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St. Louis Centre Was A Design Failure From Day One

January 8, 2006 Downtown, Planning & Design 11 Comments


At dinner tonight I was reading the latest issue of the Arch City Chronicle and their cover story on St. Louis Centre. Like every other publication I’ve read on this subject the ACC is making the latest owner, Barry Cohen, out to be dragging his feet on plans to redevelop the dying mall:

“Neither Downtown Now nor Downtown St. Louis Partnership have been informed of any plans for the Centre. Tom Reeves, Executive Director of Downtown Now, seems to have lost confidence in Cohen.”

The last two groups that should be talking about someone else’s lack of action is Downtown Now and the Downtown St. Louis Partnership. They are both more heavy on salaries than accomplishments. That is, unless you could giving each other and their members awards…

Back to St. Louis Centre.

Cohen bought the once thriving mall at a foreclosure sale in August 2004 for $5.4 million. It was built in 1985 for $95 million. Of all the articles I’ve read in the last year I don’t think I’ve seen anyone stop and look at those numbers. I haven’t taken the time to go to the library and look through the micro-fiche to find articles on the financing and opening of the mall but no doubt a fair amount of that original number came in the form of some sort of public subsidy.

This alone is reason enough to be suspect about justifying a single massive project. The experts give glowing reports to get the public support behind the developer welfare program. Our convention hotel was supposed to save downtown is nearing bankruptcy after only a few years in operation and the Old Post Office project is claiming to provide something like 2,500 new jobs yet most of the tenants are simply relocating from other downtown spaces (Webster University, District Courts, St. Louis Business Journal, etc…). At what point do we stop believing the BS we are being fed?

Back to St. Louis Centre, again.

By the time I moved to St. Louis in 1990 St. Louis Centre was already on the outs and the Galleria in Brentwood was beginning its major expansion. The other thing I read in the ACC and in other reports on St. Louis Centre is how the Galleria expanded and took stores and business from the Centre. On paper this looks to be the case since a number of flagship stores closed in the Centre and opened in the Galleria. The false assumption behind these statements is that St. Louis Centre would have been a success had the Galleria not done a major expansion. The reality is St. Louis Centre was doomed to failure from the very start.

Early on the mall showed promise. This was partly just the fact it was something new and it had a lot of hype around it. You spend $95 million on one city block and you are going to get some attention. Plus the mall had stores that people had seen in other cities but that didn’t exist elsewhere in the St. Louis region. This is much like the new restaurant that opens — people swarm to try out the new place but only time will determine if it has staying power.

Ultimately St. Louis Centre did not have staying power. It would have failed without any help from the Galleria. No doubt the Galleria expansion speeded up the process. So why is it I believe St. Louis Centre was destined to fail?

It is an indoor mall. Yes, most people shop in indoor malls all over the country but they do so mostly on auto-centric suburbs. Out there people just expect to go from split-level ranch to office park to indoor mall as part of their daily lives (as depressing as that sounds). And they’ll drive around trying to find a place to park in the mall parking lot and walk the equivalent of 2-3 city blocks to get to the door of the mall and then walk much more while they are they. Talk them into coming downtown and if they can’t park in front of the door they bitch. The same 2-3 block walk downtown would be far more interesting, and probably safer, than the parking lot at the suburban mall.

The real flaw is thinking an indoor mall in the heart of downtown was a good idea in the first place. St. Louis was hardly the first city to do so and we are not the only city dealing with the aftermath. Downtown shopping is about urban storefronts and big department stores. Period. If in 1985 1) I lived here, 2) Al Gore had invented the internet and 3) I was blogging I would have said building St. Louis Centre would have been a big mistake. The paid guns of the administration and the downtown boosters would have said I was against progress and that St. Louis needed the revenues such a project will generate. We’ve yet to learn from past mistakes.

At the same time St. Louis Centre was opening we also had Union Station reborn as a “festival marketplace,” a fancy phrase for indoor mall in an old building. We really didn’t need or couldn’t support both. Keep in mind this was a good 15 years before the first wave of loft dwellers. The only downtown residents were those living in the various urban renewal era apartments and the homeless. The thought was a mall will bring people back downtown.

So now what?

Ultimately the idea of an indoor mall at St. Louis Centre needs to be completely abandoned. The two bridges need to be razed. The structure needs to be either reused or razed. The section of the building that overhangs the sidewalk on several sides also needs to be removed — no building should overhang the public sidewalk (except for a decorative cornice or balcony). By removing the bridges and slicing off a section of the building all the way around we’ve essentially erased most of the banal green & white skin. The remaining structure can now be given a new look. But please, no more red brick!

Instead of being an internally focused mall it needs to be an outwardly focused urban building. Gold’s Gym has already taken part of the first floor. Move the Walgreen’s store from the 4th floor down to the ground level where we might begin to create some real 24/7 foot traffic. Fill in the rest with some cafe’s and shops all facing to the sidewalks. A late night pizza by the slice place, like Racanelli’s, would be a good thing.

The upper floors could contain a number of possible uses. You might have a second floor restaurant with opening windows or balcony seating overlooking Washington Avenue. Office spaces might be a good use as well. For the top floors I’d probably go with some really high-tech modernist lofts. Balconies facing the public streets would be visually great and is something that due to historic standards we don’t see much of downtown. Assuming the foundation and structure can support it, perhaps add a few more floors of lofts. Here I’d like to see everything from the large and expensive penthouse to a tiny and affordable unit without parking. Yes, I think it would be wise to have a few places under $100K on the market that don’t have parking. Such a unit would need to have a safe and convenient place to have a bicycle and/or scooter. The proximity to MetroLink makes this an ideal place to give that a try.

As I try to keep buildings such as St. Aloysius from being razed I often encounter the “why don’t you buy it” mentality that is supposed to get me to shut up (btw, it doesn’t). So I will accept the right for others to speak out about St. Louis Centre even though they didn’t buy it themselves. But, at $5.4 million I wonder why nobody else bought St. Louis Centre. The land alone has to be worth more than that. St. Louis Centre has been a costly problem for downtown since the day it opened, over 20 years ago, yet we are quick to make Barry Cohen into the bad guy for not doing something in the last 16+ months.

Several possibilities exist for the time passing with little action: Perhaps he doesn’t have a plan and is just waiting to see what happens in the new few years. Or he is working on various options and it still trying to gauge demand for the right mix of uses. And finally he could be shopping the property to a real developer to he can get a nice profit on his bargain purchase.

Regardless of whatever route Barry Cohen is taking, St. Louis Centre was a design failure from day one.

– Steve

Further reading:
• DeadMalls.com
• St. Louis Business Journal
• KSDK Story
• St. Louis Centre dot com (info on history, not a mall directory)


Currently there are "11 comments" on this Article:

  1. eek says:

    Vacancy and a lack of improvement at St. Louis Centre has got to be the most non-newsy issue of the day. I’m surprised the ACC made it a page one story.

  2. Brian says:

    Oh indeed how the mighty have fallen! Back in ’98-99 I was working at Edison Brothers downtown. Even then things were pretty sparse in the mall, but at least it held a fully occupied food court and several other eateries on the 4th floor.

    All of the Edison stores were also represented there. Those stores were used a kind of “test bed” for new layout ideas and such. 5-7-9, Precies, JW, J Riggings, Bakers, and maybe a few others I’m forgetting were all there.

    Even then we joked that if Edison closed its doors StL Center would go empty.

    Well, Edison did close, and a couple years later I had reason to be downtown during the lunch-rush. I figured I’d pop into StL Center for a bite. NOT. The ONLY place still open on the 4th floor was the NASTY Taco Bell (even the McDonalds was gone!), and the only retail found there was pretty much the Wag’s and all the same old beeper & fake jewelry kiosks.

    We had a great time working at Edison and being able to walk across the bridgeway from across the street and have lunch together in the mall, and check out the stores. Not to mention also being able to reach several other department stores w/out having to go outside in the winter.

    StL center may have been doomed from the start, but now with lofts and Wash Ave taking off downtown, maybe it was just 20 years ahead of its time. Let’s hope there’s still life left in it.

  3. Joe Frank says:

    I hate to say it, but if we’re going by track record, I wouldn’t look for Mr. Cohen to do much with StL Centre.

    Sure, he’s a little better than the former owner Heywood Wichard who is well known as a dead-mall slumlord. However, Barry Cohen has owned the “new” Jefferson Arms Apartments since the early 1990s. Under his ownership, the place has improved some, but not a whole lot.

    My wife and I got married at the Jefferson Arms in October 2004. In the 18 months or so we spent planning the event, we got bounced around to four different event managers for the Boulevard Room. Ultimately, the property manager for the entire place was the one who took care of us on wedding day. She was more effective than any of the preceding folks.

    However, the room we had for the night was really pretty sub-par. I understand it was basically one of their regular one-bedroom units. There was a constant sewage odor in the bathroom. The elevators were creaky, slow, and seemingly poorly maintained. The carpets in the Boulevard Room were dingy, and the bathrooms tiny and not ADA-compliant. The whole place had an aura of having been renovated in the ’80s, but with little change since then.

    As the ACC noted, Cohen bought the Jefferson Arms in ’93 and didn’t start renovation until ’97. Admittedly, it’s harder to work with an partially-occupied building than a vacant one, and the same is probably true of StL Centre.

    While the Jefferson Arms is an affordable option for many, it does leave something to be desired.

    I don’t have a good answer for what to do with StL Centre, but I wouldn’t really expect Cohen’s firm to do anything quickly that costs a lot. They’ll keep up with basic maintenance and try to attract new tenants; more than Wichard did, but not really enough to make the place a real asset to downtown.

  4. Couple of notes:

    – So, what exactly is the difference between St. Louis Centre and, say, the Arcade Building? Maybe scale is a critical issue — the Arcade’s shopping hall is far smaller than StLC — but otherwise, aren’t they the same thing in principle?

    – You’re dead right about the parking issue. It’s a psychological issue, according to the urban studies class I took a couple years back — distance to parking isn’t actually as important as ease of finding it. If you can quickly direct people to the parking, they’ll take the walk without noticing. I’d add that it’s a tougher sell in the city where you have cross streets to gauge your distance by. Often when I’m in a huge suburban space — a giant parking lot or whatever — I try and gauge how much space I’m looking at. “How many of the block I live on would fit here? How many blocks am I walking?” I can never do it. Such spaces destroy all grasp of scale. Give people that scale reference back in the form of city streets and buildings, and suddenly they’re outrage at all this distance they have to walk.

    – Gods, that Walgreens. When the one at the Century Building closed, they put up a sign referring people there, and I was like, “What, you’re supposed to haul yourself way up to that place up on the friggin’ fourth floor now?” Even when I was starting undergrad (ca. 1993), I kind of subconsciously realized that the Walgreens was in the wrong place.

    [REPLY – You raise a good point with the Arcade. For those that don’t know, the Arcade is a great old building at 8th & Olive that has an indoor hall with storefronts facing it. This is a precursor to the mall. Scale is entirely the difference in that this building occupies only a portion of a small city block and storefronts also front the sidewalk. – SLP]

  5. Brian S. says:

    There’s nothing like walking through the mall on a rainy day like today and seeing the numerous trash cans and bins collecting the rain water. It really brings a little bit of the outdoors in.

  6. DanO says:

    As much as I hate Walgreens, we could definitely use one downtown (at street level specifically). Imagine how sucessful it would be if it were open 24/7.

  7. Charles Closser says:

    The St. Louis Center is not an easy site to deal with, however I would encourage all my pro- urban friends to think this could be a great oppertunity for the developer.


    -Destroy all parts of the center that overlap the sidewalk and city streets.
    -Keep the strong link to Famous Barr, because it is important to downtown’s future growth.
    -Keep the link alive with the former Dillars as that should become a large retail outlet.
    -Create a place that makes people curious, and the tourist will follow.
    – More importantly, lets learn from London. Preserve the old, and build Modern!
    – Integrate and Invest into public transportation because it will pay dividends

  8. getgreg says:

    I gotta say, I respectufully don’t agree with your POV on indoor urban malls. Chicago has many indooor malls along Michigan avenue intermixed with the amazing big names stores at street level. Georgetown Park in Washington, DC has been a thriving mall right in Georgetown for over 20 years and is only recently starting to slow down (mostly due to prohibitve rent).

    Also, while street level storefronts are a great part of downtown shopping they really suck in the rain. So, indoor urban malls with good stores and useful services are not without virtue.

    I think another possible benefit of an indoor urban mall is that chain stores (think William-Sonoma or Victoria Secret) that initially may not want to develop a street level store can go into the mall at a lower cost and test the market area. This still leaves the street level development to local boutiques.

    I do totally agree that the St. Louis Centre should be more outward facing. For many years Mazza Gallery in DC was an austere marble block with no windows or signage (save for the Neiman Markus sign on the north facade). However after it faced competition from the Chevey Chase Pavilion accross the street. They added more signage, a large glass entryway which exposed the interior and lots of street level windows. St. Louis Center could follow a similar model on the 7th street side, which can only get better from what it is today…

    Also, as for parking, there’s a huge covered parking structure linked to the Famous-Barr, so I’m not sure parking is an issue at all…

    Anyways, here’s my blog article about the St. Louis Center:

    Lastly, this blog is great! This is my first time looking at it and I’m finding tons of fantastic stuff.

    [REPLY First, thank you for the compliment. Welcome.

    As for indoor urban malls there is a difference between putting in a mall where you have a huge concentration of shoppers (Michigan Ave) and spending $90 million dollars to “save” downtown.

    And, I used to stop in Tulsa to shop at Williams-Sonoma at the outdoor Utica Square long before W-S opened the store in Plaza Frontenac. Tulsa, you’ll note, is a much smaller market than St. Louis. – SLP]

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