Register. One of the buildings has even been restored to the original, striped design and is marketed as City Blu Spaces. I'll give you a couple guesses as to which color was reintroduced.

Still, the 1980s, with the Gateway Mall, and the 1990s, with Metrolink both introduced a new character to Downtown West as well. Metrolink stops in the neighborhood twice; once at the Civic Center and once again at Union Station.

SoHo Syndrome--a term created by Roberta Brandes Gratz, to my knowledge--is a strategy used by cities to renovate empty manufacturing buildings and turn them into lofts for artists and other creative types in a "back to the city" movement that generally started in the 1980s. She calls it a "syndrome" because, she says, often cities don't understand how to integrate these fledgling SoHos into the larger urban fabric, and the result is contrived. New York's "South of Houston" area (that's House-ton, by the way) started its revival in the 1970s and did inspire countless imitators trying to present a positive image of the industrial city amidst decades of decline. Some succeeded. Overall, I would say St. Louis's Washington Avenue is one of them, but, starting in the late 1990s, it was late to jump on the bandwagon. One of the best outposts of the District prior to its renovation was the incomparable City Museum--a fantasyland developed by Bob Cassilly in the early 1990s.

More recently, SoHo Syndrome seems to be growing less a syndrome and more that organic revival that Roberta Gratz admired. Prior to the downturn, Downtown West was, compared to its recent past, booming. Locust became a two-way street from Jefferson to 14th, the library planned a jazzy expansion, Harmon Mosley announced an independent St. Louis Cinemas movie theater for a renovated Jefferson Arms (now canceled?), Loft District residents took to cleaning up long neglected Lucas Park (referred to derisively by some as "Bum Park"), Crepes in the City moved out of the Washington Ave. Post to new digs on St. Charles St. flanking the park, the Skyhouse development was announced for 14th and Washington (it's supposed to be an office tower now...), the Lucas Avenue Industrial National Register District was approved (and since expanded), the Tudor development came online along with a redesigned streetscape, several other Downtown West loft buildings were developed, a new multi-modal transit center is now open (replacing the "Amshack" disgrace), etc. Perhaps most exciting of all was the announcement of the Chouteau's Lake and Greenway project, which would create a series of lakes and pathyways over the current railway junctions (the old Mill Creek watershed). All of this is in addition to some of the Downtown West businesses that make and have made it such a dynamic neighborhood: the Schlafly Tap Room, the Tin Can, Syberg's, and formerly Everest Cafe (now in the Grove). Look for several new tenants in the Tudor Building.

So what's next for this neighborhood?

Filling in the gaps, of course. Here are a couple highlights as to how the neighborhood could continue to grow and what its priorities are (especially when this sad economy improves):

1) Redevelop the St. Mary's Infirmary (1500 block of Papin).

From Downtown West

Source: Built St. Louis

While redevelopment costs would be huge, this large building could be a premiere charter school (or a collection of several different charter schools). It's centrally located, beautiful, and is already formatted as an institutional building. Plus, if Chouteau's Lake becomes a reality, this will be an even more prime location. I-64 is a huge, double-stacked barrier, but putting the threatened St. Mary's Infirmary back online could really start the sea change that's needed.

2) Develop on the 22nd Street Exhange; Eminent Domain lots to the north of it; re-develop the area to the west of Union Station.

This area is a semi-industrial wasteland that is disconnected from the rest of the city. It once was an urban neighborhood. There is no reason it cannot be again. This would seem to me a great space to premiere the city's new stock of Class A Office Space and later residential units. As far as residential, it might be advisable to build some nice rowhouses, since human scale neighborhoods are entirely missing from downtown St. Louis and since, well, that's what used to be there!

From Downtown West

This is the 22nd Street Interchange, from MODOT's website. Note that "north" is actually west here, with Jefferson Avenue at the top of the photograph.

From Downtown West

This is the site just west of Union Station--a parking lot. Not an attractive entrance to one of St. Louis's most prominent landmarks.

From Downtown West

Here's another view, farther north, towards Market. Maggie O'Brien's is visible at right. ("North" here is actually west).

From Downtown West

The worst offender is this series of blocks just north of the 22nd Street Interchange, which includes a truck lot and a whole lot of nothing on top of that.

From Downtown West

A simple re-imagining would restore a street grid in the area and open up acres and acres for small scale, human scale development. These small blocks would be excellent for corner buildings. It has been said, by Jane Jacobs and others, that urbanism is almost directly related to the number of small blocks and, therefore, street corners you have in your city. I could see 4-story rowhouses with commercial storefronts facing Market Street, and a smattering of everything in one of the new 21 city blocks created from this current monstrosity. Like I said, bring on the Class A Office Space!

3) 1632 Delmar (and the rest of Delmar)

File this under "small scale", but this commercial building is simply a gem and should be a focal point in enhancing interest in redevelopment along Delmar itself. There is still a considerable lot to work with along this stretch.

Here is a Google Streetview:

View Larger Map

There are plenty of vacant lots on Delmar, but also a lot of surviving commercial and light industrial/manufacturing buildings that are prime for development and redevelopment.

Downtown West should be St. Louis's answer to Memphis' South End, which is just south of their traditional downtown and is of a very similar character. The difference: the South End is building some very cool, contemporary stuff, while Downtown St. Louis hasn't started the infill process yet. Check out some of their stock by clicking here or viewing the captures below:

From Downtown West

From Downtown West

Above is a new condo development in the South End.

This photo shows a historic South End streetscape.

Downtown West will become the premiere neighborhood of St. Louis--more so than it has been thus far, even--if our leaders develop a vision of this large area as a cohesive neighborhood. It offers that gritty industrial aesthetic our city is so well known for already, but it could be a fully-knit neighborhood of contrasts between old warehouses and manufacturing buildings on one hand, and sleek new mid-rise office buildings and residential units as well on the other.

4 comments: said...

Between, say 18th street and Jefferson, there's lots of empty land. It's a perfect opportunity for new buildings to go up. The potential is delicious. Some responsible and forward-thinking planning is required, but not impossible.

Unknown said...

Roberta Gratz: You have some great ideas here. I lost your direct email and have a question for you.

By the way, my two terms: SoHo Syndrome and Urban Husbandry are quite distinct but related to each other. SoHo Syndrome is the reinvention of underused and abandoned former industrial buildings. Urban Husbandry is a citywide regeneration process that builds on existing assets vs. demolition and new big projects. (I don't check my gmail account)

STLgasm said...

Thanks for the thorough information. Let's hope that if and when the plethora of vacant land is rebuilt, we get something more inspiring than Gaslight Square.

Matt M. said...

We have to be a part of the process rather than observers. We have to be stakeholders, too. That's they key to changing St. Louis: taking literal ownership of it by redefining the way politics and government work.

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