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St. Louis Marketplace – a predictable failure

December 16, 2004 Planning & Design 8 Comments

One of the biggest fallacies promoted by civic leaders in St. Louis (and elsewhere) is their overblown & costly projects are going to “spur development.” This is often the basis for approving a TIF district (Tax Increment Financing) and the use of eminent domain to steal people’s homes & businesses for the public good. Such thinking is seldom questioned at the time and rarely questioned after the fact.

I’ve said it before but it is worth repeating – spending x-million dollars on a project does not necessarily mean a) the area will benefit from this “investment”, b) the greater public good is actually being served and c) that what is being built is worth a shit. In the case of St. Louis Marketplace – none of these are true.

St. Louis Marketplace, the struggling shopping center developed in 1992 with $15 million of public improvements, once again is getting help from the city of St. Louis to secure a supermarket

Don’t get excited about a grocery store at St. Louis Marketplace – this quote is from a December 1996 story in the St. Louis Business Journal (click here to read full article). At the time St. Louis Marketplace was only four years old. In the eight years since we’ve seen two other anchor spaces vacated – Builders Square & Sam’s. Smaller stores such as a Sears Hardware & Appliance store have also closed. Linda Tucci continues in the same story:

The city has a large stake in keeping St. Louis Marketplace alive. Unlike many TIF deals, the $15 million in bonds for St. Louis Marketplace are backed by the city. This means that if the shopping center does not generate sufficient taxes to meet the bond payments, the city must back up the shortfall. According to city officials, the debt service on the city-backed bonds is current.

I do not know the status of the bonds and debt at this time. My understanding is these are often paid over a 20+ year period so it is my assumption the bonds are not yet paid in full. Given all the vacancies, I doubt the project is able to cover it’s debt load.

“I think the city has gone TIF-crazy,” says Joseph Heathcott, American Studies professor at SLU. He points to the struggling St. Louis Marketplace on Manchester Road — the city’s first project to use tax increment financing — as an example of the risk and burden levied on taxpayers’ backs. “If more projects like that end up failing, we are going to be paying for decades.”

Heathcott’s quote above was from a story in the Riverfront Times regarding an big-box sprawl TIF project proposed at Loughborough & I-55 (read story). It appears St. Louis is about to repeat past mistakes.

OK, let’s get started looking at the details that make St. Louis Marketplace the failure it is


“The new St. Louis Marketplace is just one of the shopping opportunities that also make life in Franz Park convenient.”

This statement is from St. Louis’ 2000-2004 5-yr plan on Franz Park neighborhood just across Manchester Road, better known as Dogtown.

The view to the left is looking from the Prather Street entrance – the most direction connection to Dogtown. As a pedestrian you can only cross Manchester on the East side of Prather. Just as well, if you crossed on the side in the foreground you’d end up in the landscaping.

[ Yahoo! Maps ]

Click here to see map
of St. Louis Marketplace

From the map you can see the street grid of Dogtown and the lack of streets at the project.

Wow, this is really inviting isn’t it? The empty sign frame and vacant lot in the foreground is a former McDonald’s. Yes, in the 12 years the site has been redeveloped McDonald’s has come and gone. I find it interesting they decided to raze their building rather than leave it behind. Maybe they didn’t want to be associated with St. Louis Marketplace?

This project is so interesting you might think you were in – I don’t know – any ugly suburb in the US! Oh wait, I’m being redundant saying ‘ugly’ and ‘suburb.’

Vast seas of parking with only a handful of those pesky trees to block your view of the cinder block buildings with the oh so trendy teal horizontal stripe.

The Eastern most section of the project has the most activity – mostly because of the Blockbuster Video.

Seldom seen is the back of the project – the loading docks. The shear amount of space & paving is amazing. What a waste. When you don’t value land this is what you get. Do we really need more of this in St. Louis when what we’ve got is such a failure?

Oh that’s right – sprawl spurs development – I keep forgetting that


What about the area adjacent to St. Louis Marketplace on the West. Surely twelve years has been enough time to spur some development immediately adjacent to the project?

Here is how the city describes the adjacent neighborhood:

“The Ellendale neighborhood is primarily single family dwellings. Housing size varies from small starter homes to larger dwellings. Structures are primarily of frame construction but brick structures do exist throughout the neighborhood. Approximately two-thirds of the homes in the neighborhood are owner-occupied.”

But, the neighborhood website hasn’t been updated since August 1997. That tells you how important this area is.

Of course, this was predictable. When you bring in fill dirt and build a massive retaining wall adjacent to the houses you don’t exactly invite new housing investment. Who wants to look at a retaining wall & big box garden center? The design of this project created a barrier between the residents and shopping. Had the project been connected to the adjacent residents perhaps it wouldn’t have failed as much or as quickly? And maybe, just maybe investors would have jumped at the chance to invest in the adjacent neighborhood? That is the idea behind spurring development, right?

As far as I can tell this self-storage facility across the street is the closest thing St. Louis Marketplace has come to spurring development around the project. Nothing says low land value like a storage facility.

No sidewalk exists on the Southside of the project. If you live in Dogtown near Prather and you want to rent a video from Blockbuster at the opposite end you’ll probably just get in your car and drive down to get it. If you wanted to walk you’d need to stay on the other side of Manchester or walk through the vast parking lot. Sidewalks and actual places to go on sidewalks are a first step in good city building.

So now what?

Yes, it is easy for me to sit at my computer and critique in hindsight. So I’m going to offer the owners & city, free of charge, some advice on how to turn this hideous suburban tumor into part of the city:

• Keep K-Mart but don’t focus on other big-box national retailers.

• Remove the retaining wall and fill dirt at the West end of the project. Regrade the site to follow more natural contours and to connect with the streets to the West. This will include razing the old Builders Square building – no big loss.

• Divide the big parcel into separate city blocks by cutting public streets through the site. This will include one main East-West street (named Balson – the street name to the West this will connect with) as well as smaller North-South streets. Prather Street and the other traffic signal entrances can stay. One more block may be needed to keep the blocks short and walkable.

• Build new mixed-use buildings along the South side of Manchester and the North side of the new East-West street. An alley will run between the buildings. The Taco Bell is not part of the plan – it can relocate to a storefront but no dedicated parking or drive through. Due to the width of Manchester, the new buildings should be at least two stories tall with at least a third of them being three or even four stories high.

• Institute on-street parking on both sides of Manchester. Eliminate the turn lanes from the right lane of the East-bound traffic. Use neck-downs similar to those being installed along Grand to cap the ends of the on-street parking and reduce the distance a pedestrian has to walk across the roadway

• Parking should be dispersed throughout the area. As much on-street parking as possible should be provided. This could include angled rather than parallel parking. Small surface lots between builds are OK – not on corners. A structured parking garage with street-level retail would be OK – but not on a corner – most likely across from the K-Mart. The garage on Delmar across from the Tivoli is an excellent model to follow.

• Housing should be mixed – rental apartments, loft-style condos, attached townhouses and maybe a few single family houses. Prices and sizes should go from subsidized so that a cashier at K-Mart could afford to live within walking distance all the way up to units costing hundreds of thousands. You don’t get diversity of any sort when everything is priced only for one group.

I could go on and on but I think you get the idea. Think of it like this – WWJD. What would Jane (Jacobs) do? She would build a varied and vibrant neighborhood.

Given the opportunity, what would you do? Use the comments below to share your ideas…

– Steve

[UPDATE: 12/16/04 @ 1pm – CNU Report on reclaiming shopping centers & malls]


Currently there are "8 comments" on this Article:

  1. Nate says:

    I had not read this story in the RFT until now but I have heard about this development in talk on the Rehabbersclub list. Massive parking lots with giant stores 5 miles back from the main entrance…In the long run, who wants to spend time in places like that? Our nation has become so consumer driven that it is changing the landscape of all cities…Literally. These developers have it made though. City residents have for so long been starved of retail stores that we will approve anything!

    I came across this quote from Leon Krier, architect and urbanist, and I think it is really interesting in dealing with the chicken or the egg theories (or whatever that saying is!):

    “The global destruction of cities and countryside, of human cultures and of nature itself, can only be reversed by a global philosophical, technical, cultural, moral and economic project: by an ecological project. The city is not the unavoidable result of a society’s activities. It can only be built and maintained when it represents the goal of individuals, of a society and its institutions. A city is not an economic accident but a moral project. Forms of production ought no longer to dictate the form of the city; but the form of the city, its organic nature and moral order, must qualify and shape the forms of production and exchange. ” -Leon Krier

    I think St. Louis is finally starting to pull out of this identity crisis and become the great city it has always had the potential to be. I just hope we don’t sell out every street corner to a Walgreens and a parking lot.

  2. Michael says:

    The development in Carondelet shows that the Slay administration (esp. Barb Geisman) and most of the aldermen have no grasp of urbanism at all. They should all be ousted.

    I wish that someone would challenge Villa in the primary or general election. I’d help pay their filing fee. I also wish that someone else would challenge Slay, but I realize that the $1,350 filing fee is too steep for most folks.

  3. Dan Icolari says:

    In New York, the superblock concept, considered an improvement when it was introduced formally and given a name in the 60s (though housing projects, at least here, did the same thing as early as the 40s) is now dead as a doornail.

    The idea of taking an extant city grid and obliterating it, as if it were a vast grassy plain with no history, no connection to surrounding blocks, and no meaning in people’s lives, was one of the planning practices most universally condemned when New Yorkers got a chance to weigh in on the redesign of the World Trade Center site several years ago.

    Whatever else the planners, site designers and architects came up with, the restoration of the grid, many felt, was a non-negotiable item. It had to happen. And now, it seems, it will–though it will be only a partial restoration. The bigger victory, though, is that superblocks are dead.

    What this means is that, at least in Manhattan, big box stores will have to accept the grid and the streetline. Most already do. At the K-Mart in the East Village, the bank of cashiers on the lower level feeds right into the Astor Place stop on the #6 subway line. How’s that for urban?

  4. Matt says:

    It is good to know that it was St. Louis’ first attempt at a TIF. A lot of lessons were learned. First this was a city driven project, not a market driven project. It was doomed to fail from the begining because there was no demand, no access and no customer density around the site. But the city and alderman was offering handouts, so stores were able to come with little risk. Also they displaced a viable industrial business and its site for something that is now pretty much useless. Most agree that someday it will need to be converted back to an industrial site.

    People complain about the use of TIF and abatement, but besides St. Louis Marketplace (a widely acknowledged failure by all involved), I would like to know what other TIF projects people feel are failures.

  5. Brian Spellecy says:

    Even though the Marketplace has been an abject failure, I think that a grocery store could succeed there. With 100+ new homes planned for Dogtown and the slow but continuous renaissance of Forest Park Southeast, the residential base north of Hwy 44 could be able to support a new store.

  6. Brian says:

    As the former Scullin steel plant, this industrial site was hardly viable. And with site contamination by the previous heavy industrial activity there, it is highly unlikely MoDNR or EPA would have allowed housing to be developed there. The standard circle of dense purchasing power is more than adequate about Marketplace, however I-44, Forest Park, City Limits and other barriers pose both physical and psychological barriers for consumer access.

  7. Tim says:

    As someone who lives next to this tragic development, one need not look further than the revitalization just west on Manchester in Maplewood to see an up and coming urban, pedestrian oriented district. When traveling east on Manchester, you’ll notice the border between Maplewood & St. Louis City is marked by a lovely St. Louis City Monument then quickly goes to hell in a handbasket with typical suburban smarm in the form of Big Lots, Walgreens, 2 gas stations and finally the St. Louis Marketplace.

    Beside bad design, I think the previous poster was right about its poor visibility as these type of developments are too closely tied to their highway exit ramps and not necessarily the surrounding community. I occassionally go to the blockbuster on my bicycle but we do not shop the K-Mart unless we absolutely have to because the store is completely understaffed, unaccomodating and the misery of the employees is contageous.

    The only other knock beside the potential environmental hazards due to the previous industrial use of the site would be the high volume of rail traffic. Two very busy lines run right behind the development and are very noisy. Then again, Webster Groves has new construction next to one of the same lines and people seem to be willing to shell out the dough. Perhaps a mixed use community with an Amtrak station would make it an interesting destination.

    [REPLY – Agreed on all points. I do want to add that my former office in Kirkwood was about 20ft from the tracks and I grew to love the train passing by. Just by the sound and movement I could tell if it was a freight or passenger train. I now miss the proximity to rail. – SLP]

  8. Sherri says:

    The neighborhood website that you pulled that comment from was developed in 1997 by volunteers from the neighborhoods. If no one has updated it, that means there is no one from the original effort from the neighborhood who thought it was important. It’s a reflection on the citizens, not necessarily the City. There is no one in the City who is maintaining those neighborhood websites.


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